Anita Dube, the first woman curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, talks about what to expect in the fourth edition
Photo by Albin Mathew
By Shevlin Sebastian
Anita Dube was chatting with some artists in Kuala Lumpur recently when one of them said, “Have you heard of Pangrok Sulap.” The curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale shook her head. So, she was shown a video.
Pangrok is a collective of artists in their twenties who stay in the state of Sabah. And they have a unique art form. First, they carve words and images in reverse onto a wooden board. Then they put rolling ink on it. Thereafter, they place cloth or paper and dance on it. Then they pull away the paper or cloth and a beautiful illustration is formed. “It was fantastic,” says Anita. “I got so excited.”
Not surprisingly, they have been invited to participate in the fourth edition of the Biennale at Kochi (December 12-March 29, 2019). More than 100 artists will take part, from countries as diverse as Lebanon, Japan, Vietnam, Cuba, South Africa, French Guyana, Poland, Spain and Israel. Interestingly, Anita has avoided the power centres of the West, like the UK, USA, and Europe. “I wanted to give a chance to those who are on the margins of international art,” she says.
And as the first woman curator, it is also no surprise that more than half the artists will be women. “They do not get as many opportunities as the men,” says Anita. “So I wanted to correct that.”
The theme, incidentally, is titled ‘Possibilities of a non-alienated life’. And Anita came to it through prolonged thinking and reflection. “The first question I asked myself was who is my primary audience?” she says. “Is it the one percent that goes to Venice, Sharjah and the Kochi Biennales? Or is it the six lakh spectators who came to the last edition with no stake in culture except for a thirst for aesthetic knowledge?”
And she realised that she needed to showcase accessible artworks for the majority. But her unique idea, which probably has not been done in any Biennale ever is to enable the visitors to become participants. So, apart from the exhibition area, Anita is setting up a pavilion where anybody could come and speak, show a film clip, or discuss about a topic that is very important for them. “You could even sing a Malayalam song,” she says. “I am hoping conversations could develop, and arguments could be had.”
At the Pepper House, at Fort Kochi, on a recent November morning, the sixty-year-old sits at a wooden table in the cafe, looking exhilarated but clearly tired. Since April last year, she has been doing an endless and hectic travel to different countries. “I met so many interesting artists, and had enlightening conversations,” she says. “It has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Interestingly, she says, it will change her art in some way. “I will have to reevaluate my work,” says Anita. “If you are a writer and you read a great novel, then you know where you stand. It has been a humbling experience for me.”
Asked about the trends in international art these days, she says, “There are so many, like performance and installation art. But perhaps the hottest trend is social practice. The artists are active as social beings like Pangrok is,” she says.
Meanwhile, Anita’s activity as an artist or social being was not preordained. She grew up in Lucknow, one of four children of doctors. In fact, her father Dr PC Dube was well known as the Head of the Department of Surgery in King George Medical Hospital. Both her parents ran a ten-bed nursing home. “So art was very far from our family,” she says. Nevertheless, Anita felt its stirrings within her.
So, she did her MA (History) from Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi. Thereafter, she did art history at MS University in Baroda. “I started to visit art exhibitions in college,” says Anita. “I wrote poetry. But when I touched clay and wood, I knew that I had found my destiny.” Anita made her mark through sculpture, photography, video and installation art.
Finally, when asked whether she was nervous about how people would react to her selections for the Biennale, Anita says, “I can only do what I can do. And I think I have done my best. You cannot please everybody. There will be some who might not like my choices but I don’t mind at all.”
(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)