Essays

In Kochi, India, a Biennial Makes Room for Reimagining the Region

Part of Valsan Koorma Kolleri's installation in Fort Kochi for the 2014 Kochi-Murizis Biennale (photo by Dheeraj Thakur, courtesy the Kochi-Muziris Biennale)
Part of Valsan Koorma Kolleri’s installation in Fort Kochi for the 2014 Kochi-Murizis Biennale (all photos by Dheeraj Thakur, courtesy the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, unless noted otherwise)

NEW DELHI — The Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) launched in 2012 and has distinguished itself by the scale of its ambition. Its production values reflect the personalities and ethos of founders Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, as does the selection of its curators, who have the monumental task of framing the idea of what is contemporary within the context of Kochi. This ambitiousness manifests itself as a complex and uneven landscape that testifies to the richness of cultural production in the subcontinent — a region that is typically defined as encompassing India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

The Biennale situates a specific city located in the southern state of Kerala, Kochi, on the world map. Kochi is, as KMB’s mission puts it, “among the few cities in India where pre-colonial traditions of cultural pluralism continue to flourish (and) traditions pre-date the post-Enlightenment ideas of globalization, and multiculturalism.” Kerala is distinguished by its political discourse, with a pronounced inclination toward Leftism and powerful communist parties, which, within a networked global cultural map, shifts the narrative away from dominant “centers” — namely New Delhi, the alternative cultural center, and Bombay, the commercial and market-focused center. The Biennale has also made a commitment to selecting artists as curators, including Jitish Kallat (in 2014) and the recently appointed Sudarshan Shetty (for 2016).

Gigi Scaria, "Chronicles of the Shores Foretold" at the 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Gigi Scaria, “Chronicles of the Shores Foretold” at the 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

In attempting to understand the role of artistic practice, independent curators, institutions, and the models of biennials and art fairs in India, one needs to understand the broader lay of the land and the many intersections between discourse, infrastructure, and funding in the context of the region. It also demands, as I have written before, a “rethinking of artistic practice and the artist as an individual where the framework to begin this lies in a singular and ubiquitous idea — travel and, more importantly, ‘travel as metaphor.’”

In attempting to rethink or reimagine, one needs to begin by breaking away from the way we talk of the sub-continent as a specific geographic region that is distinct, stable, and permanent (MENASA, Subcontinent, South Asia, South-East Asia, Middle East, and so on). We have to move away from looking at it, and our place in it, as a position of immutability and instead look at it as a position that is ephemeral, transitory, and shifting. Geography should no longer be defined by the parameters of landmass and binary discussions of border, territory, and nationality, but rather it must stem from something more opaque and abstract.

From that point on, we move to the idea of travel as a metaphor, which exists within two very distinct art histories. The first, I’ve argued, is “stagnant, visible, dominant, gender-defined, and white, as embodied, say, in Gauguin’s ‘Primitivism.’ The second strain is invisible, in exile, transient, genderless, and the ‘Other,’ seen through artistic practices like that of Ana Mendieta.” With increasing mobility between cities, countries, and continents, artists and cultural producers define themselves as living and working between more than one particular location. There is a deliberate claim laid by these practices on geography as what artist Jaret Vadera calls a “here that moves with me.” In a short text for Double Bind, an exhibition of “art of the South Asian Diaspora” held in 2014 at William Paterson University, Vadera took the term diaspora outside of the binary and redefined it “as a rubric, or a lens, like queer, which complicates oversimplified categories of identity while resisting and critiquing the power structures that seek to put and keep people in boxes. Diaspora can be used as a proposition that reconfigures identity as a verb, as a shifting constellation of inheritances, affinities, and performances.” This idea of movement through travel, together with the notion of invisibility as something reaffirming for those who are already rendered unseen within cultural, social, and political histories, can be traced back to artists like Ana Mendieta and Rummana Hussain.

Installation view of Sahej Rahal's "Harbinger" (2014) at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (photo by Dheeraj Thakur, courtesy the Kochi-Muziris Biennale)
Installation view of Sahej Rahal’s “Harbinger” (2014) at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (click to enlarge)

Jane Blocker, in her seminal book Where is Ana Mendieta? Identity, Performativity, and Exile, argues that “travel can re-inforce and normalize the terms by which home is constructed … [and] as was true in the case of nationality, that home is, first a geographic point and, second, a mythologized concept.” Describing Mendieta’s Fetish series (1976), Blocker remembers confronting the mound of dirt in her hometown in Iowa, such that it “disrupted the horizon and defamiliarizes the land,” shifting her assumption that she knew these surroundings, her place, her citizenship, and how it positioned her understanding of the self in relation to the region. The invisible body, the trace (or is it a shadow?) in this case, displaces. Hussain, a seminal figure and one of the first conceptual performance artists in India — someone who was influenced by Mendieta and Marina Abramovic — also worked from a position of performance and activism, as curator Swapnaa Tamhane has written, “in order to define the embedded presence of Muslim women within the construct of the country known as India.” Her use of everyday materials from typical Indian households in her performances, particularly Robin Blu detergent powder, was a way to reclaim the language, particularly from the political environment of the 1990s in India, and create a “very different feminist history and feminism,” in Tamhane’s words. Increasingly history leads us back to our present, showing us cultural and artistic practices using a form of opaqueness and abstraction as a way to subvert the narratives of the Subcontinent.

An installation by Bharti Kher at the 2014 Kochi-Muziri Biennale (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
An installation by Bharti Kher at the 2014 Kochi-Muziri Biennale (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

What kinds of relationships can artistic practices in the region elicit and create with curators and institutions? Where do galleries, museums, biennials, art fairs, and independent curators situate themselves and find spaces for negotiations around discourse, infrastructure, and funding? How do they do that without falling into the trap of conflating nation and identity because it’s essential — essential because the region has to be made visible — and convenient? It not only needs to move beyond the narratives of the colonial white male, but it has to deal in the present with right wing politics that are trying to co-opt and write a nationalistic history rooted in a particular form of Hindutva (or “Hinduness”), a term coined by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in 1923 and the predominant form of Hindu nationalism in India. (The Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s current government, adopted Hindutva as its official ideology in 1989.) Artists, writers, intellectuals and thinkers live in precarious times in India. Within the art world, those who are visionary and have made concrete changes in the critical dialogue and development of their institutions have been removed, challenged, and threatened in the recent past. However, the system is set up such that it sequesters intellectualism from institutional jobs that are vital to building cultural identity.

These challenges also exist in the structures set up for funding projects through public and well-meaning private systems, which remain nation-specific and cannot be in dialogue with or support the most demanding and complex artistic practices. And this disconnect is being validated by the broader structures of the global art world located outside of the region, where tokenism facilitates promoting certain agendas. We perpetually get stuck in the same rhetoric: opportunities grow for the region, we celebrate and show solidarity, but the depth and rigor continue to fall short.

Installation view of Sahej Rahal's "Harbinger" (2014) at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (photo by Dheeraj Thakur, courtesy the Kochi-Muziris Biennale)
Installation view of Sahej Rahal’s “Harbinger” (2014) at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (click to enlarge)

The role of independent curators in all of this is becoming more hybridized. There are those whose practices cannot be specifically tagged in the traditional definition, but rather shift and float in the same vein as the artistic practices of Mendieta and Hussain. There are the beginnings, very subtle yet important, of a space where it is redundant to talk in artist-curator binaries. Instead, there are practitioners who, for example, worked as curators but have shifted to the role of poet and artist, pursuing MFAs to develop a particular language that could further empower. Even in the process of exhibition-making there is a growing emphasis on the process being collaborative rather than hierarchical, which is why these individuals can so easily shift, relocate, and dislocate. The rise of the independent curator who is both a job-holder and a practitioner can be a positive trend even for institutional spaces. Supporting this will be the tremendous work being done by institutions like Asia Art Archive and even private museums and foundations that are making the archives of the Subcontinent public and accessible.

The alternatives, the intersections, the archives, and the definitions of cultural producer, collaboration, community, and education continue to be negotiated in the context of the KMB, resulting in both successes and failures. The Biennale’s strengths have been in the potential and possibilities of conversations it generates because of its curatorial mission, aided by the socio-political characteristics of its location. Last year, Kallat’s Whorled Explorations situated practices from the subcontinent and the world within 14th- and15th-century histories of Kochi — a period that overlapped with the so-called “Age of Discovery.” Maritime histories, such as that of Kochi, speak of globalization as an aspect of colonialism and there were specific works in the 2014 KMB that successfully attempted to reclaim those histories by speaking through an alternative contemporary language. This included works by Benitha Perciyal, Sahej Rahal, and Valsan Koorma Kolleri. Their installations played to that specific tenor where travel in its historical and contemporary meanings is used to shift the language used to contextualize practices in the region.

Installation view of "The Fires of Faith" by Benitha Perciyal at the 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale (photo by Dheeraj Thakur, courtesy the Kochi-Muziris Biennale)
Installation view of “The Fires of Faith” by Benitha Perciyal at the 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Materiality and movement in the works by these artists — the use of mud, clay, wax, water, dust, and scents — engendered constant reorientation of the physical body. Perciyal’s installation, “The Fires of Faith,” was an ensemble of biblical characters cast from incense, bark powder, gum arabic, aromatic herbs, and spices. The sculptures revisited a seminal period in Kerala’s history with the arrival of the apostle St. Thomas at the ancient seaport of Muziris, which, according to myth, led to the spread of Christianity in India. Rahal’s creatures in his installation “Harbringer” remained spread across the ground floor of Aspinwall House, a property built in 1867 by a trader named John H. Aspinwall. Maneuvering through the tiled interiors, among alien-like beings made of clay, was to feel displaced in the same sense as Blocker describe her experience of Mendietta’s Fetish series. Kolleri also displaced viewers in a similar way to Mendietta and Rahal, excavating an area to create what looked like an archeological site. In Kolleri’s landscape, the pits, mounds, and markings on a piece of land were performative. Rahal and Kolleri’s works alluded to both time — one felt the simultaneity of pasts, presents, and futures — and space — a nostalgia for the site and its former selves. They allowed for political connotations that lie within the realm of science-fiction as a space of possibilities for the Other to revisit and question historical events, one of the signature tropes of Afrofuturism.

The Biennale makes all of this accessible to an audience that lacks opportunities to engage with contemporary practices around the world, and it does so without making assumptions about their intellectual capacity to participate in the larger conversation. KMB’s success does not rest purely in the big international names it draws, but rather in the potentials it offers for future generations of artists and audiences from the subcontinent. The biggest hurdle, however, is that optimism can also be a detriment to constructive criticism, especially in the case of art writing. Nuanced articulations require sustained rigor and a willingness to ask difficult questions about what the contemporary entails in the subcontinent. It means egos, status quos, and petty politics have to be put aside.

Part of Valsan Koorma Kolleri's installation in Fort Kochi for the 2014 Kochi-Murizis Biennale (photo by Dheeraj Thakur, courtesy the Kochi-Muziris Biennale)
Part of Valsan Koorma Kolleri’s installation in Fort Kochi for the 2014 Kochi-Murizis Biennale

In his two-part essay “Biennales and Infrastructural Shift — Part II,” Terry Smith wrote that biennials are simultaneously looked at as “perfectible and singular, when the success of the format as a vehicle for transitionality has for decades depended precisely on its node-like structure, its easily imitated parameters and, on the local level, its unique (for art institutions) mix of prominence, regular recurrence, and reliable unpredictability.” In this space, ‘singularity’ and ‘openness’ function as positive binaries. If KMB and the development of other initiatives such as the Karachi Biennale and the Dhaka Art Summit can be so radical as to function as “infrastructural activists,” where the roles of institutions, curators, and funding systems function with an “open-minded inventiveness,” we may begin to see what a radical, reimagined region might look like.

The 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale ran December 12, 2014–March 29, 2015 in Kochi, India. The 2016 edition, curated by Sudarshan Shetty, will open next year.

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