A large expanse of red, models made from the local coir, a mirrored spinning cylinder that raises questions of normal vs abnormal, a library card cabinet telling the untold stories of Sri Lanka, everyday lives in war-torn Kashmir captured before they change, cinema that leaves you wanting more, waters and sunsets that have found themselves into art through the times… All varieties of art that’s experimental, experiential, engaging; art that I wish I had more time to take in. I spent three days at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. This is the third edition of one of India’s largest art festivals, and my first time at the festival and in Fort Kochi.
I must say I’m quite in love with both. The festival is spread across the town, in 12 main venues and a bunch of other collateral locations. While I expected to stick out amid art experts, patrons and art enthusiasts, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of those, who like me, had no expertise in art but decided to come anyway. Tip from the trip: never under estimate the knowledge or the handiness of an auto-driver. They will be your best informant, friend, map and guide. Coming back to the point, the festival helped me learn about and see the works of many talented women artists. I’m still unsure if male artists outnumber women at the biennale, but I was glad I caught the ‘Cooperative consciousness’ exhibition, by the pioneering women’s cooperative gallery AIR (Artists in Residence). Curated by Kathryn Myers and co-curated by Jayanthi Moorthy featuring 16 female artists, it featured works of women I love and hadn’t heard of earlier.
But as I wandered through their works I realised that if I had to reel off a list of artists I know, most of them would be men. Any list for that matter, be it authors, activists, astrophysicists or anthropologists, requires research, and effort on ones part to include women, because you know, ‘male’ experts on any subject are easy to find. And till we each have a gender balance on all of our lists from each of the fields, we need to go that extra mile to ensure we actively think of women when we draw together names, make those names role models, and encourage girls to dream, till they have no doubt that they can make these lists.
Remember the piece of news about the Ohio bookstore that flipped all male-authored books on women’s day? It left behind a canvas of white in which the spines of female-authored books made a few rare appearances; a simple act (of art one could say) that pointed out the inequalities that women face in publishing... just as they do in every other field. When I say women, I mean everyone who identifies as not male. When I say women on lists and panels, I don’t mean the ‘Neeya Naana’ sorts that have young and old ones argue about dowry without questioning marriage. When the time comes to walk out of that cocoon of stately momentary empowerment onto the street with a smile, it’s still early evening, and the street is well lit.
And from a dark corner, a lewd kissing noise startled me out of my reverie. I’m on high alert mode now. My angry self. To create space for art is one thing, but we need art and women on the streets. For that I don’t need to know artists, just where to make the art, a few bottles of spray paints, and lots of women. If you find images from the Kama Sutra or great graffiti on Chennai walls, you can be sure of who is responsible. And another tip from the trip: don’t let a great trip get to your head, because Chennai Central auto drivers don’t change in just three days. (The writer is a Chennai-based activist, in-your-face feminist and a media glutton)