When Some Feminist Protest Art Posed Questions At The Just Concluding 4th Kochi Biennale

29th March 2019 is the last day of the 4th Kochi Binnale that began on 12th December 2018, in which the whole city turned into one huge art gallery for art that questions many things.

29th March 2019 is the last day of the 4th Kochi Binnale that began on 12th December 2018, in which the whole city turned into one huge art gallery for art that questions many things.

It was an overwhelming experience for me, at the 4th Kochi Biennale last month- with so much of expression of feminist angst in the art and displays. With more than half of the artists being women- you got to see various facets of gender issues. The Kerala flood rehabilitation work also formed a good part of the exhibition.

While it is impossible to encapsulate the Kochi Biennale in one article, I will attempt to cover the fourth edition of India’s most ambitious and largest art exhibition, as best as I can.

The mission statement of the Biennale states “The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to invoke the latent cosmopolitan spirit of the modern metropolis of Kochi and its mythical past, Muziris, and create a platform that will introduce contemporary international visual art theory and practice to India, showcase and debate new Indian and international aesthetics and art experiences and enable a dialogue among artists, curators, and the public.” As I found out along with the Student Biennale that coincided with it, there was a lot to see, understand and imbibe.

Up until now, my interaction with art was largely indoors in art galleries and in museums, and it was the first time that I experienced an entire town turning into an art gallery. Also, art appreciation for me were classical paintings like those found in Museo Del Prado, in Madrid or Louvre in Paris or back home in Jehangir Art Gallery and NGMA, Mumbai. So the exhibits at the Kochi Biennale were a new experience.

A major part of the exhibits was in the heritage building Aspinwall House, which is a large sea-facing property in Fort Kochi. It gets its name as this was originally the business premises of Aspinwall & Company Ltd. established in 1867 by English trader, John H Aspinwall. it is now controlled by the Travancore Royal family.

Protest Art

As I ambled around this vast property, I already had an inkling of what I may find inside. With the International #MeToo social movement gathering prominence in India, protest art found a prominence part. The world needs an ‘Estrogen Bomb’ a poster claimed.

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Inside, the series of photographs, “I let my hair down’, by Sri Lankan born contemporary artist Anoli Perera makes a strong statement. It is inspired by the artist’s childhood memories of looking at the albums and framed black and white photographs in her grandmother’s house of many generations of ‘stone-faced’ women. The work uses female hair as a means to arrest the male gaze on compositions that would have been complacent objects of patriarchy.

The use of hair as a covering for the face gives other layers of meaning to the work. Hair in its proper place is seen as a mark of beauty, but when it isn’t in place it is reminiscent of Medusa’s hair- uncontrollable and unpredictable.  By using the simple gesture of using hair to cover the face, it obstructs the completion of the viewers’ voyeuristic enjoyment of looking at their female sitter. So more than being a protective veil, it is about defiance to let the male gaze rest on the woman’s face and hence manifests as a protest.

More than half the artists of this year’s Biennale were women. There was Nilima Sheikh’s tribute to the Malayali nurse known as ‘Salaam Chechi’. There was also leading feminist artist Sonia Khurana’s work – a multi-channel installation, called Body Event II (2018). In Pepper House, there is a library which has largely grey shelves, except for a corner which has pink shelves and has literature and books written by women. This is called the ‘Sister Library’, conceived by activist and artist Aqui Thami.

Basically, all these expressions are beckoning the world for a more inclusive world rather than alienation in line with the theme for this year’s Biennale – Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life, which has been the brainchild of this year’s curator Anita Dube.

For a visitor, there is a place for self-expression where they could write answers anonymously to the question, “When was the first time you were sexually harassed? How did you feel?” Answers are hung up for people to read using a clothesline peg and some of the answers were gut-wrenching. This was part of the ‘Clothesline Project’ by Mexican artist Monica Mayers.

Close to another venue, the David Hall, is another confession booth which urges you to share and write “what was your taboo” and put it in the box. As you go through the taboos in your life and culture, it can be a cathartic experience. In Pepper House, there were blocks that were carved out for protest slogans such as ‘Me too’, ‘Not in my name’, ‘Against rape culture’ amongst others.


Kochi-based sculptor Vinu V V’s work titled Ocha ( meaning sound in Malayalam) consists of many life-size wooden sculptures of naked bodies and nearly 300 wood figurines which give ‘ocha’ to migrant labour and the queer community. His sculptures are made from wood from a tree called Othalum Cerbera – also called suicide tree because of its poisonous fruit.

Photographer Vicky Roy’s series of pictures called ‘Street Dreams’ is brilliant and touches the inner recesses of your heart.

These black and white pictures capture the innocence of homeless children while being exposed to menial work such as rag-picking and performing activities in train stations. Who better than Vicky Roy can understand this life as he himself was rehabilitated by the Salaam Balak Trust, an NGO that rehabilitates street children? His other series called the ‘This Scarred Land: New Mountainscapes’ reflects the changing landscape of the mountain ranges of Himachal Pradesh. In his words,”

The images capture the losing battle between the trees, rocks, rivers and other constitutive elements of the landscape with industrial invasion through the intervention of another powerful technology- the still camera.”



Solidarity for Kerala flood victims

In August 2018, just four months before the fourth Kochi-Muziris Biennale was inaugurated, Kerala was hit by a calamitous monsoon. In the worst flooding for over a century: more than 300 people died and an estimated 220,000 were left homeless. Mónica Mayer’s The Clothesline Project asked visitors: “What did the flood take away from you? What did the flood give you?” Hundreds of responses in postcards were pegged to the clotheslines.

One of the worst hit was the GI mapped weavers in the Chendamangalam hamlet. The looms here had the unique reputation of having facilities for weaving finer count cotton combed yarn (of 120s, 100s and 80s) but the floods brought the work to a standstill. Savetheloom.org which is involved in rehabilitating the weavers were part of the Kochi Muziris Biennale with their stall in Aspinwall house along with the several ‘Chekkuty’ dolls that were upcycled from Chendamangalm handloom sarees that were destroyed in the flood.

The brainchild of social entrepreneurs Lakshmi Menon and Gopinath Parayil. Save The Loom had also opened a pop-up shop, One Zero Eight, near David Hall. The shop features a number of Indian like Abraham & Thakore, Rajesh Pratap Singh among others.

It is the last week of the Biennale. Do catch it if you are anywhere in the hood!

A version of this was first published here.

Images credit: Sangeeta Venkatesh


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About the Author

Sangeeta Venkatesh

Sangeeta Venkatesh is the co-author of 'The Waste Issue' - an interactive workbook for school students on solid waste management. As a freelance writer for 20 years, she has contributed to magazines such as Education read more...

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