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Painting Utopia at Kochi Biennale

Photographer
Rohit Chawla
Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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The fourth edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale exudes utopic candour

Every year… I mean, every year!” Anita Dube exclaimed, infusing each word with a frustrated drawl. ‘Every year, it’s the same story,’ she seemed to mutter under her breath. While her sun-yellow kurti seemed to radiate a sense of calm, a cool, confident, ‘I-got-this’-vibe, the 60-year-old artist—the Kochi-Muziris Biennale’s (KMB) first female, feminist and queer curator— felt the need to declare that the state of under-preparedness, to which we were all witness a day before the formal opening, was not explicitly her fault. Having attended two past press previews by the KMB’s previous artist-directors, Jitish Kallat (2014) and Sudarshan Shetty (2016), I made a mental note of Dube’s tenor, inflected as it was with undertones of apology coupled with a detectable hint of embarrassment and defensiveness. She was performing one of the most historical and universal gestures characteristic of conditioned female behaviour— she was being hard on herself.

It was difficult to repress the urge to womansplain to her that while all evidence seemed to point to the fact that this could indeed be perceived as a repetition of the ‘same story’—the now familiar last-minute scurrying around, the less-than-final touches being applied to installations, the absent wall text, the missing titles of both art works and their creators—it was somehow a not-so-minor miracle that she’d managed to get it running at all, considering in early August this year, the coastal state of Kerala had suffered the worst floods in recent history. For a while there was speculation about whether the Biennale would even open as scheduled. When I’d met her in Delhi, where she lives, in September, I’d asked her how it was going. “I think you shouldn’t feel any pressure to open the Biennale on December 12th,” I’d told her. “You know the people of Kerala,” she’d said. “They’re determined to make it happen at all cost.”

‘Tits up!’ I’d have loved to have whispered in her ear, but didn’t, for fear that if she didn’t get the reference to Amy Sherman-Palladino’s The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, it would have sounded misogynist. In fact, it’s a term that has its origins in military history, potentially tracing back to the British Armed Forces post World War 11. ‘The common consensus was that it originated in the Royal Navy,’ I read on a forum called English Language & Usage Stack Exchange. In Sherman-Palladino’s brilliant period comedy that debuted on Amazon Prime in 2017, the Jewish protagonist, Mrs Midge Maisel is a freshly separated aspiring female comedian whose desirable looks ensure she is often mistaken for a singer. Her manager, Susie, is a non-cisgender, queer woman with a potty mouth. “Tits up!” is what Susie tells Midge each time she’s about to take the stage, whether she’s perfectly coiffed or dealing with stubborn mustard stains on her otherwise elegant black dress. It soon acquires a conditioned connotation. The instant Midge hears Susie say ‘Tits up’, she consciously poises herself, straightening her torso by projecting her breasts forward, repositioning herself, not in a sexual manner or to even attract male attention, but to draw from a resilience that she has come to associate with her female body. Sherman-Palladino gets her audience to transcend the limitations of a male-derived and reinforced misogynistic vocabulary, illuminating for womankind a strategy for reclaiming ownership over narratives that we felt were outside our reach.

Dube’s curatorial aspirations are no different. Where Kallat had the privilege of provoking an edition comprising work that both directly and tangentially attested to his theme of ‘Whorled Explorations’—‘sensory and conceptual propositions that map our world, referencing geography, cosmology, time, space, dreams and myths’, and where Sudarshan Shetty felt audacious enough to privilege the primacy of process with his ‘Forming in the Pupil of an Eye,’ which alluded to the acts of seeing and the metaphor of blindness, Dube has had to contend with the emotional burden of being the first feminist and queer curator. Whether to make the politics of her identity among the main subjects of her curatorial vision, or not, was an option that didn’t seem available to her. And it is for the collective good that she chose not to steer clear of it, to embrace the challenge instead. The title of the present edition is not overtly poetic like Shetty’s, nor does it rely on pun-play, like Kallat’s ‘Whorled-World’ nexus. ‘Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life,’ it reads, its candour unmistakably utopic.

Anju Dodiya’s recent mixed-media paintings are an exploration of the feminine self as an intellectual being

MID-WAY THROUGH the curatorial walkthrough, I began to second-guess my own critical intuition. Was I making allowances for Dube because of my own position as someone who identifies as female, feminist and queer? Was I projecting onto her a stream-of-consciousness discourse my own insecurities about the degrees of determination, self-confidence and doubt entailed in the imagining of such a vast political endeavour? Especially in an art world that has historically functioned through the relentless, unquestioning validation of hierarchies, through the perpetuation of gender divides, that is inclusive only to the point where the art produced by those who come from marginalised spaces and identities is often positioned such as to disguise the tokenism of which it is usually the consequence?

“It’s like a purdah system of viewing,” I said jokingly to a fellow member of the press who was part of the walkthrough. We had just passed through a room upon whose walls were hung photographs by Vicky Roy, a practitioner whose unprivileged origins go back to a childhood spent as a rag picker on railway platforms, and whose intellectual sustenance derived from an uncanny talent for the photographic medium when he was introduced to it through his tryst with the Salaam Baalak trust. Because the indoor and outdoor areas had yet to be swept, Roy had decided not to remove the protective covering from his frames, like many other artists whose works had been installed. Roy was present in the room and coolly explained this logic to us.

From the moment I’d wandered into the first few rooms of Aspinwall, KMB’s central venue, I’d been overwhelmed. I was, in fact, inspired. We may not have had the chance to see all the works because they were in various stages of installation, but the small percentage that we’d had the privilege of glimpsing at were nothing short of marvellous. They seemed consciously not spectacular. They were unquiet, yes, but deliciously inviting, and were executed in a range of mediums. What marked them and united them was a shared sense of security. They were sure-footed, elegantly conceived and produced, but moreover, in seeing them as part of a collective, especially considering some were works you had seen before in other spaces, as part of solo or group shows, you got a clear sense of Dube’s curatorial eye and what it seemed most drawn towards.

It is no wonder then that her note is among the briefest I’ve encountered, especially from a curator who trained as an art historian and found herself making art almost as if by accident. One turn of phrase stood out; ‘self-determination for the audience.’ It emerges in the paragraph immediately after the third, where she outlines the crux of her organising principle: ‘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’. Where pleasure and pedagogy could sit together and share a drink, and where we could dance and sing and celebrate a dream together.’ She seemed to have thought long and hard about ‘the ethics of ceding authority as a curator’. If performed successfully, it could result in ‘the eros of sharing’.

The works are consciously not spectacular. They are unquiet, but deliciously inviting

MORE THAN IN previous editions, Dube has invited artists to inhabit entire rooms, or has exhibited works that very attentively dialogue with each other, often affirmatively erasing the distinctions that enable hierarchies upon which the art market functions. The very first room, for instance, has been dedicated to the textile- derived work by the late Priya Ravish Mehra, who succumbed to cancer earlier this year at the age of 57 and whose practice owed much to her focus on the marginalised community of Rafoogars of Najibabad, Uttar Pradesh, and their practice of darning. Each lyrical piece radiates a frightening intensity and reflects an immersive engagement with the processes of darning, weaving, interleaving and composing. It’s difficult not to see this as a political choice, to subvert the very logic by which female art has historically been relegated to the sidelined world of craft.

The next room you enter that then leads further into the region of Aspinwall that has been categorised architecturally as the Coir Godown, has reproduced photographs by Sunil Janah previously displayed at the Swaraj Art Archives to which it belongs of tender portraits of the Santhal tribes in Bengal, the Maria tribes in Bastar, various tribes from the Northeast, the Warli tribes from the Mahar region, and peasants from Malabar, alongside shots of their everyday life and rituals. The series was the result of Janah’s relationship with the communist movement in India.

Standing like sentinels within the same large room are totemic sculptures made of industrial packaging wood, wood sourced from construction sites, recycled paper pulp, cement, wood glue, etcetera, by Arunkumar HG, a Delhi- based artist whose practice has been committed to visibilising the easily invisibilised, particularly migrant and domestic labour forces and small-scale farmers who’re among the biggest casualties of the current agrarian crisis. Arunkumar’s sculptures exert a presence that attests to the dilemmas of material that are responsible for our impending ecological disaster, while simultaneously projecting an aura suffused by a transcendence.

In close proximity is a second-hand hand local loom that had fallen into disrepair purchased by Mexican artist Tania Candiani who collaborated with luthiers in her home city and Kerala to transform the frame into a musical instrument, replacing thread with sitar strings, and assimilating sounding boxes made of birch wood into its original design. The work is an acknowledgement of the dying tradition of handloom weaving in the face of increasing mechanisation and stems from Candiani’s own interest in the co-mingling of tradition and modernity and its many material possibilities. It is utopic in how it imagines how technologies can be repurposed and how art can re-animate that which threatens to become extinct.

It was impossible to also ignore the work by Madhvi Parekh, a self-trained artist whose paintings attest to her embrace of tribal visual narrative modes, or the meticulous installation by BV Suresh that extends the motif of alternative forms of mechanisation. Dube’s inclusion of Anju Dodiya’s recent mixed-media works that she had debuted at Bikaner House, Delhi, earlier this year was a bold choice that fixed a gaze on Dodiya’s frequent exploration of the feminine self as an intellectual being—the figure of the female thinker immersed in the twin-acts of creation and destruction.

I found myself frequently getting lost in conversations with artists who were present with their work, like photographer Chandan Gomes, and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. I identified works I absolutely had to return to, either because they were still under purdah or because I was craving an intimacy to my encounter with them and didn’t want it to be rushed, like William Kentridge’s More Sweetly Play the Dance and Sue Williamson’s One Hundred and Nineteen Deeds of Sale.

Williamson's work is the result of a discovery she made of transaction records

Both are South African artists whose works are always beautifully considered and draw from a deep emotional investment in the misdeeds of the past, with a commitment to re-humanising the disabused body through art.

Williamson’s installation is the result of a discovery she made of transaction records from the Cape Town Deeds Office that account for the enslavement of Indians in the 17th century, who were brought to Africa by the Dutch East India Company to work in its estates and gardens. She sourced linen clothing traditionally worn by the working class in India and hand-wrote the little information present in archives about them—the name given to them by their master, gender, age, and places of birth, following which she ceremoniously dipped them in the muddy water around the Cape Town Castle, a site of this enslavement, to symbolise the oppression and hard labour they endured. For the duration of the Biennale, the garments will be washed at a public laundry frequented by Dutch officers during the colonial era in Kochi, and hung out 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,’ says the note in the guidebook.

I am of the belief that it is imperative for one to emotionally prepare for such potentially life-altering encounters that are fated to end with an altered sense of what transcendence can entail not just within the work of art itself and because of its inherent aura, but because of what it can achieve within the consciousness of the viewer.

Not to forget the notion of art as a site of untapped possibilities for healing and nurturing audacious aspirations in a terribly fraught world.

‘Tits up!’ I’m instructing myself as I prepare to venture back into the trenches.

(Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018 runs till March 29th, 2019)

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