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  • Roshan Dhanasekar

Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018 - India's Largest Contemporary Art Exhibition

Updated: Jun 22, 2019

This is the fourth edition of the Biennale curated by artist Anitia Dube, set in the island town of Fort Kochi.


When I heard that the Biennale was coming back to Kochi, I knew I had to come and experience its unique form of storytelling.


Kochi-Muziris Biennale is an international exhibition of contemporary art which takes place in Kochi, a city that is fondly known for its colonial architecture, mouthwatering food, golden sunsets and Chinese fishing nets, is now fondly called the biennale city. KMB is the largest art exhibition in India and is the biggest contemporary art festival in Asia.


The fourth edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale is curated by artist Anita Dube, who is known for her conceptually rich and politically charged artistic work. The theme of this edition’s biennale is “Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life”, with 94 projects by 138 artists from 32 countries.

Though I had only a day to spare at the Biennale, I witnessed some of the greatest works by artists of our time. Here are my favourite picks from Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018.


Monica Mayer


Monica Mayer is an artist from Mexico. Strongly bound with feminism, her works are done never alone, but is a result of artistic collaboration. She is continually devoted to bridging the complexities of feminism in differs places across the globe, as she believes that being patient in these interactions is the key to overcoming the share oppression that women or any sexually, economically, or ethnically marginalised groups of people face.

For KMB 2018, Mayer’s installation titled ‘The Clothesline’ which began in 1978 in Mexico City as a response to what she disliked the most about the city. This iteration of the installation has participants write their experiences of sexual harassment and the trauma from Kerala’s recent floods and is hung on a clothesline - replicating the domestic act of hanging laundry that many women share.

Though this was initiated forty years ago, it marked relevancy with the magnified visibility of sexual abuse allegations and the activism of #MeToo.

Through this installation, Mayer creates a safe space for comradeship to form when people read and respond to each other’s anonymous reflections, as not everyone has the social privilege or security to speak up about their injustices publicly.


My take: This particular installation is one of my favourites. It's not about portraying the difficulties faced by a community, but, she gave voice to the injustice and agony that a lot including you and I went through. If you are visiting the Biennale this year, you should never miss this.


Venue: Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi


Sue Williamson


Sue Williamson was born in Lichfield, England in the year 1941. She immigrated to South Africa along with her family in 1948 and is an artist and writer now based in Cape Town, South Africa.


One Hundred and Nineteen Deeds of Sale


At Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018, Sue Williamson’s installations shed light on forgotten or neglected histories, particularly those pertaining to South Africa. Williamson’s ‘One Hundred and Nineteen Deeds of Sale’ is the result of her visit to Kochi in 2017 when she was struck by the similarities in colonial histories of the city and Cape Town.

Back in South Africa, the artist discovered transaction records from the Cape Town Deeds Office that account the enslavement of Indians in the 17th century, who were brought to Africa by the Dutch East India company to work in the company’s estates and gardens. At KMB 2018, the artist remembers this forgotten connection between the histories of her home city and Kochi.

The Artist sourced linen clothing - traditionally worn by the working class in India and hand-wrote the little information present in archives about them - the names given to them by their master, gender, age and place of birth. She then ceremoniously dipped them in the muddy water around the Cape Town Castle, a site of the enslavement, to symbolise the oppression and hard labour they endured. During the duration of the Biennale, the garments are being washed at a public laundry, frequented by Dutch officers during the colonial era in Kochi, and hung to dry at Aspinwall House. This act offers a posthumous return home, and symbolic redemption for these enslaved people, whose story of forced migration speaks to the personal histories of many around the world.


Messages from the Atlantic Passage


While Williamson’s work sheds light on forgotten or neglected histories, her second installation ‘Messages from the Atlantic Passage’ recasts bureaucratic records of the Atlantic slave trade. She has taken the scant information available on the forces trafficking of human lives across the ocean between the 16th and 19th century - some records include both people’s African name and Christian name, others only include their sex and age - and imprinted these distorted and dehumanising representations onto bottles.

Each bottle replicates the handwriting of the clerks who would have written the documents, and the baggage of that history, floating above the waters that facilitated the inhumanity.

Williamson’s liberation of these records from their dusty archives onto empty bottles highlights an ironic incongruence between documented history and the suffering endured at the hands of those who wrote them, for those in the African Diaspora and others to symbolically fill with acts of contemplation, remembering, and reckoning.


My take: In this era, all we could imagine is about migrating to a foreign land with a six-figure dream job and the opportunity to explore the new land, which we would call home for the rest of our lives. I'm not saying it is bad because even I aspire the same. But have we ever thought about our forefathers who have also been to a foreign land?


The difference is that they were traded, just like us, but just not with a promising pay and an abundance of opportunities.


They must have dreamt about coming back home one day. But they never did. And never in the wildest of our dreams did we imagine that their homecoming would be this way. Through this installation, the artist did give them a chance to come back, for those who became one with mother earth on a faraway land only with the memories from their homeland to cherish.


Venue: Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi


Shilpa Gupta


Shilpa Gupta is an Indian artist, who is lives and works in Mumbai. Gupta’s works are embedded with the message that we are all actors in the political forces that regulate society, often inviting views to tale pieces of a gallery installation with them.


For KMB 2018, Shilpa Gupta has curated a soul-stirring piece of art titled ‘For, In Your Tongue, I Can Not Fit - 100 Jailed Poets’ which expands on the artist’s investigations of political borderlines, and how they exist beyond maps to the invisible mechanisms of control and surveillance.

The above poem was written by Liu Xiaobo - a Chinese writer, literary critic, human rights activist, philosopher and Nobel Peace Prize winner during his time in the prison to his beloved wife Liu Xia.

It is an installation of one-hundred speaking microphones that sit above corresponding stakes that each pierce a page of poetry. Recitals of a different poet’s work emanate from each microphone in a synchronised chorus. All of the writers who are represented, some living decades or centuries ago, were imprisoned for their poetry or politics, and the installation gives voice to their forced silence. Incarnation instigates a physical boundary between the prisoners and the free world.


This installation points to how orchestrated oppression is harder to detect as it renders those imprisoned voiceless and invisible.

This work was generated in 2011 during the research of Someone Else - a literary of 100 books written anonymously under pseudonyms.


My take: In this era, where we can send a letter over an email in a matter of seconds, a few thousands were denied the opportunity to event send letters to their loved ones. Imagine, we were never in a situation like that and because of these beautiful and brave souls, we will never be in a situation like that.


Venue: Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi


Marzia Farhana


In August 2018, Kerala - God’s Own Country was hit by unexpected and devastating floods, leaving more than hundreds dead, more than a thousand homeless and incurring property damages amounting to Rs. 40,000 crores.


Traumatic, shattering and shocking, everything went with the water in a matter of few hours. But the country saw how human beings could put aside their differences and come together to help one another.

For KMB 2018, Marzia Farhana has made a multi-media installation titled ‘Ecocide and the Rise of Free Fall’ with the countless household materials that were collected from the flood-affected areas in Kerala. For the artist, the floods reiterate that we are in the middle of extensive commercialisation, commodity fetishism and industrialised destruction of nature. Her work is an urgent call to re-conceptualise and restructures humankind’s relationship with the environment, through a decolonising process.

The objects are placed mid-air to represent the transitional phase in history that we currently occupy, “trapped with an irresistible fall”.


Marzia Farhana is an artist who lives and works in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her understanding of art primarily comes from the aesthetics and history of movements like Dada, Fluxus and Situationist Internationale.


My take: When you visit this installation at KMB 2018, take a deep breathe and close your eyes. Now visualise all the household materials that you saw, arranged in an orderly manner in a house which you might call a ‘home.’ Now open your eyes and take a look at the same household materials placed mid-air - you will not just visualise that these materials are worn out due to the floods and hung mid-air, but you will also visualise and experience the emotions attached to each of these materials.


Venue: Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi


Vinu VV


Born to a Dalit family that has been pushed to the margins of any social acceptance as a result of the draconian caste system in India, Vinu closely observed the social and political realities faced by the lower castes that he belonged to, which eventually compelled him to engage with discourses on social justice through his art-making.

For KMB 2018, Vinu’s work is titled ‘Ochagal’, which means louder voice in Malayalam. It is a multi-media sculptural installation composed of many life-size wooden sculptures and nearly three hundred wooden figurines, which gives voice to those who have been marginalised in Kerala society - migrant labourers the queer community as well as suspects in black hoods.

His sculptures, made from the wood of Othalam Cerbera (Odollam), which is inauspiciously known as the suicide tree as it yields a poisonous fruit - assumes the marginality of his subject matter, as it is often grown as fencing between properties. The small figurines on display are nailed to large coconut tree trunks - a reference to a ritual from Chottanikara temple, where women suspected of possession by spirits are forced to drive huge nails into temple walls with their foreheads. By inverting the fender with the male figurines, Vinu challenges inherent patriarchal structures.

Vinu is an artist who lives and works in Kochi. His works are influenced by several artisanal and ritualistic art practices from the rural surroundings

.

Venue: Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi


Aryakrishnan


Aryakrishnan’s art practice is informed by the various roles he essays as a curator, archivist and activist. His practice is focused on building queer discourses in spaces where such subjects are shrouded in silence.

For KMB 2018, Aryakrishnan is showcasing parts of his ongoing project titled ‘Sweet Maria Monument’, which is an ode to Maria, who openly identified as transgender and was an activist involved with the queer rights movement in Kerala until she was brutally murdered for what she represented.

Maria once appeared in his dreams and told him: “Put a bed to feed a 5000 like I would under my skirt”. Understanding this as a call to make spaces for the queer community, where none exist, Aryakrishnan’s work includes a bookshelf and a bed in the adjacent gallery space where anyone is welcome to come, spend time, make a cup of tea, and engage with the exhibited achieve and art.

Understanding the impossibility of capturing Maria in her totality by a single monument, the artist has constructed a growing, ephemeral archive that recounts her experience.

Aryakrishnan hails from Pathanamthitta, a small town in the South Indian state of Kerala. He lives and works in New Delhi and Kochi.


My take: In a society like ours, we teach our younger generation to question the wrong and stand up for what is right. We cite many examples and teach the next generation about the philosophies about great leaders. But can we fight the good fight?

Maria voiced herself for what she thought was right. She stood up for humane equality. But how did we treat her?


Venue: Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi


Cyrus Kabiru


Cyrus Kabiru is a self-taught artist based in Nairobi, Kenya who works with found objects and recycled material. His process is intuitive and organic, creating intricate, sculptural works that push the boundaries of conventional craftsmanship, sculpture, photography, design and fashion.

For KMB 2018, his series titled, ‘C - Stunners’ features a collection of sculptural eyewear, rendered through self-portrait photographs that capture him wearing his creations. Kabiru’s work embraces the transformation aspect of Afrofuturism.

While Afrofuturism itself is not a new movement, these ‘afro-dazzled’ glasses interpret the distinct aesthetic associated with its conception - a blend of science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction - as a way of interrogating the impact of modernisation on Africa’s history and the imagination of a future.


My take: While a lot us have experimented photography at its best, Kabiru took a leap with his installation 'C-Stunner'. Talking about the Afrofuturism, with a blend of science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction, he took me to a futuristic world which I can't explain in words.


Venue: Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi


Vipin Dhanurdharan


Born in Kollam, Vipin Dhanurdharan moved to Kochi is 2012, and since then the city has become central to his artistic training and exploration. A self-taught, multimedia artist, Dhanurdharan shifts from long-term video-based projects to fleeting performative interventions captured through his mobile phone.


For KMB 2018, his installation (a series of portraits) titled ‘Sahodharar’ was inspired by the renowned social reformer in Kerala, Sahodharan Ayyappan’s (1889 - 1968) action, Misrabhojanam (community dining) which took place in 1917 in Cherai, Kerala, critiquing caste segregation in the society at the time. To address the residues of caste discrimination that still linger in contemporary society, throughout the duration of the Biennale, once a week, Dhanurdharan will organise a communal dining experience in the grounds of the main exhibition venue, Aspinwall.

Here, experts from the local cuisine will cook recipes traditional to various communities living in Kochi from an open kitchen at the venue, feeding whoever is willing to participate. Through the collective act of sharing a meal, the artist has been exploring the possibilities for communities to come together.

Dhanurdharan’s presentation in the culmination of an ongoing project where he visited various homes in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry area and shared a meal with diverse communities living there. During the meal, he made portraits of the people who had welcomed him into their homes.


My take: When was the last time you had a community lunch? Well, I didn't mean the high-tea that you had last week at a 5-star hotel along with your elite friends. I'm talking about the good old community lunch, where you came together, cooked food, and ate as a community. Well, long ago, in a distant land. Isn't it?


Dhanurdharan's initiative amazes me. I love how the young mind wants to revive the old tradition and bring back what's forgotten. Much love you to man!


Venue: Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi


EB Itso


EB Its is a subversive artist who lives and works in Malmo and Copenhagen, Denmark, whose practice brings to light the underbelly of urban spaces and the margins of the everyday. Its concerns himself with factions of people who have intentionally chosen to live outside of what is considered socially conventional.


For KMB 2018, Itso’s installation titled, ‘Mr. Sun (Slow Violence)’, a huge rubber tyre - the kind found on the heavy machinery used for construction projects in Kerala is hung in mid-air in a claustrophobic space. The tyre’s overwhelming presence points to the environmental impact of development related to tourism in the region, which often goes unnoticed in popular media as urbanisation or illegal constructions in this case.

One of the disastrous outcomes of these unfettered constructions was the floods that hit Kerala in August 2018. Itso’s gesture expresses the irony in this cycle, as rubber comes from trees common to Kerala.


Suspended from rafters, the tyre’s presence evokes this precocity and the darker psychological burden of this development, as small-scale farmers who are forced to relinquish their land suffer from poverty and, in some cases, commit suicide by hanging from the rubber tree. In 2015, the number of farmers who committed suicide by hanging from a rubber tree is alarming, after the rubber prices crashed from Rs. 260 per kg to less than Rs. 100 per kg.


My take: Just imagine. Contemplate. Rethink. And, imagine again about what did we do mother nature, who gave us everything in abundance without complaining and to her people who are the main reason why we have food on our plate.


Venue: Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi


For more updates from Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018, follow me on Instagram.

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While travel excites my soul, food relishes my tummy. Owning the greatest of gifts that the universe can give ever anyone, I’m on a journey, exploring the unexplored territories of what life has to offer. 

 

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