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Durgabai and Subhash Vyam, “Infra-Project” (2018) (all images courtesy Kochi-Muziris Biennale)

KOCHI, India — The fourth edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), the largest of its kind in South Asia, opened last December, curated for the first time by a woman, Anita Dube — a promising moment to be sure, but one nonetheless marked by numerous conflicts and contradictions. Having spent the better part of the last two months reflecting on the exhibition, Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life, my stubborn cynicism eventually gave way to a genuine sense of solidarity. I came to realize that the strength of this particular exhibition lies in its ability to challenge existing hegemonies that correspond to and are manifested in behaviors and structures of the Indian art scene, but that the fight for equality here, and in the world at large, remains far from over.

“At the heart of my curatorial adventure lies a desire for liberation and comradeship (away from the master and slave model) where the possibilities for a non-alienated life could spill into a politics of friendship,” Dube said in her written statement accompanying the exhibition.

Anita Dube and Bose Krishnamachari (2018)

Imagine those pushed to the margins of dominant narratives speaking: not as victims, but as futurisms’ cunning and sentient sentinels. And before speaking, listening to the stone and the flowers; to older women and wise men; to the queer community; to critical voices in the mainstream; to the whispers and warnings of nature.

The fourth KMB does bring voices on the fringes of Indian visual art to the mainstream, spurred in large measure by Dube’s vision as an artist. The career of the 60-year-old artist-curator has tended to platform politically and socially engaged art. As a member of the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association formed by artist K. P. Krishnakumar in Baroda in 1987, Dube honed her methods by developing strong social and conceptual critiques, in contrast to the more figurative style of painting associated with an earlier generation of artists. Her vision for KMB, seems to be an artist-centric approach that supports allowing new voices to flourish. Yet, while Dube’s manifesto is filled with serious concerns about gender, sexuality, race, and class, its revolutionary ethos does not exist separate from the entrenched gender biases and other discriminatory practices in the Indian art world.

A quick perusal of the artist list finds that women comprised more than 50% of the names present, leading to hopes that the fourth KMB would signal a new course away from the overly male, patriarchal voices that tend to dominate the conversation in India’s burgeoning contemporary art scene. A bevy of well-known international names have been thrown in for good measure, among them Martha Rosler, Shirin Neshat and Tania Bruguera, the latter being forced to cancel her appearance in Kochi due to her imprisonment for protesting draconian new censorship laws in Cuba.

Installation view of Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh,“Dissident and Desire” (2018) (courtesy the artists)

The problem is that beneath the surface of KMB’s lofty ideals the stench of toxic masculinity remains — a key case in point being the presence of one of the biennial’s co-founders, Riyas Komu, who only weeks before had been forced to step-down from all management positions after being accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. During the opening, I was told by numerous employees Komu was seen socializing at the biennial despite an anonymous accusation was made against him. The accusation was subsequently supported by female biennial staff who wrote on Instagram, as reported by The Art Newspaper, “we believe the accounts of sexual harassment that have recently surfaced on social media against those associated with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale … we are listening.”

serious accusations made against him by female biennial staff. Disgusting as this is, it felt unsurprising considering the art world’s incessant propping up of toxic masculinity. This situation is comparable in some respects to the case of Artforum co-publisher, Knight Landesman, who despite being forced out of management responsibilities due to allegations of sexual misconduct made against him last year, remains co-owner of the legacy art publication.

Komu founded the biennial with fellow artist Bose Krishnamachari in 2010, when then Minister of Culture of Kerala, M.A. Baby, approached the two with the proposition of organizing an international contemporary art event in Kochi. The first edition, launched two years later was described in India’s Biennale Effect: A Politics of Contemporary Art (2016), “as a timely assertion of India’s contemporary global identity as part of a new agenda … not just economically but through soft power.” 

Among the benefits generated by the biennial is a revitalization of parts of the infrastructure that had fallen into disuse. In India, a country indelibly marked by centuries of colonialism, the use of derelict and former colonial structures has been a part of KMB’s footprint since the beginning. By reappropriating many of Fort Kochi’s spaces that had been left in disrepair for decades, the biennial has nurtured a positive impact on the urban development of the city. For example, KMB’s largest venue, the Aspinwall House, is a sprawling sea-facing heritage property that contains a number of warehouses and smaller outlying structures. Established in 1867 by English trader John H. Aspinwall, the remarkably unique venue was at different times during its history used to store coconut oil, pepper, timber, lemon grass oil, ginger, turmeric and other spices.

Inside one of the many enormous rooms of the Aspinwall House is a project by the pioneering South-African artist Sue Williamson, which brings together centuries-old records from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Entitled “Messages from the Atlantic Passage” (2017), the large-scale installation consists of five fishing nets and about 2,000 glass bottles, each bottle containing traces of soil and hand-engraved with details about a slave: a name, country of origin, ship, owner, plantation, price. Beneath these bottles, small pools of water form in closed-loop, self-regulating micro ecosystems, which Williamson intended to use to draw attention to the estimated 12.5 million West Africans who were enslaved and transported to work in cotton plantations in the United States, and to sugarcane fields in the Caribbean. “I wanted to say that it was inhumane,” she said in an interview.

Aspinwall House from above (2018)

The bottles are a metaphor for the people. It was a time when people were treated like cheap commodities. And these people were jammed in the hold of the ships. If you see sketches, you will see people lying side by side, like tiny little fishes.

The artist sourced the displayed names from the Cape Town Deeds office, where detailed accounts still exist of slaves bought from Africa and sold by the Dutch East India Company. A research-heavy work, I read it as weighted with a sense of timelessness, considering the recent upswing of transnational migration due to political and economic displacement, in turn spurred by endless, resource-plundering wars.

Part of KMB also expressly deals with the need to reconcile latent histories with the present. One of the most impressive installations, also at the Aspinwall House, is a work by Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. Their massive room-sized wall mural evokes Gond folklore traditions practiced by one of India’s largest and oldest tribes. Inside, wall mounted sculptures and paintings done on marine plywood are cut into various shapes outlining the fauna and flora of a popular Gond folklore, the ancient story of Dus Motin Kanya and Jal Devata, which describes a sister and her five brothers living in complete reciprocity with the cosmology of nature. The sensual human and animal figures set against earthly scenes evoke a sense of awe for the sheer vastness and scale of it alone, reminding me that modernization has brought with it many unintended consequences — perhaps none more sinister than our separation from the natural environment. The work, “Infra-project” (2018), subverts conventional frescoes typical of Gondi visual culture, including notable mahura-style inspirations taken from the intricacies of her community’s jewelry art.

During the opening week of the biennial, a performance at Cabral Yard by the famed American collective Guerrilla Girls, represented by Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz, opened up a dialogue about sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement in India. The lecture-performance was punctuated with the Guerrilla Girls’ well-trodden call-to-arms against patriarchal forces in the art world, asking viewers to examine the manifold ways women have been omitted from art history. During the Q&A afterwards, a number of art workers stood in solidarity during the reading of a collective statement by a group of activists with knowledge of sexual allegations made against Riyas Komu. The collective statement asked for clarity and transparency from the biennial, and demanded that a workshop be held to educate staff how to deal with sexual assault in the workplace. After the allegations came to light against Komu, published by an anonymous Instagram account, the official response from the biennial was to organize a series of workshops intending to educate staff on what to do if one encounters sexual harassment in the workplace. However, during the Q&A after the Guerrilla Girls’ talk activists said that these workshops were not immediately implemented.

Guerrilla Girls portrait with work (2018)

Part of the biennial’s strength, comparatively, comes from platforming projects responsive to the rapidly changing social and political dynamics within India today. An example of this is Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh’s collaborative work “Dissent and Desire” (2018), which consists of portraits and videos of their friends — who are members of the LGBTQ community living in and around Delhi — installed in a bright yellow room designed to resemble the artists’ living rooms. Only a few months earlier, in September 2018, homosexuality was at long last decriminalized in India with the overturning of Section 377 of the penal code which had previously forbidden sexual activity between people of the same gender. The artists wrote to Hyperallergic via email:

We think it’s very important to make work from an Indian queer perspective as it enables us to not only make such work enter into a dialogue with mainstream art historical discourse, but also to refer to and give voices to indigenous queer sub-cultures, voices that are not usually allowed to be heard in India or beyond.

Nathan Coley, A Place Beyond Belief (2018)

As uniquely compelling as some of these works are, the long-standing structural issues of racism, homophobia, sexism, and casteism that persist within Indian society remain serious points of contention for many artists working and operating there today. While KMB is layered with sonorous voices of resistance — perhaps none as strong and articulate as that of Dube herself — whether the biennial can act as a catalyst accelerating the necessary wave of social justice we so desperately need today, is still up for debate. But here, I thought at least, the possibilities for a non-alienated life become momentarily present, visible to those who want to see it, albeit against a tidal wave of social contradictions.

The fourth Kochi-Muziris Biennale continues at various venues throughout the city of Kochi, in the state of Kerala, India, through to 29 March, 2019. The biennial was curated by Anita Dube.

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