Art gazing in Kochi11 min read . Updated: 02 May 2015, 06:06 PM IST
How the two-edition old Kochi Muziris Biennale is taking Indian art to the world, and changing the historical seaside town
C. Unnikrishnan, a reedy 24-year-old with striking black eyes and a ready, open smile, speaks little English. Sitting in the quaint Teapot café in Fort Kochi, Kerala, a couple of weeks after the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) ended on 29 March, he refuses to eat the slice of orange teacake that has been placed before him. A film has formed over his coffee. Unnikrishnan is busy explaining the work he made for his “degree show", an event that allows final-year students of bachelor’s in fine art (BFA) courses across the country to showcase their work.
For his annual college exhibition, Unnikrishnan, a student of Thrissur’s 105-year-old College of Fine Arts, created an installation that was unique, if inward-looking, made with 100 terracotta bricks. On them, he painted scenes of his early life in rural Pezhumpara in Kerala’s Palakkad district—blades, the evil-eye mask commonly placed atop doors, pots and lamps, among other objects. By archiving common, everyday objects on bricks with acrylic and oil paint, Unnikrishnan intended the piece to be a continuation of the visual diary he had begun back home, in his room where “no one was allowed to enter".
“There is a lot of superstition where I live. I wanted my work to be like a diary," he says.
Last July, Bose Krishnamachari and Jitish Kallat visited the degree show, scouting for works to exhibit at the second edition of the KMB that was set to begin on 12 December. Krishnamachari is the director of the KMB and Kallat had just been chosen as its curator by an artistic advisory committee.
They did: His work was selected to be shown at the 12th Sharjah Biennial, which began on 5 March, after curator Eungie Joo visited the Kochi biennale. In March, Unnikrishnan visited Sharjah—his first visit to a foreign country—and continued to add bricks, this time responding to things he saw there, like the use of forks to eat, and his experiences on the aeroplane.
For Unnikrishnan, whose family has traditionally been engaged in basket-weaving, the KMB was a space to experiment and showcase his work. It got him noticed by an international art community that visited the KMB this time, including Catherine David, deputy director, National Museum of Modern Art, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and former curator of the documenta, the equivalent of the Olympics in the art world; Jay A. Levenson, director, international programme, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Linus von Castelmur, the Swiss ambassador to India and Bhutan; Tony Conner, publisher of the international magazine ArtForum; Katya García-Antón, director, Office for Contemporary Art Norway; and Okwui Enwezor, the current artistic director of the Venice Biennale.
There were celebrated names from the Indian art community too, of course. The artistic advisory committee itself comprised people like art historian Geeta Kapur; artists Balan Nambiar and Sheela Gowda; gallerist Abhay Maskara; Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, managing trustee and honorary director of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum; Feroze Gujral, director of the non-profit Gujral Foundation; and artist Riyas Komu, secretary of the KMB, who set up the Biennale Foundation with Krishnamachari in 2010.
The icing on the cake was that around 500,000 people visited the biennale, many of them local residents.
Unnikrishnan, then, got an opportunity to showcase his work alongside that of 93 artists, including renowned national and international artists. At the Sharjah Biennial, his work showed alongside the work of over 50 artists from the United Arab Emirates and other parts of the world, including Nikhil Chopra, a renowned performance artiste from India.
The impact of the Kochi biennale is clearly visible, though it continues to struggle with unsteady state funding and the challenges posed by the lack of rigorous infrastructure.
Artist Piyali Ghosh has left her studio in Vadodara and moved to Kochi for a year to draw inspiration from its natural environs for an installation that is to be showcased in December at Brisbane’s Woolloongabba Art Gallery. New galleries like Dubai-based Art*ry have opened shop in Kochi, and new residencies are being planned by Gallery OED in Mattancherry and the Kashi Art Gallery and Café in Fort Kochi. For contemporary Indian artists, the biennale provides exposure to an international audience, as well as an opportunity to engage with international artistic discourse and practice.
Okwui Enwezor invited artist and film-maker K.M. Madhusudhanan to participate in the 56th Venice Biennale, starting 9 May, after seeing his charcoal drawings at the Kochi biennale. The 58-year-old artist, known for his 2008 award-winning film Bioscope, will exhibit at the 120-year-old biennale, considered to be one of the most prestigious in the world. Only a handful of Indian artists have participated in it so far.
Madhusudhanan will exhibit 65 charcoal works, drawing from Logic Of Disappearance—The Marx Archive, which was exhibited at Kochi, and his new body of work, Penal Colony, at Venice.
“There are a lot of interesting artists participating in the Venice Biennale who are close to my idea of artistic practice and ideology. I will get to showcase my works alongside them. This is very interesting to me," says Madhusudhanan.
“Before the biennale, Kochi was a ‘small’ city for artists (with) not many galleries. But after the biennale, there are many developments. People are interested in starting galleries there, artists have taken up studios," says Madhusudhanan, who has a studio in Chalakudy, an hour’s drive from Kochi, besides one in New Delhi, where he is based.
“Young artists have a lot of opportunities here. No one would want to leave Kochi now," says Joseph, who graduated from the MS University of Baroda in 1998.
Her well-lit studio shares a wall and terrace with the three-year-old Backyard Civilization gallery, a space for multidisciplinary artistic ventures. Many curators, including Catherine David, visited her studio during the biennale’s second edition. “The biennale allows us to see what’s going on internationally, to be part of a larger conversation. The atmosphere helps you," says Joseph, whose new canvases include a 5x6ft painting titled Where Are We Going?, intended as a sequel to her 2012 series What Are We?, which was exhibited in the first biennale.
Like her previous works, Joseph’s new canvases too deal with the commonplace, inspired by the bustle of life in Mattancherry, where her studio is located.
Clearly, the biennale has infused new life into Kochi’s art scene.
The gallery scene is indicative of the change. Just one of the private art galleries that had opened here earlier, around the turn of the century, survives—the Kashi Art Gallery and Café, which started in 1997 and changed hands in 2012. The Draavidia Art And Performance Gallery, also started in 1997, hosted performances of leather puppetry and Koodiyattam. The Ochre art gallery came up in 2002. They did not last, but new ones are now set to make a mark.
On 14 December, two days after the Kochi biennale started, 38-year-old Rajni Syam and her business partners, including husband Syam Manohar and artist couple Haseena Suresh and Suresh Subramanian, were busy fitting light bulbs and cleaning the floors of their new gallery Art*ry, scheduled to open that morning.
Art*ry was formed in Dubai in 2014, but the decision to open in Kochi was, says Rajni Syam, “completely unplanned"—and executed in a mere six weeks. “We didn’t think about sales and we know that it will take a few years to break even. We are all passionate about art and decided to open the gallery in Kochi too," says Syam, who quit a bank job to work at the gallery. Perciyal’s show is a mixed bag, comprising large-scale, mixed-media installations, including a well-located, 9ft-tall curtain of cloves and nails placed around a wooden log, a 7x10ft canvas made with mineral pigment on linen, several sculptures, including busts of the artist herself, and found objects. By mid-April, when this writer visited, the gallery had already sold five works.
“There is a market for contemporary art, and there is never a time when art isn’t sold. It’s cyclical. It’s just that when the ball rolls faster, it gathers more snow," says Tanya Abraham, who co-owns the Kashi gallery with hotelier Edgar Pinto. The gallery, which showcases contemporary artists, was one of the venues for the biennale. This time, the New Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective had a site-specific installation there.
Abraham says they plan to initiate a residency programme in June which will be supported by the Kochi Biennale Foundation. The gallery has already asked international artists to respond to the history of Fort Kochi, and relate their own individual contexts. According to her, the association with the biennale has helped the gallery “amplify the call (for residency), change the perspective (of artists) by giving it heft".
Dilip Narayanan, owner of Gallery OED in Mattancherry, too is looking to expand.
Narayanan, who opened his gallery in 2007, began collecting art in the early 2000s, and soon quit his IT industry job to become an “art promoter"—he would visit art shows and degree shows in colleges, scouting for young artists who “showed promise", such as Sujith S.N. and Mahesh Baliga. By mid-2016, he hopes to open a café and create a residency space with studios for international and Indian artists. The studios will be built in a 3,000 sq. ft warehouse that shares a wall with his 2,300 sq. ft gallery, and Narayanan plans to make use of the high ceilings (nearly 37ft, he informs us) to make space for both living and working quarters for artists.
During the recent biennale, Narayanan lent the courtyard in front of his gallery to an installation by Rijin John called Holi Beads—The Orbit. The gallery also lent its space to two collateral exhibition events, and Narayanan says the number of visitors to his gallery “increased by 40%". “When I start the residency, I won’t have to do any marketing for people to visit and view works," he laughs, half serious.
“The biennale is not just an event," says Abraham. “It’s a story that is still unfolding and we will see the effect in a decade’s time, assuming it manages to sustain itself."
Referencing the European tradition of still life, Leon’s canvas is crowded with objects and cultural references like spices, fruits, figurines of St Sebastian, the communist red, and tombs, all of which exude a sense of life that is anything but still. Leon made this work at a residency run by the Kochi Biennale Foundation last year.
Chithra, who took a loan of ₹ 1 lakh to make her work, realizes the difficulties in being a sculptor without adequate space for a studio. The biennale gave her an opportunity to experiment with bronze, a material she hadn’t worked with before. Her challenge, she says in Malayalam, is getting funds for her work—quite like the biennale itself.
On 7 April, at Mumbai’s glittering Taj Lands End hotel in Bandra, an auction was under way. Dinesh Vazirani, of the Saffronart auction house, held the gavel in his hand and swiftly worked his way through bids being placed online and over the phone, and those coming at him from the room. (Read: Q&A Dinesh Vazirani) .Vazirani, whose Saffronart Foundation made a donation to the Kochi biennale, was attempting to raise funds for the Kochi Biennale Foundation by auctioning works of modern and contemporary Indian artists. All the works had been donated for this purpose, and by the end of the evening, ₹ 2.3 crore had been collected as a corpus. The auction house didn’t take a buyer’s premium.
That sum is barely enough. This year’s biennale cost ₹ 17.5 crore, says Krishnamachari; a mix of donations and government funding got them to the finish line.
The state government, which had approached artists Komu and Krishnamachari in 2010 to organize an international platform for contemporary art in India, has given them ₹ 3 crore so far for the second KMB, says Krishnamachari—they received ₹ 9 crore for the first edition. Another ₹ 1 crore has been pledged, but is yet to reach them, he says. “We’ll be safe if we get ₹ 1.2 crore. We won’t be in any debt," he adds.
The attempt to build the corpus continues. But for its organizers, the challenge that lies ahead also has to do with the Indian art community “buying in" to the biennale. Criticism has dogged it, from being described as a clique of men from a specific region, to the biennale allowing the city of Kochi to do all the conceptual heavy-lifting for its themes. Yet, for the likes of young Unnikrishnan, who responded to the biennale brick by brick, its significance cannot be overstated. For it provides contemporary artists a scarce non-commercial, experimental space—a site of production, rather than simply exhibition.
In the land of Raja Ravi Varma, fine art has had many illustrious practitioners
In the late 1980s, the emergence—briefly—of the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors’ Association proved to be momentous. A group of students from the College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram, came together with sculptor and artist K.P. Krishnakumar to form this group in 1987. C.K. Rajan, C. Pradeep and Jyothi Basu, among others, lived with the fisherfolk of Vettukad and made them the subject of their works. Artists such as K.M. Madhusudhanan, Anita Dube and K. Prabhakaran joined this group, which sought to eschew the “bourgeois-centric" nature of Indian art. It even protested against the art auction by Sotheby’s at the Victoria Terminus railway station (now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) in Mumbai in 1987.
After Krishnakumar’s death in 1989, however, the group disbanded.