Kochi-Muziris Biennale: Anita Dube is striving to make art more inclusive

Anita Dube
In 1987, Anita Dube, then 29, wrote the catalogue text for the first-ever exhibition by the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association — a short-lived but influential art group founded in Baroda in response to the growing capitalist tendencies in the art world. Titled “Questions and Dialogues”, it had Dube rejecting the idea of art as a cultural commodity. Instead, she called for a more inclusive process of creating art. “In the swamp of class-society, the swamp-filled darkness of repression, all ‘human substance’ is petrified. Yet, through the swamp, voices have risen; vital potential voices of ‘man’,” she wrote.

Three decades later, though the group is long gone, Dube remains firmly entrenched in the values that defined it. And, it is this ethos that she is carrying forth to the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, or the KMB (starting December 12, 2018), as its curator. “I still believe that my audience at the KMB is not that 1 per cent of society which travels to shows in Venice or Basel. I am interested in the need to listen, think and learn with each other; to listen particularly to voices from the margins — of women, of the queer community, the oppressed castes. A spirit of freedom and comradeship is vital to me,” says Dube. She also wants to explore the possibilities of a non-alienated life. In the time of social media and virtual engagement, when we seldom meet face-to-face, how can we find ways of truly connecting with each other? “Let’s look at ways in which we can enjoy our innate intelligence and beauty, not just by ourselves but also with each other,” she says.

Speaking from her Greater Noida studio, which she has spent the last four years building and designing, Dube is at home in a comfortable kurta and trousers. Her trademark bindi sits firmly in place on her forehead. “It is odd, I guess, since I wear trousers and shirts,” she once said in an interview to her friend and artist, Manisha Gera Baswani, about the bindi that has been her companion for as long as she can remember. “These strange contradictions make me modern, part provincial and part metropolitan, and I am comfortable with this mix,” she summed up.

Dube, who was appointed KMB’s curator in March 2017, is the first woman to take up the role. She calls it a timely and forward-looking step. “Timely intervention was needed to bring voices of women to the foreground given the times we live in, when strongmen are at the helm of affairs in every state,” she says.

At the biennale Dube intends to show a sizeable chunk of powerful works by women artists, especially by older women who often get sidelined, but she also clarifies that the idea is not to create a gender divide.

Her selection as curator, too, was not a result of her being a woman. Rather than her gender, it was Dube’s oeuvre, critical and analytic strengths and the ability to respond to the issues of the times that led a high-powered panel, which included artists Velu Viswanadhan, Dayanita Singh and Ravi Agarwal, and art historian Kavita Singh, to pick her over the others. “We don’t differentiate curators on the basis of gender. Every artist — male, female or the third gender — and all practices are important,” says KMB Director Bose Krishnamachari. He adds that Dube’s background in art history and criticism — she studied the subject at The Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda — gave her an edge.

The past year has been a busy one for Dube. She has been travelling extensively to meet as many artists as possible, especially those on the margins, such as Dalit, vernacular and queer artists who haven’t had a strong representation so far. She is looking for works that will engage people and not just leave them as passive consumers of culture. She also plans to bring in more voices from Africa, Asia and Latin America. “She must be the most travelled curator of KMB. She has visited about 30 countries so far with the support of many institutions,” says Krishnamachari. The first list of artists, chosen to participate at the biennale, will be declared on June 12.

Besides the exhibition space, the biennale will have a knowledge/culture laboratory of sorts, where the visitors can listen to lectures, witness performances and contribute a little something of their own — a poem, a video clip or a thought. “People should have the opportunity to learn from and question each other,” Dube says. “Through these carefully-designed interactive spaces, local visitors as well as international artists and guests will become co-producers of KMB.”

The human condition, which is at the heart of Dube’s curation, has been critical to her practice as well. Her tryst with art started with the Radicals, but she was more of a spokesperson than a practising artist in the group. “She didn’t start producing artworks until after the death of painter-sculptor K P Krishnakumar, the leader of the Radicals, when she moved back to Delhi,” recalls Peter Nagy, artist and co-founder of New Delhi-based Nature Morte gallery. “In the beginning, her works were entirely sculptural, and she worked with conventional materials such as wood and metal.”

Gradually, Dube became more experimental and started working with found objects: copper and enamel eyes, sanitary fittings, foam, wires, beads, dentures, human bones, and even meat. She would often cover these objects with a “skin” crafted from velvet and other fabrics.

Among her most iconic pieces is Silence (Blood Wedding), which she showed in 1999 at the Devi Art Foundation in Gurugram. It was made during a time of deep emotional turmoil — her father had been diagnosed with cancer. She had stumbled on a sack of bones, belonging to her brother who was studying medicine, in the storeroom of her family home in Lucknow. She lugged the bones to her studio, which was then in Delhi, and started working with them. That’s when she realised she could use anything to create art. “Found objects were invested with everything I wanted to talk about,” she told Baswani. Covered in deep red velvet and adorned with beads and lace, these pieces both disturb and stir the onlooker. The objects embodied what the artist described in the curatorial note as a deep rejection of death.

Anita Dube

Her soul-stirring pieces soon began to be shown at galleries and institutions across the world. A sculpture made of fabricated mass-produced ceramic eyes was part of Venice Biennale’s first-ever exhibition of Indian artists in 2005.

“In the early 2000s, she started experimenting with photography as well, followed by video work,” says Nagy. “However, for the last five years or so, most of her work has been text based. She uses found text from various sources. She uses it more in calligraphy or spelled out in a script of velvet-covered wires, rendering the text abstract,” he says.

Given her deeply political works, it will not be surprising if the biennale, too, carries political overtones. “This edition (of KMB) will be connected to my process as an artist, and that means thinking through Marxism and feminism,” says Dube. “But the premise will refrain from sloganeering, even as it acknowledges such ideas.”

Pooja Sood, who co-founded Khoj Studios in Delhi with Dube, concurs. “She will not be overtly political just for the sake of it,” she says. “She is not into ‘spectacle’, and prefers a much more nuanced approach towards exhibition-making and art in general.”

It is nuances, after all, that have defined Dube, the artist. So why should it be any different for Dube, the curator?