'This is a thought-provoking Biennale': An artist column by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew
Annu Palakunnathu Matthew writes in to tell us how the Biennale is changing her impressions of Kerala.
One of the larger roles of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is to demystify contemporary art and make it accessible and relatable to a large, and diverse audience.
Every year, the curator brings their own artistic influences and flavour to the show. This year, Anita Dube’s approach is to explore ways that we can viscerally use all our senses to understand, empathise and relate to the alienation that many feel in today’s world. Therefore, many of the pieces have socio-political overtones.
The works address this in a multitude of inventive ways, which is a great reflection on Dube’s curation. This is the first time at the Biennale that there is also a dedicated space for discussion and dialogue.
I love how the architecture of the Pavilion space has been thoughtfully constructed to reflect the concept of transparency in structure and dialogue.
The Pavilion also includes Kerala architectural elements. Using woven baskets with a glass top as tables is a simple yet elegant touch.
The democratic, inviting and inclusive nature of the space allows for the seeds of important discussions about topics that prompt alienation in today’s world to happen. Particularly, the #metoo movement in the art world.
I hope that dialogue can continue with new approaches to interactions, so that women do not have to be fearful of speaking out, and that clear boundaries are drawn to avoid future misunderstandings.
Different strokes, folks
Different people are drawn to different approaches to work. This show seems to have something for everyone without compromising its concept.
Some of the more interactive works break down ‘art’ barriers in thoughtful ways, helping viewers to be more open to viewing and understanding other works, which may not initially seem as accessible. Sometimes, those barriers are in our minds.
A number of installations, including mine, use the physicality of water. In my case, the installation is about reflection, and the viewer reflecting on our country’s history. In a port like Kochi, water is a powerful tool for creating unique experiences for audiences.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale proudly announces itself as the people’s biennale. This message is inclusive and encourages a multitude of people to visit it. The fact that there is no admission charge on Mondays is great example inviting the whole community to experience the Biennale.
This is a thought-provoking Biennale, which will make us rethink our notions of caste, class and our own national and global history narrative.
Soldiers of fortune
My family is originally from Kerala, though I grew up in England and Bengaluru. When I’d visit as a child, I would never understand my uncles’ pride for the state. This week in Kerala changed that.
For example, one late night, I approached a gentleman asking where I could get an auto. Without hesitating, he leapt on his motorbike and roared off to find me one, leaving me with his friend to insure my safety.
From the Biennale staff (despite hovering dark clouds of #metoo accusations) to the hotel staff to people on the street, I only experienced support, enthusiasm and pride in their culture, and in this Biennale.
My only complaint was that there was not enough Kerala specialties like mathi and Kachimoru served at the restaurants!
My work in this biennale, titled The Unremembered, is about the 2.5 million Indian soldiers who fought for the British in World War II and are largely forgotten in our national history, because of their politically complicated role.
Having fought and died during WWII, ending in 1945, their sacrifices were shuffled aside during the Independence struggle, and the horrors of the Partition.
I have created a video with historical film footage projected onto the gravestones at twilight in the cemeteries in Italy, where the Indians are buried and/or memorialised.
As the 75th anniversary of WWII approaches (6 June 2019), I’d like to draw attention to this piece of history, for us to tease out more of its complexities, its relationship to the Partition, and larger political issues in the region.
For this project I focused on the Italian campaign, where 30 per cent of the Victoria Crosses were awarded by the British to the Indian soldiers. One of the critical battles was the Battle of Monte Cassino whose 75th anniversary is in 2019.
My expectation is that people will walk away from my work surprised to learn about this history, and wanting to know more.
I also hope families will contact me with their stories and photographs of their fathers and grandfathers who fought in WWII (not just in Italy) for my next project, which will include all the campaigns where the ‘Unremembered’ Indian soldiers fought and died. With the passing of time, recording these stories is more urgent than ever.
Every artist is driven by different passions and concerns. As a result, I don’t think all contemporary art has to be political. Also, I don’t believe all of the work at the Biennale is solely political.
Many of the pieces, like my own, offer the viewer an extraordinary aesthetic even sensual experience.
Frankly, when I am disillusioned or stressed, there is nothing like seeing a piece of art that is purely visual. We all play our different roles.
My goal is to make art that works on an emotional and aesthetic level. At the same time, the work should raise thought-provoking questions. I also believe that one of the strengths of art is that it can be a mediator.
It can bridge gaps to create dialogue and empathy. It can make us look at issues and history from a different perspective. My work has socio political overtones but I don’t believe that is the only art that is valid.
I think the social media driven generation are craving a break from their gadgets. That is why so many of them are going “retro” and are interested in process oriented arts like analog photography.
To reconnect with our younger generation and for them to reconnect personally with people around them, I believe that our education system should not be so career goal orientated and our life goals solely monetary.
Our students should graduate to be well-rounded individuals where the strengths of the arts and humanities help them to become thinkers, problem solvers and happy human beings.
For any student in the twenty first century, Indian or otherwise, I would advocate for a liberal arts degree. I wish I had been offered that opportunity when I was in college in India.
Instead, I graduated in mathematics and have been playing catch up ever since.
The Unremembered is on display at Aspinwall House until March 29, 2019.