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Kochi-Muziris Biennale: A highly subjective walkthrough

From the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022-23, narratives of displacement, the passage of time, and the female gaze

 From ‘Brothers, Fathers And Uncles’ by Devi Seetharam
From ‘Brothers, Fathers And Uncles’ by Devi Seetharam (Images courtesy the Kochi Biennale Foundation)

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You walk into a darkened room not knowing what to expect—and suddenly, in front of you, is a cascading waterfall of mist, or it could be smoke. Cutting through it is a curtain of more solid mist, and you realise there is some kind of text projected on to it. Slowly, the curtain rolls down, and then you can see the text on the dark floor of the cool, high-ceilinged room you are standing in. You scurry away, not wanting to stop this flow of words, but undeterred, the letter—because that’s what it is; a letter written by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler in 1939, almost on the eve of World War II—carries on unfurling its message, which is by turns strident and pleading. “We have found in non-violence a force which, if organized, can without doubt match itself against a combination of all the most violent forces in the world. In non-violent technique, as I have said, there is no such thing as defeat,” wrote Gandhi from Wardha, Maharashtra, and, standing in a converted warehouse in Kochi, Kerala, in 2023, the haunting echo of his words comes to us through mist and mirrors.

Jitish Kallat's installation 'Covering Letter'
Jitish Kallat's installation 'Covering Letter'

The installation is Jitish Kallat’s 2012 work Covering Letter, and in conjunction with a more recent show curated by him, Tangled Hierarchy 2 that also takes as its focal point Gandhi’s written words, it forms a nucleus of meaning at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) 2022-23.

So much art is concentrated into the few square kilometres of the picturesque neighbourhood of Fort Kochi that it can sometimes be an overwhelming emotional and intellectual voyage. Navigating the many venues across which the biennale is spread is not just a matter of logistics—will we find the wide-bodied autos that ferry us from one venue to the other? Where can we get coffee?—but also about letting the eye and the mind assimilate and make sense of the impressions being made upon them constantly.

In all this chaos of beauty, Gandhi becomes an anchor.

In another part of the biennale, at Aspinwall House, a series of small paintings occupying the entire wall inside one of the warehouses of the erstwhile trading centre commands attention. Vadodara, Gujarat-based artist and academic Vasudevan Akkitham’s An Almanac Of A Lost Year, a series of 365 watercolours created during the covid-19 lockdown in 2020, is a fever dream filled with strange recurring icons and suffused with loneliness. Surreal and figurative, in the traditional style of the Baroda School, they capture some of the brooding disquiet of that time in miniature.

Paintings from Vasudevan Akkitham's series 'Almanac of a Lost Year'
Paintings from Vasudevan Akkitham's series 'Almanac of a Lost Year' (Images courtesy the Kochi Biennale Foundation)

Elsewhere within that same cavernous warehouse, a series of paintings very different from Akkitham’s make me stop in my tracks. At first, the three paintings, Brothers, Fathers And Uncles by Devi Seetharam, an artist of Malayali heritage currently based in Bengaluru, are simply beautiful and hyper-realistic depictions of a clearly local milieu—men in beautiful gold-bordered mundus, portrayed from the waist down in various groupings with odd props scattered around the canvas; a few flowers on the floor, a brass milk vessel, a banana flower in someone’s hand. It is only after studying them for a while (and admittedly, reading the exhibition notes pinned to the wall) that deeper meanings emerge. You notice the absence of women, the quiet confidence and absolute entitlement with which these men occupy the space around them. The artist questions a deeply patriarchal Kerala society, where the feminine—represented by the “props” in her paintings—has been reduced to a symbolic and purely decorative presence.

And yet, in letting her female gaze travel over the strong limbs and gauzy mundus of the men in her paintings, Seetharam seems to slyly subvert this.

I find a similar subversion in the works of a young female Pakistani photographer—Madiha Aijaz’s photographs capture the changing landscape of Karachi through its public spaces, and in her series These Silences Are All the Words, she explores public libraries, focusing on men who have been working for years in fading institutions and represent the ageing intelligentsia of the city. I notice with a start that the young photographer, born in 1981, died in 2019.

A photograph by Madiha Aijaz from the series 'Death Sentence in Two Languages'
A photograph by Madiha Aijaz from the series 'Death Sentence in Two Languages' (Kochi Biennale Foundation)

One floor above, in a different part of the vast Aspinwall House, a disconcerting video plays on loop—Bombay Tilts Down by CAMP is a video installation with seven screens connected to each other diagonally, six of them showing a landscape movie of two neighbourhoods filmed by a remotely controlled CCTV camera from atop a 34-floor building in central Mumbai. The videos slide down each screen on repeat, and their relation to each other creates the dizzying effect of a city constantly in motion. Each tilt downwards is made from dozens of repeated shots and becomes a fluid movement across the stacked and layered landscape of Parel and Worli, where vertical is the only way to grow. The seventh screen shows words from the music that accompanies the film, much of it by local artists and compiled by musician Tushar Adhav, who grew up in Lalbaug, Parel.

Another video of a lost city at the Anand Warehouse proves to be memorable—Peruvian artist Claudia Martinez Garay’s video and sound installation Ayataki (2022) features haunting, eerie imagery—some of it real, and some, like a recurring set-piece of a dining table and chairs and a staircase that goes nowhere, put together with purpose. Garay recreates the aftermath of the Peruvian Civil War, which took place between the 1980s and early 2000s, and captures the displacement of thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire between the military and Maoist guerrilla groups in the hilly towns of the Peruvian Andes.

In Kochi, art is everywhere. As we enter David Hall, where we have come in search of coffee and cake at the excellent Pandhal Cafe, we must first pass through the exhibition Memories Of Home by the Siddhartha Art Foundation, which explores the cultural links and sociopolitical similarities between Kerala and Nepal, including a history of migrant labour. Memories Of Home represents another kind of displacement—an exodus due to ecological shifts and a lack of economic opportunity.

On our way out of the city, we make a last art-stop—at the Durbar Hall, the only KMB venue situated outside the timeless Fort Kochi area in busy, bustling Ernakulam, which feels a bit like stepping into reality. Inside Durbar Hall, now managed by the Kerala Lalit Kala Akademi and a permanent art gallery, are over 200 works by 34 contemporary Kerala artists, and walking up and down the vast halls of the gracious building, I am reminded of KMB curator Shubigi Rao’s curatorial note: “A Biennale can be so much more than a mere accumulation of coincidental collusions.”

The human mind seeks the comfort of narrative and pattern, but the best art shakes us out of it—it is a displacement of sorts.

Also read: Mapping Muzaffar Ali’s life in paintings

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