As a sounding note to the Kochi Biennale, the festival’s curator and eminent artist Anita Dube emphasised bringing to the forefront those who have repeatedly been ‘pushed to the margins of dominant narratives’. In an effort to do the same, majority of the artists participating in this edition lay outside the hierarchy that often pervades the Euro-American art universe. Yet, there was a synergistic multi-culturalism that was evident across the artistic juxtapositions of freedom with subjugation, identity with community, hope with despair, love with separation.
Lebanese filmmaker Akram Zataari’s Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright was one such work that evoked each of these juxtapositions. His work presented a love story between two men that unfolded through an exchange of messages on a typewriter. Winner of the Grand Prize at the 17th Contemporary Art Festival Sesc_Videobrasil, the film reflects on the rekindling of love after a decade’s separation, with one party trying to woo the other. While the two men decide to meet after living apart for years, setting a time and place for the endeavour, the film ends into the horizon, ambiguously, much like most things and relations do in life. The work is possibly rooted in the state and perception of homosexuality, which is still illegal in Lebanon under Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code. The Lebanese LGBT community, therefore, is often harassed and arrested. While the atmosphere is less severe than in other Arab countries, the constant fight towards legalising LGBT rights is a struggle with an ambiguous unknown end. The film is a masterpiece in its ability to convey significant political issues with such simplicity and emotional intensity.
The latter intensity was also emblematic of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s work Turbulent, a two-screen video installed inside a dark room in Aspinwall House. Iranian women are prohibited from performing in public, least of all from recording music. The political situation was blaringly conveyed in the video, where one screen projected a man singing a song in front of an all-male audience, his back towards them, a reminder of the hubris of this race. On the opposite screen, however, was a woman singing a song without language, in an empty auditorium. The male audience, while applauding the male singer stared shockingly at the woman. The dark space between the two screens, subsequently, was infiltrated with the cry of gender privilege and misogyny. The viewer, in turn, was left rotating his or her head left and right, unconsciously expressing solidarity with one or the other singer. The rebellious tone of Neshat’s piece is perhaps the artist’s resistance against the victimisation and subjugation of women.
Shilpa Gupta’s work For, in Your Tongue, I Can Not Fit - 100 Jailed Poets, installed in a room adjacent to Neshat’s work was an extension of the latter’s resistance against victimisation of both male and female gender. On entering a dimly-lit room, one found hundred microphones suspended from the ceiling and spears emerging from the ground, piercing through written verses of poets who were jailed for their political views and writings. The voices of these poets emanated from the microphones in an orchestrated fashion as an almost musical backlash against the silence that is forced upon them. Where one of the poets intones, Tomorrow, maybe they will kill us, Gupta, then, unshackles their voices before it is too late.
The urgency to take action, to rebel, to change, was only amplified in Bangladeshi artist Marzia Farhana’s work Ecocide and the Rise of Free Fall. The work paid homage to the floods that havocked Kerala in August 2018, affecting over a sixth of the state’s population and leaving approximately 220,000 homeless. Her installation, which is spread across four rooms, was constructed using items Farhana picked up from the destruction left behind by the floods. The sight of things like a fridge, washing-machine, washbasin, tables, chairs, all of them infused with the memory of the floods - suspended in mid-air - only just began to represent what transpired last year. The work was an urgent plea to call attention to the ecological crises facing our times. Through her work, she emphasised a restructuring of the balance between nature and humankind. We are suspended in a time of environmental chaos and a lack of complementarity with nature will inevitably bring about our fall.
This story is preceded by Un-silenced at the Kochi Biennale – Part I (The Clothesline by Monica Mayer) and followed by Un-silenced at the Kochi Biennale – Part III (Of instilling hope, and invoking insightful discussions).