by Vatsala SethiJan 23, 2023
The aftermath of the social isolation due to the pandemic in 2020 has led to fragmented communities, deep losses and disruptions to our day-to-day life, and yet the art community has continued to renegotiate and think about the ‘exhibition’ in terms of site, visual language and curatorial investigations. As we continue to advance towards a new normal and the art industry rebuilds itself, the Kochi Biennale Foundation presents an exhibition - Lokame Tharavadu (The World is One Family) - which draws its title from the famous Malayalam poem written by Vallathol Narayan Menon. The exhibition is curated as a response to the communal fragmentation of the current times, highlighting and appealing to the spirit of humanity, to our inherent inter-connectedness and our empathetic ability. It comes in as a respite to a year of confinement, attempting to invoke the transformative and revivalist potential of art in resurrecting a dejected human spirit. This is undoubtedly a lofty goal to set oneself, and one that has been the burden of artists, performers, storytellers and creatives around the world through the height of the lockdown and its maddening restrictions continuing on.
“The project is an outcome of the special interest of the government of Kerala to reach out to the artist community in these challenging times that are fraught with dangerous sectarianism that we as the creative community have to counteract by rallying together to inspire, renew hope and foster a global outlook. Most artists, including myself, have been confined to our homes for the last few months. This inspired us to think,” says the curator, Bose Krishnamachari, “about the home, surroundings and the world. It is this investigation that led us to the conception of the exhibition”.
The exhibition is a global survey that brings together the artworks of more than 260 Malayali artists from India and around the world. What is unique to its curatorial premise is the concentrated attention it gives to artists with roots in Kerala. "An art exhibition of this scale has never happened before in the history of Kerala that brings together the diverse practices of the Malayali artists,” says Krishnamachari. It is an attempt to provide a platform for Malayali artists to showcase their recent works, assess their diverse practices art historically and to activate the cultural spaces and institutions of Kerala.
Lokame Tharavadu raises important questions about migration, home and belonging, reconfiguring the idea of home as moveable and migratory. The idea of one’s identity is explored through a universal lens - what does the home, belonging, and our rooted identity mean to migrants, refugees, and aliens? What is identity for one who is not seeking to return to the homeland expands into the diaspora and diasporic journey. “We ask how crucial is it to have a sensitive approach towards the disenfranchised communities of the world especially at a time when the world is becoming increasingly rigid about the notions of home, identity and belonging,” adds Krishnamachari.
While the curatorial premise of the exhibition is clear in its exploration of a universal idea of belonging, identity and rootedness, there is undeniably a friction arising in the decision to keep the focus solely on Kerala - through the artists, curators, scholars, etc. - participating. Unpacking this conscious decision, to what might come across as, sectioning off the Malayali cultural narrative from the larger cultural discourse, Krishnamachari says, “There are various academic and cultural programmes designed to deliberate on these issues of belonging and identity that feature writers, historians, performers, etc. who are not Malayalis. I believe these programmes are important for intercultural exchange and to develop shared perspectives.”
It isn’t often that art initiatives create such comprehensive platforms which funnel the focus to the extent that Lokame Tharavadu has done, an exhibition of this nature and scale hasn’t been attempted before and there is an urgent need and place for them. Yet, one can’t help but wonder if the idea is to foster an ‘intercultural exchange’ and ‘develop a shared perspective’, isn’t the limitation of a sectional curation counter-intuitive? Is it enough to pose the point of exchange outside the place of action as it does for an audience who does not directly participate in the meta-narrative of the exhibition via its creation, curation, conceptualisation. Does the culture exchange in this scenario not veer to the passive? It is a question worth contemplation as we move towards providing platform for similar regional or sectional cultural discourses.
As one can expect of any exhibition coming from the Kochi Biennale Foundation, Lokame Tharavadu maximises on the use of the ‘site’ in relation to the curation of the art-shows, with six venues acting as the ‘site’ of the exhibition with five venues in Alappuzha and one in Ernakulam. “Across the world, there is a considerable effort to return to the physical space of the exhibition. The pandemic has changed the way we approach physical spaces. It has been a disorienting experience,” says the curator. “I propose to reconfigure the exhibition spaces and use them as a platform to empower the community that has suffered through this pandemic. The three venue we have used in Alappuzha have been part of the Alappuzha Heritage project and will develop as museums in the coming year. They are part of Alappuzha’s historic memory - spatially redesigned to offer a global standard of the viewing experience,” he adds.
While the site does not have a direct connection with the artworks created in response or as a point of investigation as is often the case with the Kochi Muziris Biennale, many artists have created on-site works making creative intervention to foreground the materiality, texture and symbolism of the place. The ‘site’ here acts more as a creative intervention fostering a dialogue on contemporary art. An important facet of the exhibition is the academic and cultural programming planned to activate the art and creative community of Kerala. It is conceptualised so as to not be separate from the exhibition but rather to enhance and integrate its curatorial vision. “The diverse programmes foster a dialogue on home, exile, belonging,” says Krishnamachari, while adding that “the cultural landscape of Kerala - particularly Alappuzha. We have attempted to generate an intense dialogue anchored in Kerala while extending its reach to the global community. Some of it will be physically organised with a virtual presence, whereas some others will have a completely online format. It is accessible to all”. The increasing popularity of the hybrid format seems to be growing as we slowly find our way out of the restraints of the past year. Notably it acts as a democratising format with the virtual increasing access, reach and engagement, while the physical counterpart ensures that a certain level of the sensory familiarity of the cultural experience is kept alive. With a packed schedule featuring panel discussion, talks, writing workshops, music programmes, performances, hands-on workshops for Kudumbashree - Lokame Tharavadu offers programming for everyone with a wide circle of dissemination, inclusion and reach, beckoning us to draw closer as one great family.
Lokame Tharavadu: a group show exhibiting the work of 260 Malayali artists from Kerala and around the world is on till May 31, 2021.