Shifting perceptions: Afrah Shafiq turns artist at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018
I am not an “artist”.
In the sense yes I am one of the artists at this edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale and two of my works are showing at the festival – but I am not an artist in the sense that I did not go to art school and I do not get my rosie-rotie from art.
I have attended the Biennale for the past three editions, but this is the first time I had the happy surprise of having my work there.
Unlike the times I visited as audience, this time I reached Kochi about a week before the opening to install my work and it really felt like the entire place was in a state of transformation.
Works in progress everywhere, hotels full of artists, volunteers zipping around, JCB’s working away past midnight, painting, carpentry and fabrication going on 24/7, artists and producers spending sleepless night after night and slowly bit by bit things coming together (almost) for the opening day.
As I installed away in a void I heard about the other things being built around us. A sound and light work that attracts male mosquitos in the evening, a room full of microphones, a sprinkler that activates a rainbow – things that you feel you need to see to believe.
Through my working life, I have played multiple characters — assistant director, line producer, researcher, illustrator, graphic designer, teacher, mosaic maker, animator, video editor.
Along the way in 2015, I was selected as part of a fellowship with the India Foundation for the Arts — and I had the chance to access some fantastic archival images at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.
I spent a few years playing with these images of women in the archives — women daydreaming out of windows and doors, or engrossed in their reading, images of men explaining things to women, women floating and flying away — and I used the ethos of remix culture to bring to life this material through an interactive multimedia story called Sultana’s Reality — which is one of my two works showing at the festival.
Using a computer mouse set within an immersive game-like space, the viewer can navigate through the relationship between women and books in five chapters of a multimedia story made up of animation, GIFs, comics, jokes, statistics, music, hidden notes and more.
There is also a second work I made specifically for the Biennale (called st.itch) commissioned by the NNS with archives in the North of England. St.itch is a multimedia patchwork that uses video, QR codes, archival images and mechanised states of being, and embroidery to look at the transgressive nature of women’s work within the home such as cooking, cleaning, planning and especially sewing.
Both Sultana’s Reality and st.tich try to encourage audiences to engage with history in a playful manner, experientially drawing them into the inner minds and lives of women without being estranging.
Since the opening, there has been, on a daily basis, a handful of certain kinds of people who spend a long time at the works, sometimes even an hour — reading things over and over again, clicking around for hidden notes, laughing at jokes that I thought only made sense in my head, finding all the concealed connections and sometimes, seeing some totally new and unintended ones too.
At the same time, there have also been several people who peep in through the curtain and do not enter the room, who enter the room, but do not sit down at the desk or touch the mouse, who spend a minute or two, and move on to the next work.
Every edition I have been to in the past, I too have found that some works really spoke to me and some were not so much my cup of tea. And that, I feel, is the nature of any good festival — of having something for everyone.
The scale of the Biennale is so large that the chances of every visitor finding at least one work that moves them is high. That, to me, feels worth it — as a viewer finding that work and an artist finding that viewer.
I only stayed on for very few days post the opening and saw very little of the artworks, but truly to my surprise from whatever little I have seen at this year’s edition – the curation has been delicious.
From Vanessa Baird’s paintings of a family vomiting feces at the kitchen table to Bapi Das’s beautiful embroideries through the window pane of his auto rickshaw, and Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries hilarious text videos on the nature of art, there has been so much to love.
Monica Mayer, Juul Kraijer, a laboratory coming alive with performative forgotten and imagined machines in the work of Kaushiq Mukopadhyay, the simply amazing long video procession by William Kentridge – there really felt for the first time in this edition moved by a lot more than just that one work.
Not everyone who comes to the Biennale is an artist, or has a stake or special interest in the arts. But watching works in so many mediums saying many different things — some funny, some abstract, some angry, some beautiful — does something to us as humans, and that I think is important.
To slowly get the mind to think about ideas in ways that you might not have seen before is what shifts human perceptions, preconceived notions and prejudices, helping bring us closer together in our shared experiences.
Afrah’s works are on view at Kashi Art Gallery until March 29.