Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018……thoughts and artists that stills lingers afresh
Ann Mary Biju
Art as it is the form of aesthetic subjective expression as well as the primordial means to non-violent rebellion against the societal forces, is quite the need of the hour to entrench in people the meanings society has invested in them. As a native of kochi in kerala, the Kochi biennale since 2012 for me has been the agent of aesthetic renunciation beyond the barriers of the conservative society that the state embodies and the event has opened my personal dimensions of thought process with an appreciation of imaginative capabilities of artists world-wide. Out of the two visits I have had of the biennale the first in 2016 and the second last year, I would like to give an account of my personal journey as a spectator of the 2018 biennale and how certain exhibits and installations have lingered with me even after about nine months of my visit. These are few of the exhibits that still stands afresh in me as moral and cultural questions that is deeply tied to us in invisible ways. A note of dissatisfaction and caution I would like to put forward is that my conceptualisation of the exhibits of the biennale are limited to the ones in the Aspinwall venue in Fort Kochi with my limitations to cover the entire biennale, no offense to the artists who’s beautiful installations I could not cover, and I deeply regret this fact.
The theme of the 2018 Kochi Muziris Biennale was “Possibilities for a non-alienated life” and the whole event spanned for a period of over five months and was curated by artist Anita Duba who’s artisterial abilities could best be explained to talk to a political crowd. As she proposed in her curatorial note, the biennale in itself hoped to explore the marginalities of personal and communal lives of entities in various circumstances and to question the same with the hope of building a dialogue and engage in a thought process.
Moving on to more of the specifics I hope to deliver through this essay, I would like to start of with artist, curator and activist Aryakrishnan’s art piece titled “Sweet Maria Monument”. The art work involves a room devoted to Maria who was a transgender activist involved in the queer rights movement in Kerala and was brutally murderd 6 years ago for the cause she represented. A close friend of the artist, he dreamt of Maria in which she expressed her grievance for the lack of space the transgender community had in the society. The artist following this thought has been working for this cause and in the art piece with the room devoted to Maria where a book shelf, bed and a place to sit down and have a peaceful conversation with her was assembled. The exhibit for me not only screamed the oppression of societal norms but also the need to consider, negotiate and initiate dialogue to resolve any conflict of opinion. It also instills in one the need to recognize humanitarian values for a peaceful co-existence.
The colourful inscription of painting on wood by Nairobi artist Dennis Muragari depicted the transport system in the form of buses or ‘mattatoos” of Nairobi and how it led to a collective social and communal identity. The paintings embodied a period of modernisation that is experienced in the city symbolised by intricate elements to denote wifi signs and also an image of Bob Marley probably resonating with a sense of cultural identity intermerging with popular culture. Each of the elements depicted in these wood paintings denoted a sense of how the populace in the city made sense of the transition they were exposed to in the name of mass production and capitalisation.
The exhibit by Indian artist Shilpa Gupta based in Mumbai was my favourite piece which embodied meaning so relevant to the huge space the exhibit occupied and the even bigger resistance it posed to the threats of an oppressive regime of governance. The exhibit consisted of the poetic works of 100 poets persecuted for their works that have been pierced into metallic rods within the expanse of a large dark hall. The pierech incomplete poetries were a symbolisation of the persecution of the poets. In front of each metallic road was fixed a microphone and the 100 microphones played poems simultaneously. The earliest poem was the work of an 8th CE poet and the latest written by Myanmar poet Maung Saungkha. Saungkha had written this poem on his penis as a mark of protest towards the ruling government in Myanmar. This installation effortlessly endowed in me the neat analysis of oppression that we may be faced with in various points in life. It transported one into an eerie universe as you stood in front of a microphone, having a glance at the pierced poetry just before you closed your eyes and then the poets themselves came and whispered their poetry of pain, oppression and love into your ears, deep into you. The feels the exhibit offered was from the careful calibrated interplay of sound, ambiance and visual display in order to bring up such a profound state of affairs.
Artist Neelima Sheikh’s exhibit “Salaam Chechi” offered a tribute to the nurses from Kerala, the state being one of the highest among the country having skilled professionals of the job working across the globe. The exhibit also illustrated the transition from the post colonial era of “dais” with traditional medicinal knowledge towards the nurses who are trained in Western medicine. The exhibit also marked the shift from the cultural status of nurses who were really venerated as ‘angels’ back in the time of Lawrence Nightingale to the current times when they underwent professional distress and issues relating to inadequate remunerations and respect they received previously.
The consistent oppression faced by dalits and a voice that is raised against this oppression, Kerala based artist Binu B.V’s exhibit “Ocha” took on the trajectory of showcasing historical remnants of violence against dalits. The exhibit used numerous small statues carved out of the trunk of the coconut tree (called in malayalam as othalanga) which were pierced into vertical pillars of wood. This was a symbolisation of the pratise that existed in Chottanikkara temple in Kerala of persecuting dalit women who were believed to be possed by evil spirits. The practise of persecuting lower caste women on similar grounds is a phenomenon that have existed and still continues to exist in various other parts of the country. An aesthetic display of historical oppression it was indeed, with the definite hope to act and remove the same.
These five installations or exhibits would constituent only a miniscule percentage of the plethora of artistic endeavours that prominent artists as well as regional artists displayed and posed along with their intriguing question they had for the spectators. The biennale offered one with a desire to deeply engage with societal questions and to have a convoluted comprehension of the confusing, sometimes or always unfair, beautiful and the ugly world we all form part of……….an engagement quite worth with you and your body of bewildering thoughts!