Perhaps one of the most powerful political artists in India, Riyas Komu’s oeuvre has always been rooted in reality. Whether it is depicting the 2008 Mumbai terror attack (Last Pass), dealing with 9/11 (Tragedy of a Carpenter’s Son III) or the war in Iraq (Watching the Other World Spirits from the Gardens of Babylon), the Mumbai-based artist’s works reflect the disquiet around. Komu, along with his co-founder of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Bose Krishnamachari, was ranked 86 in the 2015 “Power 100” list of most influential people in the contemporary art world compiled by leading international art magazine, ArtReview. With his new series, On International Workers’ Day, Gandhi from Kochi, the 43-year-old hopes to initiate a discourse by placing the history of violence against the man who stood for non-violence. One of his panels, which has a smiling Mahatma Gandhi painted on a red background, was recently on display at the India Habitat Center in Delhi. In this interview, Komu talks about the line between faith and fundamentalism, his interest in politics and setting up the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
Your image of Gandhi painted on a red backdrop is unusual. What made you paint this particular photograph of him? I believe it is a 1931 photograph of him on the boat to London.
In one of his speeches, Gandhi had described Kochi as a “Land of Adventurers”. At the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, this was one of the inspiring quotes that historians referred to. There was a lot of support that we got from Kochi, its workers. As a tribute to them, I wanted to associate Gandhi with them and celebrate their willingness to accept change.
Also, I felt this was the right moment to talk about Gandhi. He stands for many arguments in the present times. I juxtapose Swaraj with Control, Satya with Perception. The background is blood red, a martyr’s red. Gandhi here is a symbol of hope, of resistance, of fearlessness.
Some members of the Congress party said you were maligning Gandhi.
That reaction came from ignorance. In fact, most problems occur because of ignorance, because people are not informed.
The same show also had Stoned Goddesses that did not go down well with the Right — lithography blocks (used by Raja Ravi Varma) that document the violent history of India’s past. I believe you wanted to show them at the Vadodara Festival this year, but withdrew later.
Sometime back I got a call from Rupika Chawla (curator), saying there were litho stones of Raja Ravi Varma that I could work on. I use the same surface that he used to depict gods to look at issues that have consistently created a conflict in the Indian landscape. As an artist, I feel responsible to archive our present. I wanted to show them at Vadodara, but the organisers cited logistical reasons due to which they could not be accommodated. As an artist, I want to take my work to an audience that is conflicted, to initiate a discourse.
Do you feel you may not get a chance to archive later?
When there is fear, all my faculties come alive. When someone tries to pull us down, then there is a rising. Look at how people are protesting, returning their awards. Most Indians want to live in a diverse society. But there is also extreme passion towards religion and godly things. It’s a sensitive space for anyone who wants to use this space.
Can art and politics occupy completely separate spaces?
As an artist, you strive to educate society through history. Politics should also be more informed. For the past six months, I have been working on a project where I’m carving Nandalal Bose’s drawings that he made for the Constitution. Here is an artist who contributed to the making of the Indian Constitution, which talks of free speech.
You have been involved in politics too. Your father once stood for Assembly elections as an independent candidate.
My father’s brother was into active politics—he was known as Comrade Abdullah. My father left the Communist party after it split. When he stood for elections as an independent candidate in 1986, I helped with the campaign. I was known as an artist in the villages around; I used to paint on walls, I even made posters for my father.
Soon after you came to Mumbai in 1991, the Babri Masjid demolition and the Mumbai riots took place.
I had applied to the National Institute of Design (Ahmedabad) but was rejected, so I came to Mumbai. It was a time when there were peace movements being held, there were historians arguing against manipulation. It is then that I decided not to pursue textile design, which I originally intended to. I started archiving the times that I lived in. I found a resource in my skill.
One of your earliest large exhibitions, Faith Accompli (2005) questioned blind faith. You later added, the giant wood work, My Father’s Balcony, that had space for all faiths and beliefs. How would you revisit these works?
When I did the show in Delhi, My Father’s Balcony was not part of it. The show provoked several questions, one of which was why I use religious symbolisms to address contemporary anarchy in the system. I decided to address the issue at a much more personal level. I called it My Father’s Balcony — it covered almost all kinds of religious beliefs which I have experienced in my early years, the multi-religious ethnicity, where people coexisted.
Has the Kochi-Muziris Biennale affected your studio practice?
It has kept me away from studio practice, but I have learnt a lot in these five years. I have understood the art world better too, the best learning comes from people. Now, we are developing a massive project titled “Show History” that comes from anecdotes, people coming up to us and asking us to explain the works.