Perched between buildings, bewitching with their old-world quaintness, the KVN Arcade can be a blink-and-miss if you aren’t paying attention. A few feet away from the Synagogue in Kochi’s Jew Town, the charmingly faded exteriors give no clue of what it holds within. Except of course, the large notice announcing the Students’ Biennale exhibits, held as part of the Kochi Muziris Biennale.
When the main venues of the Biennale – the Aspinwall House, the Pepper House, and others in Fort Kochi – opened later than they were supposed to last year, visitors who came for the big event began flocking to the smaller spaces in Mattancherry, where the Students’ Biennale had already begun.
Afrah Shafiq, one of the seven curators of the Students’ Biennale, shares how the students — many of them holding their first exhibitions with little prior exposure — had conversations with visitors who engaged with their work, met gallery owners interested in showcasing it, and people wanting to commission it. For many young artists who have had little access to bigger events and exhibitions, the Students’ Biennale has become a place to explore and be found.
Irony is when you are stung by a bout of unexpected nostalgia while watching the works of these young artists. The students, most of them in their late teens or early 20s, somehow go back and forth in time to dig out nuggets of the past and paste them on the walls of this beautiful building. In the first room of the KVN Arcade are faceless paintings of whole families, posing as if for a photograph — the work of Shikha Soni, a visual artist from Gujarat doing her post-graduation in Delhi’s Shiv Nadar University.
Work of Shikha Soni
In the rooms inside, there are more pictures of family and home. Vihang Nagvekar’s First Supper with my Friends and Moods of my House could have been painted from any old family album, looking achingly familiar with its spotted mosaic floors and smudgy blue walls. The student from the Goa College of Art has recollected the randomness of everyday life — a sari-clad woman looking thoughtfully at the utensils in her kitchen, a sleeping man sticking to a corner of the bed, a younger lad relaxing in a room with red-oxide floor and hardly any props.
“We have put together some artworks that go together conceptually,” says another curator, Amshu Chukki.
On a middle wall of the KVN Arcade is a long painting, stretching to both sides, showing every room of a house separately like on a building plan. Without human presence, it still lets you know how lived-in the space is, objects strewn across the rooms, as if they were freshly left behind. It figures — the artist, Monika Srinavas, from the Chamarajendra Government College of Visual Arts College (CAVA) in Mysore, grew up in Bengaluru, spending most of her childhood days in construction sites.
On a middle wall of the KVN Arcade in Kochi's Jew Town is a long painting, stretching to both sides, showing every room of a house separately. Without human presence it still tells you how lived-in the space is. Work of Monika Srinivas at Students Biennale #kochibiennale pic.twitter.com/UH23cz9pVT— Cris (@cristweets) March 3, 2023
Just in those three rooms, we get artists from Gujarat, Goa, and Karnataka, and also see works from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Shillong. “The Students' Biennale provides a common platform for art students from various parts of India to not only showcase their works, but also to interact with each other and artists from different parts of the world,” says Premjish Achari, also a curator.
Simeen Anjum, a Delhi-based student from Jamia Millia Islamia, pulled off a riveting project, working with young women of her age group to find safe spots for women to hang out in Kochi. The project, titled ‘I know a spot’, involves groups of women going on walks and identifying places they could simply spend time in, feeling safe and comfortable. “Comfort can mean different things to different women. For some, it is a private space they’d rather not been seen at, maybe because they would otherwise have to explain it to people back home. For others, it could be an area where a lot of people are present, making them feel safe. Then again, there are places that seem safe when you go in a group, like an abandoned old railway station in Kochi that we went to as a group of 12,” Simeen says.
Simeen's 'I know a spot' project
Her project, with its very presence, highlights the difference between how men and women navigate public spaces; how women need to find places they feel safe at simply to come together, while, in Simeen’s words, the whole world is there for men to go to. Another student, Sowmya T, from Bengaluru’s Ken School of Art, has sketched herself perched on cityscapes, almost endearingly free and indifferent to the chaos around her, with just ink and paper.
Like Simeen’s or Sowmya’s work addresses gender, Krishnamoorthy’s work touches on caste, and Eswarraro’s throws light on tribal communities. “My work is based on the systematic oppression of people based on caste, on how certain communities are forced to do certain jobs such as manual scavenging or performing opari (Tamil term for funeral elegies). I have seen it in the place I lived in, in Tamil Nadu,” says Krishnamoorthy, a student at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath.
Another student, Eswarrao Keesarajodu, who comes from a rural and tribal background in Nowgoda of Andhra Pradesh, uses his experiences of encountering game animals during hunting as a theme for his works. He is a student of Andhra University in Visakhapatnam.
Work of Eswarrao Keesarajodu
“Some students talk about very interesting ideas or concerns that stand out. Many of their works are rooted in their backgrounds. These voices are very important,” Amshu says.
In En Vallkai (My Life), a project by A Livinstan and V Sivagnanam of the College of Fine Arts in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, you see an artistic miniature of a brick kiln with hanging props. It is Livingstan's way of paying tribute to his mother who worked in a brick kiln, to look after her children while sacrificing her own dreams. His props represent the little artefacts she made from leftover clay, every day after work.
Livingstan's model of brick kiln
The selection process, Afrah says, began with the Biennale Foundation putting out an open call, inviting students to apply. “They shared the list of applicants with the curators, as a pool to begin with. The focus was, we were told, to get students from government art colleges across the country, more than from private institutions. Many of these colleges are not in big cities, and the students from these colleges need not be on social media. So the initial open call did not get many applications,” she says.
Every curator was given a certain number of states to scout the talents from. Afrah worked on her own in Goa, Tamil Nadu, and Pondicherry, and collaborated with Amshu to find talents in Karnataka. They went on physical tours of the colleges, created Whatsapp Groups with final year students, explained how the Biennale works, and asked the students to apply. Even then, some students were at a disadvantage, not having email addresses or portfolios to send applications.
Watch: Krisnamoorthy's art installation
“A lot of amazing work gets missed out on because many artists don’t have access to things one assumes everyone has. After a month-long trip visiting colleges across different states, I found it difficult to come up with a shortlist. There is so much good work,” Afrah says.
Another consideration was representation. It wasn’t enough that they chose the best works, but that students across places, religions, castes, and genders got opportunities. “We made sure we have diverse representations in terms of gender, marginalised background, and financial situation,” Amshu adds.
Raja Sekhar of Andhra University made his exhibit about the geotubes used in coastal protection. Coming from a coastal area in Kakinada of Andhra, he says his work is about the other side of the story, on how people living there have been affected by geotube technology. "I collected materials from the shores and created an art installation," he says.
Raja Sekhar's art work
There are video installations too, like that of Lourdes Mary from New Delhi, engaging with themes of personal loss and memories. The footnote on the work explains how through “a series of conversations that her father finds ridiculous, she tries to navigate his expectations of her, her hopes for the future and her anxiety about losing him, a thought that has plagued her since the death of her mother."
Niranjana, another student of CAVA in Mysore, says he had to display his sketchbook slides on a video, because of the risk in displaying the fragile papers. After someone saw his work at the Biennale, he was offered a residency project in Kolkata, which is where he is now, he says.
In that sense, the Students’ Biennale has helped open up avenues for the 70 odd students who got selected for the exhibition. “It is a question for many students at government arts colleges: what to do once they graduate. Most of them don’t come from the kind of class background where they can afford to practise their own work even for a short while. They are first generation learners who have families depending on them to start earning as soon as they finish college. So they end up joining a commercial setup like a design or animation studio,” Afrah says.
Video installation of Lourdes Mary
She had no answers to give when some of the students asked her how they could continue to make art and still survive. Such avenues, she says, are almost non-existent. “They may get state-commissioned projects, like when the government builds a new statue and gives priority to art students in government colleges. But most of them stop making art after graduation and take up other jobs. That is what makes the Students’ Biennale very precious. Even here, it is only perhaps one student out of a hundred in a government college that gets the opportunity. But it still helps, especially when they come together with other students, from other parts of the country, when they meet senior artists and attend workshops. It builds friendships, it builds a sense of community,” she adds.