Two billboards outside Kochi: Andeel & Hassan Khan look upon the Biennale from Egypt
Andeel and Hassan Khan are two Egyptian artists who have collaborated for the third time on public billboards to produce the work titled, Al Shallal Ltd., installed around Lulu Mall, in the city of Kochi. However, the two artists never actually got to visit the city.
Born in 1975, and winner of the 2017 Venice Biennale Silver Lion, Hassan is an artist, musician and writer whose work has been exhibited and performed all over the world.
Andeel, on the other hand, is one of Egypt’s most well-known political cartoonists, as well as a screenwriter, experimental artist, actor, and part-time DJ. He works on journalistic projects, cinema and on the internet since 2005.
Here, the two artists discuss how they put together their work for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, and a possible encounter with a ghost.
Hassan: So what were you afraid of when we began this project?
Andeel: I was mainly afraid of orientalisation, making shallow, misinformed assumptions about what an Indian audience would like or find interesting, and end up creating something condescending or patronising.
A: What do you like most about billboards?
H: Yes.. we shared that fear, but I was also worried that the billboards would not make ‘sense’ in the public space. What I like most is that they can attract attention and put the public in brackets... suspend everything. In terms of elements, I love the girl facing the helmet as well as the lost slipper and Ostaz Mumtaz.
H: We started by looking at a lot of photographs of Kochi that the Biennale sent us. This was a strange yet productive experience for me. How was it for you?
A: In our prior collaborations, we usually began from a very strong central idea or narrative that we developed in a strict direction, while with Al Shallal Ltd., the ambiguity and our approach to the project, probably had a lot to do with our physical distance from the place, and each other, during the process.
This gave the final result a more fragmented and slightly dreamy feeling, which was a bit challenging and scary to enter in the beginning, but eventually helped me find myself in a new and exciting place.
A: Why did you prefer the drawing style to be more realistic and less cartoonish?
H: I felt like a kind of realism was important because of this distance and intimacy... We needed to find a layer that had something earnest about it... A public gesture of sincerity to the city we don’t know, but are speaking of.
‘Realism’ is of course only another style. It acts as if it’s being true to what we see in the world. However, this truth is fictional. Truth, fiction, earnestness, sincerity are all problematic words, but I use them intentionally.
The photographs were for me intimate, like little bits of condensed ‘Kochiness’ — it’s funny and strange, but I feel I could read the turmoil of someone’s dreams in the way they held their bag, or the story of love in the whole city through someone’s hands. These are also lies, but productive ones.
H: This helped us interpret the photographs, produce drawings and sketches, and then send back to Kochi instructions to be acted out and photographed for us to use.
We discovered a process!
A: Breaking these elements apart, and then weaving them together again in a story, shifted our perspective from an external view on a place to an internal view, from within the place, outwards.
H: Yes, a shift, but I am not sure to where exactly!
A: For me, there was a major sensed difference between the moment I was looking at pictures of a city I’ve never been to, in the beginning of the process, and the moment a photographer I know was taking pictures in a place I know, of people I know, doing something I asked them to do — and accomplishing it perfectly — without any physical contact between me and any of the previous mentioned elements. This shift is what I hope to transmit to people who look at the billboard.
H: And does the billboard tell you a story? What is this story for you?
A: For me, it’s not a story in the chronological sense as much as it’s a plot twist. I feel the characters are all in a place between two places, in a moment of realisation, a moment of determination, and the moment when a conviction finally sinks in. There is something about the contradiction between the normality of what they are doing and the overall mysteriousness of the scene that makes me think of potential and hope in the midst of horrific nightmarish expectations of the future.
H: Yes, I see a sort of collapse, but also something else happening.
A: Tell me about the connection you find between this drawing and Japanese manga, and what it means in your opinion.
H: Manga is a popular genre that uses a stylised visual language. We are also interested in a form of popular address that is readable by the public, although, Al Shallal Ltd. is not exactly generic. Emotions are produced and registered in manga through visual cues, ways of looking, and facial expressions. We are also doing this, but without relying on an established code. I think we are trying to produce our own.
A: Do you remember the couple on a scooter?
H: Yes! I thought the way she was holding onto him should reflect the whole tapestry of Kochi.
H: Where do you think they have gone, now that we didn’t include them?
A: I’m not even sure they are real. I think they are ghosts who roam around Kochi to make sure everything is okay, and the fact that they happened to be crossing in front of our photographer’s camera, the moment he was taking a picture of that weird-looking gate, is definitely not a coincidence. It is definitely a message that was well-delivered.
H: I miss them. I wish they were there. I want Kochi to see them, and to see them through the filter we prepared for them!
Al Shallal Ltd. is on display outside Lulu Mall, in Kochi, until March 29.