The windows of the ancient tiled-roof warehouses opening on to the sparkling blue waters of the Arabian Sea are metaphors of the spirit of liberation blowing across the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. It is in these beautifully restored yet rugged spaces that a major part of South Asia’s biggest art event is being held, and this ethos of freedom is quite in keeping with the quest of Anita Dube, the first woman to curate the eighth edition, to push to their extremity the “possibilities for a non-alienated life”—the premise of this international art event—thereby making visible, or giving a voice to those who remain unseen and unheard.
Little wonder the name of Bapi Das, the auto-rickshaw driver from Kolkata who had taken up the feminine art of embroidery to articulate his life experiences without ever betraying his lack of formal training, was on everyone’s lip—from that of Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who inaugurated the event on December 12, 2018, after a rousing chenda melam performance of 180 drummers, to that of V. Venu, former principal secretary, Kerala government, and CEO of Rebuild Kerala Committee, in his address at the discussion, BMW Art Talk: Art in Difficult Times, and certainly that of Dube, who invoked Das’s name on every possible occasion.
There are other participants, too, who once lived on society’s margins—Vicky Roy, the outstanding photographer, originally from West Bengal’s Purulia, who ran away to Delhi and worked as a ragpicker, queer artist Aryakrishnan, Dalit artist Vinu V.V. and Prabhakar Pachpute, whose folk were miners. Roy along with his friend, photographer Chandan Gomes, have dared to explore the unspeakable truths of life and to “make visible something that is not seen”, to quote Gomes. Aryakrishnan focusses on transgender activist Maria, who was murdered for what she was, by creating an installation in a welcoming ambience with a video of her colourful portraits and a red drape cascading from a tree. Tejal Shah’s combination of photographs, installations and videos challenges the ‘normal’ in ecology, gender and sexuality by creating a complex personal world order. Vinu V.V.’s cluster of about 300 male figurines nailed to tree trunks hark back to a dark tradition. His life-size nude males may recall the miserable lives of migrant labourers and the ‘anonymous’ gay community, but they are clothed in dignity. Pachpute’s art is fired by the plight of farmers and miners, and the pernicious effect of industry on them. His huge but spare drawings of the two hard-hit communities are ironically on the walls of crumbling Anand warehouse—once used to store foodgrain. Kenyan Cyrus Kabiru’s intricate, fantastical eyewear fashioned from junk promotes Afrofuturism.
There are international stars, too. South African artist William Kentridge’s video of the brass band dancing across eight screens combines the tragic irony of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Blind Leading the Blind and Käthe Kollwitz’s stark depiction of misery.
Marlene Dumas, also from South Africa but working in Amsterdam, presents a series of small watercolours. Till recently the most expensive female artist, Dumas’ works were not half as outrageous as her political portraits or her take on Rembrandt’s painting of an urinating woman, save, perhaps, the image of the squashed frog.
Of the 94 artist projects (more than half the participants are female) covering over 30 countries participating in the Biennale, nine artists based in or from African countries were given a platform. There are 17 venues, a mixture of domestic and colonial architecture, of which Durbar Hall had been restored by conservation architect Vikas Dilawari.
The interest generated is quite palpable. Apart from the expected elitist crowd, this many-splendoured Biennale is drawing local people. “Kochi inhabitants are mainly interested in the interactive installations like Chinese artist Song Dong’s Water Temple. There are students and teachers, and those who hop from one international art event to another,” says art mediator Arpan Ghosh. The outdoor work, Nathan Coley’s light sculpture A Place Beyond Belief is hugely popular. The auto-rickshaw drivers are happy—their incomes have shot up. On the first day, Sharif Khalid turned up with a tourist. He intended to bring his wife and family later.
Dube wanted the Biennale to break away from the exhibition model, and to mix pleasure and pedagogy. She designated the rotund Pavilion with transparent walls as the space where “wary human beings can connect” and for any kind of expression.
BMW has partnered the Biennale from its advent, and when Thomas Girst, head of BMW group’s cultural engagement, said at BMW Art Talk: Art in Difficult Times, on December 13, a day after the event opened: “Under Anita Dube’s curatorial vision and leadership, this year’s Kochi-Muziris Bienniale to me is the strongest yet...” One could not but agree with him.
The Biennale stood for a resurgent Kerala. V. Venu said at the same forum that recent floods had battered Kerala like never before, but the chief minister decided that “we must continue our investment in art, because art is not a luxury. Through art our message is ‘We are back in business.’”
Bose Krishnamachari, who along with Riyas Komu and V. Sunil, has steered the Biennale ever since its inception in 2010, says apart from the state government, many had made personal contributions and their wives sold jewellery to realise the event.
Dube was connected with the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association that died an early death, and in her search for “questions in the hope of dialogue”, feminist artists like Mónica Mayer of Mexico City, sloganeering artist-activist Barthélémy Toguo of Cameroon, and the militant Guerrilla Girls of New York naturally found a place here. Mayer had begun her campaign against sexual harassment in the late 1960s. Mayer’s activism covered sexual minorities and victims of an earthquake in Mexico in 2017. The Kerala flood victims too did not escape her attention.
Visually, the Kerala floods disaster found the most persuasive expression in the installation of Dhaka artist Marzia Farhana. The vision of white goods, chandeliers, and bookshelves defying the gravitational pull was quite as fascinating Philippe Halsman’s surreal photograph of Salvador Dali and the three flying cats.
B.V. Suresh’s disquieting installation Canes of Wrath was fuelled by his fear of the Hindu right. Gandhi’s walking stick transformed into a sinister symbol of mob culture, presided over by an angry Hanuman, while the vitiligo-affected peacock, India’s national bird, turned inauspicious. Inspiration and the power of imagination turned into winged women in Indonesian artist Heri Dono’s installation, while Lubna Chowdhary created 1,000 dinky ceramic sculptures, both fantastic and mundane, in her piece titled Metropolis.
Painted on South African artist Sue Williamson’s tees hung along the beach were the names of the Kochi natives the Dutch sold as slaves in the 17th century. Indoors, her second installation was of intertwined shackles, wood and bottles from the ceiling. Dripping with water, the bottles symbolised slaves whose individual names she had discovered.
In this mix-up of styles and languages, the Gond folk artist team of Durgabai Vyam and husband Subhash narrated a mythical tale through undulating marine plywood forms displayed on the walls.
Pangrok Sulap, the team of eight Malaysian artists, who doubled as musicians, combined music and dance to create their giant woodcuts meant to empower their hill community. In Kochi, they involved visitors in making art.
The most memorable work was the most low key. Shilpa Gupta’s sound installation, For, In Your Tongue I Can Not Fit—100 Jailed Poets, liberated the voices of imprisoned poets in a darkened room that resonated with their poetry.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale started on December 12, 2018 and will run till March 29, 2019 across a range of venues in the city. Tickets are priced at INR 100 per day. Visitors can opt for a Reserved Guided Walk with an art mediator or Donor Passes that support many outreach initiatives