Upon walking into one of the many rooms at Aspinwall House, one found leaflets scribbled in English and Malayalam, pinned to a clothesline, while some were scattered on a table nearby, asking questions like, “Have you ever denounced sexual harassment? What happened?” One such leaflet answering artist Monica Mayer’s pertinent question posed in her installation The Clothesline , said, “I am told to act like a girl”. While the responder remained anonymous, the sentiment echoed with many women. In a country like India, similar words are often spoken by people in powerful positions, who seem to have assumed a link between behaviour, attire and assault. The question then arises, “What could you do against harassment?” - another one that was put up by Mayer on clotheslines that aired women’s, perhaps even men’s, grievances, moving beyond their use for clothes to the people who wear them. Urgently seeking a response, my gaze shifted to another leaflet, which had words handwritten in capitals, perhaps out of a desperate need to be heard. It said, “SPEAK UP!!! It’s never ok to remain silent! Ask yourself, IF NOT ME, WHO? IF NOT NOW, WHEN? I support, I speak up! This has got to be!”
Those words resounded throughout the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, curated by eminent artist Anita Dube. Titled Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life, the Biennale echoed with the voices of those who have been and are still being marginalised, whether they be women, Dalits, transgenders, indigenous communities, or people from conflict-ridden countries. Their works voiced their resistance, anger, frustration, grievances, and yet also their hope for justice, inclusion, and a sense of being one with others. Whether the Biennale accelerated the latter or not, it remains unknown.
More than five lakh people visited the previous edition of the Biennale in 2016. With each edition, it is only expected to grow. Being South Asia’s largest contemporary art event, there is hope for the artists who have spoken up, to be heard. The Biennale is, perhaps, the first indispensable step towards change. As some would like to believe, the choice of a female curator for the very first time and over 50 per cent representation of female artists at the Biennale were only manifestations of this first step.
For this edition, around 94 practitioners from over 30 countries participated, with over 100 projects displayed across galleries, cafes, warehouses and heritage properties spread across Fort Kochi, Mattancherry, and Ernakulam areas of Kochi in Kerala. Walking through these spaces, the scent of the sea mixed with the sounds of voices calling for change; one was shaken out of his or her individual rumination towards the plurality of human grievance. The art practices, then, were a mix of traditional, contemporary, activist, culinary, musical, and collaborative, bringing to the fore historical traditions, practices, and voices that have often been side-lined.
On display from December 12, 2018, to March 29, 2019, the Biennale existed outside the white-cube model. The exhibiting artists, subsequently, were not just limited to established practitioners, but included a plethora of young and emerging artists working across media. Dube’s selection of artists personified what she described as her “desire for liberation and comradeship where the possibilities for a non-alienated life could spill into a politics of friendship.”
This story is followed by Un-silenced at the Kochi Biennale – Part II (Voicing concerns of the marginalised communities) and Un-silenced at the Kochi Biennale – Part III (Of instilling hope, and invoking insightful discussions).