Kochi-Muziris Biennale: India's long-awaited arts fair returns

Twice delayed by Covid-19, the biennale is back with bold lineup of artists from India, the Arab world and beyond

Indian artist Sahil Naik returns to Kochi-Muziris Biennale with his work All is water, and to water we must return. Photo: The artist, Kochi Biennale Foundation and Experimenter gallery
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On Monday night, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, India bounces back from the pandemic following lengthy delays. Having already been postponed twice, the event organisers announced that while Monday marks its official return, the opening of its main venues and programming has been pushed back yet again due to "organisational challenges" and the onset of cyclone Mandous, to December 23.

Last held in 2018, this year's KMB will host over 90 artists and collectives, with many hailing from West Asia and Africa, such as the Lebanon-born Ali Cherri, Iman Issa from Egypt, Alper Aydin from Turkey, the Palestinian-American visual artist Jumana Manna, and the Decolonising Architecture Art Residency from the Palestinian town of Beit Sahour.

Cherri, 46, won the Silver Lion Award at this year's Venice Art Biennale 2022 and recently had the premiere of his debut feature film, The Dam, at Cannes Film Festival. Born in Beirut and now settled in Paris, Cherri is excited to bring his works to Kochi. "I had once shown in Bombay but never in Kochi. It's my very first time there," he tells The National, ahead of the event's return.

At KMB, the visual artist and filmmaker will present a three-channel video installation titled Of Men and Gods and Mud. Shot near the controversial Merowe Dam, one of the largest hydroelectric projects along the Nile in northern Sudan, the film explores myths, materiality and the history of ruins while highlighting the environmental impact of man-made catastrophes on local populations. As the narrator in his film reminds us: "Mud has memory."

Cherri will also unveil a new set of sculptures not shown before. Refashioned out of mud, Seated Figure, Lion and Standing Figure continue his deconstruction of mud both as a material and as a metaphor. Mud, he insists, is a symbolic element in nearly all creation myths. "Whether it is Gilgamesh, Golems or Adam, they are all moulded from mud. So, this material is as old as humanity itself and has a history that's cyclical," explains Cherri.

What gives these works further emotional heft is that they also deal with the history of violence, something that Cherri has long witnessed in his native Lebanon. "I was born in Beirut at the beginning of the Civil War which lasted for years. I wanted to see if it was possible to tell a story about trauma wrought by history. Wounds are both visible and invisible. They leave their traces on people, yes, but also on their geographies and maps," says Cherri, who repurposed broken objects and artefacts that he found in vintage shops and archaeological sites to make these sculptures.

The artist says he says he couldn't be happier to associate with the biennale. "The works that I ultimately showed at Venice Biennale were actually made for Kochi," he says with a laugh, "I am glad they are back to where they were always meant for. For me, that closes a circle."

Indian artist Sahil Naik shares a similar story of "life coming to a full circle". Naik, aged 31, says: "In 2014, I showed at the students' edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and today, here I am as a full-time artist. It's a quantum leap."

Naik's All is water, and to water we must return is one of the biennale's most ambitious projects in this event. Supported by the Experimenter gallery, it is inspired by the Goan coastal village of Kurdi, its architecture, stories, landscape and people. In 1961, to commemorate Goa’s liberation from Portuguese rule, the government started constructing a dam in order to solve the local water crisis.

Two historic villages of Kurdi and Kurpem were submerged to make way for the project. More than 3,000 families were displaced overnight in Kurdi alone. Even today, when the water levels recede, Kurdi resurfaces. For a brief moment, you can still see the wreckage and remnants of a former village, a poignant reminder that there was once a thriving ecosystem here, lost due to grand gestures of modernity.

Reportedly, Kurdi's original inhabitants return during this period to sing folk songs in the local Konkani dialect and to revisit their memories. Naik's project is a requiem for their loss. "I have connected intimately with the displaced people of Kurdi over the last many years and documented their lives. My entire work is about memory and how songs act as a preservation tool for those memories," says Naik, one of the youngest artists to feature at KMB this year.

Elsewhere, Palestinian artist Basma al-Sharif takes visitors on a train trip with Palestinian Railways, which turns the historical clock back, as it chugs along an era with no borders, ethnic violence or conflict.

"I was inspired by stories my grandmother told of taking the train from Gaza to Cairo, Alexandria, Damascus and Baghdad for holidays. It seemed impossible to me to imagine that today. Even in my lifetime, I have seen mobility drastically reduced between neighbouring Arab countries. It feels like what we hope for the future of our region is what was taken away by colonialism and occupation. I was starting to fantasise about how I could make these no longer existing train routes come back to life in a way that would be futuristic instead of nostalgic," says al-Sharif, referring to her work A Philistine.

After travelling the world — from the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow to Salt Galata in Istanbul — al-Sharif's acclaimed multipart installation from 2019 is now set for an encore at KMB. Spanning a book, banner prints and prints from the US Library of Congress archives, the work will be adapted to suit the space in which it is exhibited, as an intrinsic part of experiencing it. The setting includes what the artist describes as the "reading room," suggestive of an Ottoman divan.

Al-Sharif, 39, was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents and spent her adult life moving between Cairo, Paris, Los Angeles and Beirut. "We visited Gaza very often, so it was a formative part of my upbringing," she says.

As a Palestinian living in the diaspora all her life, she observes: "I think it's part of the human condition to experience — if not always, at least at various stages of one's life, or at least once — the feeling of alienation and not belonging. I have had to live with this condition my entire life, so it's not novel or interesting. It's just part of a political struggle. As far as how it has shaped my work ... it is my work simply because it's my perspective and perspective is deeply psychological."

Of all the cities that she has called home, it was Cairo that most influenced A Philistine. "That's where I wrote the text," she says. "Cairo inspires me a lot, even though it is the city I probably felt the least welcome or comfortable living in. It's where my grandmother was exiled to during the Nakba in 1948. My parents met at university in Alexandria. I gave birth to my son there.

"I find it mesmerising because of its abrasiveness and dysfunction and monstrosity. It always feels like everything is on the brink of falling apart but never does. It's a lot like Gaza, not just because of its proximity to the territory but in the banality of things needing to continue moving forward even when they are stuck."

Originally scheduled to take place in 2020-2021, KMB was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic — but precisely due to the unexpected gap, there's much optimism among India's artistic community for their beloved biennale's fifth edition.

Visitors can expect more than 200 offerings, spread across heritage properties and warehouses, galleries and public spaces at the Dutch and Portuguese-influenced neighbourhoods of Fort Kochi, Mattancherry and Ernakulam along the Arabian Sea coast. Like every year, the biennale will have a central exhibition (In Our Veins Flow Ink and Fire, curated by Singaporean artist Shubigi Rao) around which everything orbits.

While Aspinwall House, Anand Warehouse and Pepper House will not be open until December 23, other elements of its programme, such as the Students' Biennale and various satellite exhibitions at Fort Kochi will open as planned.

Since its launch in 2012, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale — the Muziris in its title is a reference to the Malabar harbour's ancient past — has become a pivotal event that shapes contemporary art in South Asia. This year, as artists, collectors, dealers and tourists descend on Fort Kochi, the biennale's co-founder and an artist in his own right, Bose Krishnamachari, hopes that the event will provoke fresh debate around "Indian and international aesthetics and art experiences, and enable a dialogue among artists, curators, and the public."

Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022-23 will be on view in Kochi, Kerala until April 2023. More information is available at kochimuzirisbiennale.org

Scroll through images of the recent Pop South Asia exhibition at Sharjah Art Foundation

Updated: December 14, 2022, 7:59 AM