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What is ailing the ‘people’s biennale’?

  • After #MeToo, the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is under a financial cloud
  • Can India’s largest art platform survive the storm?

The Pavilion at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018-19. Photo courtesy: Kochi Biennale Foundation
The Pavilion at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018-19. Photo courtesy: Kochi Biennale Foundation

The centrepiece of the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), which closed on 29 March, was a temporary structure called the Pavilion. It was key to the art event—KMB’s curator Anita Dube conceived it as a space for open dialogue. It is this very Pavilion that is now at the centre of a controversy.

Designed to reference performance stages (called koothambalam in Malayalam), it was built by men belonging to indigenous communities from rural Wayanad. These construction workers are among 150-odd skilled labourers who are currently fighting for their dues from the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF).

On 18 March, a contracting company, Thomas Clery Infrastructures and Developers, which was hired to work on the Pavilion and other biennale venues, sent a legal notice to the KBF. Director Appu Thomas, a 37-year-old engineer, alleged that his company was yet to receive full payment for its services. On 23 March, the KBF responded, denying these allegations and claiming that it had never entered into a contractual obligation with Thomas’ firm. It said Thomas was “only a works fabricator…and it is not within his rank or station to preach to the Trustees of KBF…"

A statement on the KBF’s website describes Thomas’ claims as “a disinformation campaign", explaining that his company had been paid 1,80,59,000 till date and the final bills submitted by him were “considered exorbitant". “A government-approved independent evaluator has found the bills produced by the contractor and his vendors to be inflated. The evaluator’s report leaves little scope for negotiation," a spokesperson for the KBF told Lounge.

Thomas claims the KBF hasn’t paid the sum they say they have. “They have paid the company only 70 lakh and owe us roughly 70 lakh more, on which the payments of the labourers depends. They didn’t draw a contract but verbally promised to pay us. I trusted them because of our long-standing relationship, and having worked for them on the 2016 Biennale. We were ready to negotiate the payment," he says.

Architect Madhav Raman had gauged the budget for the Pavilion at 70 lakh. This budget excluded landscaping and peripheral structures (such as Edible Archives), which were also constructed by Thomas’ company. Raman, who practises with Delhi-based Anagram Architects, says he had estimated the construction to be three-and-a-half months’ work. “We started only in the first week of October. I can personally vouch that work happened day and night on a war footing, at times even in the rain. It wasn’t an easy task, and, therefore, not a cheap task," he says.

Lounge spoke to the founding team of the Chennai Photo Biennale, which concluded the second edition of the festival on 24 March. A spokesperson from the team says, “The scale of art festivals depends on the curator’s vision for that particular edition, i.e. the kind of artists and artworks that the curator selects." She says this has to be followed by gauging production information to build consequent budgets.

Thomas says, “The curator (Anita Dube) had been informed that they would overshoot the budget, but she was insistent on the Pavilion’s design."

According to the KBF, its budget for the 2018 Biennale, over the two years since the end of the last edition in 2016, was around 25 crore. Funding comes from the Kerala government (the main sponsor, which had contributed 8.5 crore for the 2016 edition and pledged 7 crore for the 2018 one), corporate patrons, corporate social responsibility (CSR) partners, private donors, art organizations and in-kind support. They also have fund-raiser auctions.

Audit reports, available on their website, show deficits in expenditure for the first two editions of the festival, so much so that in 2013-14, the National Culture Fund had helped by offering 4 crore.

This is not the only instance of mega art festivals running into budgetary problems. In 2017, documenta, an international art festival held once in five years, ran into trouble with a deficit of more than €7 million (around 54.4 crore now), mainly because it added one more venue, Athens, alongside the existing venue, Kassel. This was above the budget agreed for documenta 14—€37 million. Documenta’s financial woes were settled by the municipal and state governments of Kassel and Hesse.

The allegations by the labourers and Thomas got wide attention after they were posted on an Instagram account, run by two people who worked with Thomas, called @justicefrombiennale18_19. The account and its posts have been shared widely, including by Manju Sara Rajan, the former KBF CEO. Rajan was appointed in 2016, a little before the third edition of the KMB, and quit the foundation in April 2018, over concerns regarding mismanagement of funds and alleged interference from the management committee, which didn’t let her function. In her Instagram post, Rajan recalls how Thomas had been an important part of KMB 2016, offering to do work for credit, even when “we faced the worst financial crisis in India’s economic history".

Rajan tells Lounge, “For the administrative and financial health of an organization like this, it is essential to have empowered managers, who have the wherewithal to sometimes disagree with authority and take ownership of decisions… then you have a team that can be held accountable for decisions."

The incident comes on the heels of anonymous #MeToo allegations of sexual misconduct against the biennale’s co-founder, Riyas Komu—he stepped down from all management positions in October. An internal complaints committee set up an inquiry. On 29 March, the inquiry was dropped since no complaint was forthcoming. The KBF issued a statement saying, “We look forward to Riyas Komu resuming his roles at the Kochi Biennale Foundation."

In response to an email questionnaire, Thomas Girst, global head of cultural engagement at BMW Group, which has supported the biennale right from the start, said, “We have been proud partners of KMB since its inception and we trust that everyone involved will do everything to ensure that the ‘people‘s biennale’ will continue to lead by example."

On the biennale’s closing day, more vendors protested outside Aspinwall House, claiming that they hadn’t received full payments either. They held up placards demanding a re-audit of KBF’s income and expenditure.

It is interesting to note that the KBF had earlier announced that the Pavilion would be dismantled once the biennale was over and the materials used to construct a dozen houses as part of the flood relief effort in Kerala. Thomas is not sure if his company would be sought out for this effort. “These materials are rightfully ours, made by these tribal labourers. The KBF keeps saying this is ‘the people’s biennale’, but I don’t know who these ‘people’ are", he says.

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