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Five artists engage with history and its reclamation at the Kochi Biennale – in order to create a new map to an old world

Look back in anger and some regret.

Written by Vandana Kalra |
Updated: January 13, 2019 8:07:32 am
Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Anita Dube, Kochi Biennale, Martha Rosler, Shilpa Gupta, Sue Williamson, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, The Otolith Group, Anjalika Sagar, Kodwo Eshun, Kochi Biennale 2019, indian express, express news Shilpa Gupta’s For, In Your Tongue I Cannot Hide — 100 Jailed Poets. (Photo: Kochi Biennale Foundation)

History has always been written by the powerful, who have peddled the sanctity of the one authorised version. But it has never gone uncontested, with those at the margins clinging on to memories to preserve their narratives. At Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Anita Dube’s curation has encouraged just this kind of revision. “We need to develop critical thinking, listen, think and learn with each other,” says Dube.

Her curatorial note laid out her aim to question the majoritarian view and to present the “possibilities for a non-alienated life”. As a result, in this fourth edition of the Biennale, artists are not mere chroniclers and commentators. They have also turned historiographers, who have taken it upon themselves to acknowledge untold stories and rewrite equivocal histories. Like Dube had envisioned: those pushed to the margins of dominant narratives are speaking “not as victims, but as futurisms’ cunning and sentient sentinels”.

Martha Rosler I 75
Work: House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home

In the late 1960s, when photographs of the Vietnam War appeared in the US media, artist Martha Rosler found it disturbing that its readers were so detached from the violent imagery. “The images we saw on television, print media or even anti-war posters always seemed very far away, in a place we couldn’t imagine,” recalls the Brooklyn-based artist. She decided to take the war closer to the Americans, through photomontages that juxtaposed aspirational scenes of middle-class homes that appeared in magazines with photographs from the Vietnam War, leading to the series “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” (1967-72). The images were distributed as photocopied fliers during anti-war marches and with “underground” newspapers. “I wanted people to step into that room and imagine that it was theirs. The images were never bloody, nor showed people dismembered, because I did not want to repel people. I wanted to draw them in,” says Rosler. In one photograph, US soldiers survey an opulent kitchen as if it was their battlefield. In another frame, an American family is reclining on their bed, oblivious to the bombed-out destruction outside their windows.

Martha Rosler, Kochi Biennale Artist Martha Rosler. (Photo: Kochi Biennale Foundation)

The iconic photomontages are on display at the Biennale, with Rosler’s more recent work, where she combines consumerist imagery with war scenes from Iraq and Afghanistan. “I had been working with the US-based group, Artists Against the War, but wanted to do something on my own against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Suddenly it occurred to me, ‘Why don’t I just re-institute the same thing I was doing years ago?’ I did think that people would say, ‘You did this already.’ But I would say, ‘Yes, I did but we’re in the same quagmire, aren’t we?’”

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Martha Rosler, Kochi Biennale An image from Martha Rosler’s series “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home”. (Photo: Kochi Biennale Foundation)

Considered a pioneer in feminist and conceptual art, the trained abstract expressionist painter was among the first generation of artists to experiment with video. Her seminal short film Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) was a parody of popular television programmes starring Julia Child and late-night cooking shows, and satirised the expectations from women in the domestic space. In the multi-part exhibition “If You Lived Here” (1989), she worked with activists, advocates and schoolchildren, among others, to address issues related to housing, homelessness and architectural planning. In the recent series “Off the Shelf” (2018), she photographs books on diverse subjects, ranging from science to slavery from her travelling library. “I want to open a space in people’s minds where they are not just passive recipients of received ideas and prevailing worldviews,” says Rosler.

Shilpa Gupta I 43
Work: For, in Your Tongue I Cannot Fit —100 Jailed Poets

Shilpa Gupta is leading people into the dark to discover light. In a dimly lit room, she is introducing them to verses and thoughts, suppressed and censored from the eighth century to the present. “Throughout history, poets from across geographies have been incarcerated for their work, and there are still many unsettling instances of this today,” says Gupta. The Mumbai-artist has chosen to recite and corral words of 100 jailed poets, giving them a voice in her work For, in Your Tongue I Cannot Hide — 100 Jailed Poets. Hundred black microphones are suspended from the ceiling. Not meant to be spoken into, Gupta fits them with speakers that amplify the silenced voices . “Tomorrow, maybe they will kill us,” whispers Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos, before being echoed and joined by other voices from around the room — in numerous languages, English to Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Azeri and Hindi. The accompanying line drawings on the walls are stark and austere.

Shilpa Gupta, Kochi Biennale, Kochi Biennale art, Kochi Biennale 2019 Artist Shilpa Gupta. (Photo: Kochi Biennale Foundation)

Speared into metal rods are sheets of paper typed with these verses. The most recent was penned by 23-year-old Burmese writer Maung Saung Kha, who was arrested in 2016 for writing a poem where he imagined a tattoo of Myanmar’s president on his penis. “My heart is now in my blouse/my blue blouse is now covered with blood,” reads the text by the Iranian poet Mohammad Reza Haj Rostam Begloo. Guyanese poet Martin Carter had predicted, “Those who cannot read will learn to read for the revolution — those who despair not will be glad for the revolution.” She chooses not to translate the verses in her work — to convey to the viewers that their knowledge remains incomplete.

The art graduate from Sir JJ School of Art is known to address pressing socio-political issues. In her sculpture 1:14.9 (2011-12), she used a hand-wound ball of thread, measuring just over 79.5 miles, on a pedestal inside a glass vitrine. Multiplied by 14.9, the length corresponded to the length of the Indo-Pakistan border. In the “100 Hand Drawn Maps” (2008) series, she asked people to sketch outlines of their home countries by memory. The project at the Biennale was preceded by the installation Someone Else (2011), where Gupta curated a library that brought together books by authors who’d written under pseudonyms for varied reasons, from concealing their gender to avoiding persecution. “I became interested in the strength and power of the written and spoken word, and how those in power feared them,” says Gupta, adding, “There is an increasing feeling that the atmosphere is turning restrictive, with liberal thinkers, writers and filmmakers being targeted. Our social space is becoming dominated by certain voices who speak the loudest, claiming to speak for others.”

Sue Williamson I 78
Work: One Hundred and Nineteen Deeds of Sale and Messages from the Atlantic Passage

Built in 1867, the imposing Aspinwall House was a bustling centre for trade in the 17th century. Its Dutch gable was designed to impress the numerous European sailors who would halt here for pepper and coconut oil, turmeric and ginger. “Along with the spices, they would also carry back slaves,” says South African artist Sue Williamson. At the Biennale, she is recalling that forgotten history of Kochi and also the sea-facing property that houses her work, One Hundred and Nineteen Deeds of Sale. Each cotton shirt clipped on a clothesline in the backyard is dedicated to a slave who was shipped from Kochi to Cape Town.

Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Kochi Biennale, Sue Williamson Sue Williamson. (Photo courtesy: Kochi-Muziris Biennale)

Each shirt is imprinted with details that include gender, age and the name given to each slave by the master, extracted from records at the Deeds Office in Cape Town. “The Dutch East India Company colonised Cape Town in 1652, a few years before Kochi. The sailors would often stop in South Africa for supplies, and vegetable gardens were set up to fulfill their needs — the slaves worked there,” says the artist. In an act that wishes to cleanse that history, Williamson shipped over 100 shirts from Kochi to Cape Town and smeared them with mud. During the course of the Biennale, these will be washed at the dhobi ghat in Kochi and added on the clothesline. “It shows the hard labour that the displaced endured,” says the artist, who is represented in many public collections, including the Tate Modern, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Museum of Modern Art.

Born in Litchfield, England, in 1941, Williamson moved to South Africa at the age of seven. While in the 1970s, her work asserted the need for social change in apartheid South Africa, in the 1980s, through her prints, she underscored the role played by women in the country’s political struggle. One of her most celebrated works is the 2013 video installation There’s something I must tell you, featuring conversations between women activists from Nelson Mandela’s generation and their young female relatives, with the older women questioning the worth of their sacrifices and the younger discussing the challenges before the country. “We need to confront and understand our past to understand what we need to do or not to do today,” says Williamson. This is also the premise of her celebrated installation Messages from the Atlantic Passage, showing at the Biennale, which addresses human transportation across the Middle Passage, a route of the slave trade between the 16th century and 19th century. The floor of a former storeroom is flooded with water to resemble a deck, and fishing nets suspended from its roof are filled with glass bottles hand-engraved with names and details of Africans forcibly boarded onto ships. The five fishing nets represent five specific voyages. Underneath each, Williamson notes the number of people who embarked and disembarked the ship. “The bottles and nets represent how people were treated like cheap commodities; as if fishermen were casting nets to catch people. The names engraved on each bottle are like the recovery of the history of the slaves,” says the artist.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew I 55
Work: The Unremembered: Indian Soldiers from the Italian Campaign of World War II

Overlooked by the authors of colonial history, the official commemoration of Indian soldiers who participated in World War II is also fraught in India, where their heroism is often viewed as a service to the British empire. At the Biennale, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew is honouring those forgotten men through her work The Unremembered.

Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Kochi Biennale, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. (Photo courtesy: Kochi-Muziris Biennale)

Before she introduces the video installation, she notes that around 2.5 million Indian soldiers fought in World War II. “Several died but no one really acknowledges their role or sacrifices,” says Matthew. In her work, she focuses on the Italian campaign, where 30 per cent of the Victoria Crosses were awarded to Indian soldiers. Historical film footage of Indian soldiers is projected onto the gravestones in cemeteries in Italy, where the Indian soldiers who participated in the Battle of Monte Cassino (1944) are buried. “This is a way to give them a place in history,” says Matthew, professor of photography at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston.

Born in London and raised in India, Matthew often critiques existing notions through her work. In the photo series “An Indian from India” (2001-2007), she spotted similarities between how 19th century photographers of Native Americans looked at them, and the colonial perspective of 19th century British photographers in India. The more recent photo animations Open Wound (2014 onwards) explores the turmoil of families displaced by the Partition. “It was while researching the Partition that I stumbled upon the stories of Indian soldiers who participated in the war. We don’t even mention them in our history books,” says Matthew. Her research sources included the Imperial War Museum in London, Yasmin Khan’s The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War (2015), and Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field (2015). “I studied in Chennai but did not know that it had prepared for war because it was expecting to be attacked by the Japanese,” adds Matthew.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino. “This was one of the most crucial battles in the war, and one where Indian soldiers played an important role,” says Matthew. The video was shot in October last year, and at the Biennale it has been exhibited with a hollow book — symbolic of the little that has been written on them. “I expect that people will be surprised to learn about this history and will want to know more,” says Matthew.

Next year, she intends to return to India to to reference other material available on Indian participation in World War II and also contact the families of the soldiers. “With the passing of time, recording these stories is more urgent than ever,” adds Matthew.

The Otolith Group: Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun I 50, 52
Work: O Horizon

In their film O Horizon, London-based artist collective The Otolith Group — comprising Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun — explore what they describe as “Tagorean cosmopolitics”. “The film considers the complexity of Rabindranath Tagore’s pioneering vision for Santiniketan,” says Eshun, introducing the 90-minute film that discusses Tagore’s ethos and his emphasis on communion with nature. The experimental modes of learning and interdisciplinary approach he introduced meant to promote modernism and socio-political awareness.

Kodwo Eshun, Anjalika Sagar, Otolith Group Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar of the Otolith Group. (Photo courtesy: Kochi-Muziris Biennale)

The duo begin their portrayal with Tagore’s famous poem The Year 1400, written in 1896, where the polymath imagines his words travelling through time to be read in the next century. It is this very “trans-historical dimension” that forms the premise of the film. Tagore’s approach to institution-building — what he envisioned and what exists — is discussed through a study of Santiniketan and its surrounding areas, where the artists researched and filmed over five years. “It aims to situate people in times and scales in which soils and trees are not only grounds for education but figures of education,” says Eshun.

Since the collective was established in 2002, it has attempted to present alternate realities by fictionalising history. Its first film Otolith 1 (2003) was set in the 22nd century and featured a future descendant of Sagar researching extinct life on earth through collected archives. If the film Otolith III (2009) was born from Satyajit Ray’s unrealised science-fiction film The Alien, the 31-minute long film Hydra Decapita (2010) linked the present of financial capitalism to historical atrocities by basing itself on electronic music duo Drexciya’s 1997 album The Quest, where an underwater country is populated with the descendants of Africans who drowned while being transported in slave ships across the Atlantic. “The idea is to create a zone in which historical figures and fictional figures communicate with each other,” says Eshun.

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