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Top 10 must-see exhibits at Kochi Muziris Biennale ‘18-19

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

An art-replete guide for a perfect Biennale plan or for a flying weekend visit to this bi-annual contemporary art exhibition in Kochi, Kerala.

Cyrus Kabiru's 'Many Faces'

It’s the 4th edition of KMB, the youngest Biennale in the world. It’s been 2 years since I first heard that confounding word, and I’ve came a long way in discovering its pronunciation to demystifying how it bends the boundaries of art, globally.

KMB’s previous edition was an education in how art is no more an exercise of gawking at wall-hung pieces from multiple interpretive angles. I discovered not only radical medium of expressions, but I was also a co-creator, a co-imaginator and sometimes the art itself!

So this time, I felt geared with a rejuvenated artistic bent, expecting more. But that’s the thing about art. The moment you expect something of it, it gracefully mocks your meagre imagination.

‘Possibilites for a non-alienated life’ is the new theme. And it’s carefully put together by Anita Dube, the first lady curator of Kochi biennale. That’s your cue to what’s in store.

The Kochi Muziris Biennale ‘18-19 is woke!

It’s the alert voice to social injustice. Gender dialogues. Minority communities and tribes. Marginalized groups. Lesser-represented and lesser-privileged countries. A zoom in on capitalistic issues that presently don’t seem to hurt. Women-based themes. And, I couldn’t help notice, a generous representation of women artists itself.

KMB '18-19 is a movement trying to tip back the balance of a better life on our planet. Through its pieces it asks and searches for questions in the hope of a dialogue, not just amongst art lovers and activists. It hopes that the conversations percolate into the homes of lakhs of visitors.

Over 90 artists, from India and abroad, bring though-provoking themes and moving executions.

The true power of the work, though, comes from personal journeys of artists of discrimination, pain, displacement and coping. But not necessarily as victims.

The pieces are not just close to the creator’s heart, but it’s also close to their reality. And ours.

Here’s my pick of the top 10 artworks. It’s my compilation of freshness and finesse in subject matter and execution and, of course, what’s close to my heart and my reality.



Shilpa Gupta | At Aspinwall House

This multi-channel sound installation gives voice to 100 poets from around the world who have been imprisoned for their poetry and their beliefs.

This pick may seem somewhat of a paradox from my choice filters, because when I saw this, I had a throwback to ‘The Pyramid of Exiled Poets’ from Biennale ’17. I remember fleeing from there, the haunting voices of dead and exiled poet on the narrowing path of the pyramid too claustrophobic for me.

'In your tongue, I cannot fit' by Shilpa Gupta

This artwork, I went back to three times. I lingered, reading the stabbed sheets, waiting to hear parts of poetry, chasing them on the mikes, or just being able to sit on the floor, soaking in the power of the words.



Sue Williamson | At Aspinwall House

A large-scale installation based on accumulated records (from both sides of the Atlantic) of the history of slavery from the 16th to the 19th century. Rope fishing nets suspended from the ceiling are crowded with glass bottles containing traces of earth. Each bottle is hand-engraved in the handwriting of the log master of the time with information about a different slave: a name, a country of origin, a ship, an owner, a plantation, a price. Beneath the nets are pools. Chains of linked bottles hang from the nets into the pools. A portrayal of the displaced slaves, doomed whether in the safety of the net or spilling out, considered too feeble to survive.

'Message from the Atlantic passage' by Sue Williamson

According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. Some 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean, and South America.

In the cold environment of rot and abandonment, as you draw closer to the installation, you will discover each bottle honouring an individual with his/her true identity, plucking them out of the collective identity of ‘Slaves’.



Shirin Neshat | At Aspinwall House

A two-screen video installation on facing walls, in the same theatre, a man performs first to an audience full of male listeners, singing a traditional 13th century Sufi love song by Rumi. The woman follows, and performs to an empty venue. Her song does not adhere to any Islamic tradition, with indistinguishable sounds that straddle groaning and singing.

‘Turbulent’ is a response to how women singers in Iran are not allowed to perform alone in public.

The woman’s song is without words, a free-form melody, using her hands and face, an aberration from norms. Her lilting, throaty notes, powerful and primal, even shrieking in places, seeped under my skin. The absence of an applause from an empty audience is a scream of reality.

'Turbulent' by Shirin Neshat



BV Suresh | At Aspinwall House

Nothing represents the present intolerant mood in India better than this artwork. Critical of empty, hegemonic nationalism that stifles voices of diversity, at the centre of the room are a pile of peacocks, the emblem of India’s colourful diversity, However, these peacocks are albino, ripped at the neck and strewn. A distorted voice of a political leader, an easy guess as to who it belongs to, interjects periodically with an insinuating call to the nation.

The work recreates the confounding and absurd theatre of contemporary politics unfolding in the ruins of post-colonial dreams of nationhood.

For me, this topic is too close to home, as a lot of us weigh out our options before the elections of 2019. A constant, bold pounding of the laathisticks lining the walls of the art area, alerts the nation and act as a vigilante towards the political body to stay in line.



Chandan Gomez | At Aspinwall House

This body of work is from a book by the same name. Chandan, journeyed to find the family of a deceased young girl whose sketchbook of crayoned mountain ranges he discovered in a hospital in Jaipur, India. After 4 years of travelling, this culminated in a book including her drawings, and his photographs of places she had imagined in them, but probably had never been to.

Photography here bridges the space between fact and fiction. A hobby photographer myself, I found the reverse journey fascinating. This work elevated photographs from mere records of memories to objects that trigger memories and feelings.



Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar & Prima Kurien | At Cabral Yard

Indigenous rice at Edible Archive

Serving art on a plate, literally. An infra project that attempts to bring focus on varieties of indigenous rice that are inexorably being replaced by new hybrid varieties. The Edible Archives team has been travelling to source indigenous varieties in all their diversity and turning them into delicious meals for people to archive in their memories for ever.

This is an unassuming food stall at Cabral Yard, a pitstop to energize oneself for more time in the art pavilions. Perhaps the most consuming art of all.

Read more Edible Archive here

India's endangered rice turn into a plate of art



Bapi Das | At Aspinwall House

An erstwhile autorickshaw driver, presents the threads of life that crossed his rearview mirror and windows when he drove around Kolkata, India.

Intricate needlework and collaged pieces of fabric with a distinctive yellow-and-green rickshaw takes centerstage in the work, chapters from the life of rickshaw driving. It’s a tapestry of dreams and reality through the changing landscape of a lost city and lost dream.

'Lost in Transition' by Bapi Das

As if metaphorically, it takes a magnifying glass that hang next to his artwork, to appreciate what is lost to the naked eye. And, to dispel the photographic quality of his thread paintings.



Afrah Shafiq | At Kashi Town House

An Alice in Wonderland like adventure, Sultana’s Reality is stitched together with written accounts of different women, who would rather nap than read. Those who were stoned in the streets for wearing shoes and carrying umbrellas, those who read forbidden texts in secret at night, and those who went on to write books, telling their story in their own words.

The story is multi-media and told by re-imagining miniature paintings with fantastical animations and digital art forms. The humour in the challenging of societal conventions and the celebration of escapism strongly resonated with me as a woman in India.

Also presented online



Julie Gough | At Pepper house

A site-specific room installation at Pepper house, facing the sea, this was created in response to the artist’s stay in Kochi, which reminded her of her history and culture as Tasmanian Aboriginal people, sharing the coastal living and an oppressive past.

'Distance is a state of mind' at Pepper House

Giant shell necklaces, black crows [kaa kaa] made from dyed coir, that watch us all in both countries, a single ocean we all share along with the night sky and stars. It expresses that it’s one, just as we humans are one, like endless parallels. “Your kaakaa, black cockle shells and oyster look so much like ours.. the coconut water and shellfish even our ancestors ate.”

The artwork puts focus on the story of British colonization and annihilation of aboriginal culture in both countries, a shared oppression of ‘black crows’.



Cyrus Kabiru | At Aspinwall House

Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru uses electronic refuse and found metal to create eccentric pairs of sculptural eyewear that he calls C-Stunners.A photo series and a morph video of rotating shots to upbeat music, echo a fashion shoot as the artist literally tries on these ‘new identities’. It contends with how non-western artists are often pigeonholed into singular, national or regional categories.

This piece unleashes a playfulness in a distinctly Afro way to assert themselves and a need for individuality. To me, it was the much-needed relief in a rather loaded surrounding.



Lakshmi Madhavan | Kashi Art Gallery

Generosity is also an art so, here’s a bonus!

This artwork is quite tucked away in the far end of Kashi Art Gallery, hence a few experience it. It invokes you to use your own body as a transient living art object. You are asked to confront yourself in front of four mirrors that are labelled ‘Everybody” “Somebody” “Anybody” “Nobody”.

It converts you and your gaze into the art itself as you follow the instructions of a voice.

The work is almost spiritual where the body is dismantled both physically and conceptually mapping the journey from every/some/any/no to merely a body, represented by the shattered mirror around.

Things to know before you go

Nathan Coley's installation that comes alive after dark


12\12\18 TO 29\03\19


Rs 100 | Only issued at Durbar Hall & Aspinwall House

Online tickets - Bookmyshow

Allows 3 entries on a day into Aspinwall House [Different day will require a new ticket] and 1 entry to all other venues.

One ticket can be used across as many days till you exhaust the entries.

Free entry on Mondays

Free Guided Tour

Everyday at 11am and 3pm. Starts at Info Desk. Lasts about 2 hours.


Aspinwall House | Cabral Yard | David Hall | Kashi Art Café | Kashi Townhouse | Pepper House MAP Project Space | Anand Warehouse | TKM Warehouse | Durbar Hall

More information at kochimuzirisbiennale

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