On the eve of the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Fort Kochi, an unlikely exhibition opened in the heritage town famous for its eyecatching waterfront lined by Chinese nets. The show was a photographic potpourri of life in nearby Mattancherry that houses 44 different communities and languages. While the harmony between contrasting cultures and classes stood out, the venue of the show surprised the visitors. The art gallery was situated inside a mosque, directly above its main prayer hall. The inaugural show in what its organisers called “the only art gallery inside a mosque in India” inadvertently fell into revolutionary change that artist Anita Dube, the Kochi biennale’s first woman curator, was about to unleash.
When Delhi-based Dube was named the curator for the 2018 edition last year, the #MeToo movement had yet to hit Hollywood. It arrived in India when she was in the middle of her challenging task of mounting one of the biggest contemporary art shows in the world. When the biennale opened on December 12, it broke ground with its selection of artists just like the Masjid-ul Islam did a stone’s throw away by not only opening an art gallery inside its premises, but also by displaying photographs alien to a mosque.
Art of conversation
“We need a place for conversation. That is the crying need of the moment,” Dube said during a preview of the biennale a day before the opening. “Everybody has something to contribute to our understanding,” she explained, calling the biennale a “knowledge lab”. The conversation and contribution meant a diverse list of participating artists aimed at democratising the event that is influencing art practices and the market because of its pioneering site-specific installations.
Among Dube’s first line of artists at this year’s biennale are an autorickshaw driver from Kolkata, who is exhibiting his embroidery works, a tribal couple from Madhya Pradesh retelling their Dalit traditions, a street child who worked his way up to become a photographer, and a group of travelling singers from Kerala who turn their bus into a concert platform.
“Mono culture is killing us,” said Dube, who has titled the biennale Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life. “It is a mix-up of all kinds of languages. There are no hierarchies in this biennale,” she added. Dube’s curatorial intervention—bringing artists from the fringes to the front seat—is a sea change from previous editions that had gone for big names in the art world. Her call for conversation also includes the audience to become a part of the democratic movement in art.
From the fringes
Bapi Das, who drove an autorickshaw in Kolkata for 17 years, maps the life and landscape of the City of Joy in his embroidery works exhibited in the main Aspinwall House venue of the biennale. Das’ works took between four months and four years to complete. “I wanted to do something different and was drawn to embroidery by the interesting postcards printed in my friend’s press,” says the 39-year-old artist, who took to embroidery 10 years ago. Das, who has studied up to class X, exhibited his first works—two pieces of embroidery—in a group show in Kolkata in 2014 with artists such as Jogen Chowdhury, Abhijit Dutta, Paresh Maity and Jayasri Burman. Maity and Burman have now become collectors of Das’ works, while he considers Dutta as his “teacher”.
Bhopal-based Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam show their tribal community’s myths and folklores in their giant painting on wood. With an abundant mix of animals, birds, rivers and trees created using a natural palette of pigments from red, black and yellow soil, the couple’s Gond wall art installation is a big attraction at the biennale.
Vicky Roy, a 31-year-old photographer from Delhi, grew up in the streets. An orphan from Purulia, West Bengal, he was adopted by the Salaam Baalak Trust, an NGO for street children in Delhi. “When I got low marks in class X, my teacher told me to pursue a vocational course. I said I wanted to become a photographer,” says Roy, whose photographs of street life in Delhi are part of the biennale this year. Roy’s first exhibition was in Delhi, titled Street Dreams. “It was about my life in the street,” he says. Since then, he has studied at the International Centre for Photography in New York and shaped himself into an artist. “Vicky Roy lived on a railway platform for years and today he is a very important photographer,” says Dube.
Oorali, a group of musicians from Kerala, will be travelling along the coastline of Kerala to sing for the fishing community, the first responders in the massive floods that ravaged the state four months ago. The musicians have parked their bus in the Aspinwall House. “The biennale is collaborating with these artists to give back to society,” says Dube, who spent months travelling across the world to select 95 artist projects. More than half the participating artists this year are women.
Breaking down conventions
The fourth edition, which is taking place in the time of the #MeToo movement in India, is using its space as a platform for gender discourse and the battle of the sexes in works of those like Mumbai-based artist Anju Dodiya (Rehearsal for an Apocalypse), Priya Ravish Mehra, who died of cancer in May this year, Madhvi Parekh from Delhi, and Iranian Shirin Neshat whose video Turbulent shows two Iranian singers—a male who plays to a full house and a female singing for an empty hall.
The #MeToo movement had also hit the biennale leading to the resignation of its founder and director (programme) Riyas Komu who was accused of sexual harassment by an unidentified woman. “I am missing my fellow curator (in the first edition), Riyas Komu, but am very happy to be with my contemporaries,” said Kochi Biennale Foundation president and artist Bose Krishnamachari at the flag-hoisting ceremony before the opening of the biennale.
“It’s a place where we can break down suspicions against each other,” says Dube. The biennale, which also features the third edition of Students’ Biennale, talks and Artists’ Cinema, will run up to March 29.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer