The artists Vivek Vilasini and Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim were at Vilasini’s Kerala studio, when they heard Hassan Sharif had died. “We were supposed to be posing for a picture, but we couldn’t smile,” says Vilasini. They planted a tree in Vilasini’s “food forest” in honour of their friend: an amla, or Indian gooseberry. “When you bite it,” says Vilasini, “It’s sour. But when it stays in your mouth for a while, it becomes sweet.”
Indian artist Vilasini was one of the storied group of avant-garde artists who coalesced around Sharif in Sharjah in the ’90s, who included Ibrahim, Mohammed Kazem, Abdullah Al Saadi and Hussein Sharif. Pushing against accepted notions of art, they exhibited broken, ephemeral, monumental and quixotic assemblages, and made production and exhibition forums.
The UAE art world’s recent analyses of that period brought Vilasini back here last year for the first time in almost two decades, and he now returns as the inaugural Indian artist on the Trans-Indian Ocean Artists Exchange, a residency exchange programme set up by curator Mo Reda that explores the artistic ties between South Asia and the Gulf. “It’s exciting and important that Vivek is the first of the Indian artists on the programme,” says Laura Metzler, curator of the Maraya Art Centre, which is co-hosting the residency with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Foundation, based in Kerala.
"He has a strong history with the UAE and its artistic titans." On the Emirates side, Ibrahim and Kazemwere the first two artists sent to Kochi.
Vilasini moved to Sharjah, where a cousin of his was working, in 1995, in an effort to find a job that would finance his art-making. He met Ibrahim at an art exhibition where they both appeared to be visitors.
He recounts that he turned to Ibrahim and said, “Good work,” not knowing the pieces were Ibrahim’s own. The pair became friends and the Emirati artist introduced him to the Sharif circle, who were largely unknown – or, if known, disliked – by artists and writers in Sharjah at the time.
The group were due to have their first museum exhibition in two months’ time at the Sharjah Art Museum when, Vilasini says, Sharif called the curator and demanded Vilasini’s sculptures were included. “If he’s not in there, I’m not in there,” Sharif announced. They had to stop production and reissue the exhibition catalogue, but Vilasini became a part of it. “It was like a brotherhood,” recalls Vilasini, of that time. “We didn’t know if it was going to be validated. That was beyond the point. We were sure of what we wanted to be doing and that we were going to be doing it.”
Vilasini has returned to a Sharjah much bigger than he remembers ("There used to be an enormous mosque here. Now it's just normal-sized") and in which Sharif has taken pride of place – most notably in the important retrospective of his work just down the way from the Maraya, the Sharjah Art Foundation's Hassan Sharif: I Am the Single Work Artist, curated by Sheikha Hoor bint Sultan Al Qasimi.
“Now he’s everywhere,” says Vilasini. “On the street over there, Hassan’s name. On the buses, Hassan’s name. It’s nice to be a part of what he always knew he was. The country is paying back to a genius.”
Vilasini was also part of the historiographic show curated by Maya Allison, with Bana Kattan and Alaa Edris, at New York University Abu Dhabi last year, But We Cannot See Them: Tracing a UAE Arts Community, which focused on this period.
“I learned about Vivek when I interviewed people in researching the show,” says Allison. “He showed up in every interview as a central figure in the group. It was not only a great discovery but it confirmed my suspicions that the art world here was never exclusively oriented towards the West but was also engaged with South Asia.”
Since he left the UAE in 1999, Vilasini has changed his focus from large-scale sculpture towards photography, which he produces both as elaborately staged tableaux and as social documentary.
His best-known work is the enormous photograph Last Supper – Gaza (2008), which populates Leonardo da Vinci's depiction of Christ's Last Supper with figures in hijabs, as a means to give visibility to the conditions of life in Gaza. The series Housing Dreams III (2015), by contrast, ironically comments on the gaps between aspiration and reality. In one image, a rundown shop in Kerala proclaims "Germany's no.1 Engine Oil"; in another, a brightly painted, but roofless, building advertises "Kailash Roofing Solutions." Politics is a key theme throughout. The series Lest We Forget… after PGJ Nampoothiri and Gagan Sethi (2013) documents the wounds protesters sustained in the 2002 Gujarat riots, photographed 10 years after the event: the indent of a gunshot wound or the rippled scars of burnt skin.
Lately, Vilasini has moved away from photography. He recently returned to a work he made just after leaving Sharjah, City – Fifth Investigation (2000/2017), in which he tracks the daily accumulation of dust in New Delhi. And it's easy to find the influence of Sharif's delight in radicality in his latest project, which is in an entirely different field: sustainable farming. "A garden is a physical manifestation of an idea," says Vilasini. "It's a social sculpture. You have a painting of a landscape with a cow in it – it's art. But a cow in a landscape – that's not art?"
For the past two years, Vilasini has been exploring different philosophies of sustainable agriculture – not in theory but by putting them into practice. In what he calls his food forest, in Munnar, Kerala, he collects different varieties of fruit trees, medicinal plants and host plants, as well as nectar plants for bees and butterflies. So far he has attracted 21 different varieties of ants, and he is, he says, “hopeful” about the results about an upcoming butterfly survey. (Butterflies, he notes, are one of the best bioindicators of ecological problems.)
The garden is at 4,000 feet above sea level, so he is able to grow tropical, subtropical and low-chill varieties of temperate fruit. In April, he and his brother will expand their operation to a seven-acre site, all tended to traditional methods of farming that Vilasini is also at work reviving.
“We have lost so much in terms of the kinds of plants we have. Different cultures used to grow so many different kinds of plants that were eaten as part of regular diets. There are 80 different kinds of edible mushrooms in Kerala, and we eat five or six. Before there was coffee, people roasted dandelion roots.”
Vilasini’s thoughts on sustainability come out in short bursts, and tend to remain unfinished; he barely gets to the end of a discussion on the pre-Colombian charcoal use and carbon sequestration when he is on to butterfly diversity, which is itself interrupted by remarks on the importance of the mycelium layer, or the growth of fungus in a forest.
"I've been thinking of this project since 1986," says Vilasini, "When someone first gave me a copy of Masanobu Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution." Vilasini read it in a single sitting – it was "life-changing," he says, but he didn't put it into action until a few years ago, when, with the sale of his first major photograph, he bought the land for the farm.
The project is also part of a larger trend in the art world that questions how art can make a difference amid the growing ecological crisis. Sustainability was one of the themes of the Sharjah Biennial last year, curated by Christine Tohmé, for example, and Vilasini’s food forest was visited by many of those who attended the 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
“The artwork Vivek made while he was in Sharjah and Dubai was incredibly organic,” says Allison. “It had a lot of references to life coming from the earth – returning to the earth and the earth generating new forms. It is not surprising to me and, in fact, feels intuitively correct that he would develop a food forest.”
Via the residency, the food forest has also become a renewed site of collaboration among his colleagues in the UAE. He and Ibrahim have floated the idea of creating a food forest in Khorfakkan, where Ibrahim is based. The UAE, he smiles, “is not just about dates”.
Vivek Vilasini’s work will be on show at 1x1 Gallery, Dubai, from March 19 to April 30, and at Sakshi Gallery’s stand at Art Basel Hong Kong, from March 29 to 31