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Published: Verve Magazine, Nerve, May 2009

Photograph: Nilesh Acharekar

Art theorist, educator, poet, writer and photographer, Amir Parsa has often been publicly referred to as a ‘phenomenon’. On his recent visit to Mumbai, he chats with Sitanshi Talati-Parikh about his work with art and Alzhiemer’s disease at the Museum of Modern Art, New York


Born Iranian, but culturally and educationally French, Amir Parsa has spent less than a decade of his initial years in his home country, before finding himself in the suburbs of DC, USA. A formalist, his regular attendance at French schools affected his interest in art theory and literature and he discovered himself as a literary writer at the shockingly early age of five and continued through his teenage years. This interest in art, and literature as verbal or scriptorial art simply snowballed into a profound interest in education.

Parsa, who himself is an excellent listener, considers education to be something more complex and subtle than a mere transmission of knowledge – rather, knowledge as learning, interaction and often designing society and social beings with its critical engagement. That has been his preoccupation for the last four or five years at the New York City cultural icon, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Curious to explore how the arts can affect the quality of life, he is currently involved in an inquiry-based learning with different audiences, ranging from kids to adults, and now particularly with patients of Alzheimer’s disease.

“It isn’t lecturing, but rather starting with a lot of questions. We look at paintings and sculptures (among other art) that invite description and interpretation. Through that process we allow people to enter into critical dialogue with the work that they are engaging with and with themselves, with their previous thoughts and life experiences,” explains the Princeton and Columbia alumnus. For instance, someone with Alzheimer’s disease might have to say something very different from what is obviously in front of them, but they are making a particular connection. The museum’s learning programme acknowledges and encourages it.

Usha Mirchandani, of Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, discussed the need to bring this sort of a transformation into people’s lives in India. Parsa, who is not deeply familiar with Indian art, embraced the idea, considering it to be an exploratory phase; the chance to open up dialogue on ‘how can art matter?’ in new environs. Sharing similar concerns, Mirchandani facilitated Parsa’s educationist lecture in Mumbai recently, held to an open audience of art lovers, collectors and artists. Parsa is already planning another trip to India, this time as an individual writer-artist. An author of ten literary books, his latest publication, a book that he is working on with a team at MoMA, is due to be out this month.