Artists from the Indian diaspora make a mark at the Venice Biennale

An installation view of Areez Katki's 'Pedagogical Drawings Series Z 1'. Photo: Courtesy the artist
An installation view of Areez Katki's 'Pedagogical Drawings Series Z 1'. Photo: Courtesy the artist


Contemporary artists of Indian origin reflect on political and personal histories at the ongoing Venice Biennale

It’s come to many as a surprise that the ongoing Venice Biennale, titled ‘Foreigners Everywhere’, does not feature a national pavilion by India—a country with one of the largest and most widespread diasporas. However, contemporary artists of Indian origin are adding their voice to the discourse at the 60th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia.

Bringing Indian energy to the global stage

Take, for instance, Vidha Saumya’s To all the Barricades… The Rumour Got You at the Finnish pavilion in the Giardini, which is being presented as an assorted composition of three distinct works.

The primary work is a large ballpoint pen drawing on silk across multiple panels, showing people queued up—symbolising the time spent waiting in a bureaucracy and trickle-down economy. It is accompanied by a series of sculptures, which imitate trash found on urban pavements, and a third plane consisting of cross-stitched textile forms replicating stains. A note accompanying the exhibition states that Saumya’s work attempts to challenge the norms of aesthetics, gender, academia and the nation-state, while encouraging visitors to reflect on the shared existence in this evolving world.

Mumbai-bred Saumya, who has been living in Helsinki for the last eight years, is appreciative of the arts ecosystem in the Finnish capital. She acknowledges that independent practice, outside of the restrictions of the market, is valued there. Moreover, the ecosystem is dominated by art practitioner-led spaces, while the state supports cultural production and encourages new possibilities. “It has afforded me time and space to develop new directions of curiosity to carry out a heterogeneity of practice," she says. Though she does miss Mumbai’s high-octane work energy and the professional zeal to manifest any imagination into reality.

Also read: Red River by Somnath Batabyal: The past is alive, and not a foreign country

Showcasing histories: personal and political

Himali Singh Soin, poet and artist, who divides her time between New Delhi and London, has co-created the soundscape for the Czech and Slovak pavilion. The work displays a metaphor-laden anatomical rendition of Lenka the giraffe, which was brought from Kenya to the Czech Republic, struggled to adapt to its alien environment and died early of pneumonia, and ended up as a stuffed piece in the National Museum of Prague.

“Through erasures on several archival documents tracing the incident, I extracted words that might free this incarcerated creature, or give it a sense of its own consciousness back—and give it the privilege of not having to perform a singular identity," she elaborates. David Soin Tappeser, musician, composer, and one-half of the multimedia performance duo Hylozoic/Desires, has recreated the low hum of a giraffe by compressing the national anthems of the many countries that the giraffe had passed through.

While Soin’s work is informed by broader sociopolitical history and erasures of memory, some other artists are drawing on their personal experiences. Singapore based Priyageetha Dia’s video work, The Sea is a Blue Memory. at the collateral event The Spirits of Maritime Crossing, is informed by her own family’s migration from Tamil Nadu to the Malay peninsula in the early 20th century. It delves into the sea's role as both a canvas and custodian of stories, exploring its influence on history and memory through the persona of a sea spirit. “It redefines how we understand history, not as a static collection of facts but as a living, evolving narrative influenced by the continuous flow of maritime movements," she says.

Also read: Artistic provocations at the 2024 Venice Biennale

Priyageetha Dia's 'The Sea is a Blue Memory'. Photo: Courtesy the artist
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Priyageetha Dia's 'The Sea is a Blue Memory'. Photo: Courtesy the artist

For Dia, who exhibited this work earlier at the Kochi Biennale in India in 2022, both the Indian and Italian expositions are equally important. “Each biennale serves as a significant platform within their distinct geographical and cultural frameworks and allows me to present my work to varied audiences, and engage with diverse cultural narratives," she adds.

Mumbai-born Areez Katki’s family relocated to Aotearoa (Maori-language name for New Zealand) in 2002 when he was 11 years old. Growing up as a child of migrants, he found refuge in exploring his Persian heritage. Since then, Katki’s multiple identities have shaped his research and practice, motivated by his embodied and affective experiences to uncover ways in which languages are coded and decoded. For his presentation at the Palazzo Mora for the Personal Structures exhibition, organised by the European Cultural Centre, the artist has chosen a site-sensitive approach with a series of two works.

“The first series, Pedagogical Drawings: Series Z, has been executed in hand-embroidery over seventeen fragments of found textiles. It is conceptually based on Zarathushtra’s hymns, which I have tried to cite as a form of linguistic play—abstracted and unrestricted from the machinations of hegemonic dominance," he explains. “The second, Disjecta Membra: Series T, which is more personal, is a series of nine tiles using clay from the backyard of my family home in Tämaki Makaurau in Auckland. It is an attempt to conceptualise a sensitive portrait of my grandmother who passed away in late 2022."

It is such critical perspectives on personal identities and cultural hybridities that make works by artists from the Indian diaspora shine at the Venice Biennale.

The Venice Biennale is on till 24 November.

Anindo Sen is an independent art and culture writer.

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