Art has the power to shine a light on the experiences of those who are often overlooked or forgotten. In a society that perpetuates inequality, art can be a powerful tool for marginalised communities to share their stories and perspectives with the world. This is precisely what the artists at the fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2023 aim to achieve: a space where the experiences of those communities, ignored and discriminated against can be heard and seen.
Through the exhibition by Jithinlal N.R. and Amol K. Patil at the biennale, the artists invite us to explore their experiences—from their struggles to their joys—in a way that is both personal and universal. Whether through photography, painting, sculpture, or other mediums, the artworks on display offer a window into the lives of people whose stories are often silenced.
The literary narratives in the form of folk songs, stories and poems are transformed into visual narratives by these artists to represent the complexity of caste identity.
As we step into the exhibition at the Aspinwall House, we are struck by the diversity of the artworks, installed by Amol, and the emotions they convey. His work—‘Politics of Skin and Movement’—explores the theme of identity, migration and movement, particularly in relation to how these ideas intersect with issues of caste, race and ethnicity.
“My practice is rooted in questioning the conditions of labour and casteism,” says the Mumbai-based artist.
‘Politics of Skin and Movement’ reminds us that marginalised communities are not just defined by their struggles, but by their humanity and the richness of their experiences. The mixed media installation by Amol, who comes from a family of artists, includes sculptures, kinetic works and literary works of his father and grandfather from which he derives the framework for his art.
“These written archives of my father and grandfather had a strong impact on my understanding of the community. Later, I started using these conversations in my visual art practice,” Amol said.
Amol’s ‘Casteist Wall’, visualised in the kinetic installation, is a metaphor for skin as land. The movements emerging from within feel as though the ground is breathing.
Speaking to The Week, Amol said, “With the making of the ‘Casteist Wall’ as a metaphor, I wanted to bring into conversation the binary that is created between people on the basis of their caste. Here, the wall referred to an incident that happened in Tamil Nadu. A 6,000-metre-long wall was built to segregate the housing of lower and upper-caste people. Later, the structure was demolished because of protests but one can still find the residues of the wall there. The wall is also connected to the idea of the hybrid relationship between humans, the barrier created through a person’s skin or the community to which they belong.”
The bronze ‘unfinished’ sculptures created by Amol visualise parts of a body lying apart, connected only with a line, compelling us to question the severe condition of the labours, their freedom of movement and our perception based on the texture of one’s skin. At the exhibition, the drawers creates two different space; an inside and an outside, indicating the government offices, where they keep the files. Referred to as ‘chambers’, they are a beholder of the dust or the ‘ash of hope’. The movements in the sand are symbolically made by souls fighting for their rights, trapped in the form of paperwork.
Kochi-based artist Jithinlal’s artwork at the biennale opens the door towards the history and experience of the dalit community which was once hidden and traces of which were only visible in indigenous folk songs and tales. His work ‘Spectral Speech’ draws its narrative framework from the literary device of the same name, employed by well-known dalit author C. Ayyappan in his novel to fictionalise the complexity of caste identity.
“In Kerala, the idea that talking about caste will encourage it, has silenced the people of the community from speaking about their experiences and sharing their stories and culture. While in college I realised that casteism still prevails and that not talking about it is not the solution. When I moved to Baroda, I began sharing the dalit identity and discovered that the discourse of dalit identity varies across India. I found art as the medium to express the confusion about identity that I experienced,” Jithinlal said.
To engage with the theme, Jithinlal creates illustrations and comic figures, using strokes and marks, which suit to represent the oppressed rather than applying any exorbitant methods or style.
Coming out from the dalit community, Jithinlal’s drawings and paintings investigate the modern subaltern memory to revive the harsh reality of dalit existence and challenge the normative idea of perception. The constitutive diagrams and pictograms explore the notion of transgression related to spectrality and produce forms that address caste oppression problems. His works create a new gaze, liberating the people fighting to become ‘human’ again.
Both artists agree that it is necessary for the community to have a place in a society where they can identify themselves as they are and hence it is important to encourage art forms that talk about the marginalised and oppressed.
“The history of the dalit community is usually presented from the colonial or Brahmanical viewpoint. My work is a historical inquiry of the movements, folk songs and poetry that concern the dalit community and seeks to present an alternate image of society through the viewpoint of the masses usually unrepresented using the work of subaltern artists like C. Ayyappan,” Jithinlal added.
The idea put forward by theorist Stuart Hall that cultural identity is not only a matter of 'being' but of 'becoming', 'belonging as much to the future as it does to the past’, became the ground of his art style. According to Jithinlal, the dalit community lacked historical evidence for them to identify with. Therefore he tries to capture the stories of the community, present around us in the form of landscape or bodily sensation, on a canvas to fill the gap in the subaltern history of Kerala.
Amol feels a lot of people still are unaware of the caste politics of the country. “There are always layers to how we ask questions or how things are changing. We can trace a lot of conversations that had already happened about poetry, protest, and community issues but it still exists,” he says. That is why he finds it important to bring it into this conversation.
“I look at the young people who do cleaning jobs in the morning and do theatre practice at night. It is like a process of learning from the community and also learning from our history. It is about bringing up a futuristic conversation, a talk about changing the new times.” Amol said.
From the bold and striking drawings of Jithinlal to the haunting sculptures and movements in Amol's work, the exhibition at Kochi is a celebration of creativity, diversity, and resilience, to capture our imagination and open our eyes to acknowledge and understand how societal structures impact upon ideas, identities and art.