Chinese fishing nets, the scent of spices in the air, Vasco da Gama, Saint Francis Xavier, delish seafood, vintage buildings, 40 communities including one of the oldest Jewish diaspora, 14 languages.... Kerala’s Fort Kochi has a lot to brag about. But ever since 12/12/2012, there has been something that reflects the historic cosmopolitan nature of this modern township. And that is the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, one of Asia’s biggest contemporary art festivals.
Kick-starting the four-month celebration once again on December 12, 2018, at Aspinwall House, a sea-facing property built in 1867, the fourth edition of KMB is under way with 93 artworks of 135 artists from 31 countries. Unlike many other art fairs in the world, it is not a closed business for a bloc of elite artists. KMB has democratised the art scene ever since its inception, opening its windows to all. It has grown organically to become a “people’s biennale”, where everybody is welcome to perceive and interpret art. Spread across 10 venues, the current edition will run till March 29, 2019, and is expected to break the previous record of six lakh visitors in 2016.
Anita Dube, the first woman curator of the KMB, made it clear that the current edition would be dealing with the concerns women have in society. “This is the first biennale in the world with more than 50% women artists; that is a big achievement,” she says. The theme she chose, ‘The possibilities of a non-alienated life’, talks about inclusiveness and gives a voice to the marginalised. “Imagine those pushed to the margins of dominant narratives speaking: not as victims, but as futurism’s cunning and sentient sentinels,” Dube says in her curatorial note. “And before speaking, listen to the stone and the flowers; to the older women and wise men; to the queer community; to critical voices in the mainstream; to the whispers and warning in the nature.” Dube wants “everybody to be a curator” at the biennale. She travelled to 32 countries to select the artists for the current edition.
Since the first edition of the KMB, there has been an emphasis on making the works site-specific. Artists spent a significant amount of time in Kochi and explored the connections it has with their homeland. They dive deep into sociopolitical situations, histories (and parallel histories, too) of the port city, and collaborate with local artists to conceptualise various installations. Mexican artist Tania Candiani collaborated with local luthiers to transform a 100-year-old local loom, that was in disrepair, into a musical instrument at the KMB. “This is not the first time I am making a string instrument in a loom. I made one in Wahaca city of Mexico, which has a very important tradition of textiles,” she says. “I did an exhibition in Mexico.... When Anita Dube visited me, she asked about my experiences with loom. I proposed to make a loom in a very different way. So my luthier from Mexico, Carlos Chinchillas, came here and worked with two luthiers from Kochi, Renesh Reju and Vinay Murali. It was very important because they were sharing knowledge. They have some particular differences, because they are trained in different parts of the world. So, for that reason itself, the loom can only be played from two sides. One string system has its bridge like a sitar, and the other one has a more occidental style, like guitars and violins.” The musical loom is one of the artworks this time that is swarmed by visitors all day.
Tasmanian artist Julie Gaugh’s on-site project ‘Distance is a state of mind’ has been created as a response to her stay in Kochi. She first arrived at Kochi on November 24, 2018. During her walks in the city, she saw things that reminded her of the culture and traditions of the Tasmanian Aboriginal islanders. “We have seen crows everywhere in Kochi. They are wise witnesses. In our culture they are our ancestors. So I made nine crows, that represent nine original tribes of Tasmania almost annihilated by the British colonisation, using dyed coconut fibre,” says Gaugh. “When the British shot our ancestors, they described how many ‘black crows’ they had killed that day.” A giant shell necklace in Gaugh’s space is shaped like the island of Tasmania. “It talks about the single ocean we all share. Though demarcated as different seas, it really is only one—just as we are one, one blood, one people,” she says.
There are major works in this edition of the biennale that address the catastrophe caused by the floods that hit Kerala in August 2018, and those reflecting the ecological concerns of different parts of the world. Bangladeshi artist Marzia Farhana has created a multimedia installation, where she hung mid-air with damaged materials she collected from the flood-affected areas of Kerala. “Bangladesh is also known for floods. But, it is not just about floods in Bangladesh or Kerala, I have perceived it like a common subject, the catastrophe that we all will face in the near future,” says Farhana. “We are still giving value to industrial and economic development. (Only) when a catastrophe happens, there is a question whether humans will exist in the future.”
The Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) is running a parallel programme to the KMB to support the rebuilding efforts of Kerala. They are organising an art auction, ARK (Art Rises for Kerala), in Kochi on January 18, 2019, that will have more than 40 artworks of those including Dayanita Singh, Subodh Gupta and Anish Kapoor. From the second edition in 2014, there is a model that the KMB has adopted to be more than just an art exhibition. Parallel projects like Artist’s Cinema and Music of Muziris allures visitors. Curated by eminent personalities, the Artist’s Cinema series showcases films and other video art that may not be available in a conventional cinema space. This year’s curators include former Tate Modern director Chris Dercon, China-based artist and curator Li Zhenuhua and Sri Lankan filmmaker Anoma Rajakaruna. Similarly, the Music of Muziris musical concert series features eminent artists from India and abroad. This year, carnatic music maestros T.M. Krishna and Sanjay Subramanyam, The Three Seas, an Indo-Australian fusion band and poetry-music collective Insurrections Ensemble will perform.
The KMB has grown far beyond the walls of its official venues, attracting artists and designers from various realms to Kochi. Tracy Thomas, a fashion designer, is having her shifting boutique at Kashi Art Gallery, one of the biennale venues, from December 1, 2018 to March 30, 2019. She has named it ‘The Biennale Edit’. “The concept is that it is like a travelling shop,” says Tracy. “We get a lot customers who are coming to see the biennale. I have sourced designers from across the country and I have given a lot of emphasis to the fabric. Every piece is handwoven, and the products we have are from new-age designers. Even the price—90 per cent of my products are under `7,000—will not be heavy on the pocket.” KMB really is everybody’s biennale.
PICTURES: Sanjoy Ghosh