Katrina Neiburga and Andris Eglitis, Will-o’-the-Wisp

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale opened last December and closed at the end of March with the announcement of artist Anita Dube as the artistic director of the fourth Biennale—at last a woman in the role. I wrote about the second Biennale for Bad at Sports. While at the third Biennale in February, I sat down with Riyas Komu to hear his thoughts and ideas about what locals call “Our Biennale.”

Lise McKean weaves a visual essay into her interview with Riyas.

Nazia Khan, The Journey We Never Made, installation detail with Kochi harbor

Lise: Here we are, Riyas, sitting harbor side on the Biennale grounds at Aspinwall. I’m elated to be here in sunny Kochi again visiting with you and the other Biennaleans. I’d like to talk with you about the ways that the Biennale has evolved since its launch on 12/12/12, with Bose Krishnachari and you as its co-founders.

Riyas: Of course the biennale is metamorphic by design, and will change with each edition. But a lot of the credit for reaching at this stage goes to our team. We’ve got a fantastic team that supports everything that we do. They too have been learning while making the biennale. They have been fabulous and they have stayed very intact and very strong.

Lise: Do you mean that the team is largely the same since the first Biennale in 2012?

Riyas: Yes. And they have shown great wisdom in handling the pressure. But, if you go into the details of an exhibition like this, what one expects generally is how does it reach out to people? How does it make an entry into people’s minds? How does it educate the community about what is lacking in our system?

I think we’ve been able to address this over the past six years. We’ve done it carefully, and through the process of art making. That has to be emphasized because what we do here is the process of art making. In the first edition, we launched the project with idea of celebrating cosmopolitanism and Kochi and also connecting them back with Muziris.

Orijit Sen, Go Playces, entry to installation

Lise: So the Biennale celebrates cosmopolitanism as an important feature of Kerala’s heritage by linking it to the archeological site of the ancient seaport of Muziris.

Riyas: Yes, and not just by linking it. From its inception, the Biennale has been associated with the Pattanam excavation as well as the Kerala government’s Muziris Heritage Project. Artists at the Biennale have drawn materially and conceptually from these programmes. The idea of Muziris has motivated public conversations on migration, hospitality, trade, identity, etc. So in a way, the Biennale responds to—and perhaps even performs—its own archaeology.

Celebrating the idea of diversity is much needed in today’s context. The first Biennale became a site which celebrates all these aspects but at the same time it brought back Kerala’s history of social action. It became a site of art production. It became a site of engagement and conversations. In fact, it started doing a much-needed cultural acupuncture.

Lise: Cultural acupuncture. That’s a wonderful image. The Biennale as a means of exerting pressure on pivotal points in society.

Riyas: Pressure points for rejuvenating a whole system that lacks that kind of an ecosystem. I think we succeeded in doing that with the first edition. We were able to tell a story from Kochi about Kochi through an elaborate process of art making. And by inviting new travelers to Kochi. Instead of coming for the spice trade or other modes of interaction, now we have a new lot of artists landing on the shores of Kochi. That process has begun. With the first edition, we were successful in getting 400,000 visitors. It created the sense that it’s a people’s biennale. People’s curiosity was reflected in who came to see it.

PK Sadanadan, 12 Stories (of the 12 progeny), installation detail

Lise: People meaning especially the people of Kerala.

Riyasa: Yes, the people of Kerala and India. It’s a Biennale that you can touch and feel. While forming the Kochi Biennale Foundation we were adamant that this Biennale should remain an artist-led initiative. Jitish Kallat, the artistic director for the second Biennale, was able to build on what was built within that two years. With the second edition, we had around 94 artists from 30 countries.

Lise: And Jitish carried forward the theme of cosmopolitanism into the second Biennale, extending it from the earth to the universe.

Riyas: Yes, while the first edition was about Kochi and Muziris and the important legacy of building art, Jitish took advantage of that and did a story from Kochi. His Biennale was about telling narratives, telling your stories, seeing confidently and articulating from a site. His project was about looking at Kochi from a wider perspective. He discourses from Kochi with the new. For the second edition, we initiated the Students’ Biennale and Children’s Biennale projects as important outreach exhibitions.

When it comes to the third edition, we had Sudarshan Shetty as the artistic director, another artist who has a certain history of being very radical and very different in his approach towards art. He’s an artist who is interested in multi-disciplinary exercises and he’s brought that element into this Biennale. We have poets, novelists, writers. We have sculptors, installation artists, painters. We have film makers, theater personalities, cartoonists, mural makers. All kinds of people are in this Biennale engaging in a discourse.

Excerpt from Baroni: A Journey, novel by Sergio Chejfec in Biennale project, Dissemination of a Novel

Lise: Can you give some example of how Sudarshan put this into play over the course of the Biennale?

Riyas: You can see this in the way Sudharshan provoked the audience to explore a city through texts, graffiti, and even auto rikshaws. If you think visually Sudarshan had this novel wrapped around the city, and people used to follow this to explore the city.

Another important aspect that is the Students’ Biennale. It started out in 2014 with 37 art institutions. If the main Biennale makes an artist the curator, the Students’ Biennale is a process in educating the young generation to become curators and give opportunities to young aspiring artists to exhibit in Kochi. We selected 15 curators and appointed them 18 months before the opening.

While Sudharshan traveled the world to see art work, the 15 student curators traveled across India to 55 art institutions and selected 465 works by students that are exhibited in seven venues in Kochi. The Students’ Biennale is not just a process of selecting and exhibiting, it involves orientations, workshops, mentorship programs, and training.

Lise: The Students’ Biennale serves two important roles in that it encourages young artists by exhibiting their work and fosters a new generation of curators.

Riyas: Yes, it creates a new generation of curators plus gives a lot of confidence to young artists to continue with their art practice and remain as artists. It also gives them an opportunity to exhibit their works in parallel with major artists of the world.

Lise: Do the student artists whose work has been selected also come to the Biennale?

Riyas: One of the things that the Kochi Biennale Foundation does is insist that they be here while their works are installed, and also be a part of the Biennale. There is no point in them sitting somewhere and working if we don’t provide them a chance to interact with, and be a part of the exhibition. The idea is to initiate them into the larger art world and the process of art making, exhibiting, curating, etc. We provide financial assistance for all 465 student artists to come in batches and participate. Another aspect of the Students’ Biennale is its survey about the conditions where students are studying and amenities such as libraries and studio facilities.

Lise: Does this survey arise out of concern about the quality of art schools and their curriculum and facilities?

Riyas: That’s also one of our major concerns. It was first initiated as a survey into the way students across art colleges in India were thinking. It still is a survey, but now students in art colleges are thinking beyond what they are taught and are engaging with practices outside their own. I think the Biennale has given them a freedom to explore that the institutions themselves cannot provide at times.

It’s this concern that also drove us to initiate an annual project and launch the ABC program, Art by Children, in place of the Children’s Biennale. It’s a pilot project with 100 schools across Kerala and more than 5,000 children. It stems from the idea that we not only need art education but we also need arts in education. The ABC project is an investment by the Biennale Foundation in the future. When we were young, we didn’t see galleries or museums or art. The young, new, upcoming generation gets a chance to grow up with lot of art around them.

Lise: So ABC and the Biennale give children and youth in Kerala the chance to know such a world exists and opportunities to experience it.

Riyas: Yes, education is now a focus of the Biennale. We consistently try to educate from every angle. In an interview like this which may have a global readership, there’s another project I’d like to emphasize. It’s one of the most impressive of the Kerala government’s initiatives for women. It’s a women’s organization called Kudumbashree and it has 420,000 members.

Go Playces, installation detail

Lise: Kudumbashree is a giant in the social justice world for organizing women around empowerment and employment. How does it relate to the Biennale?

Riyas: This year in collaboration with Kudumbashree, we selected 45 women who have the inclination to make art. We brought them here for 10 days and gave them training in how to see the Biennale, how to understand works of art. They also did workshops with master artists. They’re returning to our Pepper House residency program later this year. They will stay here for a month and the government is supporting their travel, accommodation and expenses. They’re also giving them a grant to work. The works they produce will be collected by the government. Through initiatives and projects like these we hope to engage with the community more on a long-term basis.

Lise: In addition to being the Biennale’s co-founder, you’re the Director of Programmes. The program book shows a packed schedule of seminars, conferences, talks, performances, and films with participants from all over the world.

Riyas: We have been getting 100 people at these events. In the Biennale’s early weeks, we had 250 to 300 people. We also archive events and they’re available online so it reaches out to a larger audience. Artists’ Cinema is another important project. It screens a film every evening during the Biennale. Artists’ Cinema tries to break the boundaries between genres of cinema. Video art, experimental films, short films, documentaries, and fiction—everything is shown.

Lise: I’ve noticed also over the years very substantial improvements to the Biennale’s buildings and facilities.

Riyas: That’s also part of the process. We have become more confident and we now have access to better financial resources. It also depends on the curator. What kind of structural design he wants as an exhibition design.

Lise: I understand that the Biennale’s vision includes preservation of neglected historic buildings. In fact, the location of the Biennale is tied to that vision.

Riyas: That’s very much so. What the Biennale is doing is that it’s turning old disused buildings into spaces which can show and exhibit art. Other people are also exploring these spaces and converting them into art cafes, and galleries and cultural spaces. In fact, at the opening ceremony, the Chief Minister of Kerala announced that they are trying to work on having a permanent venue for the Biennale. We hope that the Biennale finds such a venue.

Tony Joseph, Biennale Pavillion in Cabral Yard

Lise: Another of the Biennale’s venues is Cabral Yard. It was much less built up in the first two editions and was a haven of trees and earthen constructions.

Riyas: This year we wanted to make an intervention, an art project itself. Sudharshan invited the Kerala architect Tony Joseph build a pavilion to accommodate our programs, including cinema, performances, the talk series. It’s not just designed. It’s an artwork and an argument for cultural centers that can accommodate many types of practice. This pavilion becomes another message to our system that we need to cultivate spaces like this. The whole approach in making that space is for it to be a model for any city in Kerala.

Kerala doesn’t have the kind of cultural centers that can have a coffee shop, a reading room, a children’s workshop space, a library, a film screening space, an auditorium. We tried to kind of put everything together into it. It’s a statement.

Tom Burkhardt, Studio Flood, installation view [upside down is intended orientation ]

Lise: The Biennale is a political act in that it shows how to make what is needed.

Riyas: And it not only moves people to action, but it also creates spaces that challenge the archaic ways of thinking of institutions here. The whole exercise of the Biennale, why we are aggressively involved in the education process, is to put pressure on the system. We are demanding as citizens that we need more art, we need more discourses, we need more art production.

Biennale Collateral Projects

Lise: What you’ve told me has really clarified how intentional the Biennale is about being a tactic to sustain pressure on the government to support art and art making—and public access to them.

Riyas:  In post-independent India, this project is very unique in where it derives support. It has gotten very strong support from the local government, which has a strong conviction in what the Biennale is doing. It is interested in the politics of the Biennale and stands by that. It knows that this is a project which unifies the community and celebrates the community’s history. At the same time, we’ve been able to bring artists from other countries and get support from those countries because they have strong relationships, one way or the other, with a place like Kochi. It’s a unique scenario where artists, cultural organizations, and individuals support it. Bureaucrats and politicians support it. And the locals support it.

Lise: This broad-based support is also evidence of the widespread need and desire for something like this. How about telling us what the Foundation is thinking about for the future? Where is the Biennale going?

Riyas: The Foundation is committed to expanding its educational initiatives. We are going to invest lot in the Art by Children ABC project and are in conversation with the government of Kerala’s education and finance ministers.

Painting by Art by Children ABC participant

Lise: Is the integration of art education into the school system part of the Foundation’s vision? In the US, arts education is waning in public schools. Its funding is increasingly cut and fewer and fewer students have access to it in public schools. Privately funded arts education organizations do not have the capacity to meet the growing need.

Riyas: India spends 0.13% on culture in comparison with 17% on defense. Where will the country go? What kind of support system is there? You can say put pressure on the NGOs or corporations with corporate social responsibility. That’s what America is also trying to do. I would say that’s actually moving away from responsibility. Unlike there, the government of Kerala is becoming a model state. It’s taking responsibility. It has realized that art and culture are among the biggest areas they have to focus on. That’s what is going to liberate people from their confusion. I salute this government for that.

Lise: Are you saying that despite changes in government officials and politicians, the Kerala government continuously has supported the Biennale from its beginning?

Riyas: The Kerala government has been very consistent. We have received support from the state government irrespective of government changes. The Chief Minister comes and inaugurates it. They love it. It’s a project which brings glory to this nation. But it’s very tragic that the Government of India’s central ministry is not interested. It’s not even sending a delegation to see a project of this scale, which has the participation of 31 countries.

Christer Lundahl and Martina Seitl, Symphony of a Missing Room – An Imagined Museum

Lise:  Is this an example of Delhi’s myopia? Or is it something else?

Riyas:  I think it’s the lack of vision. And the Government’s priority is bringing in large-scale infrastructural projects. They have a “Make in India” campaign, but they ignore everything that’s made in India.

Lise: Maybe this lack of vision is also a political statement.

Riyas:  I don’t think it’s an intentional statement. It’s just a continuation of the way we have been doing things over the past few decades. We have not cultivated very strong cultural institutions. Whatever we have are in a very bad condition. They don’t have the vision to understand what soft power can do in a country like India. If a visionary government thinks that “make in India” is a commercial proposal, they should try to understand—in cultural terms through ideas of innovative design—how to trigger more creative ways of involving others to come and make things in India.

Printmaking workshop with Background Civilization

Lise: Each edition of the Kochi Biennale is an impressive collective act of making and displays the vast resources of creativity in India and beyond.

Riyas: The Biennale asks, what makes the making interesting?

Lise McKean

Lise McKean is a writer, editor, and anthropologist based in Chicago.