The Best of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale has become a pilgrimage of sorts where you can immerse yourself completely in art. This 4th edition is curated by artist Anita Dube, and runs from 12 December, 2018 until 29 March, 2019. With 93 artists from around the world featured, displays spread over 10 venues, the Biennale can be overwhelming and yet leave you asking for more.  

Here is my selection of a few artists and their work at the 2018 Biennale that I feel has the potential to make you think, wonder and reflect. While one artist can bring your attention to external realities, such as ecological degradation or the conditions of marginalised mining workers, another artist might evoke a reflection on the fragility of our bodies and existence. Here Art is working powerfully, across its full spectrum, capable of satisfying our appetite for aesthetics as well as serve as a political tool to bring our attention to important issues that face us.  

If one truly attempts to understand the context that the artist and the curator place the art in, or if you allow yourself to come up with interpretations that are completely your own – there is very little chance that you will remain to be the same person you were before visiting the Biennale.

Note: This post focuses on Indian artists who were featured in the 2018 edition. (My apologies to William Kentridge, Guerilla Girls and other noteworthy international artists.)

1. Shambhavi Singh

Maati Maa (Earth Mother)

Shambhavi’s installation at the biennale seeks unity between the iron installations representing hasiya (sickle) and the rehat (water garland). While the sickle is a farming tool that can also double up as a weapon, the water garland in disuse can be used to “regenerate seeds disappearing from our consciousness”.

In her observation of the pulsating silence and darkness of the vast landscape, she sees Earth (mother) with reverence and irony. The artist identifies a friction between depictions of the idyllic pastoral and the precarity of the peasant.

Shambhavi practice is largely non-figurative and focuses on the relationship between man and nature, as well as the precarious social and metaphysical condition of the agricultural worker.

Installation view | Maati Maa (Earth Mother) | Shambhavi
Installation view | Maati Maa (Earth Mother) | Shambhavi 
Installation view | Maati Maa (Earth Mother) | Shambhavi 
Installation view | Maati Maa (Earth Mother) | Shambhavi 
VIDEO documentation | Maati Maa (Earth Mother) | Shambhavi

2. Nilima Sheikh

Salam Chechi

In this work, the Baroda-based artist takes inspiration from the global presence of Malayalee nurses. Often working in other parts of the country, the Middle-East and other regions, the mass exodus of female nurses from Kerala present a rational and emotional capacity among women in the region, that they make their livelihoods from.

The various scenes in her wood panels celebrate the unsung heroes of the medical field — nurturing, maternal women in the state of Kerala — who travel to alien lands, away from their families to take on roles that perhaps no one else wants to in caring , for the ailing often while living in less than ideal conditions.

The title of the work, Salam Chechi is a salute to these women who are sisters to all, and their natural affinity towards one of the most laborious and indispensable roles in the world.

Installation view | Salam Chechi | Nilima Sheikh
Installation view (detail) | Salam Chechi | Nilima Sheikh
Installation view (detail) | Salam Chechi | Nilima Sheikh
Installation view (detail) | Salam Chechi | Nilima Sheikh
Nilima Sheikh

3. Arunkumar HG

Con-struction I, Con-struction II, and Vulnerable Guardians

Arunkumar’s work maps the complex relationship between ecological issues, informed by his childhood and the wasteful urban industrial mode of thinking and living that he faces within the city. His use of material is carefully considered. By recycling, reclaiming and reworking industrial waste, especially packaging wood from scrap yards, he not only comments on environmental issues, but indicates a rebirth for this material.

Con-struction I and Con-struction II, stress on the prefix “con” to point to the deception in the developmental model. His large and hollow anthropomorphic figures loom in the space as divine spectres.

For Vulnerable Guardians, he photographed small-scale farmers who were affected by the agrarian crisis — largely the result of genetic modification of seeds and monopoly farming. This forced many to migrate to the cities and find odd jobs, often as security guards to be able to support their families left behind in the village. These digitally printed portraits on reclaimed wood position them as imperilled, lost guardians of ecology.

Installation view | Con-struction sculptures | Arunkumar HG
Installation view | Con-struction sculptures | Arunkumar HG
Installation view (detail) | Con-struction sculptures | Arunkumar HG
Installation view | Vulnerable Guardians | Arunkumar HG
Arunkumar HG

4. Priya Ravish Mehra

In the body of work on view, Priya has extended the idea of ‘invisible’ repair in rafoogari darning by combining fragments of her rejected weaves with paperpulp, reconstituting both fibres. Two entities consequently come together with jagged, dissonant effects. She saw both mediums as essentially one, since they arise from the same source: paper pulp comes from natural fibres, as do the discarded cloth scraps that she recycled.

“I employ the metaphor of rafoogari or traditional darning to invoke sudden, unexpected and violent rupture in our daily experience. It is a symbolic affirmation of the place, significance and act of existential ‘repair’. The natural ‘cloth’ fibres disappear into the paper, the natural ‘paper’ fibres vanish into the cloth”

Installation view | Priya Ravish Mehra
Installation view | Priya Ravish Mehra
Artwork detail | Priya Ravish Mehra (Photo courtesy: Gallery Threshold)
Installation view | Priya Ravish Mehra
Priya Ravish Mehra [ 1961 –2018 ]

5. Prabhakar Pachpute

Resilient Bodies in the Era of Resistance

Prabhakar Pachpute’s work explores the effect of India’s industrial decrees on the lives of mine workers. He highlights the grievances of Indian farmers who have recently come together to organize protests — in Mumbai, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and elsewhere — to demonstrate against the lack of government support in the face of declining income, crippling debt and corruption.

Prabhakar populates his mural installations with scenes rendered in the dark, heavy lines of charcoal. His works bring viewers into the scarred landscapes and underground arenas that coal miners inhabit. Pachpute illustrates the laborers of mines with an air of proverbial poetry — he puts an axe head or lamp where a human head should sit, and bodily proportions range from oversized to miniature

Installation view | Resilient Bodies in the Era of Resistance | Prabhakar Pachpute
Installation view (detail) | Resilient Bodies in the Era of Resistance | Prabhakar Pachpute
Installation view | Resilient Bodies in the Era of Resistance | Prabhakar Pachpute
Installation view | Resilient Bodies in the Era of Resistance | Prabhakar Pachpute
Installation view (detail) | Resilient Bodies in the Era of Resistance | Prabhakar Pachpute
Prabhakar Pachpute

6. Chandan Gomes

There are the Things I Call Home, This World of Dew

In Gomes’ intimate and narrative approach to practice, the format of a book takes on special meaning, often becoming his preferred mode of presentation. His books resemble the personal objects that one owns, collects and carries with them.

In the book There are the Things I Call Home (2009-2012) Gomes took photos of the objects in his childhood home in an attempt to resolve the feeling of alienation he felt towards his family growing up.

For another project he journeyed to find the family of a deceased young girl whose sketchbook of crayoned mountain ranges he discovered in a Hospice in Jaipur. After four years of travelling, this culminated in This World of Dew (2011-15), a book including her drawings, and his photographs of places she had imagined in them, but probably had never been to. (Previously featured on Curious India here)

Chandan’s photographic explorations are a testament to how an artistic practice can be utilized to better understand and reconcile with life’s most perplexing phenomena — loss, loneliness, and growing up. For him, photography occupies a liminal space between fact and fiction, where the photographic object is able to trigger memories and feelings — contrary to the popular notion that photographs record memories. His process is often immersive, where he submits to a ‘feeling’ or inspiration for several years at a stretch and then slowly, threads his material together to weave a narrative.

Installation view | Chandan Gomes
Installation view | Chandan Gomes
Installation view | Chandan Gomes
Installation view | This World of Dew | Chandan Gomes
Installation view | Chandan Gomes
Chandan Gomes

7. Mrinalini Mukherjee

Sculptures, watercolours and etchings

Mrinalini primarily worked with natural fibres to raise yoginis, yakshasis, vulva-like forms and other anthropomorphic archetypes, which can be read as decidedly feminist. She crafted fibre forms from hemp, preferring a technique of knotting as opposed to weaving. This resulted in a totem-like monumentality for forms that evoke animal, vegetal and sexual imagery.

Mrinalini occasionally made watercolours and etchings. While the watercolour works are studies of foliages, her etchings are nature studies that have captured the qualities of rain, sunset, storm and moon-light. This focus on nature finds expression through the water colours and etchings by her on view at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018.

Installation view | Mrinalini Mukherjee
Installation view | Watercolour painting | Mrinalini Mukherjee
Installation view | Mrinalini Mukherjee
Installation view | Mrinalini Mukherjee
Mrinalini Mukherjee [ 1949 – 2015]

8. Shilpa Gupta

For In Your Tongue, I Can Not Fit -100 Jailed Poets

This installation at the Biennale expands on the artist’s investigations of political borderlines, and how they exist beyond maps to the invisible mechanisms of control and surveillance. The work is an installation of one-hundred speaking microphones that sit above corresponding stakes that each pierce a page of poetry. Recitals of a different poet’s work emanate from each microphone in a synchronized chorus.

All of the writers who are represented, some living decades or centuries ago, were imprisoned for their poetry or politics, and the installation gives voice to their forced silence. Incarceration instigates a physical boundary between prisoners and the free world. However this installation points to how orchestrated oppression is harder to detect as it renders those imprisoned voiceless and invisible.

Installation view | For In Your Tongue, I Can Not Fit -100 Jailed Poets | Shilpa Gupta
Installation view | For In Your Tongue, I Can Not Fit -100 Jailed Poets | Shilpa Gupta
Installation view | For In Your Tongue, I Can Not Fit -100 Jailed Poets | Shilpa Gupta
VIDEO documentation | For In Your Tongue, I Can Not Fit -100 Jailed Poets | Shilpa Gupta
Shilpa Gupta

Artwork photographs taken by Vaibhav Mathur
Artist portraits courtesy of KMB2018
Artwork description text adapted and edited from the Short Guide to KMB 2018 published by the Kochi Biennale Foundation.

Gipin Varghese’s watercolour chronicles of oppression and resistance in India

Gipin Varghese | The Dust We Breathe
The Dust We Breathe | Watercolour on paper | 7″ Diameter | 2014

Gipin Varghese’s body of work, Lifetimes, is a powerful and important series of work that explores violence, death and struggle emerging from non-urban contexts within India.

On the series, Boohma Padmanaban writes: Employing a semi-illustrative language Varghese goes about ‘re-documenting’ popular images from sensationalised news stories. Through this slow act of capturing on paper with paint the flashing news images about social violence, he pays tribute to the human element of loss, suffering and struggle that is forgotten in today’s fast-paced world. The works are about the lives of ordinary men and women whose bodies slowly ebb away under their daily struggle against systems that exclude them and their needs. Their stark frames, gestures and postures amplify the hardship and violence people endure, yet shy away from creating a sense of spectacle or shock.

Gipin describes to us the three types of works from his series:

There are three types of works — one about natural knowledge and the spirit of humans to resist something that causes harm to their lives. The second is a strange kind of intolerance (in society) towards love and interrelationships between different social groups. The third is about people waiting undesired death.

The first one is about the reaction of common people to losing their habitat. Situations like Kundankulam nuclear strike, Khandwa Jal Satyagraha to save farming land, Mithilesh Virdi anti-nuclear strike, Dongria-Khond against mining company Vedanta in Niyamgiri Hills, Odisha etc. here we can see the spirit of protest in common people, a kind of natural knowledge about ecology, their value for it and wish to be closer to nature. People find innovative modes of protest, and I study them as a phenomenon which has parallels worldwide.

Gipin Varghese | Commonly Caught Species
Commonly Caught Species (Detail view) | Watercolour on paper | 9” X 117″ | 2013

Niyam Giri Hills Orissa | Four Works About Resistance 

A work about resistance | Watercolour on paper | 5″ X 17″ | 2013

Gipin Varghese | Commonly Caught Species
Commonly Caught Species (Detail view) | Watercolour on paper | 5″ X 17″ | 2013

Gipin Varghese | Commonly Caught Species
Commonly Caught Species | Watercolour on paper | 9″ X 40.5″ | 2013

Commonly Caught species | Gipin Varghese
Commonly Caught Species (Detail view) | Watercolour on paper | 9″ X 40.5″ | 2013

The second type of work is about the repeated violence against women, the raping and killings, especially in the rural areas of India. It is in total contrast to the first, about this romantic concept of an Indian village and its values. Here I am working on a particular incident from West Bengal where a tribal girl was gang raped on orders of a kangaroo court as the entire village watched! She was in love with a boy of another caste, both were tied to a tree for a whole night. They were fined, the boy paid and she could not, so she was raped by thirteen men. There are so many incidents like this… like this work about two minor Dalit girls gang raped and hung on a tree in Baduan district, UP.

The third set of works is about people choosing death over life despite the desire to live. Irom Sharmila’s case is the rarest of them all; she is alive and dead at the same time. She is a question and answer to many things in life. There are also this work about suicides of cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh, which has a parallel all over the country, their poverty, struggle and the ultimate decision to take their own lives.

Lifetimes | Gipin Varghese
Lifetimes | Watercolour on paper | 81 X16″ (Each) | 2013

Gipin Varghese | No One Eats Cotton
No One Eats Cotton | Watercolour on paper | 62″ X 11.5″ (Each) | 2013

“I have a great passion for murals, miniature and manuscript drawings. Not the classical forms of popular Indian mainstream tradition, but the crude folkish forms. They are so self evolved. I like their use of repetition and their system to study nature, and the fact that the works are not always human-centric. I feel the miniature language speaks most intimately about the common man and his way of seeing.”

The Dust We Breathe | 2013

“When I look at space in real life the human is just one part of it. They are just part of an interrelated balanced system of beings. I want to tell tales of humans in relation to the other parts which are usually plants and animals. I don’t use them metaphorically. They are just there, like the dust we breathe or the ant covered cashew nut tree.”

Gipin Varghese

Credit: Courtesy of the Artist and Vadehra Gallery

Nandini Valli Muthiah reimagines Vishnu with stunning photographs

In the Garden of Good & Evil | 2010

Chennai-based photographer Nandini Valli Muthiah with her series The Definitive Reincarnate (2007) and The Visitor (2012) has given us some truly iconic imagery. These works explore the concept of incarnated divinity through the personification of Vishnu and Krishna. The photographs are highly stylised, with rich colours and tightly choreographed settings which draw from the kitsch calendar arts representation of Hindu deities, and are evocative of dramatic fashion magazine portraits of celebrities.

The series stages Vishnu garlanded and ornamented and curiously endowed with a pair of wings. Some of the photographs allude to the postmodern pathos of being a celebrity, such as a still in which a pensive Vishnu casts his head downwards as tinselled fanfare. The piece also seems to raise questions about the nature of worship, the relationship of the God to his devotees and the areas in which celebrity-worship and the worship of deities overlap.

Muthiah also shifts the setting of her frames to a pond as an allusion to the image of Vishnu reclining on the many headed serpent in the milky ocean. While her earlier endeavors were shot in controlled environments, this series has had elaborate outdoor shoots with a large crew.

Asleep | 2010

Grounded | 2010

Wings of Destiny | 2010

Burdened | 2010

Serenity in his Sleep 2 | 2010


According to the artist, the idea was to “take Vishnu and sort of update him”, and indeed in images, Vishnu is fleshed out with a full-spectrum of human emotions, which are caught in highly-charged exposures that have a painterly quality about them.

The Arrival | 2006

Seated 1 | 2003

The Arrival 2 | 2003

Disillusioned 1 | 2010

[photo: Nandini Valli Muthiah]
Nandini Valli Muthiah

Credit: Courtesy of the Artist and Sakshi Gallery

Text for this post is adapted from the curatorial note for the show.

Jasjyot Singh Hans draws women with real emotions

Jasjyot Singh Hans

Jasjyot Singh Hans‘ ongoing series of portraits of women are sombre and dramatic. In his works, the women are allowed to be themselves and express true emotions, unhindered. Their anguish and vulnerability is palpable. The influence of Hans’ Sikh upbringing is evident in the look of these women, who often have the body frame and hair stereotypical of middle-aged Sikh women. Hans, who has also collaborated with the likes of fashion designer Sabyasachi, draws these women in edgy clothes that compliment their large figures, and sometimes draws them in the nude.

I draw these women because we all feel these emotions, and women in popular media have always been reduced to a plastic smile. This is my way of saying ‘this is a real emotion that we all know and recognise, and I want you (the viewer) to see these bodies/ emotions represented and see that there is nuance, power and beauty in it.’



“I’ve always been big, and had body image issues. And to think body image issues are so much more common within the gay community! I wasn’t comfortable with my body, and I knew that I needed to love myself a bit more. So the women I drew became an extension of this thought, and that gave me power. They move about with confidence with or without clothes, aren’t afraid to express what they’re feeling and are in complete control over their mind and body. They are big, bold and gorgeous, and they don’t subscribe to normative ideas of beauty”.

Jasjyot Singh Hans, in an interview with The Quint



“For far too long women have been told how to act and behave, and are allowed lesser and lesser agency over their own bodies and navigating their emotions. It happened with most of our grandmothers, mothers and sisters. And I’ve seen it happen, and I think it is unfair. Everyone has the right to express any emotion they feel. The women I draw are my way of reminding people of that, and to realise that they are still beautiful.

I’m a proponent of beauty in all colours, shapes and sizes. In my drawings of women, I often add marks on the body, because I feel that it makes them feel real for me. I seek imperfections in people because it makes them unique, and that is valuable and beautiful. The idea of perfection doesn’t interest me much.”

Jasjyot Singh Hans, in an interview with The Quint


Be sure to follow Jasjyot on instagram for frequent posts featuring his brilliant work.

Jasjyot Singh Hans

Credit: Jasjyot Singh Hans