Looking back, this has been one of the most unusual yet noteworthy years of my life. I remember the last few days of February and the early days of March 2020 — my exhibition at the Emami Art Gallery, Kolkata, titled ‘The Mirror Sees Best in the Dark’, was coming to a close. I had seen this through and had taken a flight to Madrid for the ARCO20, a large annual and one of the oldest contemporary art fairs in Europe. I was fortunate to have made it back in Mumbai safely, right before the pandemic began picking up momentum.
For many like me, who once had a lifestyle that involved constant travel and movement, this year has been a call back home. Being indoors for the most part of this year has allowed us a lot of time for observation and reflection. It was, however, alarming to see the bustling city of Mumbai, and the entire country suddenly come to a standstill during the initial lockdown. There was panic and fear among the people, concerns about the economy, the government’s handling of the crisis. The images of the migrant workers who set out for their homes on foot reminded me of the black and white stills from the Partition.
I am grateful that my family and I managed to stay safe this year. While at home, we would try to keep ourselves occupied with games of chess, cards, learning some cooking, tending to our kitchen garden, and so on. I am not sure if it was just as a result of more time and a greater focus on the news, or that so much chaos was actually unravelling everywhere around the world! The theatrics of both the government and the media seemed to be upsetting, unending, driving us all to emotional burnout.
Recognising that the pandemic would create serious disruptions in the academic year for school and college students, as a passionate educator, I felt it was my responsibility to take up as many opportunities as possible to continue to give educational presentations to students (both school and college) of disciplines of art, design, architecture, technology and so on.
As the art world began engaging increasedly with the digital format, at the Kochi Biennale Foundation, we made some modifications to our programming as well. Initially during the lockdown, the team approached our artist friends to share with us what they had been thinking about and creating. We wished to use our platform to show how artists continue to work during such a situation, what sort of art is created during a pandemic, and what purpose art serves during times like these. The result of which was the lockdown series, where our social media handles hosted a collection of diverse works of various mediums of artists around the country and the world.
Although we were to open the 5th edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale this December, continued unprecedented challenges owing to COVID-19 drove us to reschedule the opening to November 1, 2021, in the hope that circumstances by then would be more conducive for everyone to have complete Biennale experience. However, our other programmes have continued to go on in a modified format. The fourth edition of the Students’ Biennale has been re-structured to take place online, and the programme towards the online opening next year has commenced under the leadership of five curator-mentors, viz. Adip Dutta, Archana Hande, Manoj Vyloor, Suresh K Nair, and Vasudha Thozhur. The Art By Children activities have also been adapted as a Learning at Home programme, with exercises that encourage children to engage creatively with our present circumstances. Our educational workshops for young practitioners have also moved online, including the graphic fiction workshop with Sarnath Banerjee. A few more workshops have also been planned for the next few months.
The only physical exhibition I managed to work on this year was a group show titled ‘Origins of a Perennial Bouquet’ that I curated for a new art gallery, called the Vida Heydari Contemporary Art Gallery, in Pune. It featured artists Benitha Perciyal, Manish Nai, Sudarshan Shetty, Sumedh Rajendran and Tanya Goel. The gallery did quite a remarkable job in ensuring the safety of its visitors and staff, given the safety concerns. Entry was staggered and upon reservations of slots only, ample physical distancing was maintained within the gallery space as well.
Exercising caution, I have been travelling within Kerala over the last few months working on an art project with the local artist community. It’s been an illuminating journey so far, discovering some new and fresh talent from the state, and also revisiting the works of some of the master practitioners of the Malayali artist community.
A quote by German artist Joseph Beuys comes to mind — ‘Every human being is an artist, a freedom being, called to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking and structures that shape and inform our lives’. This year called for sensitisation and a rethinking of the way we have been going about our lives for so long. And we, as a people, were able to adapt, find a way around obstacles, and reinvent the norm. Art has always continued to grow, even in darkness, and will continue to do so.
— The writer is president of Kochi Biennale Foundation
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