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The biennale as an essay

  • Anita Dube, Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018’s curator, deconstructs the process behind the art festival
  • 'I put together a paper with different views and points, but not trying to impose a singular vision,' says Anita Dube

Anita Dube; and South African artist Sue Williamson’s performance resulted in ‘119 Deeds Of Sale’, an installation on the slave trade between Kerala and Cape Town. Photo: Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Anita Dube; and South African artist Sue Williamson’s performance resulted in ‘119 Deeds Of Sale’, an installation on the slave trade between Kerala and Cape Town. Photo: Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Anita Dube, the fourth curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), inarguably belongs to a significant chapter in the biennale’s eight-year history. A member of the Radical Painters and Sculptors Association in the 1980s, Dube is the sum of her early training as a critic and historian and later practices in photography, sculpture and installations. This convergence is sensed in KMB 2018, which she has themed “Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life".

KMB has previously been curated by artists Sudarshan Shetty (2016) and Jitish Kallat (2014); the debut in 2012 was curated by KMB co-founders Riyas Komu and Bose Krishnamachari. The festival draws a large number of visitors, with last year’s footfalls recording 600,000.

Featuring 94 artists, Dube’s is probably the most political edition so far. For over a year, the art community has been keenly following the developments in her curatorial effort, right from April 2017, when she was announced as the festival’s first woman curator, to August 2018, when she had to steer the festival through the devastation wreaked by floods. Then, there was the responsibility she shared with the board to address the anonymous allegations of sexual misconduct against Komu. So, what does it take to pull off South Asia’s largest contemporary art festival, on the regular days and through crises? Dube shares her process. Edited excerpts:

Besides engagement with artists, does the curatorial role spill into logistics and budgets too?

Oh yes, absolutely! Being a curator has been much more than staying on the conceptual side of things. Of course, that’s a huge part of what I have done, but it is also budgeting, debating, working through all sorts of challenges and delays… I often say it is like conducting an orchestra, with many parts to be played, many instruments and rhythms to keep in sync.

When you were announced as the curator of KMB 2018, did you already have an idea of how the many locations would shape up?

I didn’t have an exact idea of how I wanted it to be laid out—that would take some more research and site visits, even though I was quite familiar with the spaces, having been a participating artist in 2012. The relationship you have to venues is quite different when you’re approaching from the large-scale planning side. I did know that I wanted to keep the venues to 10 or less (relatively compact for the biennale), which we have managed to do.

Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

You travelled extensively in search of artists to showcase. How did you select the final list?

Yes, travelling played a large role in my research. I was hosted by many international institutions and individual people who really helped me integrate myself into certain local art scenes, which was really eye-opening. For example, when I was travelling in South East Asia, I was able to meet (artist) Heri Dono, whose practice I have admired for years—he was someone I had in mind as a participant very early on. However, being introduced to (Sabah-based art collective) Pangrok Sulap completely shifted my ideas of what an art practice can be. They create community spaces, play music and are activists—this was kind of a distillation of my curatorial vision this year, and I knew I had to invite them to Kochi.

(Those) conversations really have made the curatorial journey an incredible experience. Otherwise, in terms of selecting the list, I knew that as a symbol, I needed to have more than half the participating artists to be women.

You are the first woman curator of the KMB. To what extent does the gender of the curator and their politics inform the curatorial process?

Having this designation is not something I take lightly. I’ve always tried to be politically engaged—in my life, in my work, in my writing. So, paired with being the first woman curator, I knew that the biennale would be a politically charged space, the politics of gender and queerness being no exception.

That said, I am not trying to be the one speaking for the biennale—no politics, in the sloganeering sense! I position myself as an essayist, putting together a paper with many different views and points, but not trying to impose a singular vision. Even with the Pavilion (a temporary structure at one of the venues), which is central to this biennale. The Pavilion aims to open up the biennale as a model, beyond just the exhibition. Along with the programmes and performances, it is an open space that can be claimed and used as a resource for anyone who wishes.

The biennale therefore is about creating a platform so that the art and people can claim and mould that structure in a fair way. That’s important, I think, for putting forth a possibility for change: allowing for everything to come in, letting go of control to an extent.

KMB witnessed an impromptu #MeToo intervention at the Guerrilla Girls Q&A session (a group of protesters raised questions about the biennale’s lack of response in the case of sexual misconduct allegations against Komu). Your thoughts ?

Well, as a matter of fact, I was in the audience during the intervention and commented at the moment that I was grateful and happy to see the Pavilion as a space be inaugurated in this way. First, to have the Guerrilla Girls, who have been such a destabilizing, or at least provoking, force in the art world, and the subsequent intervention, was an encouraging way to kick off the space. That’s what it’s there for: to be taken over! I welcome more of these interventions, and hope they can also come from a local audience. I think we’re on the right track, and will keep trying to open it up, but only time will tell.

Your curatorial note talks about the ethics of ceding authority as a curator. Could you elaborate on this?

As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t want to be this sort of validatory figure, telling people what to do, how to think, how to feel, how to align themselves politically. That would defeat the purpose of my whole curatorial exercise.

My role in the KMB 2018 has kind of been a “putting into conversation", and then stepping back, or chiming in when I feel like it. It’s not trying to be a singular understanding of the world, or politics, but an opening of a space for conversations and interactions to occur. And these conversations need not always be pleasant…they can be full of disagreement, and discomfort—which is such an important part of moving the discourse forward, and suggesting real alternatives.

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