Chilean poet Raúl Zurita says he was shaken when he saw the image of a drowned Alan Kurdi lying face down on a beach in Turkey in September 2015. At the same time, he felt there was something missing. What was missing, he says, was the little boy’s elder brother, five-year-old Galib, who had also died when the boat carrying them capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. “This is how images show and hide something at the same time,” says Zurita, who has penned a poem in the memory of Galib on the walls of Aspinwall House, the main venue of the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Fort Kochi, Kerala.
“It is a poem of love and everything else,” says the poet, who has created The Sea of Pain, a lake within the walls of Aspinwall House as a reminder of the deep waters of the sea that separate a poor migrant from a better future. “A boy was trying to save his younger brother and that image isn’t there?” asks Zurita.
Viewer & victim
Zurita is familiar with the pain of being a victim. In 1973, after the military coup in Chile that removed president Salvador Allende, Zurita was among the thousands arrested and tortured by the new regime of dictator General Augusto Pinochet. It’s obvious that his socialist leanings are intact when he says, “The problem of refugees is the worst kind.”
Explaining how he decided to create a work on the sufferings of refugees at the biennale in Kochi, he says, “I thought about it here. My first visit to Kochi was more than a year ago to choose the space for my work. I looked at all the spaces in the main venue, which is close to the sea,” he says. When he returned to Chile, he sat down for a long conversation with his wife Paulina. The talk was about Kurdi.
The biennale’s curator, Sudarshan Shetty, remembers that visit in September 2015. “Zurita was the first artist we declared,” says Shetty, adding, “He instantly liked that place next to the waterfront.” Incidentally, it’s the same space that artist Vivan Sundaram had chosen to recreate the lost city of Muziris, the hub of the spice trade two millennia ago, and where artist Subodh Gupta had parked his country boat filled with household material in the first biennale four years ago. “Zurita is not an outsider,” says Shetty,
referring to the poet himself being a victim once. “His work comes from a deep legacy of pain and that plays out in Kochi.”
The Sea of Pain is deeply personal. After he was arrested by the Pinochet regime, Zurita was bundled into the hold of a ship in the middle of the
sea. “The world has the possibility of treating everybody well,” Zurita says. “But it’s more of a monster.”
Anguished by the absence of a pictorial reference to Galib, Zurita in his poem for him writes, “There are no photographs of Galib Kurdi/He can’t hear, he can’t see, he can’t feel/And the silence comes down like immense
white clothes.” He writes, “Ah, the world of art, the world of images, billions of images/ The words of a poem are cleaner, more pure.”
Zurita’s woes of the world’s intolerance and inequality also come out in other collection of poems like Purgatory (1979), Anteparadise (1982) and The New Life (1993). “I can do nothing, but if art disappears, humanity disappears five minutes later,” he says. “If art disappears, all possibilities of dreams and hope disappear. People can live four-five days without water, but not without hope.”
Faizal Khan is a freelancer