India’s first international biennial opens
Artist-curators of Kochi-Muziris Biennale overcome fundraising set back
By Darryl D’Monte. Web only
Published online: 20 December 2012
Kerala is historically known for its spices, but the southernmost Indian state is now host to the country’s first art biennial (until 13 March). The Kochi-Muziris Biennale opened in the coastal city of Kochi on 12 December. The artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu have organised the biennial. The foundation they set up was given a grant of Rs 5 crore ($1 million then) in 2010 by the previous Marxist government, but the present Congress does not favour the dispensation and has withheld another tranche of funds. The artists, however, have pulled off a remarkable feat by raising the money themselves; many participants have used their own money to take part.
Around half of the 88 artists are international, while half of the Indians are from Kerala itself. While the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei could not make the biennial, Jonas Staal from the Netherlands and Joseph Semah, who is Iraqi-born, were among those who travelled to India to set up their installations.
Staal has collected the names of so-called terrorists from 35 “banned” organisations. His pavilion has been transformed into a “conference” with these speakers, with half the names from India, including Maoist insurrectionists.
Semah, who was born in Baghdad, brought up in Tel Aviv and went into self-exile in Amsterdam, has occupied Aspinwall House, the former office of a British trading firm built in the19th century. He has created a site-specific installation that features 72 copper plates on a wooden table. Participants read from the texts of 72 privileges granted by the last king of the 2,000-year-old Kerala dynasty to the Jewish and Christian communities in Kochi. The babel of languages is meant to denote, in the artist’s words, “when issues of religious intolerance are rocking Europe, it is wonderful to see here a laboratory of tolerance”.
The venues are redolent of India’s most renowned port in ancient times. An abandoned dockyard is being used by the Portuguese muralist known as Rigo 23. The biggest is the Durbar Hall where the former Maharaja of Kochi once held court. The biennial foundation has (controversially) refurbished it. Last April, for the first time in Kerala’s history, the State held an exhibition there of works by a foreign artist, the German painter Eberhard Havekost.
The Indian artist Sundaram says: “You have to see the madness and passion of these artists, who are working with such little infrastructure. Issues such as ecology, memory, history and a sense of community are being expressed here, with fresh and young voices. It is a unique and world-class event. Vivan Sundaram tried to organise a biennial in Delhi in 1996 but the government turned it down, pointing out that the capital already had a triennial.”
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