Monday, February 16, 2015

The Joy of Art

The London-based Vanessa Branson was instrumental in setting up the Marrakesh Biennale. The sister of billionaire Richard Branson was in Kochi recently to see the Biennale

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Vanessa by Ratheesh Sundaram; Vanessa with Kochi Muziris Biennale Curator Jitish Kallat; an image from the Marrakesh Biennale

In December 1998, the billionaire Richard Branson was in Marrakesh, Morocco, to try to make a hot-air balloon crossing across the Atlantic Ocean. His sister, Vanessa, had gone along to offer moral support. But bad weather was delaying the departure.

This gave Vanessa the opportunity to see the country. “It is a very special place,” she says. “And there are many things in common with India. In both countries, there is an openness among the people and a contrast between the ancient and the contemporary. And there are beautiful colours everywhere.”

Somewhere along the way, Vanessa began an arts festival in Marrakesh, which later became a Biennale, the first trilingual (English, Arabic and French) in Africa. And the inspiration behind it was none other than former US President George Bush.

One morning, in 2004, when Vanessa was listening to the Today show on the BBC, in London, Bush said, “You are either with us or against us.” That was a tipping point for Vanessa. “I felt there should be an arts event to highlight all that is common to mankind,” she says. “That was how the arts festival, which includes films and literature, was born at Marrakesh.”

Many world-renowned artists took part, including Whalid Raad, Francis Alys and the actor Richard E Grant. Richard had made an autobiographical film of his childhood, in Swaziland, called 'The Wah Wah Diaries'. On the day of the screening, Vanessa called Richard up and said, “Have you got a copy with French subtitles?' Richard said, “Goodness no, we have not distributed it in France, so there are no subtitles.”

The rule was that films should be screened in three languages. Vanessa went into the town square, feeling desperate. And right there, on a horse and cart, a man was selling a pirated version of the film, with French subtitles. “So we used that version,” she says, with a laugh.

And the people of Morocco have been responding positively. “There is a great awareness among the people about aesthetic beauty,” says Vanessa. “But there is no opportunity for them to see art. Till recently, there were no museums in Morocco. It has been a slow whetting of curiosity. There are a lot of street performances, as it is there in India. Everything is new to the people but they are intensely curious.”

And the country is happy with her contribution. In October, 2014, Vanessa was made an Officer of the Order of Ouissam Alaouite by King Mohammed VI during the inaugural ceremony of the Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art in Rabat. “The king said, 'Our country is grateful for what you have been doing',” says Vanessa.

She had recently come to the Kochi Muziris Biennale to give a talk as well as look at the exhibits. “This is an extraordinary art event,” says Vanessa. “In 2017, the Kochi Biennale will be established on the international art world map. I have no doubts about it. It is a wonderful place to visit. The reason why I love going to Biennales is because you are introduced to artistes you have never heard of before.”

When asked to psycho-analyse artists, whom she meets all the time, Vanessa says, “It takes a sort of obsession to be an artist. They have something within that is special. Art is number one in their life. The wives and children have to bear this passion. If you are an artist and have an idea of creating a giant vertebra [pointing to Indian artist M. Shantamani's exhibit, 'Backbone', lying in the garden of the Aspinwall House], you need to have an extraordinary self-confidence. That is the only way you can take an abstract idea and make it a reality. All good artists have this innate confidence.”

Her favourite artist is William Kentridge, who is represented in the Kochi Biennale. “He is one of the most profound and interesting artists working in the world today,” she says. “His focus and dedication and the way he has moved his career forward are so exciting to see.”

Meanwhile, Vanessa says that Kochi and Marrakesh have similarities. “Both do not have an arts infrastructure,” she says. “They have their own charm and a deep cultural heritage. They are both ripe for making some extraordinary leaps into the future, with some great ideas. The Biennale will have an impact on the local people over a period of time and that will make them stimulated and curious. And when students come, they will feel inspired to try and do something in their schools.”

Finally, when asked about the impact of Richard, her elder brother by ten years, Vanessa smiles and says, “He has influenced me a lot. Sometimes, siblings influence you more than your parents. Richard is a larger-than-life personality and very encouraging and supportive. He has a good sense of humour. And he always tells me that I must not take anything too seriously. You have to enjoy what you are doing. And then other people will also enjoy it.” 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

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