A New Ecosystem for Art

A New Ecosystem for Art


Premjish Achari

The absence of a full-fledged government support for the contemporary arts in India has posed severe institutional problems for its dissemination, display and growth. This was hampered by the extensive economic recession faced by Indian art market post 2000. Nevertheless, several private foundations, biennales, and non-profit organisations are filling this vacuum in South Asia. Some of these non-profit initiatives which are creating a new art ecosystem apart from the numerous outreach programmes started by private foundations and curatorial platforms include Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Dhaka Art Summit, Colombo Art Biennial, Pune Biennial, etc. Kochi-Muziris Biennale is one of the first successful biennials of India. Started in December 2012 this large scale participatory platform has grown inclusively in the last few years and has received enormous public, private and state support. Unlike many other state governments the Kerala government has been an active supporter of this endeavour. Besides increasing the budget for the Biennale the government has also announced a permanent venue for it. The foundation also enjoys the patronage of private sponsors, artists, private foundations, galleries, etc. Apart from this what I find significant is the support it has received from various educational institutions, Kudumbashree the community organization of Neighbourhood Groups (NHGs) of women and the academia. This expansion of its viewership and participation has led the Kochi Biennale Foundation to come up with various outreach programs to extend their activities particularly those that emphasise the role of education.

New Ecosystem Pyramid

'The Pyramid of Exiled Poets' by Ales Steger

A few days ago, the President of India Pranab Mukherjee had visited the Biennale. There is a certain enthusiasm in the air. Despite the exhausting humid weather, children and adults flock to the venue and are engaging with the art. I am here to interview the artist-curator Bose Krishnamachari, the President of Kochi Biennale Foundation. Before entering the media room where Bose is waiting for me I panned my eyes on Aspinwall House, the primary venue. It is an old sea-facing heritage structure which originally housed Aspinwall & Company Ltd. established in 1867. The much talked about 'The Pyramid of Exiled Poets' by Ales Steger stands in the centre with school students exiting it as if awoken from a dream. I enter the room where Bose is giving instructions to the volunteers in the media room. Young volunteers share a laugh with him and he greets me and we sat down to discuss the various outreach programmes of KMB and its efficacy.

Bose Krishnamachari President

Bose Krishnamachari, President, Kochi Biennale Foundation

Premjish Achari: It is very unusual that the state is also offering its support, not only financially but in an extensive manner. Then there are also many private foundations and there is a visible public participation. This is something very unique. This is the third edition and how do you see this unique model surviving in the coming years? I would like to know how you have built this unique model where state, private foundations and public participation all come together.

Bose Krishnamachari: The model has always existed and the Cochin International Airport model is an example of this. It is supposed to be one of the finest and inclusive models of infrastructure development. The perception about Biennale has also changed because of the people who visited the last two editions. People from all class backgrounds have visited the biennale. This is the only cultural project in South Asia which has given such importance to education through which we could create a new ecosystem for sustainable art. Our programme places particular emphasis on the educational aspect. We are interested in art education which we missed while we were studying in Bombay and all these years. The patronage was absent; even the institutions did not have any sort of funds to provide for the students. So we made it clear that Student's Biennale is one of our most important projects and also this year we have ABC. Art By Children includes hundred schools from all over Kerala and particularly schools with limited resources which teach underprivileged children. A team of experts on art, music and theatre headed by Manu Jose travels to these schools and works directly with five thousand students.

Also once in a while we also have workshops in the Biennale Pavilion. We also work with members of Kudumbashree. There are 45 Kudumbashree members working with us who are interested in art. We conducted a workshop for a week, and held several slide presentations along with participating artists, experts, etc. The plan is to extend this program by establishing a month long residency at Pepper House. We will invite members from this group of people, maybe 15-20 in number. We have other initiatives which are education driven and involve the local public. We are very much involved in women empowerment. Also in sharing what we know about art. It is not only about contemporary art, we have programmes related to traditional practices as well.

children interact factory

Children interact with Ahmet Ogut's Workers Taking Over the Factory

Premjish Achari: You have used an important word 'ecosystem'. Your non-profit initiatives through the KMB have paved way for a new ecosystem where commerce does not play an important role. These platforms are supporting the growth of a sustainable art world, and are mitigating the damage caused by the recession. This model is getting replicated everywhere, we now have Pune Biennale, Bodhgaya Biennale, etc. What do you feel about all this especially as someone who has started the Biennial in face of considerable opposition? Does it make you happy that your model is getting replicated everywhere? Now there are also different foundations which are undertaking important work. Do you think that there is a very healthy environment for art?

Bose: It is important where you have a project like this. Why Kochi? Or Kerala for that matter? Kochi has always been a mirror for different cultures; it all started from the trade. When you talk about that we have received religions, and cultures through this exchange. It is important to talk about Muziris. Muziris had trade relations with more than 40 different countries. Dr. Cherian told us once when we visited the site at the Pattanam excavation, that when you dig one meter of land you find thousand years of history. When you go to two meters you find two thousand years of history and when you go a little deeper you find a different kind of culture. You could see the layers and material culture in the land itself. Even in Kochi there are more than 30 different kinds of communities who live and co-exist. There are 16 different languages; people speak Punjabi, Gujarati, French, etc. This is the finest location I think we could find for this Biennale.

When we were thinking of starting a Biennale we had less than ten thousand square feet of exhibition area. When we look at the history of contemporary Indian art, the first Triennale was started in India; it was a part of the Nehruvian vision. They established the various academies as part of nation building. We had the 1968 Triennale and sadly it fell apart. I have seen couple of them as I was studying in J. J. School of Art. You could only see the international contemporary art practices at such Triennials. Of course you can also ask why you want to see contemporary international art, why do you want to see original work of art?

But as a student I had felt that it is important to know what is happening internationally, moreover I am very much interested in the fusion of practice and theory.

Taking important lessons from 1968 and also from 2005 when we all tried to start a Biennale and requested 3 crores from the Delhi government which was not granted. Those were the dreams of all those people, about 300 delegates in all. MB happened when Minister M.A. Baby visited Bombay; we started our conversation and told him about our plans. When we got the initial funding we realised that it is important to have infrastructure for art and culture. So creating an ecosystem as I told you was always important for us. How do we make people engage with these activities and the art works? It is all about participation, for this very reason we thought of developing the Pepper House residency, library and the pavilion.

Pain Raul Zurita

The Sea of Pain, Raul Zurita

The Student's Biennale is another important programme. Students are made to engage with the interim period of the Biennial and during the time of the main Biennial they get the time to exhibit their works. This time we have 55 colleges and also several aspiring curators. We are learning a lot from the students and curators and trying to understand what is lacking in the art world. Around 460 student-artists are exhibiting in this programme. We are also learning what is missing in the student's practice. Maybe they don't have any kind of financial support. Most of the art institutions are under-funded. We are also working towards developing different ways of supporting them financially. These young aspiring curators get an opportunity to survey and study what is happening in India. This is a continuous process. We have already started work for the next edition. Currently we are working with 100 schools.

berlinale shorts inauguration

Bose Krishnamachari, Riyas Komu and others at the inauguration of Berlinale Shorts

Postscript: In the evening when the sun is gentle and the breeze is soothing I am sitting at the Cabral Yard to watch the short film festivals as part of Berlinale Shorts. As the first move begins, a group of young boys barge in the auditorium, laughing and cheering. They sit in the front row, attentively laughing at the scenes. Maybe this is exactly what the Biennale has achieved. It is beginning to nurture a young generation who is not intimidated by contemporary art and wants to claim it as theirs.

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