The Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) is an international festival of contemporary visual art hosted in the city of Kochi, in Kerala, Southern India. It is India’s largest contemporary art event, and the only biennale in South Asia.Now in its third edition, it has grown in scale and reputation. I was fortunate to be selected alongside six other curators from Scotland to go as part of a delegation to the Biennale in December. Titled ‘Forming in the pupil of an eye’, the Biennale is a vast event with 112 projects in 12 locations featuring 97 artists from 31 countries, and will run for 108 days until 29 March 2017.
This is the first British Council organised trip I have been on and although only five days, it was a tightly scheduled jamboree of art and culture. Our first four days were spent in Kochi followed by a whirlwind day tour of artists’ studios and residency spaces in Mumbai before catching a flight back to Edinburgh.
It’s due to connections established through the Edinburgh Festivals, the British Council and Creative Scotland that there is significant Scottish presence at the KMB 2016/17. Four artists from Scotland have been invited to exhibit: Charles Avery was commissioned to make a new work; Rachel Maclean presents a film work; Jonathan Owen shows a new sculpture; and Hanna Tuulikki who was also commissioned to make a new work. Additionally, Lux Scotland will be delivering artist-run video workshops and an artist film screening programme as part of Artist’s Cinema: a 100 day Film Festival at KMB; and Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop will be devising and delivering a four-week workshop programme ‘An Alternative Academy’.
Kerela has been at the centre of spice trade from as early as 3000 BC. Black pepper indigenous to Kerela was exported in large quantities to the Greek empire, followed by Romans who sent around 100 ships a year to collect this ‘black gold’. Kerala, referred to, as the land of spices or as the ‘Spice Garden of India’, was the place traders and explorers wanted to reach. This lucrative trade brought Chinese and Arabian traders to Kerala’s shores and, later, a French, Portuguese and Dutch trading post. A British protectorate legend also has it that Cochin was home to India’s first synagogue, its first church and its first mosque; perhaps a reason why Kerala is also often called, ‘God’s own country’. Another fascinating element of the cultural context is the states’ strong communist roots, their 1957 elections led to the first democratically elected Communist government anywhere in the world and Kerela now boasts the highest literacy rates in all of India – above ninety per cent.
It is this wonderfully vivid mishmash of history, religion and a strong sense of cultural tolerance, along with chaotic streets, colonial buildings, roaring traffic, lush vegetation that is the amazing backdrop for the Biennale.
Curator Sudarshan Shetty’s vision for the 2016 Biennale draws on mythical accounts of India as the land of seven rivers, a theme beautifully expressed through SOURCEMOUTH: LIQUIDBODY a new work by Scottish artist Hanna Tuulikki. Entering the first room of Tuulikki’s installation, hanging scrolls of drawn visual scores frame a screen with a close-up of her disembodied mouth reciting instructions for a performance. Then above the threshold of the neighbouring space is a screen showing a startling detail of Tuulikki’s open eyes performing choreographed gestures, the third and the largest screen presents her silver-painted figure tracing in dance the line of a river, from source to mouth.
Through the gaps in the floorboards of Tuulikki’s space glimpses of another Scottish artist’s work can be seen – a marble bust by Jonathan Owen. His works are interventions often through carving into existing artworks. Here alongside photographic works, he presents the bust of a woman whose facial features have been carved away and all that remains is a ball and a chain link. The work is part of a series in which the artist looks at how women are made prisoners of the beauty myth. Both artists’ work can be found in a beautiful, former Dutch pepper storage space, called Pepper House.
One of the biggest delights of the trip was soaking up the atmospheric old streets, observing the colourful houses, shops, smells and noises, and the distinctive Chinese fishing nets, while looking for artworks installed in extraordinary and neglected spice warehouses. The Biennale works hard to integrate the artwork with the town in many different ways, our sight seeing was frequently interrupted by strange robotic tones coming from one of the 150 ‘artorickshaws’.
Created by Latvian artist Voldemars Johanson, the auto rickshaws’ usual honking horns were replaced with funky robotic tones. Artorickshaws could be spotted all over town sporting new horns and stickers – their drivers proud ambassadors for the Biennale. Along with the auto rickshaws, goats own the streets in Kochi eating anything left behind including the fly posters and they didn’t discriminate against Scottish artist Charles Avery’s huge bright and alluring posters, which sprung up around the town during the opening week.
For me one of the most striking elements of the Biennale was how well it has incorporated the work of students and young people into the larger festival through creating a Student’s Biennale and Children’s Biennale. We spent a day touring work presented by students from fifty art colleges across India. Many of them were interested in issues of human rights, environment, gender equality and access to education – I wonder how this will have progressed in ten years time and hope for their passion and brave endeavours.
Thanks go to the British Council India and Creative Scotland for their roles in making this happen. It has been a wonderful opportunity to build on our existing connections with India, experience this new Indian-based biennale, meet curators and artists and hopefully bring the conversations started in India to the Isle of Skye.
By Emma Nicolson, Director
Published on 12 January 2017