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March 18, 2019

A Biennale Of Inclusion

At the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018 which enjoys the most amount of female participation, Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena picks out the most thought-provoking artworks

On an extremely sultry morning in Kochi, hardly any breeze is blowing across Fort Kochi. It’s a destination I revisit after three years, this time for the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale which is scheduled to wind up in the last week of this month. The heat that heralds the onset of summer does not detract from the appeal of the city and as I drive to the venue of the biennale, I spot the trademark boats of varying sizes that bob gently on the languid waters and the Chinese fishing nets that can be easily spotted in a picture-perfect landscape.

I alight at Aspinwall House where I have chosen to begin my art walk, as it hosts a huge share of the showcases for the biennale. It is here that I am scheduled to meet Anita Dube, the curator of Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018 in the afternoon. There is a buzz in the air as visitors – old, young and the very young – await their turn to pick up their tickets. As I stroll in, my media pass facilitating a quicker entry, I can see a good number of visitors already walking around, even though it is just a little bit after opening time. I am prepared to be enveloped by a host of colours, canvases, and multi-media and interactive installations.

Dube’s vision has shaped this edition of the biennale. Her note on the exhibition had stated, ‘At the heart of my curatorial adventure lies a desire for liberation and comradeship (away from the master and slave model) where the possibilities for a non-alienated life could spill into a ‘politics of friendship’…. Imagine those pushed to the margins of dominant narratives speaking: not as victims, but as futurisms’ cunning and sentient sentinels.”

On her process of shaping it, the first female curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale tells me, “The biggest challenge was how to execute the ideas. The biennale is organised on such a gigantic scale that the logistics of production were mind-boggling, plus there was the bureaucracy to deal with. We artists work in our studios, where we are completely free birds. Here, the curation required looking at things like budgeting, production and the like.”

Implementing her vision of inclusion, Dube roped in a host of artists – and I am rather impressed by the number of women artists on show. She states proudly, “My first step to ensuring a spirit of inclusion led to a large participation by women. Isn’t that amazing? Symbolically I wanted a strong representation of women.”

The inclusion also stretches to a variety of talents on show. Dube declares, “There are different types of art and artists – each artist teases out aspects that concern him/her. Through this varied kaleidoscope we are able to get closer to the problems of the human condition, which includes voices from the margin. And these are speaking of the conditions of today’s time, of vulnerability. Priya Ravish Kumar, for instance, has worked with fabrics that are torn. So, repair is a very philosophical idea. How do we become more sensitive and compassionate; how do we listen to each other?”

Keeping this conversation in mind, I walk around for two days  to explore the different voices that speak through art and discover that quite a few comment on social issues seen through the lens of gender. Sonia Khurana’s video Bird shows the artist’s naked body trying in vain to take flight from a pedestal. The black and white video is short but catches my eye. It explores our desire to fly and our inability to do so.

Using the comic strip format in an interesting manner are Chitra Ganesh’s works that also explore gender and power issues. Working across mediums, Ganesh draws from various sources like Hindu mythology or Buddhist icons, to present her representation of strong female forms.

I encounter another strong female voice in Durbar Hall that holds Mrinalini Mukherjee’s sculptures in natural fibres. The browns of the creations – hemp and jute on iron armature – have an eye-catching presence against the light-coloured walls and they present vulva-like and totem like forms.

I peer closely at the intricate embroidery of Bapi Das, recalling as I do what Dube had said with regards to expanding the inclusiveness of this biennale. She had emphasised, “I wanted a strong representation of the margins. So you will find artists like Bapi Das, who comes with no training at all. Many artists are first-timers who have never done a big show in their lives. There are people who have come from an economically poor background. There is no star system. I was very sure that I did not want that. Das’s creations depict life the way he saw it. The auto rickshaw driver depicts his vision of life in the city.

Walking up and down the steps of the different spaces in Aspinwall House can get a bit enervating, especially as the heat begins to get to me. So, I move towards its rear to sit for a few minutes in the cafe, admiring the view. Picking up a bottle of chilled passion fruit juice, I stroll across, to look at a part of Sue Williamson’s installation One Hundred And Nineteen Deeds of Sale – that is in my line of sight. The linen clothes put out to dry are similar to the ones worn by slaves of the Dutch East India Company. First dipped in muddy waters – symbolising their oppression – the clothes are put out to dry. Her second installation, Messages From An Atlantic Passage, which is indoors, comprises five fishing nets that are suspended from the ceiling. Urged by the magnitude of the installation  to go closer, I observe that the each of the glass bottles in the installation have the name of a slave.

As I go from one wing to another, I take a stroll to the interactive art installation – the Water Temple. Stepping in, I look on as children and adults alike paint with water on the glass structure with a great deal of enthusiasm.. Conceived by Chinese artist Song Dong it emphasises the impermanence of things in life since the drawings vanish as the water dries up. I try my hand at a little squiggle but my artistic handicap does not let me venture into anything grandiose. And, I hear the sounds of music wafting across the air, and going ahead, I can see a group of young girls performing in a flash mob near the gates of Aspinwall House. The biennale is a culturally immersive experience.

When I pass the space that shows Rina Banerjee’s work From The Oyster Shell It Fell With A Neck Of Dangling Bells A Flirtatious Alligator Who Put Upon Us A Bodily Spell, the long title of the work makes me step in for a view. And in the darkened room the pop of colour is riveting. The installation has more than its share of mystique with its feathers, preserved alligator head and apple seed necklace. 

When I find my way to the space that shows Tejal Shah’s work, I remember how unusual her performance artwork Sleep (2004) had been for it had been widely written about. I am delighted to chance upon her You Too Can Touch The Moon – Yashoda With Krishna (Hijra Fantasy Series) that has echoes of Raja Ravi Varma’s style in it. This offering from Shah spotlights her usual concerns of gender and identity issues. Nothing is impossible is what this piece urges, as the artist underlines that anyone can reach for the moon.

Issues of gender and violence against women are startlingly raised by Probir Gupta’s installation at the TKM Warehouse. I can feel my flesh crawl as I look on The Wall As A Witness to Turbulence. It refers to news reports following the Muzzafarnagar riots where women were raped behind walls. Yet another evocative installation Time Is The Rider is a horseback covered with a saddle – but the body of the horse is made up of the casts of migrant women’s toes.

Arunkumar HG’s Con-struction made from industrial packaging wood, wood collected from construction sites, recycled paper, cement, wood glue and highlights the environmental issues plaguing the world. The large figure looms in the hall almost like a divine spectre.

Pepper House is a buggy ride away from Aspinwall House and that saves me the tedium of walking across in the heat. Clambering up the flight of stairs to the first storey of Pepper House, I look at the group of people enjoying the rain shower that is sprinkling refreshing water droplets on them. If the sun shines through and you look at it for a while, you may just spot a rainbow. Walking into a room that hosts a huge glass case that almost stretches across its length, I marvel at the amount of time it must have taken to create/curate Lubna Chowdhary’s Metropolis – that presents 1000 ceramic sculptures which celebrate architectural ornamentation and draw inspiration from the concept of horror vacui or the fear of empty spaces. I learn that she started it in 1991 and completed the installation in 2017 when she first exhibited it at the V&A Museum in London. It can undoubtedly be said to be one of the most photographed exhibits of the biennale, inviting visitors to walk around and spot everyday objects in a Lilliputian dimension.

My last halt is the Kashi Town House and I walk into the first-floor space that showcases photographs and videos by Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh in a bright and cheery area. Dissent and Desire proves to be a platform for 20 invited participants of the LGBTQ community to tell their stories. Their voices are eloquent, and each tale is engaging. This brings to mind a part of the conversation I have had with Dube earlier, where she had said, “This is the way we live. If society has all these people, then they should have representation. You can’t say where are the trans-people? They are all there. My idea was to break down the barriers.”

What Dube has also initiated successfully is a dialogue – a conversation between creative minds and the people who have visited the biennale. She says, “We can have all the differences in the world, but when you talk to each other most of that stuff tends to vanish. The ‘othering’ of the person or thing disappears. That is why in the pavilion we had several pop-ups by scholars, academics and many others. There was a definite programming chalked out by the biennale foundation for we wanted to listen to everyone who felt that they could contribute. Recently we had an event in which we invited women Dalit Adivasi trans poets. They hail from remote areas and were afraid to come to the biennale. I invited them through an organisation and they read their poetry, which was translated. But for them it was an empowering experience that they could participate in it. These are the things that I am extremely happy about. These are the signs that the biennale is no longer an elitist event – people are no longer saying that this is not for them”

As I prepare to leave, I take back with me conversations that the artists’ displays have initiated. It is what the energy of the biennale has provoked. For as Dube said, “There is something about the female sensibility, her energy that is not so aggressive, something which is calmer and milder and may not always be about big or great things. And, yet it is very strong.”

As a parting question, I ask her if she is pleased with the outcome. Dube states, “I am satisfied. No artist is ever happy with their work.”

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