The coronavirus pandemic has pushed many artists ensconced in their studios to engage with the community creatively.
An assorted array of colourful jackets are woven onto a wooden board with their hangers sprouting up like question marks. Helna Merin Joseph’s acrylic-on-wood is titled Question Marks. “The work raises questions about the life of women in this society,” says Joseph, a participating artist at the Lokame Tharavadu (The World is One Family) contemporary art exhibition in Alappuzha, Kerala.
The exhibition began on April 18 this year and was supposed to run till July 18. Thanks to the pandemic’s second wave, though, it had to close down just 12 days after opening. But last week, the state government relaxed restrictions and the exhibition resumed from August 14. It will now run till September 30 this year.
Several works at the show, dubbed India’s biggest contemporary art exhibition ever, deal with gender inequality and injustice gnawing at the fabric of society in the 21st century. Emerging talents like Joseph (a master of fine arts from Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication, Hyderabad) and established names like Jalaja PS are among the 267 artists participating in Lokame Tharavadu, which has been organised by the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF). “I am fortunate to have parents who are art teachers and who support me, but for many women in Kerala, their careers end when they get married,” says Joseph, who began her wooden series on women’s issues in her second year at art school.
Gender inequality & injustice
In another work, by Kochi-based Jaya PS, a woman is crouching on the floor with a fish between her teeth, amid a web of household objects. The pattern, depicting domestic violence, persists in two other paintings by the same artist. Thiruvananthapuram-based Tensing Joseph, known for his works on the agrarian crisis, emphasises the unacknowledged contribution of women in farm labour in an artwork showing three women with shovels and an axe. Kochi-based contemporary visual artist Bara Bhaskaran highlights the unacknowledged role of women coir workers in the historical 1946 revolt against the Travancore princely state (which didn’t want to join the Indian Union) in the Chambers of Amazing Museum.
“I see it as a women’s issue. Whenever there is a war or struggle, it affects Dalits and the backward more, and women and children the most,” says Bhaskaran about the 1946 uprising in which 400 people were killed. “Sadly, India’s colonial past is not documented well in the fine arts,” he adds. Bhaskaran’s work, which focuses on the coir workers in the Alappuzha region (called the coir capital of India), also reflects the disastrous consequences of the pandemic on the coir industry, especially its women workers.
Kajal Deth, who lives in Cherthala near Alappuzha, captures the distress in the region’s coir sector in her works at the New Model Society Building venue. “Our community and life are centred on coir,” says Deth about the weaving of the golden yarn, an activity in which whole families are engaged. “Every member of the family works in the coir sector and small-time weavers are hit hard by the crisis,” she adds.
Curated by KBF president and artist Bose Krishnamachari, the exhibition, housed in colonial-era coir godowns in the port town of Alappuzha, uses mediums from painting to performance and sculpture to installation in an awe-inspiring scale of creativity that is both aesthetic and philosophical. There are works that address the climate crisis, and also make sense of an unprecedented pandemic. Several heritage buildings, owned by public and private coir factories, have been transformed into jaw-dropping venues for the exhibition, aimed at bringing together artists from Kerala working and living within the country, as well as across the world.
Climate change & development
Sajith Puthukkalavattom, whose paintings deal with violence against women and nature, shocks viewers with the powerful image of a woodpecker clinging on to uprooted tree trunks carried by a truck. In another of his works at the exhibition, a bird’s egg is placed at the centre of a circle formed by logs of felled trees.
Alappuzha-based Shijo Jacob’s painting shows a large truck carrying a whole valley of immensely abundant nature pitted against an azure sky peppered with white clouds. “Works done could not ignore the deep gaping wounds made on the land’s surface by monstrous machines, making myself suspicious of the idea of development, while questioning at the same time at what cost it was being promised,” reads Jacob’s artist statement.
The coronavirus pandemic has pushed many artists ensconced in their studios to engage with the community creatively. “I make walls as a rule for working quietly, but lost that requirement during the lockdown,” says Siji Krishnan, a participating artist in the first edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2012. “Instead I found myself engaging with people in the neighbourhood. I made portraits of a mother and child in a nearby home to express the lightness of the soul,” adds Krishnan.
In his installation at the Eastern Produce Company venue, a former coir warehouse, Vipin Dhanurdharan revisits the migrant exodus during the nationwide lockdown last year. Titled Rest in Peace, the installation is a replica of the rail track in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, showing the tragic death of 16 migrant workers who were sleeping on the track after travelling hundreds of kilometres on foot to reach their villages in Madhya Pradesh. Dhanurdharan travelled to Aurangabad to visit the site of the tragedy and went to their villages in Madhya Pradesh to meet their friends and families.
“The workers were tired and sleeping on the track when they were run over,” says the artist, who lives in Fort Kochi. Why We Always Return Home? is an 83-minute documentary on the artist’s journey to understand the social contradictions and realities surrounding the death of the 16 migrant workers in Aurangabad. “It is a contradiction between the tired and the privileged,” says Dhanurdharan about his artwork, a powerful statement on the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, exacerbated by the pandemic.
Interview: Bose Krishnamachari, artist & curator
‘Pandemic has offered a great opportunity for creativity’
Kochi Biennale Foundation president Bose Krishnamachari is well-known in the art circles for his support to young and emerging artists, finding opportunities for exhibiting their works. A decade ago, he created history by first creating and later curating the country’s first biennale in Fort Kochi, which has gone on to become one of the most influential contemporary art venues in the world. When the pandemic hit India, Krishnamachari travelled to meet artists across the country to support them and offer healing to a paralysed society through art. The result was Lokame Tharavadu, an exhibition of over 2,500 works by 267 artists in Alappuzha, Kerala. Krishnamachari spoke with Faizal Khan about the exhibition and the importance of art in times of disasters. Edited excerpts:
How has the pandemic affected artists and galleries in India?
Artists are definitely affected, but galleries did online business. According to reports, the international online art market went up from 6% before the pandemic to 12.6% during the pandemic, which is huge. The year 2020 registered the highest sale in the international art market. All the big galleries did huge business. In India, I know a lot of people have been buying art in the last one-and-a-half years. I didn’t have any problem selling my own works.
Some state governments have provided financial assistance to artists whose livelihoods have been affected during the Covid-19 crisis. Is it enough to help them?
Financial assistance has gone through academies like those in the fields of literature, fine arts and performing arts. While artists are happy to receive any kind of help from academies, this kind of funding should not be done in my view. If you really want to help artists, it is not the right way to do it.
Are there any initiatives from the artists’ community or organisations to extend support?
During the 2008-09 recession, I was asked the same question. I think artists are born in times like these. The pandemic period has offered a great opportunity for creativity. This is a great time for an artist, whether it is in digital art, augmented mediums or virtual reality. The diversity of practices happening at the Lokame Tharavadu exhibition reflects that reality. Inventions are always unpredictable. But learning is necessary when we talk about artmaking. This is also the time for conversations. Earlier, I used to listen to senior artists. Now, I am also listening to the younger generation of artists.
How is Lokame Tharavadu helping the artists’ community and society?
The question I was confronted with during the pandemic was: what is the best thing you can do for the people? I thought about an exhibition of contemporary artists from Kerala who are living in the state, as well as the rest of the country and across the world. The idea found immediate support from the government and the community of artists. I never realised there are such incredible spaces in Alappuzha like the Aspinwall House (the main biennale venue) in Fort Kochi. It was an opportunity to offer healing to society.
In its scale and diversity, the exhibition is one of the largest contemporary art shows in Asia. Though we had to close down the exhibition only 12 days after the opening in April, there has been remarkable interest in the show from India and abroad, thanks to social media. The exhibition resumed from August 14 and will run up to September 30 after the state government relaxed restrictions last week. I got a call from New York this morning asking if certain works were still available for sale. Enquiries are coming from all over the world. Art is being discussed all over the world much more than before the pandemic.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer