The postponement of the fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale was announced as close as to the 'zero hour.' The art fraternity expressed a unanimous exasperation at the denial of a due opportunity to experience the Biennale on a visit that demands conscientious logistical planning. Sitting at the breakfast table during my stay, over a candid conversation with the owner of the place I shared my reason for having a bout of vexation. During our tête-à-tête, a suggestion was offered to see a large-scale installation - Bhumi - by Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts, with support from Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation at the TKM Warehouse, Fort Kochi. The family has been a host to the artistic director Kamruzzaman Shadhin and Research and Planning head, Salma Jamal Moushum, of Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts. Having been familiar with the kind of work the Foundation does with the local community - based in northern-western Bangladesh in the village of Balia in Thakurgaon - I gracefully conceded to the recommendation.
The TKM Warehouse conferred a pleasant surprise amidst the chaos encountered while visiting the key venues of Kochi Biennale 2022 – Aspinwall House, Pepper House and Anandware House – struggling against time to welcome the viewers at the revised date of opening on December 23, 2022. They are now successfully running art exhibitions with an impressive line of visual artists. The large-scale art installations of Bhumi, in the shape of puppets mounted on the platforms and mats made out of bamboo, jute and straw, are suspended from the ceiling of a large hall in the art biennale. As one enters the dim-lit hall, where the narrow spotlights rightly fall on the installations, the scene conjures a carnivalesque milieu. During the time of city festivities, societal boundaries are broken to underline the fluid nature of our existence rooted in togetherness. In a similar spirit, the community art project Bhumi was initiated during the lockdown imposed in 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The time, punctuated by human isolation and social distance, required from us a sense of collective attention to the adversary in an effort to extend a hand of care and comfort. The collaborative process of the project conceived with the artist Shadhin during the time of the global pandemic served as a support system for the community during the lockdown. The term Bhumi is found in many languages of the Indo-Aryan branch, which translates into English as earth or land. Venerated as the Mother Goddess, especially in the Hindu holy scriptures, the piece of land is both literally and metaphorically a symbol of the unbroken lineage of togetherness. The life cycle of birth and death initiates and ends from earth. In the times when uncertainty reigned with supremacy, the collective creative efforts of the project expanded on the notions of “solidarity and connectedness.”
In an interview with STIR, Shadhin explains, “Bhumi focuses on the shared collective ties between humans and non-human beings in the universe, exploring the realms of the spiritual and the material." Drawing from “people, places and nature”, integral to Bhumi, the project saw the coming together of the artists and craftsmen from four villages from May to August 2020. The community traced the history of traditional crafts and agricultural practices as well as explored the importance of local materials. The impromptu conversations among the group consisting of the artist, local farmers and artisans anchored the making of the artworks – centred upon the human-land associations and ideas of indigenous farming and evaluation of social and cultural shifts in the community. To mention, Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts, since its inception in 2001, has encouraged a participatory dialogue among the marginalised communities, as opposed to the urban hubs of artists' conversation in Bangladesh. Towards this end, it successfully blurs the boundaries between rural and contemporary, mainstream and indigenous arts.
To give an overview of what each village brought to the “table” to facilitate the making of the Bhumi, Moushum mentions, “Through long-term research and experimentation by the artist and the community, the indigenous weaving technique of bamboo and straw was incorporated into the creation of the works that blur the boundaries between conventional and contemporary.” On the one hand, the elders of the indigenous community of one village underscored the significance of the traditional methods of farming to grow local plants and vegetables to create land art. On the other hand, the rest of the communities from the three villages were determined to play with traditional craft materials such as bamboo, jute and straw. Closer to August 2020, under an open-air exhibition at the Gidree Bawlee residency space in the village of Balia, the works were installed. The viewers experienced the rippling effect of the four projects, under the umbrella of the single large scale installation work. It only reconceptualised their relationship with the nearby water body and earth.
As an epitome of “human resilience and creativity” in the face of tragedy, Bhumi, as it travels to Kochi-Muziris Biennale, endeavours to ‘re-enact’ the relationship between community, land and the environment. At the end of the interview with Shadin and Mousham at the TKM Warehouse, interrupted by a short but a few periods of power cuts, a group of children from a nearby community entered the hall to joyfully take a brisk walk around the installations. I am informed they visit every day after school hours. As if their ritualistic entry is an experiential translation of what the name Gidree Bawlee means, 'children’s babbling' in English. The coexistence of diversity is a way forward to survive and sustain – a thought exemplified by Bhumi, further accentuated by the trail of children.
Read more on Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022, which is on view till April 10, 2023, in Kerala, India.
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