A river barge turned into an artwork at the recently-concluded Serendipity Arts Festival explores the relationship between humans and nature
For nearly a decade, Shri Anant Lakshmi has been battling the choppy waters of Mandovi river everyday to carry iron ore for export. The 15,000-tonne river barge is a mammoth flat-bottomed vessel, which, along with similar boats, has become a symbol of Goa’s long history of colonialisation and maritime trade. However, during December 15-22, the barge changed its character from a cargo-carrying boat to a house of art. Docked on the popular promenade on the riverfront in Panjim, its transformation drew hundreds of visitors onboard. “The barge is part of Goa’s long history,” said local resident Lakyn Gary. “You see it all the time in the river, but it’s an entirely different experience to come onboard and view it as something else,” said Gary, a school teacher. Part of the second edition of the Serendipity Arts Festival, which concluded on December 22, the barge became a vehicle to link the past and the present to raise questions on the ways of the world. A visually stunning work of art appealing to the aesthetics of a viewer, the barge was also a political statement that addressed issues like migrant labour, climate change and refugees. “It’s a challenge and an opportunity to address these questions from the belly of the beast,” said Sabih Ahmed, a researcher with Asia Art Archive, which collaborated with Goa-based art foundation HH Art Spaces and Serendipity Arts Trust, which organises the festival, to mount the art work, titled The Ground Beneath My Feet. The artwork went beyond the boat’s own character to the ever-changing relationship between people and nature.
Hard questions were asked by nine artists from around the world, eight of them performance artistes, who turned the barge into a body of art for the six-day festival. Among the artistes was Kabir Masum Chisty from Bangladesh, whose work involved burying himself in sand inside a box in the barge. The sand was collected from the very sites from where the barge gathers its cargo, the iron ore. Chisty began his performance by swimming in 200,000 litre of water pumped into the stationary barge. He then entered the box filled with sand and started pouring the earth on his body. “It’s primitive history denoting the discovery of land by human beings,” said Chisty, who related his performance to landscaping of soil. “The message of this art is life. It’s also about memories and pain,” said Chisty, who bought a mirror to draw himself when he was a young boy. Chisty’s performance was also deeply political, serving as a warning for the survival of the planet. “We are born from the earth and we go back to earth after death. Our body is made of the same minerals in the earth,” he said. “If we form a relationship with earth, we will respect our planet, which we don’t care about today,” said Chisty, whose performance art in New York last month was about gods and demons churning the earth to collect amrith, the nectar of immortality.
The Ground Beneath My Feet was the first work at the Serendipity festival that wasn’t on land. “It’s a river barge that has become a public space,” said Gurugram-based artist Vishal K Dar, who was roped in as mise-en-scene for the project. Dar’s reliance on how performance art responds to history became the point of departure for the work. “After the festival, the barge will go back to doing the work it has been doing everyday for the last nine years,” he said. Dar’s three art interventions on the barge—a ramp running the whole 27 m of the vessel, a light-based inverted oars work and the 200,000 litre of water collected within the boat—merged with independent works of the eight performance artists. Besides Chisty, the performance artistes included Bengaluru-based Hemant Sreekumar and New Delhi-based Bhagwati Prasad, whose sound-based work talks of human labour, German Anja Ibsch whose works explore the tolerance limits of the body, and Japanese Butoh dancer and choreographer Yuko Kaseki. Shri Anant Lakshmi will return to the work of transporting iron ore next week. Vishal Malbekar, captain of the barge with a nine-member crew who stayed back on his barge for the entire festival, said: “It will be time to go back to our normal duty.”
Faizal Khan is a freelancer