India Today - - INSIDE - BY CHINKI SINHA Pho­tographs by BANDEEP SINGH

Sig­nalling a fem­i­nist makeover of our artscape, more than half the artists at the Kochi-Muziris Bi­en­nale are women

“Give it to the women”

—Anita Dube, cu­ra­tor, Kochi-Muziris Bi­en­nale

At the Aspin­wall House in Fort Kochi, you cross a dark hall to emerge into the light and come face to face with a col­lage that is a mix of po­etry, text and minia­ture paint­ing. Ti­tled ‘Salam Chechi’, the work is artist Nil­ima Sheikh’s ode to the Malay­ali nurse.

In one frame, against an in­tense blue back­ground is an out­line of a girl and a hospi­tal bed in stark white.

“It could be me,” says Sheikh. In­deed, there is a touch of the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, a por­trait of the artist as a young girl. She would of­ten ac­com­pany her doc­tor fa­ther to hospi­tal, sketch­book in hand. It is where she learnt to paint suf­fer­ing.

In an­other frame, a woman is shown be­ing tended to by two nurses. She is a vic­tim of do­mes­tic abuse. The words of poet-nurse Con­stance Studer flow along­side:

“…an ad­mis­sion ar­rives do­mes­tic abuse we know this woman well the ER nurse says.

We cou­ple the frag­ile woman To bub­bling tubes and catheters And mon­i­tors un­con­scious, Fine skin with deeply in­cised by both eyes…”

The panel in the mid­dle has a woman sup­ported by two nurses on ei­ther side while a third stands on the side with a drip. “That im­age is in­ter­est­ing,” says Sheikh, “be­cause it is very dear to me. There is a fa­mous 15th cen­tury fresco by Fra An­gelico of a man and woman sup­port­ing Mary. I have used that im­age as a ref­er­ence but changed it to two women to make it about fe­male sup­port and fem­i­nine bond­ing.” A Bar­oda-based artist who has al­ways been fas­ci­nated with the tra­di­tional In­dian art forms, Sheikh was the open­ing artist at the fourth edi­tion of the Kochi-Muziris bi­en­nale this year. Her work at the bi­en­nale might have been about Ker­ala nurses, but was of a piece with the themes she en­gages in: dis­place­ment, long­ing, his­tor­i­cal lin­eage, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and the ideas of fem­i­nin­ity.


This could well be In­dia’s first fem­i­nist bi­en­nale, much as Maria de Cor­ral and Rosa Martinez’s cu­ra­tion of the Venice Bi­en­nale in 2005 came to be her­alded as the world’s first fem­i­nist bi­en­nale. More than half of the 95 artists cho­sen for the bi­en­nale this year are women, sig­nalling a shift in the In­dian artscape. In­dia’s fore­most art ex­hibit this year is a cel­e­bra­tion of the marginalised, es­pe­cially women, who have been un­der-rep­re­sented in art so far. Gen­der in­forms their work, of course, but it also goes beyond gen­der to ad­dress other is­sues such as cli­mate change, the agrar­ian cri­sis, en­vi­ron­ment and labour.

It hasn’t been easy for Anita Dube, co-founder and mem­ber of the KHOJ In­ter­na­tional Artists’ As­so­ci­a­tion, and the first woman cu­ra­tor of the KMB. First, the #MeToo move­ment rocked the In­dian art world too when KMB co-founder and pro­gramme di­rec­tor Riyas Komu faced al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual mis­con­duct and stepped down from all of­fi­cial po­si­tions. Pro­duc­tion took a fur­ther hit with the dev­as­tat­ing floods in Ker­ala. Amidst all the chaos, Dube kept at it, to make real the “pos­si­bil­i­ties for a non-alien­ated life”, the cu­ra­to­rial vi­sion for the bi­en­nale. “At the heart of my cu­ra­to­rial ad­ven­ture lies a de­sire for lib­er­a­tion and com­rade­ship (away from the mas­ter and slave model) where the pos­si­bil­i­ties for a non-alien­ated life could spill into a ‘pol­i­tics of friend­ship’. Where plea­sure and ped­a­gogy could sit to­gether and share a drink, and where we could dance and sing and cel­e­brate a dream to­gether,” her cu­ra­to­rial note reads. “I haven’t seen this kind of in­clu­sive ex­pres­sion of women’s con­cerns and it is a mar­vel­lous step,” Sheikh says about the cu­ra­tion.


In an­other room in Aspin­wall House, a clus­ter of 300-odd rusted iron sick­les crawl along the ground and climb up the wall. They are part of Shamb­havi Singh’s ‘Maati Ma’ in­stal­la­tion. The so­cial and meta­phys­i­cal con­di­tion of the agri­cul­tural worker has long been this Delhi-based artist’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion, ex­pressed var­i­ously through the in­stru­ments of the agri­cul­tural work­ers’labour: the hasiya (sickle) and re­hat (Per­sian wheel). And the farmer, for Singh, most of­ten is a woman, her thumb im­pres­sion “a metaphor and ac­tu­al­ity of the real trans­fer of land, of liveli­hood, of sus­te­nance, of de­spair, of the ul­ti­mate mi­gra­tion”.

Born in Patna in 1966, Singh draws her in­spi­ra­tion, metaphors and tools from the dark and un­for­giv­ing land­scape of her state, the protests such as after the 1975 floods of Bi­har, and the tri­umphs of its peo­ple over ad­ver­sity. The rusted iron sick­les, sieves and gi­ant fans are at once a sym­bol of the state of her state—raw and rusted—and of strength and re­gen­er­a­tion. An in­verted sickle could be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of suf­fer­ing, of a farmer’s bent back. Or of Shakti, as epit­o­mised by the god­dess


Kali. Singh has al­ways been drawn to the dark de­ity, an em­bod­i­ment of the eter­nal fem­i­nine pow­ers of cre­ation and de­struc­tion. Kali’s anger and ca­pa­bil­ity for vi­o­lence are man­i­fest in her use of the sickle. “This in­evitabil­ity of vi­o­lence in the face of evil has al­ways in­trigued me,” she says.

The woman’s point of view, Singh be­lieves, is ready to pre­vail. From the mun­dane and the ev­ery­day will rise the chal­lenge to es­tab­lished norms, pa­tri­archy, lead­ing to free­dom. The trans­for­ma­tion, she is cer­tain, is nigh.


Al­ready, In­dian women artists are mak­ing their pres­ence felt in the niche mu­se­ums and art gal­leries of the world. “How many women had one-per­son ex­hi­bi­tions at NYC mu­se­ums last year?” The Guer­rilla Girls have been ask­ing that ques­tion since 1985. Ask that ques­tion in the South Asian con­text, and you find that, be­fore 2013, nei­ther the Met nor the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art (MoMA) nor the Guggen­heim had fea­tured a solo ex­hi­bi­tion by a South Asian woman. Last sum­mer, Ran­jani Shet­tar’s in­stal­la­tion, ‘Seven Ponds and a Few Rain­drops’, was shown at MoMA.

The year 2018 has been bet­ter, with sev­eral ex­hi­bi­tions by In­dian women artists, be it Mithu Sen, who works with sex­u­al­ity and sub­ver­sion, or Bharti Kher, who main­tains that it is up to women to come for­ward and chal­lenge the pa­tri­archy with their work, or the anony­mous Princess Pea, a fla­neur try­ing to doc­u­ment the ex­pe­ri­ences of in­vis­i­ble, un­known women.

In the coastal town of Kochi, it’s too hot to wear the guer­rilla masks bought at Hal­loween stores in New York. Frida Kahlo is tired. Kathy Koll­witz, in green rimmed glasses, is more en­thu­si­as­tic.

“You have seen us with with­out our masks,” she says.

A big deal, as anonymity is the calling card of this shift­ing col­lec­tive of artivists formed in 1985. Frida and Kathy are orig­i­nal mem­bers of the Amer­i­can soror­ity that has around 60 mem­bers to­day. Over the years, the stick­ers and posters the Guer­rilla Girls have used in their cam­paigns have made their way into Tate Mod­ern’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion. Their protest ma­te­rial has also been show­cased at the Venice Bi­en­nale. This year, they were guests at the Dube-cu­rated bi­en­nale.

On the stage in Cabral Yard, the two women in go­rilla masks threw ba­nanas at the au­di­ence. It was part of their per­for­ma­tive talk. The au­di­ence broke into peals of laugh­ter. The metaphor was hard to miss, the au­dac­ity in­fec­tious.

A bunch of women and men took the mic and spoke about “the ele­phant in the room”—the al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment by two se­nior artists as­so­ci­ated with the bi­en­nale. A night be­fore, they had con­vened to ask the KMB board to an­swer ques­tions. At the end, cu­ra­tor Anita Dube took the mic.

“This is a space for in­sur­rec­tion,” she said. “Ev­ery­thing you con­sid­ered in­fal­li­ble and sa­cred can be ques­tioned.”


It was in the 1970s that fem­i­nist per­spec­tives in art emerged from a com­bi­na­tion of po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism in the con­tem­po­rary art world. While


women’s sta­tus in so­ci­ety con­tin­ued to be a sub­ject of end­less de­bate, the In­dian art world wit­nessed a revo­lu­tion of its own with women artists us­ing the “fem­i­nist aes­thetic” to ex­plore their so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity and find­ing a per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal vo­cab­u­lary. Ear­lier this year, Kunstmuseum Wolfs­burg in Ger­many cu­rated an ex­hi­bi­tion, Fac­ing In­dia, that fea­tured six women artists from In­dia ex­plor­ing the past, present and fu­ture from the fe­male per­spec­tive. Bharti Kher melted 10 tonnes of ban­gles to make glass bricks to build a room. She called it ‘The Deaf Room’.

En­ter Pep­per House in Kochi, turn left and you find your­self in a li­brary lined with grey shelves. Ex­cept one cor­ner. Here, on neon pink shelves Sis­ter Out­sider, a book by black fem­i­nist les­bian Lorde shares space with a book of po­ems by Emily Dick­in­son. They are among the hun­dred books by women au­thors that form part of the ‘Sis­ter Li­brary’, a trav­el­ling li­brary con­cep­tu­alised and mounted by artist and ac­tivist Aqui Thami. The bright pink shelves are a stark con­trast to their grey coun­ter­parts, an ex­clu­sive space for women.

Orig­i­nally from Dar­jeel­ing, but now liv­ing in Mum­bai, Thami calls her­self a ‘gen­der abo­li­tion­ist’. “In a world where women are told there’s re­ally no point in study­ing too much,

not only have we been kept away from spa­ces where knowl­edge is pro­duced but also from shar­ing and gen­er­at­ing knowl­edge. This epis­temic hi­er­ar­chy needs to be bro­ken, and li­braries play a very huge part in it,” she says in an e-mail. Her e-mail id—iloveread­ing­women—re­flects her ap­proach of us­ing li­braries as a means of in­ter­ven­tion to chal­lenge the het­eropa­tri­ar­chal world. “Both pub­lic in­ter­ven­tion and self­pub­lish­ing in my prac­tice emerge from a need to re­claim and change,” she says.

Why pink? “The colour has lost its po­si­tion as a colour of strength and is now as­so­ci­ated with weak­ness and fem­i­nin­ity. Hav­ing the li­brary in pink is my at­tempt to re­claim the colour. I call it the Sis­ter Li­brary be­cause it is for all my sis­ters ev­ery­where,” Thami says.

Thami is also the co-founder of com­mu­nity spa­ces like the Dhar­avi Art Room in Mum­bai and the Bom­bay Un­der­ground, an artists’ col­lec­tive that stands for art, ex­pres­sion and cre­ative so­cial ex­change and is ded­i­cated to cel­e­brat­ing the un­doc­u­mented, the un­der­ground, the lost, the for­got­ten.

Thami says she be­lieves in cre­at­ing art that is grounded in the act of ‘do­ing’ and ad­dresses po­lit­i­cal/so­cial is­sues. “The core of my art prac­tice is heal­ing as I work with ex­pe­ri­ences of marginal­i­sa­tion and re­silience—my own and that of the peo­ple I work in col­lab­o­ra­tion with,” she adds.

The books in ‘Sis­ter Li­brary’ are ex­clu­sively works by women, a mix of fic­tion, non-fic­tion, aca­demic writ­ing, comics, zines, pe­ri­od­i­cals, com­mu­nity news, protest leaflets, etc. They of­fer a glimpse into the per­cep­tion of the women who have used writ­ing as a way of shar­ing, she says.

The li­brary is a po­lit­i­cal state­ment that ad­dresses gen­der vi­o­lence and in­jus­tices in order to change things. “The arts, like ev­ery­thing else, have been in­flu­enced by the world we live in where works of women are not val­ued. The only so­lu­tion to this prob­lem is to be mind­ful of the prob­lem and al­low for a fair rep­re­sen­ta­tion,” she says. “Also a side­note to all the women in po­si­tions of power, lift your sis­ters up.”


In a semi-dark room, voices whis­per next to you and then jump to an­other speaker and then an­other. You strain to hear the words in the strange med­i­ta­tive si­lence in­ter­rupted by whis­pered shards of po­etry. It is a land­scape of sheets of pa­per, mi­cro­phones, mem­ory, de­sire and op­pres­sion.

And then an­other whis­per: “Where is love? Out­side this world?”

You are in the mid­dle of artist Shilpa Gupta’s work, ‘For, In Your Tongue, I Can Not Fit: 100 Jailed Poets’. In­spired by an­other project, ‘Some­one Else, 100 Books’, writ­ten anony­mously and un­der pseu­do­nyms. The work on show­case in Kochi uses ex­cerpts from po­ems writ­ten by poets who served time in prison.

Some­where among them, Allen Gins­berg whis­pers:

“And be kind to the poor soul that cries in a crack of the pave­ment be­cause he has no body...”

“Dur­ing the re­search,” says Gupta, “I found that the books of one of my favourite au­thors, Prem­c­hand, were burnt and he had to deal with im­po­si­tions by the regime, in­clud­ing be­ing charged with sedi­tion. I came across the Turk­ish writer Aziz Nesin, who had chal­lenged the right wing and their vi­o­lence against him. I started look­ing at mo­ments when words caused dis­com­fort—to those who sought to re­strict imag­i­na­tion through the mo­bil­ity of a writer. This, along with the chang­ing at­mos­phere in In­dia, which has been turn­ing re­stric­tive, with lib­eral thinkers, writ­ers and film­mak­ers be­ing tar­geted, first trig­gered this work and I be­came in­ter­ested in the power of words and the ner­vous­ness around it felt by those in power.”

Born in Mum­bai in 1976, Gupta grad­u­ated from the Sir JJ School of Fine Arts in Mum­bai in 1997. She works with found ob­jects, pho­tog­ra­phy, video, in­ter­ac­tive com­puter-based in­stal­la­tion and per­for­mance. In her pre­vi­ous works, she has used body hair, marks on the skin or given women pieces of cloth to stain with men­strual blood and used them in her work. “Be­ing a woman does in­form one’s prac­tice,” she ac­knowl­edges. “It makes one more con­scious to the act of lis­ten­ing which is what the work in Kochi is also about.”


For too long, to bor­row Marx­ist ter­mi­nol­ogy, cap­i­tal­ism’s an­nex­a­tion of women’s bod­ies has done a dis­ser­vice to the gen­der. To­gether, women at the bi­en­nale are re­claim­ing their space, through con­fronta­tion and ac­com­mo­da­tion. There is an au­dac­ity to that hope that the mar­ket will adapt, mak­ing room for par­al­lel and al­ter­na­tive dis­courses. Dube’s bi­en­nale en­vis­ages a fu­ture for art with women at the fore­front. We could be on the thresh­old of a rad­i­cal re­order­ing of the pa­tri­ar­chal world order.


‘SALAM CHECHI’ The open­ing artist at the bi­en­nale, Nil­ima Sheikh’s work is an ode to the Malay­ali nurse

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