In his monumental BBC documentary series ‘Ways of Seeing’, John Berger discusses how, when we view a work of art, we do not always see what the artist intended for us to see. Berger illustrates this with a judicious example of Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Wheatfield with Crows’. As viewers, we see the amber sun, a farmer’s harvest and the magnificent murder of crows flying past a glorious wheat field. Moments later, Berger introduces us to a startling shift in perspective, revealing how the landscape was in fact the last that Van Gogh had painted before he killed himself.
As the fourth edition of India’s grandest art festival ‘The Kochi Muziris Art Biennale’ draws to a close, Unfactory brings you a gripping bird’s eye review of this year’s stellar oeuvres on display through the discerning eyes of two remarkable women: Art Historian, Professor and Curator of repute, Prof. Rajani Prasanna Hebbar; and Bangalore based Designer, Surabhi Prasanna Gurukar… daughter and granddaughter extraordinaire of the legendary Indian artist, Padma Bhushan Padma Shree KK Hebbar.
When Art is your Bloodline
Growing up in a house crackling with creative vigour, infused with the scents of paint, turpentine and linseed oil, surrounded forever by a possé of artists, writers and litterateurs; art appreciation has undoubtedly been ingrained in the veins of this exceptional mother-daughter duo. Just back from their annual sojourn to the Art Biennale, the pair reminisced and shared their critique and impressions over cosy rounds of coffee and Kerala banana chips, in their tastefully appointed home that houses close to a hundred paintings from artists across genres and eras – from Surrealist to Post-Impressionist, Contemporary and many more.
Rajani: Art in the earlier days was all about heart and stuff you could relate to. Conceptual installations, in fact, started in the early ’90s with artists’ interpretations of home appliances and other such everyday utilitarian objects… stuff people could relate to… things that you saw around you. These days, art does not seem to come from the heart any more. On the contrary, there’s too much coming from the head. The Greek Trojan war, Mythology… surprisingly, installations today have ceased to look at everyday themes for inspiration.
Surabhi: So you asked us to hand-pick our favorites from the Biennale this year and here we are. Going by my shortlist, guess I have chosen quite a few ‘graphic’ pieces. This year, the Kochi Biennale had Anita Dubey as its first woman curator, and interestingly, a majority of the themes were ‘inclusive’ considering, as Dubey puts it, the ‘possibilities for a non-alienated life’. Personally though, I found some of the feminist concepts a bit passé at times, you know, the kind of stuff I remember from my design course books nearly 20 years ago. There were remarkable oeuvres, no doubt, though at times you wish the scale at which they were presented was different – it is not just the content that matters, it is also the best use of space. Sometimes you need the painting or the photograph to be a lot bigger so it can draw you in. I saw a lot of interactivity in the showcases this year, perhaps even more than the previous years.
Mad about Madeleine
Rajani: All this play with graphics these days is a little beyond me. For me, art should be warm, from the heart. Like it was in the days of Van Gogh and Gauguin. There is this incident from Gauguin’s life that comes to mind. He had fallen deeply in love with his dear friend Emile’s sister, Madeline, but her mother was clearly not in favour. Later, when Madeline gets married to someone else, on her wedding day, Gauguin gifts her a ceramic piece he had put together – a pot with the symbol of a bird – signifying freedom, perhaps from being closed in, while also implying that the giver of the gift concealed as much heat (fervour) inside, as the kiln that made the pot! Now that is art from the heart for you. And it does not necessarily come with a ‘conceptual art degree’.
Of sunsets and matchboxes
Hush… this is no ordinary mother-daughter story we are listening to, rather two generations that grew up listening to debates on art, literature and culture on an everyday basis. Living odes to a childhood spent under the watchful eyes of a doting artist father/grandfather… who would insist that the children drew at least 5 sketches every single day… or researched a subject of their choice in grave detail (as random as matchboxes) for the holidays … and lived as active observers, soaking in the beauty of nature around them, seeking more than just a mountain in a mountain, or a tree within a tree. For Rajani and Surabhi, music speaks in colors as much as rhythms, caves put on dramatic attires at the stroke of sunset, and art ceases to be art for art’s sake, or mere investments that reap rich dividends; but living breathing extensions of the grand canvas called life. So sit back and enjoy as they share with us their picks of the finest beasts and beauties from the Biennale.
Pangrok Sulap, Malaysia
A young travelling art activists’ collective, Pangrok Sulap engages rural communities in creative projects that narrate the politics of their land, livelihood and social well-being through the visual arts: creating large-scale impressive wood block prints that represent the diverse legends of each locale – be it access to clean water, immigration rights, rural traditions or folk stories –culminating in a performative unveiling of the work transferred on to print as a collaborative effort.
Surabhi: The sheer scale and epic form of their woodcut narratives puts the viewer in awe. Goes to prove that size does matter in art. When artists overlook this, it often compromises the impact.
Rajani: It is good to see traditional art forms coming back to relevance in contemporary settings.
William Kentridge, South Africa
Kentridge’s charcoal drawing-based films date back to the late turbulent years of South African apartheid. In ‘More Sweetly Play the Dance’, a cast of historically significant silhouetted figures carry cut-outs of cages, plants, suitcases, bathtubs and other human belongings, stepping in line to the tunes of a brass band, across the video installation’s eight screens. Emaciated figures on IV drips and those carrying body bags alluding to the Ebola crisis; political protestors tossing pamphlets and holding microphones; are all part of the parade. And yet, there’s a sense that their voices are unheard.
Surabhi: An arresting piece, though it does not really cover today’s South Africa. It would have been fabulous too to showcase the elaborate work behind the scenes; the process that went in to the making of it all – could have made the audience appreciate the finer details perhaps even more.
Rajani: If you look at the old masters… Raphael, Da Vinci… they did not always work solo, they worked with a team of people too. So those trends are all coming back and that is interesting to see.
Heri Dono, Indonesia
A fantastical storyteller, Dono combines powerful theatrical styles, sounds, puppetry forms, figurative elements, mythological and historical references, to weave in a unique global-local flavor in his works. A re-look at the Western Epics through Indonesian Maritime culture, ‘The Trojan Ships’ is an installation of three flying boats inspired by the Greek Trojan Horse myth, but carries instead, figures on peace missions, rather than agents of war and deception. ‘Smiling Angels from the Sky’ presents pleasant-faced hanging angels resembling toy airplanes, as universal symbols of hope, unbound by any singular culture or religion. One of his earliest works ‘Fermentation of the Mind’ is a startling commentary featuring human minds as mechanical contraptions that nod their heads to garbled propaganda. His studio in Jakarta is named ‘Kalahan’ which intriguingly means ‘Failure’.
Surabhi: Religion and culture should try and bind people together and not break them apart like a vast majority of the politicians and media unfortunately have done over the years. Dono’s works succeed in bringing this perspective alive – his themes are universal and easy to connect to, irrespective of the space or style. Synchrony, repetition, symmetry, division and walls – all come together to make the best use of space in his oeuvres.
Rajani: The interplay of technology and techniques has transformed the way we appreciate art these days. It is difficult for old artists to adapt to fast changing technologies without the fear of being left behind. At the same time, it is easier for young students to lose sight of the basics – in the race to master techniques and get conceptual art degrees, they lose track of perspective, and most importantly, forget that art is not just about being cerebral, it has to come primarily from the heart.
EB Itso, Denmark
Turning the spotlight on people and places that are often overlooked or deliberately neglected, Itso’s subversive style brings alive the underbelly of urban spaces. At the Biennale this year, Itso hung a huge rubber tire in mid-air, the kind found in heavy machinery used for construction projects in Kerala – the piece was titled ‘Mr. Sun (Slow Violence)’. The overwhelming presence of the tire points to the impact of development and illegal constructions (which often goes unnoticed under the garb of urbanization), the disastrous outcomes of which was the floods that hit Kerala, and the plight of farmers forced to relinquish their land. In 2015, when rubber prices crashed, several farmers committed suicide in Kerala, some hanging themselves from a rubber tree.
Surabhi: This was indeed a piece of the times, it was so today! Everything just made perfect sense, until my eye fell on the sponsor’s name: a prominent tire manufacturing company. That sort of dampened the effect a bit, but it is indeed a powerful memorable piece, no doubt.
War Lords, Post Cards & Mosquito Deities
In the US, where Rajani taught as Professor of Indian Art History at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and Surabhi spent a fair share of her high school years, children are exposed to art through museum visits and galleries at a tender young age. In the UK, where Surabhi later pursued design, it was a standard for art to be appreciated in a completely cerebral manner. “Ooh It’s a box. What do you think?” would be the most predictable reaction to a cardboard carton, lest it were to be hung up in a gallery, quips Surabhi pulling off a neat British accent with the hint of a smirk on her face. Nevertheless, the duo did enjoy several of the conceptual pieces that were on display at the Biennale 2018…
Vivian Caccuri’s piece that depicts how mosquitoes have shaped colonial history, set against the backdrop of embroidered nets and the sound of mosquitoes mating – where she elevates the insect to the status of a contemporary deity. Barthelemy Toguo’s ‘Head Above Water’ in which he lets school students jot down memories of the recent flooding in Kochi on self-addressed water colour postcards. And, Walid Raad’s ‘Comrade Leader – You’d better be watching the clouds’ in which faces of political leaders from the Lebanese Civil War are juxtaposed on pictures of flora native to the Middle East… and ‘I Thought I’d Escape my Fate but Apparently’ in which quotations by artists, historians, writers and more are displayed … statements that the artist wishes he had made himself, or would never make.
Rajani: Some of the ideas were universally relevant…like pieces that showcased how when people die en masse at war, they truly die ‘secular’ given that there is no one really around to bury them as per rites or religious dictates. When war happens or a calamity occurs, death becomes a true leveller, be it the Tsunami in Tamil Nadu or the Civil War in Lebanon. These are poignant thoughts really and universal, unlike works that are region-specific or topical, like Kenridge’s, that throws light on the Ebola crisis in South Africa.
Surabhi: There were pieces that delved deeper into the world of Gays, Lesbians and Transgenders too. Some of them were a bit too literal, in the face, like the one that showcased an entire behind-the-scenes transgender make-up session; but few others handled the subject more subtly, sensitively…like the series on gay and lesbian footballers in their natural surroundings, sharing their real ‘coming out’ experiences. Then again, as Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh’s ‘Portraits of People’ rightly proclaims: “A city bears many stories, even the ones you don’t want to hear.”
[There were of course several more notable pieces … Beirut filmmaker Rania Stephan’s ‘Trains Trains: A Bypass’ that inspects how we forget, rewrite and influence our histories…Bangalore based BV Suresh’s ‘Canes of Wrath’ an articulation of how the current political context feeds off the hate that it generates… ‘Salaam Chechi’, Neelima Sheikh’s tribute to the Malayali Nurse… the ‘Clothesline Project’ by Monica Meyers that lets visitors anonymously answer the question: When was the first time you were sexually harassed? How did you feel?… the old Upcycled Weavers’ Looms that played music by the Aspinwall House…Shilpi Gupta’s multi-channel sound installation that lends voice to 100 imprisoned poets… the striking imagery of one hundred men nailed to coconut trees (like female witches of yore)… Lubna Chowdhary’s ‘Metropolis’ of 1000 ceramic sculptures…the Guerilla Girls with their startling revelations on women artists featured in New York museums and galleries down the ages… 108 elephants made of Lantana leaves by villagers in the foothills of the Nilgiris… the tongue-in-cheek video graphic History of Indian Women revealing tales untold of women who hid the fact that they could read… and many more… but we could run out of space here, were we to revisit them all, so let’s end this beautiful soiree of recollections with the last four favorite picks.]
Bapi Das, Kolkata
The city comes alive like never before in Bapi Das’ spectacular embroidered panels, recreating years of observances from his life as, hold your breath, an auto rickshaw driver! That’s right. Layering intricate needlework with collaged pieces of fabric, with the ubiquitous yellow-and-green rickshaw taking centrestage, ‘Missing Route 3’ recreates Das’ visual memory of the city scenes and landscapes that have passed through the frame of his rickshaw’s window. A piece you just cannot criticize. The chronicling of elements that are unusually paired together (and perspectives that resemble a star art student’s) lend a dream-like charm to this one-of-a-kind oeuvre.
Anoli Perera, Sri Lanka
Through her striking photographic series, ‘I Let My Hair Loose’, Anoli Perera revisits childhood memories of black-and-white portraits in her grandmother’s family albums – polite compositions beside teak tables and mirrors, that sealed women’s status as complacent objects of patriarchy. Using the simple stark gesture of covering the women’s faces with their hair, Perera re-stages the familial images that populate Sri Lankan homes to ‘block the male gaze’, transforming them into something disagreeable, even uncontrollable like Medusa’s hair (bringing to mind Karnataka’s legendary Akkama Devi and the biblical Mary Magdalene) in protest of a male dominated social order. Captivating!
Shirin Neshat, Iran
After witnessing an extraordinary performance by a blind female singer on the streets of Istabul, Neshat created ‘Turbulent’, a dual screen video display showcasing two Iranian singers – one male and the other female. Standing in the same theatre, the man performs a 13th century Rumi love song to an audience full of male listeners. The woman follows, but performs to an empty venue, in indistinguishable sounds that resemble muffled groaning. Turbulent is a startling response to how women singers in Iran are not allowed to perform, let alone lead performances, in public.
Chandan Gomes, New Delhi
After chancing upon the sketchbook of a deceased young girl in a hospice in Jaipur, Chandan Gomes journeyed to trace her family. ‘This World of Dew’ is the culmination of four years of travelling, captured in a showcase including the little girl’s crayoned drawings of mountain ranges she had dreamt of and Gomes’ real photographs of the beautiful places she had imagined.
The Last Leaf
Little before her father passed away, Rajani reminisces how he had got home a colorful little almond leaf and painted it, alluding to it as his true-to-life self-portrait. For a man who had lived a full life, rising from mere humble beginnings to become one of India’s most celebrated and awarded artists of all time, KK Hebbar had indeed lived a full life on earth, and like an almond leaf, returned to it with full colours, just as vibrantly as he had lived. Today, his memories live on as two beautiful accomplished women, one, a celebrated art historian and professor, the other, a talented designer, both of whom we’ve just relished chatting to. Couldn’t help thinking of Vincent’s dreamy almond blossoms that symbolize a new awakening, now could you?
Image Courtesy: All images contributed by Surabhi Prasanna.