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Injustice, Power and the Alienated Self

Reflections on the 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life. Part 2

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Rana Hamadeh, 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Courtesy Kochi Biennale Foundation.

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It was there, in the pavilion on day 3 of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), that the possibilities for a non-alienated life seemed to be disappearing just as they were being conjured. There was an acute sense of solidarity and disappointment in equal measures. I felt part of a movement, a significant event that displayed resistance to the inequalities around us but I knew that the beneficiaries were not listening. As Bruce Robbins aptly reminds us, when seeking to make genuine humanitarian transformations, we are not separate from the changes we seek to make, and “the target has to include ourselves” (1). Since writing the first instalment of this piece, the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) has announced that Riyas Komu would be reinstated in his previous position and that the investigation into the allegations made against him would be dropped.  This amid on-going claims of injustice, with various contractors and labourers claiming they are owed up to 7 lakh rupees (700,000rs, approximately 14,000 Australian Dollars). There is obviously something amiss here at the KBF, allegations being dropped, allegations being raised, and meanwhile, the show goes on. In fact, instead of scaling down operations, the KMB is set to become a bigger festival in years to come. At the closing ceremony on March 29, president of KBF Bose Krishnamachari announced that the next KMB in 2020 would run 120 days, 12 days longer than previously, and that KBF will be looking to establish a parallel design biennale, stretching the already straining ties that bring this festival together.

But to focus entirely on these moments of anonymity, silence, insurrection and injustice, would fail to give due credit to the many artworks featured in the 2018 exhibition that do push back against patriarchy, and the service of capital. Anita and the rest of the curatorial team, along with the production, programming, and communication teams, worked tirelessly to deliver what in many regards was a significant occasion in Indian art history – a major international art event with a substantial focus on queer identities and female labour. In many ways, the works exhibited capture the essence of the curatorial intent, even if the foundation behind the event was not yet able—or willing?—to embody that essence.

Zanale Muholi’s portraits of people who identify as queer, powerfully posed, graced the walls of the popular venue and café David Hall as well as the outer perimeter of the main pavilion wall. Along the busy Fort Kochi road in view of the public buses that drive past every day, these portraits were in larger scale. Each person was captured gazing directly at the camera, with confidence and passion, but in a manner that negated any suggestion of spectacle. As Ghatam Bhan aptly put it in his ‘let’s talk’ session in the pavilion during the second week of the Biennale, the power that often resides behind the camera has been redistributed to the subject in these portraits, emanating an affect and disposition that is very striking. This declaration and celebration of queerness is a powerful public statement in contemporary India, one that represents and further enables the “everyday of queer lives” (2).

Zanale Muholi, 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Courtesy Kochi Biennale Foundation.
Zanale Muholi, 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Courtesy Kochi Biennale Foundation.

Chrita Ganesh reimagined a queer cosmology through a series of psychedelic and often unsettling animations in her four-piece installation, situated in the ground floor of the main biennale venue Aspinwall House. These animations took key mythological figures of the South Asian region and re-interpreted through a strong female lens, often incorporating elements of death, rebirth, and predictions of a more just and ecological future. Drawing inspiration from and making associations between ancient mythology and contemporary feminist activism, Ganesh weaves a brave, powerful narrative with a unique and captivating vibrancy that travels across time and space.

Rana Hamadeh, a sound artist from Lebanon, presented perhaps the most experimental, challenging, and powerful installation for this edition of the KMB. In a dark room, surrounded by different shapes and sizes of speakers often hidden in the shadows, Can You Make a Pet of Him Like a Bird or Put Him on a Leash for Your Girls? was a subtle work with bold intent. Hamadeh challenged the narratives of patriarchy and nationalism by drawing on the performativity of the Shiite Muslim ceremony of Ashura and re-contextualising it. By playing with repetition, interruption, and disorientation throughout the piece the voice of the narrator, while present and powerful, is diffused, rendered illegible and void. Chains rattled, gasps echoed, and clapping reverberated, all swirling into an apt commentary on the disjuncture felt whenever someone speaks without the power to be heard.

Despite my enjoyment of these and many other works of art in the festival, by the end of my time in Kochi I felt alienated among them. As Sara Ahmed states, “we become alienated when we do not experience pleasure from proximity to objects that are attributed as being good” (3). As news of the inconsistencies among the KBF organisation continue to make headlines, particular along gendered lines of labour and power, the enjoyment one could experience in these spaces became clouded, and in its wake a feeling of hypocrisy and neglect began to surface. As these battles for justice continue, I think of Mary Douglas’ work on public memory, where “memory is sustained by institutional structures” (4), and how, where institutional memory is taken as sacred, it is now the role of the alienated to push back.

Chitra Ganesh, 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Photo: Matt Barlow.
Chitra Ganesh, 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Photo: Matt Barlow.