India’s Amazing Art Hub

Not long ago I ended up at a biennial in Kochi, a little Indian city with a thriving art scene. Could this be a place where artists can make a living?

In mid-December, right after my year-long music tour ended, I decided to stay in motion. I headed to Kochi, a city in the South Indian state of Kerala, where an art biennial was about to open. 

I had no idea what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the artists were names I’d never heard of, and that with a few exceptions, most of them came from the southern hemisphere. This was art that was not being made for me or my ilk, though some of it I liked very much. And though some of the artists have indeed shown internationally, none of the big art stars that often dominate these types of events were represented. I’d wager quite a few have never been shown in the Global North.

A banner by a Malaysian art/music collective Pangrok Sulap, which in Malaysian translates as “Punk Rock Hut.” Credit: David Byrne

I took this as a sign that Kerala was cultivating an arts scene that is not only creatively vibrant, but that Indian cities might be able to financially support creativity enough so that artists there can make a living and not be forced to head north. The gatekeepers of the art world have traditionally resided in places like New York, London, Berlin, Hong Kong and Miami. But what if what is happening in Kerala is an example of a wider trend? 

Kochi-Muziris Biennial

Kochi is on the tip of a peninsula, a bit like a small version of San Francisco. Across the bay are tall offices and a city that sprawls for miles, but Kochi has preserved much of its historical architecture. Here’s a school group that was taking the ferry here from the mainland for an afternoon outing—my new bike pals. (I had a bike too, of course.)

Credit: David Byrne

This town was a trading center for the spices that grew up and down the Malabar Coast, so of course, the Dutch, Portuguese and English all laid claim to this place at one time or another. The spice warehouses these colonizers built line much of the waterfront, and a few abandoned ones served as the venues for this art event. I could easily bike from one venue to another. 

Though this biennial was in Kerala most of the commercial Indian galleries are in larger cities—Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata (formerly Calcutta)—but this is a nicer place to visit. In a sense, it’s like a southern version of the Venice Biennale in that Venice itself is a draw for visitors. There is a funky tourist aspect here—in many cases the exhibition spaces are “as is,” slightly cleaned up, but far from the ubiquitous pristine white boxes in Northern art events.

Credit: SMAC Gallery (image) and Cyrus Kabiru (artwork)

The Kochi-Muziris Biennial was started in 2012 by two Indian artists from Kerala at the suggestion of the Kerala arts minister. The state government gave some support, but the organizers still had to scrounge a bit, and to fill the gaps a few Indian businesses stepped up⁠—even crowdfunding was used. Today, it’s the largest contemporary art fair in Asia, so they claim. The Indian artist Anita Dube was the curator this year. Some days it is free for all, so a lot of curious locals of all walks of life stroll in and take an avid interest.

What stood out for me?

I loved the embroideries by artist Bapi Das, based out of Kolkata, where he works part-time as a rickshaw driver. The embroideries often feature the view from the rickshaw…but heightened, edited, filtered. Many of them are left on the frame where they are made.

Credit: David Byrne (photo of art by Bapi Das)

When you jump in a rickshaw your driver might be a great artist, a poet, a musician, or a community organizer.

Credit: David Byrne (photo of art by Chitra Ganesh)

Chitra Ganesh is an artist based in a multicultural city named Brooklyn. She references Indian mythological comics (I picked some up at a local temple — photo below) but she takes that genre someplace else.

The dusky firebrand on the cover of the comic below has been hitting the skin lightener a little too much, it seems to me!

Credit: David Byrne (photo of a comic book cover)

Below is a piece by South African artist Sue Williamson. She made t-shirts printed with the bills of sale of enslaved people, including children, from Malabar Coast, the part of India I was in. She discovered the bills of sale in Cape Town, as the slaves were sent there by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. The child on the bill of sale below was 10 years old.

Credit: David Byrne (photo of art by Sue Williamson)

After many washings the printed images fade away, which is the artist’s intention… a sort of “truth and reconciliation” via t-shirts.

Credit: David Byrne

The Indian artist Vipin Dhanurdharan (below) is from Kochi. He walks around his neighborhood and does portraits of the folks he encounters as he shares a meal with them. Sometimes he makes dinners of local dishes for both locals and for folks visiting the Biennial. He does LOTS of these portraits⁠—I think there were three rooms full.

Credit: David Byrne (photo of art by Vipin Dhanurdharan)

So, Kochi, though not a strong art market itself, might serve as a showcase that helps Indian and other artists to be seen, and encourage the other parts of that ecology⁠—the galleries, collectors, institutions, government⁠—that are based more often in larger Indian cities to appreciate what is happening on the subcontinent.

India’s art dealers are optimistic about younger potential buyers who are comfortable with technology, such as StoryLTD, an online-only, fixed-price, no-reserve e-commerce art sales site. The traditional gallery route might not be the only way to go⁠—there are about 20 commercial contemporary galleries in Mumbai, and a growing number of collectors, but that is not quite enough to support a sustainable homegrown scene just yet.

There is evidence that other places, like Indonesia and Lagos, Nigeria, might be achieving this, or are getting very close. I’ll explore those in later installments of this story collection.

This story is part of a collection called Art is Everywhere: Stories of artists making a living in unexpected places. Read more here

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David Byrne is the founder of Reasons to be Cheerful.