Dr. Shwetal A. Patel: Establishing the “People’s Biennale” in Kerala, India

On 28 April 2021, by Mala Yamey

We spoke with Dr. Shwetal A. Patel, a founding team member of India’s first visual arts biennial, Kochi-Muziris Biennale, about the upcoming iteration in 2021, the curator Shubigi Rao, the importance of artistic collaborations, and the significance of embedded community engagement for the biennial.

© Photo Swanoop John

As one of the founding members of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, how did you come to this project?
My background in visual arts goes back to the late 1990s and my time as a student in East London. Around this time I began working with the musician Talvin Singh O.B.E as an art director, and this is when I first met one of the artist co-founders of Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Bose Krishnamachari. Bose and I became good friends in the subsequent years and we worked together on various projects in the following decades. In the late 2000s I began advising the Ministry of Culture (Government of India) to realize an Indian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. My interest in biennials began to flourish around this period and I was invited to help develop India’s first biennial in the summer of 2010.

Being invited to work on India’s first biennial must have been super exciting, was your previous experience relevant to this scene?
My experience leading up to this point was fairly diverse – I had worked in music, fashion and studied film – but art was always my primary interest and passion. I didn’t have any biennial-making experience, apart from visiting exhibitions such as documenta and Venice Biennale over the years, so I very much learned by doing and seeing. Since 2010 I have been involved with the Kochi Biennale Foundation and later in 2015, I began my Ph.D. at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.

Last year’s edition was postponed due to the pandemic, how have you adapted your plans for this year’s Biennial with social distancing and possibly more local audiences and fewer international participants flying in?
At this stage, while planning the 2021 biennial, we are mindful that many things would be very different this year. Of course health and safety of all our staff, participating artists, volunteers and audiences is of paramount importance, and we will be seeking the assistance of the health authorities in Kerala to ensure we put conducive measures in place. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale has always attracted huge local audiences as well as a large number of international visitors. We will have to wait and see how the pandemic will affect visitor numbers and if people from other parts of India and around the world will visit as they have in previous years.

Closing ceremony procession for the first edition of KMB, Fort Kochi, March 2013.Courtesy Kochi Biennale Foundation 2013

Closing ceremony procession for the first edition of KMB, Fort Kochi, March 2013.
Courtesy Kochi Biennale Foundation 2013

The biennale takes over the town of Fort Kochi, what are the histories and relevance of the spaces in which artists exhibit? I know that artists are required to visit the site in Kochi to participate, how do you anticipate that changing this year?
Fort Kochi, Muziris and the Ernakulum district offers a range of venues that are highly individual and redolent of the history of the state. Artists are always inspired by the site and often make new site-specific work responding to venues and location.

Over the years, many artists have responded to the history of the region in different ways, and this is one of the things that makes the biennial not only a site for production but also a site of learning and experimentation. We prioritize artist site visits as we feel it is important that artworks are situated within the overall framework of the socio-political and cultural milieu of the region. This year we are challenged, as many artists are unable to visit the site, though the curatorial team is using digital tools to mitigate this problem. Of course, many artists within India and the nearby region will be able to visit and we look forward to welcoming them when the regulations allow.

Shubigi Rao is the curator of this year’s edition, how does her approach differ to previous curators? Could you possibly explain the biennial’s tradition of engaging an artist as curator?
Artists founded the biennial, and we have always invited artists as curators for each edition. I think this is unique to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Artists offer another way of looking, thinking and making in the context of a survey exhibition of this kind, and I believe the results have been very energizing for the Indian art scene and beyond. Shubigi Rao continues in this tradition and she brings her own inimitable sensibilities to the project. Her curatorial note provides some clues as to the direction she is taking this year.

What is your most memorable edition, or your favorite installation in the past 10 years? Is there an artist you would like to see participate who has not done before?
There have been many, many, artworks that have affected me over the years. Rather than seeing each edition of the biennial as finite, I consider them to be a long conversation that has unraveled over the years. I tend to also link artworks between biennials, with many connections emerging over time, and many lots of ideas are still sinking in.

There are several artists that I hope will participate in the coming editions; I can’t think of anyone artist in particular right now. If pressed, it may be quite interesting to invite the German-Indian artist Tino Sehgal. His ideas and approaches to art-making and its reception and dissemination are fascinating. I also wonder had he been alive, what K. P. Krishnakumar would have made of the biennial. He participated in the inaugural edition (2012) as was influential in the curatorial approach of the 4th edition of KMB in 2018.

Installation view at Pepper House, Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016, Praneet Soi's, 'Cut-Out Archive' (2016).Courtesy Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Installation view at Pepper House, Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016, Praneet Soi's, 'Cut-Out Archive' (2016).
Courtesy Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Community connections are very important to the Kochi, how does the local community engage with the biennale?
The people of Fort Kochi embraced the project in its first iteration and it has built a loyal and engaged audience in the subsequent years. The Mayor of Kochi named Ernakulum as ‘Biennale City’ and the government of Kerala has provided vital support for the foundation since its inception. Many refer to KMB as the ‘People’s Biennale’ in recognition of its broad local appeal. The local community is the starting point for the project, so the community in and around our venues are very important to the mission and purpose of the foundation.

Could you elaborate on some of the foundation's projects with the local community?
The biennale conducts year-round programs such as ABC (Art By Children), the Students Biennale, Arts & Medicine and other educational and outreach activities. Rather than an event that pop’s up every two years, the biennial seeks to engage with the locality throughout the year – I believe this has helped bring the project closer to people and vice versa.

You are also involved in the first edition of the osloBIENNALEN, how would you compare your approach and practice here?
My work with the osloBIENNALEN First Edition 2019-2024 was for a year in 2019. The practices that emerge in Kochi are by necessity distinct to that of Oslo and although the contexts vary, the underlying practice emphasizes innovation and, above all, flexibility. Context alone does not determine practice, however. I believe practice also influences the context, through the involvement of local and international communities for instance. I believe that an ability to locate, analyze and transfer skills between projects such as KMB and osloBIENNALEN are important in a hyper-connected world, but the focus must always be on flexibility. The site, here again, is the starting point of any successful biennial.

The osloBIENNALEN runs for five years, which is unusual for a biennial, it would be interesting to understand the rationale behind this.
Oslo is unique in that the organizers spent two years (2015-2017) researching a format and their local context before deciding that the first edition should be a five-year program. This novel approach emerged from their research of the local population and site dynamics and overturns the traditional biennial dynamic of a repeating biennial event that lasts 2-6 months but occurs every two to ten years. Oslo, like any capital city, offers a crowded cultural calendar in which biennials can struggle to find an audience. By imagining a five-year biennial, the curators have prioritized local community relationships but will also face a new set of challenges. The project is an interesting case study for new global North biennial-type projects. The results have been interesting so far, and I am monitoring the development of this project as it progresses. What is striking for me is how rich-world biennials face similar challenges to global south biennials, in particular how they mediate local politics, audience participation and funding.

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