Elena Pakhoutova is the curator of Himalayan art at the Rubin Museum of Art. She first moved to New York City more than a decade ago to become a curatorial fellow at the Rubin after completing her PhD in Tibetan art history and criticism at the University of Virginia. Most recently, Pakhoutova curated the show Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey of Enlightenment, on view through January 3, 2022. Its sculptures, hanging scroll paintings and ritual items guide practitioners to develop awareness, something of relevance to many right now.
Is there a New York City monument to women that you have a personal connection to?
Elena Pakhoutova: Joan of Arc [at Riverside Park]. She is depicted wearing armor, riding a horse. I remember when studying European history, I was fascinated by her story and how this young peasant girl moved and activated a whole nation and how she was betrayed or sacrificed by those in power who were frightened by her sweeping appeal.
The Awaken exhibit focuses on Tibetan Buddhists and their paths toward enlightenment. What are some universal themes in the exhibit that would appeal to New Yorkers right now?
EP: Waking up from a nightmare and chaos. Among the main ideas of Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism are personal or individual awareness and responsibility for our own actions. I think we all may have been forced to embrace these themes with Covid, for the sake of our own health, safety of our family, friends, colleagues, neighbors and so on.
How has your creative process or curatorial work changed over the past year?
EP: We all had to adjust, especially in the museum world, being closed for a long time and then after reopening having attendance nowhere near pre-Covid numbers. Everything is online now, there was a period of adjustment and creative and collaborative processes are modified, but there is a silver lining. Being online expanded our horizons—we can meet and talk with colleagues around the globe.
There is also a shift in priorities, not only due to Covid but because of a broad movement in cultural institutions related to Black Lives Matter and diversity, equality, inclusion and accessibility. Some exhibitions that were planned to open this fall, for instance, were pushed back, and other ideas, newly conceived, are going to take precedence because they seem timely. I hope that in our case, the Rubin Museum being a repository of rich and diverse art and culture of Himalayan regions, we will present relevant exhibitions that embrace contemporary artists and women artists from these regions without Orientalizing and with conceptual and aesthetic integrity.
Who are some New York City–based women artists whose work is inspiring you?
EP: I am inspired by women in NYC who work full time from home and handle their kids’ remote learning at the same time. I cannot imagine how hard this must be. The upcoming exhibition of Yayoi Kusama at the New York Botanical Garden is something I am really looking forward to.
Another interesting recent show was Between These Folded Walls, Utopia, on view at Fotografiska New York. Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer explored the notion of utopia in somewhat fanciful constructed photo portraits of women who have been forced to uproot their lives. They are depicted in “what if,” surrealist, lush settings that invite considerations of possibility and memory at the same time. I found them very art-historically informed, evocative and kind of visual statements.
What does it mean to you to be a woman curator in New York City?
EP: Many, if not most, of the women curators I know in NYC are probably under pressure, not only to produce but also to redefine themselves. NYC has very high standards, and many of its cultural institutions compete to win the visitors, gain funding, be relevant and so on, which translates into pressure. I have affinity with curators of Asian art, and many are women. Often their creative efforts do not reach their full potential for various reasons: institutional power structure, trend-driven planning, financial limitations or other constraining factors. I feel fairly fortunate in comparison, but it still means that I have to do better, all the time. And the noble notions of diversity, inclusion and equity do not seem to be quite integrated into the everyday experiences of women curators. There is hope now.