The Biennale of Kochi-Muziris, India 🇬🇧
BY NATHALIE GUIOT
In Our Veins Flow Ink and Fire : The Biennale of Kochi-Muziris, India
In the midst of lush vegetation, Fort Kochi, Kerala–a region of Southern India and a famous Portuguese spice trading post in the 15th century–has hosted, since 2011, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which has become in a little over a decade an essential platform of the Southeast Asian art scene. For this fifth biennale, Singaporean artist and writer Shubigi Rao presents In Our Veins Flow Ink and Fire, an exhibition of ninety pieces of art displayed in the city, forty of which are new commissions. Surrounded by the incessant honking of rickshaws and the chaos of the fish market with its famous precarious nets lies this exhibition visited, since its opening in December 2022, by 500,000 people–in other words, a great success! The exhibition also presents an opportunity to discover the rich colonial past of the city, as well as the pervading syncretism of the Hindu temples, the mosques, and the synagogues of the Malabar coast along the Indian Ocean.
“To envision this biennale as a persistent yet unpredictable murmuration in the face of capriciousness and volatility comes from my unshakeable conviction in the power of storytelling as strategy, of the transgressive potency of ink, and transformative fire of satire and humour,”says Shubigi Rao in her curatorial statement.
Climate change, the exploitation of minorities, the loss of tradition, feminism, dystopia, and articifical intelligence: this is a biennale that echoes societal issues, political and environmental, of our era, and all this in the most populous country in the world, with 1.4 billion inhabitants.
“We have visited ninety artists’ studios in forty countries. We wanted to move away from the market and from galeries and present 50% South Asian artists, and 50% international artists,”says Mario D’Souza, co-curator and director of programmes.
Made up of videos, documentaries, photography, paintings, and drawings, the exhibition begins at Aspinwall House, not far from Vasco de Gama square, and continues at Pepper House, Anand Warehouse, David Hall at Fort Kochi, and through former spice warehouses spread throughout this city of well-conserved architechtural heritage. In the earthen courtyard of Aspinwall, Improvise (2022) is a eight-meter tall installation in bamboo by Indian artist Asim Waqif, a work of performance art that invites the public into a poetic and intimate journey, and a refuge away from the incessant noise of the city.
Climate change and Threatened Communities
One of the highlights of the biennale is entitled Gondwana (2022), an installation by the London-based Swiss-Canadian artist Susan Schuppli; composed of two films, the work creates a dialogue between archive film about the role of Indian scientists arriving in the Antarctic–including the arrival of the first female Indian scientist, as well as footage of military training on the glacier Siachen–and images of today, wherein a group of Indian and British researchers measure, analyse, and record the sounds of the glacier Drang-Drung of the Himalayas, while also collecting local communities’ accounts of climate change. It’s a gripping work of humanism and beauty.
Of Men and Gods and Mud, by Ali Cherri, is a tryptich film of workers in a brickyard along the banks of the Nile in Sudan. The film conjures a vision at once poetic and supernatural of urban development and the catastrophic humane and geological conditions linked, notably, to the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the region (completed in 2009), which has displaced tens of thousands of people belonging to local tribes. The film also pays homage to legends and the creation myth through a series of syncretic sculptures of the stories of Gilgamesh, Golem, and Adam.
Still in the vein of testifying to industrialization’s destructive impact on local cultures, Holy Star Boyz is a series of photographs by Zina Saro-Wiwa, who lives between Los Angeles and Nigeria; she presents portraits of men wearing antelope masks, sculped in previous times of wood and now moulded in resin, an issue of petrol. In this way, she represents how modernity impacts cultural traditions, and how waste from worldwide overproduction comes back to the population of Nigeria.
Ximena Garrido-Lecca (New Mexico), with her installation Redes de conversión (2021), approaches in her turn from the angle of textiles and artisans in South America, and how the productions of indigenous cultures are impacted by both colonialism and the digital era. Locally-flavored and poetic, the beautiful sculptural work of Indian artist Archana Hande, My Kottige, takes everyday objects the artist has found in the markets of Bangalore and creates scenographic decor.
Nature and Indigenous Cultures
Go Back to the Roots is the title of the work of Joydeb Roaja, who comes from the Tripura indigenous tribe and lives in the mountains of Chittagong, Bangladesh; his touchingly humanistic drawings bear witness to the military occupation of his territory and the impact on indigenous men and women, who have lost, over the decades, their land, their culture, and their dignity. Despite all the loss and anxiety, there’s also a kind of resilience that drives the singular tales and poetics of these communities. A beauty in plastic formes, vernacular languages, and traditional songs…
Without falling too far into nostalgia, the exhibition takes the pulse of these forms of resistance, of these generations of migrants who carry their stories with them, as does Travelers (2020), a painting by the Indian artist Arpita Singh, borrowed from the collection of the Kiran Nadar Art Museum in New Delhi.
The colorful work of Smitha G.S., autodidactic artist of Kerala, presents an almost metaphysical landscape. Her paintings bustle with miniature characters, aquatic figures, shamans, and other chameleon-like figures…
Botany, science, interconnections between the human and the non-human, anatomy and phenomena of transformation–this is the world of Lull, the large-scale drawing of Kerala-based Anju Acharya, presented on a roll of paper suspended like fabric.
Architecture and geography are featured in a video work that takes us to the Mekong: First Rain, Brise-Soleil (2011) by Vietnamese artist Thao Nguyen-Phan. It’s an elegaic portrait of the river, which stretches 5,000 kilometers before spilling into the China Sea, finishing with a series of paintings on silk, inspired by the architectural heritage of the brise-soleil, a concrete structure designed to reduce heat on the façades of buildings, creating patterns reminiscent of 20th-century shadow-play.
Language and Loss of Identity
More political but just as poetic, insisting on the cultural importance of language, Madiha Aijaz, the Pakistani artist who disappeared in 2019, presents a series of photography and videos. In These Silences Are All The Words, the viewer hears voices in the libraries of Karachi, Pakistan, the guardians of culture, as they bear witness to the slow disappearance of the Urdu language in favor of English. All this is over images of ancient literature, creating a poignant work anchored in a little-known reality; it was commissioned by the Karachi Biennale and the Liverpool Biennale. In the same register, Slavs and Tatars, based in Berlin, present their Reading Room (2022), and along with it the importance of Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets in the political history of civilizations. The collective presents both books and performance readings.
Feminism and the Patriarchy
Brothers, Fathers and Uncles is a painting by Indian artist Devi Seetharam, known for her feminist ideology. Inspired by photographic documents, the artist creates a masculine choreography, an assembly of men in public spaces wearing the dhoti–a white cloth wrapped about the waist–spaces to which women rarely have access. The Nepal Picture Library has installed a feminist manifesto at Pepper House, a collection of 8,000 photographes and pieces of correspondance, a way of imagining feminist futures in Nepal and beyond.
Another beautiful discovery are the black-and-white photos of Indian photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla (1913-2012), moving portraits of Indian women liberated from the colonial yoke whom we watch emancipating themselves through the creation of sculptures, drawing, embroidery…
Launched in 2011 as an initiative of the Kerala government’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the artists Bose Krishnamachari, current president of the event, and Riyas Komu, the biennale boasts a great diversity in its displayed projects, an astute tone, and a pertinence of theme, as well as a strong legitimacy offered by its several partners in India and abroad (for example, the Institut Français, the Goethe Institute, and the Thyssen Bornemizza Art Contemporary). However, Kochi, much like the rest of the country, is unfortunately facing an unprecedented environmental disaster, with plastic waste filling the streets and peaches and no way to dispose of it; along with corruption, this is one of India’s major problems.
Finally, we find moments of emotion in Such A Morning (2017), the dream-like film by Amar Kanwar presented at Anand Warehouse, or Covering Letter, the historical letter written by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler a few weeks before the beginning of World War II. Curated by Jitish Kallat, a work represented in a fine mist.
Fonder and president of the Thalie Foundation, Nathalie Guiot is an author, editor, and exhibition curator
Translated by Naya Jorgensen, Vassar-Wesleyan Program Fall 2023
Until April 10, 2023