Curating ‘A Place Beyond Belief’

“Without reflection, it’s a big circus,” says Curator of the Fourth Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Anita Dube

Nathan Coley’s work at the Fourth Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Picture: Anu George, 2019
Nathan Coley’s work at the Fourth Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Picture: Anu George, 2019 

LILA: The political energy of the fourth edition of the Biennale, curated by you, is very evident. The experiential nature of artworks makes their politics more impactful and open to dialogue, as opposed to the polarisation we see in conventional political debates. Was that your intent with this edition of the Biennale?  

Anita Dube: I am going to take this in another direction. One of the key works this year is a Nathan Coley work, which you see just as you exit Aspinwall House towards Pepper house. It is a ‘light’ work, which says ‘A Place Beyond Belief’. Actually, when we chose that work, we thought that we would like to take the whole thinking of people to that place which is beyond belief, which is culture and art; that you don’t need belief, you need what art and culture can give you. What can it give you? It can give you pleasure and it can provoke you to think. 

We think that if there is no belief, we are going to be lost. But no, there’s a possibility that without belief there are places where you can experience curiosity, pleasure, just the magic of something – visual magic of things, visual pleasure of things, and the materiality of things. That is such an amazing space in my opinion, which is why that work is there. It can take you to that place which is maybe one notch higher than belief. So that is what I mean to say. And I think the way things are politically, not only in India but all over the world, I think that it was necessary to posit something. You can’t just say that this is wrong, that is wrong. You have to suggest something else. So in that context my whole idea via this curation is that culture is a very beautiful place, a place where you can be provoked to think as well as come close to the problems that exist, through materiality, not through the virtual interface, because I see that however hyper connected we are, we are still getting more and more alienated in the virtual world. 

LILA: As you walk into one of the hallways in Aspinwall House, you see on the one side works by a Palestinian photographer, and on the other works by a South African photographer from Soweto. This placement evokes a politics that is supplemented by your curatorial note, which, while not spelling it out, guides the audience on this exploration. The experience of such an exhibition, therefore, requires participation from the audiences as well, and your curatorial placements manage to pull them into this. Can you tell me a little bit about your curatorial process? 

AD: In the case of putting the Palestinian photographer, who is a woman called Rula Halawani and putting Santu Mofokeng, who is a South African male photographer, just opposite each other is to, without spelling it out, speak about apartheid in Palestine. This is what one can do when you are setting up an exhibition. Just by what you place next to what, you make either connections, or you make juxtapositions, which are provocative. This is a simple way of letting people, if you want to, think. There may be people who may not want to think, they just see two bodies of work and engage at that level also. That’s also okay. So that’s what I’m trying to say. 

And then, as you were also pointing out, that the materiality of the work is very important because that’s what a live exhibition can give you. A book cannot give you that, if I’m checking things online, I will never get that experience. So emphasising works that have that kind of materiality was also important. For example, the work of Arun Kumar, with wood and concrete and the men standing, but with the branches… it just takes you close to an issue like ecology also. But when you say ecology, you don’t feel the same thing you feel when you’re standing next to that sculpture of Arun Kumar. So this is what art can do, and we have to make possible exhibitions where people are in touch with these things, which means public exhibitions, not necessarily white cube kind of spaces, but things where people can be comfortable and free to walk in. 

LILA: Yes, and in today’s time its even more important because there is no space for dialogue which is open, which can include, which can be accessible and can arrive at some kind of conclusion. Now that the Biennale is coming to an end, and this is also something that only happens once in every two years, what do you think can happen in between, or what do you think the art world can or needs to do? 

AD: The art world needs to find small, scattered things–lots of micro events happening in different places. To wait for one macro activity or one mega activity every two years is not the way to go. The way to go is as and when, whoever can, to make whatever small, micro activity possible, and to connect people. It can happen somewhere else. So we need, as I said, not one Biennale, but we need one thousand small, micro events all over the country. Each one with a definite location. If people want to connect with that, they should make the effort to connect these otherwise very much located and micro events. 

LILA: Taking that idea forward, one thing that is characteristic of this place, which makes the Biennale possible, is the area – Fort Kochi – which already has a sense of community that you can build on. How important do you think that sense of belonging or that sense of community is to building something like this? 

AD: My thing is that if you are looking for something, like a massive event like this, then you will only find a couple of sites like this. But if you are thinking of a small event, there’s always a local community which can be thought of as your main audience, and build up, and I think that’s fine. If we consistently work with the local audience, I think that’s tremendous. Eventually that is what will change things, not just mega events. Mega events don’t really change anything.

LILA: One of the people that I would like to talk with you about is Bapi Das. Being an autorickshaw driver at one point, he has now been featured at the Biennale, which seems quite an achievement in itself. Can you tell us a little bit about your interactions with him? How did he get into making art and how has a platform like the Biennale given him a space to engage with audiences? 

Bapi Das’s work at the Fourth Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Picture: Shivani Karmarkar, 2019 

AD: How he really started making work, I don’t know. Somebody sent Bose Krishnamachari an invite of Bapi Das, and Bose Krishnamachari sent it to me on WhatsApp. When I looked at it, I thought this is so interesting, and I started to find out more about him. When I saw some more of his work, I thought it was amazing. So there was no doubt, he was always on the list of artists. But what is fantastic about Bapi is that somebody with no training, actually an autorickshaw driver up till right about a year ago, and with that kind of humility, is doing work which is otherwise regarded as women’s work, so using thread and needle, basically embroidery. That is the kind of message I want to send out in the Biennale, that it is about men who are sensitised and don’t wear their masculinity on their sleeve, in the sense that the Biennale is not interested in different forms of hyper-masculinity. It is interested in men who understand not only themselves as men, but also understand that the making of art does not require some muscular stuff. And let me tell you, all over the world people have been saying, “who is this man, he is exceptional.” This is such a good message being sent out to also the young artists, that you can do work which is small, but you have to have the kind of intensity and the kind of investment of time. Everything that he is doing has that quality, and he has an amazing formal understanding also. 

LILA: One more exhibit that comes to mind is that of the Cuban artist, Tania Bruguera, who was jailed and the statement she subsequently sent to the Biennale was put up as her work. What have your interactions been like with all these artists, who are extremely political in their practice? 

AD: Tania Bruguera, as you know, she works with communities. Recently she did a project at TATE, and when she was about to come here, the Cuban authorities arrested her, because now there are these laws. So she sent us a letter. Just to briefly tell you what happened – she went to jail and then they released her, but she said I don’t want to come to India now because this problem has arisen in my country and I want to stay here and fight it out, so this is the letter we are writing to the Biennale. So we thought that this then is the work. And she being an activist and a performance person, her performance is the letter. Imagine a place like Cuba, which we thought was so progressive, now they are making all these rules where the artists have to get permission from the Ministry of Culture to do an exhibition. They even have to get permission to work as artists. So the extreme kind of surveillance on what artists might come up with, extreme kind of pressure for them to conform to what is the idea of the state towards what culture and art can be, and I think this is totally unacceptable. But we showed surprisingly three artists from that little place called Cuba. We have Tania who could not come. We have Celia-Yunior who were able to come. They are two young artists who have done two projects. One is in Aspinwall House, where they have created a graph of the growth of IT industry out of spices. They use graphs and things, but they have a way to talk about issues using local spices, very very intelligent work. Then there is a third artist from Cuba who is a photographer. His name is Leandro Feal. It was really nice to have three artists from Cuba just before these new laws have been enacted in Cuba. 

Tania Bruguera’s letter at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Picture: Shivani Karmarkar, 2019 

LILA: You have engaged with so many countries through this festival, each country with its own politics, and have put their works together in a country that’s itself going through politically turbulent times. Can you give us some insight into the methodology you have used – to be able to work with and balance so many statements as a curator? 

AD: I thought I’ll travel more in the global south, and pick very few artists from the superpowers, which means there is only one artist from China. There is none from Russia. There are only the critics from USA – there is Martha Rossler who is a really critical figure. Then there are some diaspora artists who live in the United States. That’s just about it. Everything else is from this part of the world – the global south. So that decision was very clear, and then once that decision is clear, it is by-itself a political statement. But then, when you are meeting artists, you are thinking about what their practices are. How can they, in some ways, tease out one more thread or one more aspect of non-alienation, of connection, of what they are trying to do through their work, as to how they are trying to reach publics? So these were the criteria basically. 

LILA: Were you involved or did you participate in the production of a lot of these works? Especially in the ideation stage of many of these works, since you are also curating with the overall picture in mind. 

AD: Some things of course you produce. Some things you partly help produce, you are always in the process. You always work with artists. It’s a conversational thing. 

LILA: Now that the Biennale is coming to an end, is there something you want to convey to the people? 

AD: I only want to tell the people to think about what has affected them. You won’t think about things that did not move you, and things like that. But whatever has actually moved people, people should reflect on that. Because without reflection, it’s all just one big circus, you know. The whole idea is, that it is something more than a circus. It is something that you think about. And once you start to think, it’s a process. 

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