On the dilapidated wall of the Mohammed Ali Warehouse at Jew Street in Mattancherry, a bright red fresco beckons your attention. A mammoth red Chinar tree is in full bloom. Strewn over it are eyes, blinded by guns, in the place of leaves. Words like ‘freedom’ and ‘azadi’ are scribbled near it.
This telling work is by a Kashmiri art student, Subina Gul, from the Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi, who thought an empty wall on the southern tip of India could be a canvas to express herself.
For 464 other art students like her, the second edition of the Students’ Biennale 2016 is a platform to showcase artistic expression beyond the four walls of their classrooms.
Spread over seven venues at Mattancherry — Fadi Building, Mohammed Ali Warehouse, Kotachery Bros and Co, KVN Arcade, Anubhuti, Heritage Arts Antiques and Mattancherry temple – the Students’ Biennale, in artist Vivaan Sundaram’s words, reflects the democratic vision of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. “It aims to crush the notion that biennales are elitist spaces,” he said.
This is a very significant step, says a curator of the Students’ Biennale. She said that a student from a Swiss university complained of how there was no platform for students in any European Biennale, including the renowned Venice Biennale.
While the curators and organisers speak about how this art extravaganza would fill the vacuum that most art students find themselves in, after graduation, for some, like the students of the Government College of Fine Arts, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, the stage is beyond their reckoning. Says G Sri Hari, second-year BFA student: “When we volunteered for this initiative, we weren’t expecting an event of this magnitude. This is my first time in Kochi. Our perception of art and artists have changed.”
The curators think that some works by the students are on par with contemporary artists. “They are novices, but they know how to react. Our job was to fuel their ideas and sometimes bring clarity to it. It was mostly interactive sessions,” says Sumitra Sundar, a researcher and PhD scholar, who is working on a doctorate in contemporary arts practice.
She shares how she insisted on meeting the students in open spaces, rather than inside a hall, for them to relate to the concept of finding their art in public spaces.
When the facilities and exposure available in most government art schools are limited, the Students’ Biennale becomes significant in helping these students see art in a different context than the usual white walls. “The white-walled gallery is questioned here. Often, every work is site-specific in the Biennale. This is also an occasion where they can meet their contemporaries, from various other institutions, across the nation, share and learn from each other,” says Vivek Chockalingam, another curator.
Culture of curation
The whole process of the Students’ Biennale was set into motion almost a year ago when applications were invited from curators for the task. Months were spent training and mentoring the selected 15 curators by an advisory and mentor group.
Interactions were held and ideas exchanged, which, in turn, was passed down to the students. Each curator was asked to choose two to three art schools of their choice to work with. Through multiple institution visits and workshops, the students were mentored to showcase their talents in Kochi.
But, not all were without challenges. C P Krishnapriya, a practicing visual artist based in Chennai and a curator, says she had to work her way through opposition from college authorities. “They were not willing to disturb the strong hierarchical system that they are used to. So, most times, we had to work around it. I used to meet the student artistes at my house. We were certainly not welcomed,” says Krishnapriya.
The concept of losing control is explained in the mammoth installation, Spiral, at the Heritage Arts Antiques venue at Mattancherry, by the students of the Raja Ravi Varma College of Fine Arts, Mavelikkara, Kerala. The work by Subith A K, Vinuraj, Vineeth, Shiju, Akhil, Anandhu, Helna Merin Joseph and Vaishnav Baiju, has already been appreciated by everyone including the Kochi-Muziris Biennale curator, Sudharshan Shetty.
“The relationship with the viewer and the installation, Spiral is a moment when everything comes to a standstill making the rest of the world twirl,” says Vivek Chockalingam, who curated the work.
The work was an exception as it pushed the limits of what is considered art. The interesting facet of this piece is that it was made from twigs of a parasitic creeper. The challenge then was to transform this material to give it another meaning and form.
Vivek adds: “For this installation, the students sourced the creeper from the neighbourhood police station. The police were kind enough to allow them to collect material from their property. The students went there a total of four times clearing out almost all of the parasitic creepers. The police gradually developed a beautiful relationship with these students and even came to see the final output.”
Love for Labour
Curator C P Krishnapriya could always relate to the art and depth of the ‘Triumph of Labour’ statue at Marina Beach, Chennai. So, while mentoring her students from the Government College of Fine Arts, Kumbakonam, and Government College of Art, Chennai, she urged them to focus on labour. At Anubhuti, inside a huge hall, there is a tribute to labour of myriad kinds, be it a driver, domestic worker, weaver, coconut husker or a lamp maker. Says Krishnapriya: “There is an extensive literature on art at the College of Arts, Chennai. We worked on the concept of filling it with a collection of labour. That’s the core idea,” she adds.
The students were prompted to explore their family and the labour their ancestors followed. S Ayappan’s sketch book is about a laundry worker, which his ancestors were, while A Thalamuthu’s retraces his family vocation of a grocery store owner. “For these students, this project was about finding art in their personal space. They met the labourers, appreciated their interaction, and found their muse in them,” says the curator.
First posted on newindianexpress