BENGALURU : Every location has the potential to tell stories, and there is a great need to incorporate art in the public space, says Riyas Komu, co-founder of Kochi Bienalle. Here’s an excerpt of his conversation with City Express.
How did you start your career? What inspired you to get into this kind of work?
I was very interested in textile design, and in 1991 I wrote the entrance exams for design schools such as NID and JJ. I didn’t get through either. After this, I trained myself for two months and applied again. I got through as one of the top candidates at JJ School of Arts. The political scenario at the time was tense, you know what happened in 1992, which changed my interests.
I then started responding politically in my work, teachers started appreciating it, and things started happening picking up. All of this made me a commentator. My art started responding to the violation, to people’s pain. There is also a consistent effort to talk about diversity and plurality — which were themes I continuously dealt with. The exhibitions I did always resonated with that. In that way, Kochi is an interesting site, and after Bienalle, people’s feeings towards it have also changed. Kochi also benefits from being a politically-conscious space.
Tell us about Kochi Bienalle. How will you take it forward?
Artistically, every location has a high potential for storytelling. If you look at Kochi, it is a micro-cosm of larger India. It has a lot of archaeological interest, maritime interest, cultural interest, religious interest and political interest — and when all this comes together, a lot is churned out. Thus, Kochi becomes a site for art production, new stories, new dialogues, new politics, new art events, which is possible in a city like Bengaluru as well. Art has no boundaries. In India, people are looking at contemporary art. Today, there are museums, there are smaller cultural institutions and residential programmes too. Even youngsters are responding to immediate political issues.
Counter surveillance is happening. We are in a system where we all feel like we are under surveillance. Youngsters are smart enough to use social media and the digital medium to put forth certain arguments. As per a study, only 2 % of people who go to art schools remain artists. More than 90% of them are pushed into doing other things. That’s what we are looking at - student and curriculum development is our key exercise. The ABC project we are looking at is promoting children to pursue art at a young age. At a young age, skills can be developed easily. Art is a catalyst that can bring change and set people free.
Talking about surveillance and political scenario, have you felt you’ve had to censor your art? Or anxious about not being able to fully express yourself?
There is always a space for that argument. The last show I did in Delhi, at a gallery called Holy Shiver, was on the importance of the Indian Constitution, as the document celebrates India’s diversity through illustrations by Nandalal Bose. 99% of the people don’t know that the Indian Constitution was built as an artwork to celebrate the diversity, which starts from the Harappan Civilisation till date. So I wanted to pass that on as the starting point of my show to argue on what nationalism is. At the same time, it looks at the importance of understanding history, listening to people, and stresses on conversations and possibilities. I am not under pressure. I cherish the diversity of this country.
That’s one reason I focused on Kochi, which has 36 communities living together in a four-km/ sq radius. It’s a story to be told in times like this. There is too much ignorance to direct a certain kind of dialogue. I also believe that fear has the capacity to unify. I think that is also what is happening in today’s political atmosphere — fear is unifying all of us. But why should we be fearful? We have an amazing tradition, where we can take references to celebrate a certain kind of structure, which we feel is getting disrupted. My interest in art is such that I will keep asking certain questions, I will keep arguing for values of certain symbolism. I don’t think I’m under pressure as such. As long as I can do it, I’ll keep doing it.