A FEMINIST BIENNALE
MORE THAN HALF THE ARTISTS AT THE KOCHI-MUZIRIS BIENNALE THIS YEAR WERE WOMEN, SETTING THE STAGE FOR A FEMINIST MAKEOVER OF THE INDIAN ARTSCAPE
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
BEFORE 2013, NEITHER THE MET NOR MoMA NOR GUGGENHEIM HAD FEATURED A SOLO EXHIBITION BY A SOUTH ASIAN WOMAN
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
EARLIER THIS YEAR, KUNSTMUSEUM WOLFSBURG IN GERMANY CURATED AN EXHIBITION, ‘FACING INDIA’, THAT FEATURED SIX WOMEN ARTISTS FROM INDIA
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.
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