Art in the marketplace: how the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is driving interests worldwide


It took less than a decade for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale to become a top international art destination. As the 2018-19 edition draws to a close, The Hindu looks at the inclusive, artist-driven Kochi model that is driving interest among art institutions worldwide

Early evening is the best time to walk down the narrow streets of Mattancherry island in Ernakulam, Kerala. The March sun is no longer relentlessly harsh and the sea breeze has set in, but the streets that are lined with wholesale traders in spice, tea and antiques are quiet and have still to shake off the drowsiness of the afternoon. The tallest building in sight, which is one-storeyed like several others but with a high tiled roof, is in ruins, but then ruins are an essential part of the artscape here. The paint has chipped off to expose the bricks on the outer wall, window frames hang precariously, and the sun streams in through large sections of missing tiles on the roof where pigeons flutter, revealing the inches of bird droppings that have collected over years on the floor.

It’s the disused Kadavumbagam synagogue which was built in the 14th century — empty liquor bottles at the entrance revealing its main use now — and one of the sites of Meydad Eliyahu and Thoufeek Zakriya’s public art project, ‘Red Crown, Green Parrot’. This is a collateral show by Fort Kochi’s Kashi Art Gallery at the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Eliyahu, who is 36 and currently lives in Jerusalem, is the third generation descendant of his family settled in Israel after they left their home in the island’s Jew Town neighbourhood in the 1950s. Says curator Tanya Abraham, 45, “Curious about his ancestry, he had come here with his father a few years ago, and that’s when he heard him speak in Malayalam for the first time.”

Art in the marketplace: how the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is driving interests worldwide

Art that breathes life

The project, a continuation of the curatorial project ‘Box of Documents’ that Eliyahu had shown at Fort Kochi during the last biennale (it looked at what emigrating Malabari Jews may have left behind) is built on sentimental value. The idea is simple: to provoke dialogue by using as canvasses, the walls of historical sites that evoke forgotten memories and lives. This includes the Tekkumbagam synagogue (a 10-minute walk from the Kadavumbagam synagogue), which has now made way for a commercial enterprise and the tombs (in an interior residential street) of Cochin Kabbalist and poet Nehemiah Ben Abraham Mota and his sister, that are freshly painted a pale green, and where candles are lit by people of all religions in the hope their wishes will be granted.

The Kochi Biennale essentially rejects the idea of the white cube or the exhibition of art in a sterile space enclosed by white walls and artificial lighting. Its location, in the twin towns of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, allows this particular aesthetic to flourish. Says Abraham, “Imagine seeing all this art in a five-star hotel environment instead.”

All this art includes 94 projects by Indian and international artists that form a part of the core biennale curated by artist Anita Dube; 109 projects that are a part of the Student’s Biennale, the Kochi Biennale Foundation’s art education programme in collaboration with the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art; eight gallery-driven collateral projects; many others not officially listed by the Biennale; and scores of graffiti art, mostly by talented local artists. All these have truly transformed the islands into art centres.

If there’s one thing that has led to the Kochi Biennale becoming an important international art destination in less than a decade, it is this — the location. Says artist and also the founder and president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF), Bose Krishnamachari, “Nowhere else did we find the multiculturalism of Fort Kochi. More than 44 communities co-exist here. It’s a secular world and was ideal for the Biennale.”

In its previous edition in 2016-17, a satellite venue was Kottappuram fort in Kodungallur, a key site of the Muziris Heritage Project, which works towards the rediscovery and conservation of the ancient harbour that led to interactions with Persians, Arabs, the Chinese and others. The biennale’s own venues in this former thriving trade centre include 17th century Dutch bungalows and derelict warehouses that have been loaned to it. Businessman and collector Abhishek Poddar’s Museum of Art and Photography, which will open its 42,000 sq ft exhibition space in Bengaluru next year, has acquired one such deserted warehouse, which, for this edition, functions as a new site-specific project space.

building with graffitti, at Fort Cochin

building with graffitti, at Fort Cochin   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

In Anand Warehouse, once a trading point in food grains by its Gujarati owners — the smell of spices now stings your nose — Maharashtrian artist Prabhakar Pachpute shows ‘Resilient Bodies in the Era of Resistance’, two large-sized charcoal and plywood cut-out works inspired by the agrarian crisis in India. In one, a large group of farmers stands inside gunny sacks, shaped like volcanoes about to burst. Deeper into Mattancherry is TKM Warehouse, exhibiting the Srinagar Biennale curated by artist Veer Munshi. Next to the waters of Kochi, the audience is transported to keenly feel the tragedy that is unfolding in the Kashmir Valley — whether it be in Sanna Mattoo’s video of an old gravedigger speaking of the unidentified martyrs he has buried, or Ehtisham Azhar’s song for the butcher, visually depicted in a row of sheepskin hanging on the wall.

So aged is the entire area that trees lay claim to any and all unused spots, sprouting roots through the cracks, wrapping themselves around walls. For the organisers, preparing for the four-month event every two years means, first and foremost, to make structural reinforcements in these spaces that otherwise stay locked up. Yet, the intervention is minimal, allowing artists the freedom to engage with the architecture and its history. Says Gautam Das, assistant director of programmes at the KBF, “The Venice Biennale spends so much to keep its venue looking rundown. It’s organic here.”

Fort Kochi, which is reached by a ferry ride that costs ₹4 or by road over the bridge connecting it to Ernakulam, has always been a part of the Fort Kochi-Allapuzha-Munnar-Thekkady tourist map. It presents a different vibe from the chaos of the main city, which the Biennale has exploited to its advantage. Says Pooja Sood, director of the Khoj International Artists Association, “Fort Kochi, much like Venice (there’s that comparison again), is an amazing site for a biennale. It’s walkable, you have good food, the backwaters, you can go on a holiday, get Ayurvedic massages. And there’s also the art.” The association is curating the Pune Biennale that opens this December, mining the city’s rich social and political history.

Unusual for an exhibition of art, usually an elitist enterprise, the Kochi Biennale brings in international and domestic travellers, as well as large numbers from within Kerala. This year, a month before the Biennale closes on March 29, the number of visitors had touched 4.4 lakh. In the previous edition there were 5.82 lakh visitors. As Bose explains, in the six months it stands, the Venice Biennale, the oldest and one of the most prestigious such events, attracts a far lower number (2.75 lakh visitors in its 2018 edition) than Kochi gets in four months.

The close connection between the Biennale and the State’s tourism and the impact of the former on the local economy is now a matter of record. A report by audit firm KPMG released in 2017 studied how the Biennale, “a crowd-puller”, has increased the revenues of hotels and homestays, local vendors and the transport industry, as well as helped create jobs. At Cabral Yard, an official venue for the Biennale’s workshops, talks, curated artist cinema and music programmes, Kudumbashree, a network of women’s self-help groups in Kerala, has a cafe that serves Kerala specialty meals and snacks.

They were doing business of about ₹40,000-45,000 a day, says Mary Peter, micro-enterprises consultant with the group, till March beginning when the school examination season led to a fall in domestic visitors and halved their income. This, when the same space included Edible Archives, a Biennale participant that explored its interest in indigenous varieties of rice by serving specially curated meals.

Peddling culture

Culture tourism has proved so lucrative that “experiential travel companies” such as Silk Route Escapes now create packages that combine tours of the Biennale venues along with a peep into the multiculturalism of the islands. This is done through walks to historical sites, a cafe where the Dutch cake, Breudher, gets made, a Gujarati sweetshop and even through its music, from the home of a Carnatic vocalist to a concert by the Mehboob Memorial Orchestra, a group of ghazal and qawwali enthusiasts (the music arrived in the island with the Dakhni Muslims, a Sunni Islamic community from Hyderabad) with an interest in playback singers Mohammad Rafi and H. Mehboob. The group began in the 1980s as an evening club of local residents, some working in seafood industries, others as headload workers in warehouses. Mostly retired now, they are also a key part of the Biennale’s Art & Medicine programme, and have curated some 260 weekly concerts at the General Hospital in Ernakulam.

Art in the marketplace: how the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is driving interests worldwide

This season, a loss of tourism revenue due to the devastating floods in Kerala in 2018 had Fort Kochi pinning its hopes on the Biennale to trigger a revival. In Fort Kochi, which itself was unaffected by the floods, occupancy in homestays had dropped by at least 60%, says K.A. Ashkar, managing director of the homestay, Fort Bridge View, and an executive member of the Homestay Owners Welfare Association. The floods had also led the State government to announce the cancellation of funds to cultural events, but it’s telling that the Kochi Biennale was excluded from this. In fact, in a nod to the economic benefit to the State from the Biennale, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in December announced that starting from 2021, the art event would alternate with a design biennale at the venue.

“Not every city can have a biennale,” says Sood, explaining why other art events may not have met with the same measure of success. The contrast between the two biennales is stark. The Pune Biennale, too, is in its fourth edition, but it is yet to achieve the scale or the reach that Kochi has managed in such a short time. Besides, the fact that it doesn’t boast of an enviable location such as Fort Kochi, it neither gets the kind of State support nor has the budget that Kochi can now boast of. Where Pune functions on a budget of ₹2 crore — less than half of the ₹5 crore the Kerala government gave Kochi in 2010 when planning its first edition — the KBF’s budget for 2018-19 has risen to ₹25-27 crore.

Exploring the Kochi model

In December 2018, when the latest edition opened, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale also hosted the International Biennale Association’s general assembly. At this, Bose Krishnamachari, was included as the IBA director. Speakers included Yuko Hasegawa, the chief curator of Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Also gathered were international art community members from Manifesta, the Aichi Triennale, the Sydney Biennale and the Gwangju Biennale, among others. In the December art calendar, says Bose, there is the Miami Art Basel fair and then Kochi. It’s not just the art bringing in representatives from well-known international art institutions here. They are also here to study what’s now being referred to as the ‘Kochi model’ of the Biennale.

There are over 300 biennales in the world, but a number of factors make Kochi unique. The fact, for instance, that it is an artist-run and supported event, unlike other such institutions managed by art administrators or the State.

Says CPI(M) leader M.A. Baby, who was State Culture Minister in 2010 when the idea of Biennale took shape, “It was important that a project of this magnitude be undertaken by the artists themselves.” Baby was crucial to the project. In May 2010, when he was in Mumbai, he’d given Bose a call. At the dinner that followed, where artists Riyas Komu, T.V. Santhosh and Jyothi Basu were also present, Baby asked them what they could offer to Kerala. The seed was planted that night.

Says Baby, “We wanted to insulate it from unhealthy political intervention and make sure that the change of political guard did not affect it. Those were two precautions we were able to take.” Such bureaucratic hassles, Bose points out, are the reason why the Lalit Kala Akademi’s Triennale, a landmark international art event conceptualised by Mulk Raj Anand that was first held in 1968, fell apart. It has held 11 shows so far, the last in 2005 — though there are now plans to revive it and hold the 12th edition next year.

Yet, right before the Kochi Biennale’s first edition in 2012 curated by founding members Bose and Komu could materialise, it met with its first big hurdle. There were charges flung at them: of a misappropriation of funds, criticism of the arts being prioritised over development by the State, and of “outsiders” being privileged — though Bose and Komu are both from Kerala, they are based in Mumbai. This led to the State cutting the Biennale’s financial lifeline. That’s when artists and patrons of the arts, including Vivan Sundaram and Geeta Kapur, the Gujral Foundation, and corporate sponsors such as Yusuff Ali of the LuLu Group, stepped forward with financial support and made the Biennale a reality.

In the three editions since, while resources have increased, and the KBF has broadened its horizons, funding continues to be a headache. Few corporates are willing to open their purse strings for culture, Bose complains, and getting past bureaucratic procedure to get money from the State is a weary job. He says, “For ₹4 crore, I have walked 4,000 km inside the same government building.” For 2018-19, ₹7 crore has been promised it by the State government — they are yet to receive the full amount, as well as ₹1.4 core from the amount, promised the last time. Currently, he states, KBF is running a ₹5 crore debt.

In the past decade, there’s been pointed global interest among collectors and museums in South Asian art. International auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s hold dedicated auctions of art from the region, prominent among them being art from India. A majority share of India Art Fair, a commercial platform for contemporary art, was bought three years ago by the MCH Group, which runs the prestigious Art Basel fairs, as a part of its regional art fair venture — though cutbacks have since resulted in a decision to sell. The role of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in drawing global attention to this part of the world, and sustaining this art ecosystem is undeniable. It does this despite, as Dube puts it, “breaking down the coldness of an art world connected to the market system”.

A part of the Kochi model is also its curatorial approach. Says Dube, “The trend worldwide is more market-friendly, driven by galleries. Here there is another rhythm, with an emphasis towards artists.” Possibilities for a Non-alienated Life, the concept for this Biennale’s edition, thus came from conversations she had with artists for the better part of a year, and her own 30 years of practice as an artist being in the system. She has focussed on building connections.

There are different kinds of connections that are being built through the art exhibition. Self-taught artist Vipin Dhanurdharan, for instance, got introduced to art by working as a volunteer during its first edition. As part of his project based on the philosophy of social reformer, journalist and politician, Sahodaran Ayyappan (1889-1968), he spent several months last year getting to know people of different communities in the island and sharing meals in their homes. At Aspinwall, the biennale’s main venue, a round cement table has been built in the open next to a community kitchen he has set up. Here, people, irrespective of caste or religion, are welcome to cook and eat together, or just sit around and use it as a free public space.

Then there is the Biennale’s ABC programme for school students, which in its last edition had conducted art workshops in 100 schools. This time, it has focussed on creating community art rooms in 10 schools, largely in flood-affected areas. It’s a model that the organisers hope the government will replicate across the State.

Dube says a key driver of the Biennale’s success is the progressive State; a political thought that understands that culture is an important tool for everything. It’s incredible to think that art could have that kind of power. Adds Abraham, “Frankly, we don’t know as yet the effect of the Biennale on people’s lives. The next generation may be more attuned to cultural thinking. It is not just a high-end art tour. It’s planting a seed in people’s mind.”


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