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Nathalie Muchamad explores the role of trade and commodity in colonialism

Non-Aligned, Non-Alienated by Nathalie Muchamad at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022, investigates familial history, spice trade in Asia and its significance in imperial history.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Mar 02, 2023

As part of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022-23, Nathalie Muchamad is presenting a newly commissioned project titled Non-Aligned, Non-Alienated. Working in the Comoros Islands, Muchamad investigates her own displaced familial history and its entanglement with colonisation, indentured labour and the European slave trade in the Indian and Pacific oceans. The art fair project comes together in the form of a "scenographic" installation, as described by the visual artist, spanning across textiles, photography, prints, sculpture, and using archival material that relates to a history of colonial extraction.

In a conversation with STIR, Muchamad speaks about how the 'departure point' in her artistic practice stems from the history of her own family, and how her grandmother was brought as a slave to work at a coffee plantation in New Caledonia, which remains a French colony to date. While this history was not spoken about within the family, Muchamad began her research with family albums and documentation, and expanded her research to the larger history of colonial slave trade in Asia. Thus, initiating a dialogue between the Kochi Biennale 2022 venue of the sea-facing Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi, Kerala—which originally served as a business house for export trade of spices and other goods from the southern tip of the subcontinent—and the history of colonisation in the region.

Motifs and symbols of legitimation, power, and desire that drove colonial conquest recur within the art installation, presented at the art festival. These symbols evoke the domination of capital where the artist reflects on how the history of man is linked to the history of exploitation, spice, and trade. It is significant that colonisation, labour, extraction, and capital became inextricably linked and formalised into so-called legitimate business.

Through the work, Muchamad reflects on this shared history of colonial extraction, where the emblem of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) is depicted through archival material and print using Batik, a traditional Javanese method of resist dyeing cloth using wax. With the evocation of culturally specific methods of dyeing, using natural pigment and elements, Muchamand emphasises cultural knowledge and natural, non-extractive techniques that resist the burgeoning, globalist psyche of capitalist production. Citing cultural tradition, she weaves a document of sorts, where the scenography presents a historical, political, and poetic account. The artist also speaks about the universal storytelling capacity of cloth, and how information can be determined from the regionally specific motifs and patterns, where the traditional sarong is presented.

Nathalie Muchamad speaks about her artistic practice, her areas of research for the project, and the site of Kochi-Muziris Biennale Video: Courtesy of STIR

Muchamad talks about how it was during her college years that she discovered Subaltern studies as an academic field and read literary theorist Gayatri Spivak, finding inspiration in the capacity of contemporary art to be a language that can subvert hegemonic thought. While her work always starts with archival material, the Indian artist was researching the spice trade in Indonesia.

The motif of the clove repeats almost as an infestation in the space, as part of sculptures as well as at the corner of the room. The fragrant spice with medicinal qualities, here, symbolises the Dutch Empire as it became a significant participant in its export, resulting in them monopolising its production by sabotaging competitors. In collaboration with Taiwan-based artist Lou Mo, the artist also presents the work Currents, Coasts and Islands - The History of Cloves, a set of seating cushions wrapped in symbols of trade and colonialism, from Kochi, to Tainan and Ambon. Significantly, a photograph of Fort Victoria in Ambon is presented in the constellation of images displayed, where the symbols and emblems of VOC recur.

Detailed view of the scenographic installation with cloves as a symbol of colonial conquest | Non-Aligned, Non-Alienated | Nathalie Muchamad | STIRworld
Detailed view of the scenographic installation with cloves as a symbol of colonial conquest Image: Courtesy of STIR

Muchamad also collaborated with Réunion-based visual artist Mariam Omar Awadi for the work titled The Blowers, a set of clay-sculpture sandals that represent the workers brought in as indentured labour to the French colonies. While hands and feet are evoked through the art installation, gesturing to labour and humans as capital, this remains a subtle part of the art exhibition.

The Blowers, 2022, Clay sculptures, Mariam Omar Awadi | Non-Aligned, Non-Alienated | Nathalie Muchamad | STIRworld
The Blowers, 2022, Clay sculptures, Mariam Omar Awadi Image: Courtesy of STIR

Alongside the history of colonisation, Muchamad also evokes a history of united global resistance as she commemorates the Non-Aligned Movement of 1955 and the League against Imperialism, an international anti-imperialist organisation that brought together representatives from across the world for a conference in 1927. A majority of those present were from colonised nations, and were there in an attempt at aligning the interests of the Left with that of the anti-imperialist movement. 

Currents, Coasts and Islands - The History of Cloves, 2022, Seating cushions, Lou Mo | Non-Aligned, Non-Alienated | Nathalie Muchamad | STIRworld
Currents, Coasts and Islands - The History of Cloves, 2022, Seating cushions, Lou Mo Image: Courtesy of STIR

The artist also shares about natural dyes that she experimented with and made by hand using cocoa, spices, and other natural plants—commodities that were traded by the European companies. The Ylang Ylang or Cananga tree, native to East Asia is another repeating motif at the Kochi Biennale installation. The Ylang Ylang tree is illustrated at the art biennale through impressions in print and an archival illustration that expands on the dichotomy of the two approaches in depicting the plant.

Exhibition view of the textile with resist-dye text work, Nathalie Muchamad | Non-Aligned, Non-Alienated | Nathalie Muchamad | STIRworld
Exhibition view of the textile with resist-dye text work Image: Courtesy of STIR

The proto-scientific diagram emphasises the 'objective' account that finds its footing in developing natural science, often supplemented by colonial expeditions. On the other hand, Muchamad explores the history and memory of plants and how, for her, the use of pigment from the indigenous tree is like accessing its trace memory. In this regard, a quote from French writer and botanist, Bernardin de St. Pierre appears on the textile—'The gift of a useful plant seems to me more precious than the discovery of a gold mine and a monument more durable than a pyramid.'

Portrait of Nathalie Muchamad | Non-Aligned, Non-Alienated | Nathalie Muchamad | STIRworld
Portrait of Nathalie Muchamad Image: Courtesy of STIR

Read more on Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022, which is on view till April 10, 2023, in Kerala, India.

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