Kochi, India—Anita Dube is a strong and articulate woman. As the first female curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the largest biennale of its kind in South Asia, she has made it a point to platform artists from marginalised backgrounds, but not in your typical, tokenistic kind of way. Entitled “Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life,” the Kochi-Muziris Biennale brims with art works and projects that can be seen as model for curatorial ethics, activism and social engagement.

Priya Ravish Mehra, Installation view at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018, Courtesy of Kochi Biennale Foundation
Priya Ravish Mehra, Installation view at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018, Courtesy of Kochi Biennale Foundation

“At the heart of my curatorial adventure lies a desire for liberation and comradeship (away from the master and slave model) where the possibilities for a non-alienated life could spill into a politics of friendship,” Dube said.

The exhibition, constructed with reference to polyphony and music — is riddled with affect, sensuous and vulnerable, embracing voices that speak to the potential of art’s social co-efficiency.

Case in point is the work of Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, whose fantastic, research orientated installation combines photographs, a pool of water, and a table with historical and archival records. Seen together, these elements examine the pluralities of cultural exchange and identity rooted in the socio-geographic displacement of Indian soldiers who fought alongside the British during World War II. Invoking their internal displacement upon returning home, shamed for having fought alongside their colonial occupier, Palakunnathu Matthew’s installation looks at how these soldiers’ experiences could be read alongside a broader dialogue in reference to aesthetics and politics, revisionist histories from below, archives and cultural memory.

The work resonated with another large installation at Aspinwall House, the large sea-facing heritage property in Fort Kochi that serves as the biennale’s main venue. There, an installation by Sue Williamson entitled “Messages from the Atlantic Passage” investigates the accumulated records (from both sides of the Atlantic) of the slave trade. On the surface, the work contains five fishing-nets and around 2,000 glass bottles with soil hung from the ceiling. Entering the installation, one realises that each of the glass bottles are inscribed with the name of a slave. “The idea of the bottles and nets is based on how people were treated like very cheap commodities,” Williamson points out, who consulted historical records from the Cape Town Deeds Office that account the 17th-century enslavement of Indians who were bought to Africa by the Dutch East India Company.

The accumulated projects, discursive events and performances attest to the possibility of artistic mediation as a vehicle for comradeship and community, friendship and inter-cultural narratives. A timely biennale that speaks to the ability of art to embrace diverse audiences, different perspectives, contradictions and confusions, sentient to the possibility that through art, we can discover each other anew.

The biennale is on going until March 29