It is impossible to encapsulate the Kochi Biennale in one article. Last month, I tried to cover the fourth edition of India’s most ambitious and largest art exhibition, as much as I could in a day. The mission statement of the Biennale states “The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to invoke the latent cosmopolitan spirit of the modern metropolis of Kochi and its mythical past, Muziris, and create a platform that will introduce contemporary international visual art theory and practice to India, showcase and debate new Indian and international aesthetics and art experiences and enable a dialogue among artists, curators, and the public.”As I found out along with the Student Biennale that coincided with it, there was a lot to see, understand and imbibe.
Up until now, my interaction with art was largely indoors in art galleries and in museums and it was the first time that I experienced an entire town turning into an art gallery. Also art appreciation for me were classical paintings like those found in Museo Del Prado, in Madrid or Louvre in Paris or back home in Jehangir Art Gallery and NGMA, Mumbai. So the exhibits at the Kochi Biennale were a new experience. A major part of the exhibits were in the heritage building Aspinwall House, which is a large sea-facing property in Fort Kochi. It gets its name as this was originally the business premises of Aspinwall & Company Ltd. established in 1867 by English trader, John H Aspinwall. it is now controlled by the Travancore Royal family
Protest Art: As I ambled around this vast property, I already had an inkling of what I may find inside. With the International ‘Me Too’ social movement gathering prominence in India, protest art found a prominence part. The world needs an ‘Estrogen Bomb’ a poster claimed. Inside, the series of photographs, “I let my hair down’, by Sri Lankan born contemporary artist Anoli Perera makes a strong statement. It is inspired by the artist’s childhood memories of looking at the albums and framed black and white photographs in her grandmother’s house of many generations of ‘stone-faced’ women. The work uses female hair as a means to arrest male gaze on compositions that would have been complacent objects of patriarchy. The use of hair as a covering for the face gives other layers of meaning to the work. Hair in its proper place is seen as a mark of beauty, but when it isn’t in place it is reminiscent of medusa’s hair- uncontrollable and unpredictable. By using the simple gesture of using hair to cover, the face, it obstructs the completion of the viewers’ voyeuristic enjoyment of looking at their female sitter. So more than being a protective veil, it is about defiance to let the male gaze rest on the woman’s face and hence manifests as a protest.
More than half the artists of this year’s Biennale were women. There was Nilima Sheikh’s tribute to the Malayali nurse known as ‘Salaam Chechi’. There was also leading feminist artist Sonia Khurana’s work – a multi channel installation, called Body Event II (2018). In Pepper House, there is a library which has largely grey shelves, except for a corner which has pink shelves and has literature and books written by women. This is called the ‘Sister Library’, conceived by activist and artist Aqui Thami.
Basically all these expressions are beckoning the world for a more inclusive world rather than alienation in line with the theme for this year’s Biennale – Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life, which has been the brain child of this year’s curator Anita Dube.
For a visitor, there is a place for self expression where they could write answers anonymously to the question, “When was the first time you were sexually harassed? How did you feel?” Answers are hung up for people to read using a clothesline peg and some of the answers were gut-wrenching. This was part of the ‘Clothesline Project’ by Mexican artist Monica Mayers.
Close to another venue, the David Hall, is another confession booth which urges you to share and write “what was your taboo” and put it in the box. As you go through the taboos in your life and culture, it can be a cathartic experience. In Pepper House, there were blocks that were carved out for protest slogans such as ‘Me too’, ‘Not in my name’, ‘Against rape culture’ amongst others.
Kochi-based sculptor Vinu V V’s work titled Ocha ( meaning sound in Malayalam), consists of many life-size wooden sculptures of naked bodies and nearly 300 wood figurines which give ‘ocha’ to migrant labour and the queer community. His sculptures are made from wood from a tree called Othalum Cerbera – also called suicide tree because of its poisonous fruit. !!
Photographer Vicky Roy’s series of pictures called ‘Street Dreams’ is brilliant and touches the inner recesses of your heart. These black and white pictures capture the innocence of homeless children while being exposed to menial work such as rag-picking and performing activities in train stations. Who better than Vicky Roy can understand this life as he himself was rehabilitated by the Salaam Balak Trust, an NGO that rehabilitates street children?
His other series called the ‘This Scarred Land: New Mountainscapes’ reflects the changing landscape of the mountain ranges of Himachal Pradesh. In his words,”
The images capture the losing battle between the trees, rocks, rivers and other constitutive elements of the landscape with industrial invasion through the intervention of another powerful technology- the still camera.”
Solidarity for Kerala Flood Victims: In August 2018, just four months before the fourth Kochi-Muziris Biennale was inaugurated, Kerala was hit by a calamitous monsoon. In the worst flooding for over a century: more than 300 people died and an estimated 220,000 were left homeless.
Mónica Mayer’s The Clothesline Project asked visitors: “What did the flood take away from you? What did the flood give you?” Hundreds of responses in postcards were pegged to the clotheslines.
One of the worst hit was the G I mapped weavers in the Chendamangalam hamlet. The looms here had the unique reputation of having facilities for weaving finer count cotton combed yarn (of 120s, 100s and 80s) but the floods brought the work to a standstill. Savetheloom.org which is involved in rehabilitating the weavers were part of the Kochi Muziris Biennale with their stall in Aspinwall house along with the several ‘Chekkuty’ dolls that were upcycled from Chendamangalm handloom sarees that were destroyed in the flood. The brainchild of social entrepreneurs Lakshmi Menon and Gopinath Parayil,
Save The Loom had also opened a pop-up shop, One Zero Eight, near david Hall. The shop features a number of Indian like Abraham & Thakore, Rajesh Pratap Singh among others. There was so much more but I will now let the pictures do the talking.
Ready Reckoner of Venues at the Kochi Biennale: Kochi-Muziris Biennale takes place in a range of venues centered around Fort Kochi-Mattancherry, with only Durbar Hall being in Ernakulam. The Biennale spaces are largely heritage properties that have been re-developed for the exhibition.
Aspinwall House is a large sea-facing property in Fort Kochi, and a primary venue for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
Anand Warehouse:also referred to as Gujarati Warehouse, once owned and operated by members of the Gujarati community that made this city their home around two centuries ago.
Cabral Yard: The property gets its name from Portuguese navigator Cabral, who made the first shipment of merchandise from Cochin in 1500 AD. This hosts the “Knowledge Laboratory” envisioned by curator Anita Dube.
David Hall: Named after David Koder, a Jewish businessman who resided there with his family. David Hall is a Dutch bungalow built around 1695 by the Dutch East India Company, located on the north side of Parade Ground in Fort Kochi
Kashi Art Café: An old Dutch property converted into a cafe by Anoop Scaria and Dorrie Younger.
Kashi Town: Kashi Town House was once a family home in the heart of Fort Kochi that has been converted into a gallery space, spread over several rooms and levels.
Pepper House: Pepper House is a waterfront heritage property located on Kalvathi Road in between Fort Kochi and Mattancherry.
TKM Warehouse is a renovated warehouse space with several exhibition rooms. The building is part of a working dock.
Map Project Space: Lined alongside Bazaar Road are structures dating back several hundred years, when the spice trade was at its peak.
Durbar Hall : This is located in the heart of Ernakulam city, near Kochi’s main railway station. Durbar Hall was built in the mid-nineteenth-century by the Maharaja of Cochin to host his Royal court.