With buildings and religious structures influenced by Portuguese, Dutch and English architecture alongside communities that showcase a multitude of cultures ranging from Jewish, Anglo Indian, Keralite and Tamilian, Fort Kochi is actually an apt host for an art festival as unique as Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Since 2012, Kochi Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, brings artists from across the world to the land known as God's own country.  A unique show unlike any other, the festival takes place not just in a single room or even building but across an entire town, spread around large colonial homes, huge godowns, warehouses and even cafes. Artists from as far as Denmark and Poland showcase their exhibits alongside those from Lebanon, Japan, Sri Lanka, Spain and dozens of other countries.


Why does Kochi-Muziris Biennale matter?

It matters because these installations help open our eyes to a world we do not even know exist and I do not necessarily mean that in a literal sense. Art should not be just about abstract squiggles and fine brushwork. Art should evoke an emotion  in you. It should force you to see the world through myriad lenses and introspect. It should make you feel something and yes, maybe even learn something.

In a world where even sensible opinions are silenced by online faceless crowds, Kochi Muziris Biennale allows artists from across the world the right to be critical, even of the host state, if need be.

Of the dozens of locations the festival is being showcased in, I had the opportunity to visit a few over the past month. Yes, there are plenty of exhibits of modern art, abstract art, halls playing videos on loop and even some pretentious stuff but in this article, I want to talk about the art at Kochi Muziris Biennale 2019 that truly made me think and forced me out of my mental safety net. 


Since 2012, Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, brings artists from across the world to the land known as God's own country.

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Imagine going to an art exhibition and seeing a bunch of shirts hanging on a clothesline. My first impression was this was someone being deliberately abstract. As I got closer and I realized what I was seeing, I honestly felt a tightness in my chest.

Exhibit by artist Sue Williamson at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, depicting slavery


Each shirt hung on the clothesline represented a person sold into slavery aboard ships in the past. The names had been printed on the soiled shirts based on actual records, including details like the person they were sold to, the seller and the price placed on their lives. From children as young as 12 to men in their twenties, these people had their dignity forfeited because of the colour of their skin.

Exhibit by artist Sue Williamson at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, depicting slavery


Watching those unwashed shirts swaying in the breeze and seeing the piles of shirts lying on the ground with no space to place them all was a stark reminder of what the world once was... and still is even today.

300 years after they were denied basic humanity, these slaves - young men, women and children - were finally acknowledged as human beings in a coast far away from where they met their demise.

Exhibit by artist Sue Williamson at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, depicting slavery


This exhibit by artist Sue Williamson still haunts me even today when I think of it.

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Sue Williamson had another exhibit that took up an entire warehouse at the Aspinwall location. 'Messages from the Atlantic Passage' is strikingly beautiful to look at while focusing once more on the topic of slavery.

Exhibit by artist Sue Williamson at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, depicting slavery


The entire installation was made in Kerala by local fishermen from Kochi using five large nets suspended in the air, holding hundreds of muddied bottles and surrounded by water.

Exhibit by artist Sue Williamson at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, depicting slavery


A closer inspection of each bottle reveals information of slaves sold across ships, the knowledge of which left me uneasy.

Exhibit by artist Sue Williamson at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, depicting slavery


Do these nets with shackled bottles represent merely how many slaves they were or was it also a metaphor of how many nameless slaves lie buried in the oceans, a widely cast net likely to lift their combined bones en masse out of the ocean bed?

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New York based Chitra Ganesh's take on the Buddha was mesmerizing and yes, even trippy at some level.

Exhibit by artist Chitra Ganesh at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, depicting Buddha and Maitreyi


The dark room showcases bright, almost psychedelic animations around you on multiple walls depicting Maitreya, a future version of the Lord Buddha whose arrival marks the dawn of a new world.

Drawing parallels using images from the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter and migration issues across the world, Chitra implies that we may indeed be reaching that apocalyptic moment when Maitreya arrives.

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Exhibit by artist Chitra Ganesh at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala

Chitra Ganesh also plays with the memories we have of our Amar Chitra Katha comics, giving her women characteristics like lust and rage not commonly seen with the characters in the epics we grew up reading.  

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Mexican Monica Meyer uses a subtle yet telling method to showcase the oppression that women (and often, many marginalized groups) face. Based on her famous 1978 'Clothesline' project, Monica modifies the traditional act of a woman hanging clothes on a laundry line with postcards featuring actual answers by women talking about their first experience of being sexually harassed. In this era of #MeToo where people actually tend to mock victims, it is heartbreaking and yet eye-opening to see the endless responses from women and hear their traumatic experiences.



Exhibit by artist Monica Meyer at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala


Relevant to Kerala, Monica also got in touch with the locals and has a separate 'clothesline' featuring responses to what people lost in the 2018 floods.

Clothesline Exhibit by artist Monica Meyer at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala

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The installation 'Mr Sun' by Danish artist E B Itso first drew a smile from my face, featuring a nearly 4000 kilo tire hanging in a claustrophobic room. It seemed to be pretentious in my opinion. But then I read about it and honestly, found myself admiring his ingenuity.

Exhibit by artist Itso at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala


Itso's exhibit was the tire used in heavy machinery for construction work in Kerala, a state accused of sacrificing it's glorious greenery for illegal construction in the name of urbanization, which contributed to the disastrous 2018 floods. The realization that this rubber comes from trees common to Kerala yet the damage it caused in so many ways - by its use in construction alongside the financial loss when its prices crashed - destroyed many a farmer's life in Kerala, resulting in them committing suicide by hanging from the very rubber trees they cultivated.

Now look at the image once more.

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Exhibit at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala

House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home featured two series by the artist, one from 1967 - 1972 and the other from 2008. Photo montages that blend a happy household with war in progress look to highlight the reality of the effect of war on real life families.

Exhibit at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala

I hate that this is sadly relevant today in India. 


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Artwork by the Guerrilla Girls greets you even before you enter the warehouses and houses of Kochi Muziris Biennale. The focus is on misogyny and how women struggle even today to just be treated as equals in the modern world.

Exhibit by the Guerrilla Girls at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala


Well researched and presented with a sting in the tail, these make for some wonderful thought provoking topics. 

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While discussing the topic of misogny, I would be remiss if I did not mention the wonderfully detailed interactive presentation at Kashi Gallery that focused on our own Indian history and how women had to struggle against the rigid rules placed upon them due to patriarchism in the name of traditions, ranging from the fight over age of consent (how women struggled to raise it by two years... from 10 to 12!)

Exhibit at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala


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Much like Danish artist E B Itso's exhibit, Keralite Vinu V V's exhibit is far more telling than first appearances suggest. The wooden sculptures with over three hundred figurines in them all having a nail may seem like a painstaking work of craftsmanship but the story it wishes to showcase is even better.

Exhibit by Venu V V at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala


A Dalit himself, Vinu's 'Ocha' (translated as 'Loud Voice') is based on the social and political realities that not just his lower caste suffered in India but also those demonized today including the LGBT community and migrant labourers.  The wood used is Odollam, also known as the suicide tree for the dangerous fruit it yields and also infamously used as fencing dividing people's land. Voice overs within this dark room read out texts questioning Kerala's moral policing and political correctedness but the true brilliance lies in the 300 small figurines nailed to large coconut tree trunks.

Exhibit by Venu V V at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala


Pointing a direct finger at the famed Chotanikkara temple in Kochi where women suspected to be possessed by ghosts and demons are made to drive nails into temple walls with their forehead, Vinu questions this absurd and patriarchal ritual by inverting the gender, making the figurines all male now.

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Exhibit by Valie Exports at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala

Austrian Valie Export's works have been  considered some of the most radical in Europe in the 60s and 70s and dealt with systems of control in the modern world - surveillance and obtaining information. Her exhibit 'Fragments of Images of Contingence' is a dark hall with around two dozen glass cylinders filled with everyday liquids including oil, milk and water.  Working bulbs are rhythmically immersed into all of them. Her exhibit is a play on the oft-cited risk of mixing electricity with fluids that does make one think.

Exhibit by Valie Exports at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala


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An equally dark room in more ways than one was that featuring the exhibit of BV Suresh. Using cane, videos, bamboos, kinetics in a harrowing way, this was a dark claustrophobic room featuring the sounds of communal mobs with sticks, crows and even 'dead peacocks'.

Exhibit by Suresh at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala


It was a room I hated for how mortified it made me feel with threatening sounds all around me... which is exactly the effect the artist desired as he focused on the topic of bloodthirsty nationalism and lynch mobs that overpower you with sheer numbers.



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Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh have an entire floor at their disposal at the Kashi art gallery for their exhibit  'Dissent and Desire', the bright yellow walls forms a stark contrast to the stories within the images displayed of the Indian LGBT community and highlighting their suffering due to discrimination as they try to lead a normal love-filled life in a world that refuses to accept them.

LGBT Exhibit at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala

The video playing in the background shows how the lives of members of the LGBT community are affected and how they strive for acceptance even after the courts have ruled in their favour.

LGBT Exhibit at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala


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Dhaka based Marzia Farhana collected materials from the flood affected areas in Kerala for her multi-room installation 'Ecocide and the Rise of Free Fall'. Seeking to draw urgent attention to the need for a better human-nature relationship, each room is striking in how the everyday objects are suspended in mid-air, almost as though one were standing at the exact moment when the floods hit the house destroying everything.

Exhibit at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala


Exhibit at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala

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There is a reason why Kochi Biennale attracts such huge audiences every year. It would take more than 3 days to visit all the warehouses and witness all the exhibits. Artists too have the freedom to showcase diverse points of view, taking on themes that maybe taboo elsewhere in the world and even being critical if need be of the existing Indian and Kerala government without facing so much as a peep from a state that is otherwise known for having an often loud opinion on all things below (and yes, even above) the clouds.

In addition to all this, there are daily programs held at some of the locations with writing workshops, traditional Indian music and dance performances, discussions with artists and poetry performances that vary from week to week.


With all the venues located around Fort Kochi, you have the added benefit of enjoying gorgeous vistas as you move from one to the next and even taking a break to enjoy the beauty of the Chinese fishing nets.  

fresh seafood at Fort Kochi straight from the fisherman to the restaurant that serves you

If you are so inclined, choose from a wide variety of seafood including lobsters and pearl spot and have it delivered straight from the fisherman's hands to the man who cooks it and serves it as you sit by the seaside, pondering over the art installations you have just witnessed and the worlds you have just explored within those exhibits.  


For those who love to look beyond the obvious and enjoy different points of view, Kochi Muziris Biennale is definitely the place to go to. I have shown you barely 10 out of 100s of different exhibits from artists across the world that are yes, thought-provoking but can also be hilariously whimsical in their own ways.  

LGBT Exhibit at Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, being held in Kerala
The description at the entrance of the room said it was a series called 'The End of Love'. I entered inside to find a hall full of wedding photographs!


Duration:

Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018 began on 12th December 2018 and will last till 29th March 2019. 

Since 2012, Kochi Muniziris Biennale, the world's longest duration contemporary art festival, brings artists from across the world to Kerala, also known as God's Own Country.


1 Comments

  1. Great write up on the Biennale, Roshan! Planning on a visit there soon! Really intrigued by the exhibits and the perspectives they put forth...

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