April 2019

Students' Biennale 2018

A detailed account of the recently concluded Students’ Biennale 2018 by Deepika Sorabjee, Tata Trusts, which reflects on how learning from the biennale can be crafted into programmes that enrich the study of art in India

The Tata Trusts have been associated with the Students’ Biennale for two editions now, starting from the second edition in 2016. This has helped, as several questions that arose from the last Students’ Biennale informed the 2018 programme. The Expanded Education Programme being the new addition, and the change in selection of curators and giving production grants to students the others.

The Students’ Biennale being the education offspring of the Kochi Muziris Biennale by the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) engages with BFA and MFA students in art colleges around the country and results in an exhibition of over 200 students’ works at Fort Kochi, that runs alongside the main biennale. The Tata Trusts have also supported the Video Lab for the last two editions and the output lives on the KBF website as artists talks, recordings of performances, interviews, site visits and short stories of all who make and partake of the biennale. Seen by thousands around the world, its growing expertise could be harnessed in the next edition to host workshops for the students using media in their art making.

The exhibitory platform is spread over seven venues along the Bazaar Road and Mattancherry and is growing to become a firm fixture on the schedule of many of the knowing biennale visitors, vying for time with the main Kochi Muziris Biennale. It is the only national platform for students to exhibit thus, attracting the art cognoscenti from India and abroad, the tourist and the local. This year, students responding brilliantly to the curatorial brief of ‘Making as Thinking’, saw many take a leap of faith with the production grants and the mentoring, pushing concept and form on the one hand and bringing their stories evocatively to Kochi on the other.

The Students' Biennale awards, instituted by the Tata Trusts, were introduced for the first time in 2016. As a travel grant and a residency, they present the opportunity for emerging student artists to get exposed to international current practices and to develop their own projects. Selecting the winning students along with Bose Krishnamachari (Director, Kochi Biennale Foundation) and KM Madhusudhanan (artist and filmmaker) was tough from a field of many, but we were unanimous in the final choice.

All the awards given reflect the students’ deep engagement with material and concept in the translation of their ideas into works that carried their roots, coming as they did from different parts of the country, to the site. Umesh Singh’s use of cyanotype prints of the farmers juxtaposed with the sculptural works produced from diseased bark and discarded tools; Maksud Ali Mondal’s confidence in working with organic material that, in decay, left evocative ‘drawings’ in growth; and Akanksha Agarwal’s scale and formalism in papier mache, all responded to the curatorial brief refreshingly. The 11 students from Kashmir who won the National Award evoked chinar leaves and phirans, homes and family into works in different mediums that individually conveyed their singular stories of memory and belonging and collectively spoke of a land that remains in the transition of political solution even as its humanity bears mute witness to irrecoverable loss. The travel and residencies should give greater wings to their ideas in years to come.

While we see the exhibitory platform grow and students’ work from around the country getting noticed, the education module grew from a concern of the engagement with the colleges. This has yet, I feel, to be defined. As an art education programme is there a deeper engagement with the institutions the students come from that can really affect change? All were in agreement at the last closing conference about the general apathy that exists regarding pedagogy in our art schools. The five workshops held this year in five colleges therefore, maybe a small step, maybe imperfect, but more importantly in observation, execution and documentation perhaps can be built upon as a way into institutions that are open to hosting them and in time into the curricula itself.

Knowledge is power — an oft repeated quote — but knowledge created or pondered over only empowers when it is enabling; it has to move from conferences and what’s happening on the outside to make it into the curriculum. As we know, to put into practice, or more mundanely into a practical programme, is something that needs to be done at our colleges. This approach of having five different ways here shows the many ways it can be built upon by KBF — one doesn’t have to have sameness or to be all encompassing, but can reach out to colleges as per region or absence, with rigour as was done here by practitioners. In the lack of trained faculty around the country, this could also be a way to start the engagement, with practitioners reaching out, working even in pulses with them. This, after all, is a unique biennale where the curators have been artists from the inception; this can be the pedagogical cross over too.

One of the curators, KP Reji narrated an experience. Discussing a work of a student from the JJ School of Arts, he said he had time to engage with him because he was one of three students who had remained at the college during the summer break as he could not afford the travel expense of going home. Reji discussed his origins (a farming background) and worked with him on material.  The resultant work is exuberant — colour and stories from home ‘plough’ through a yellow ‘field’ of thick impasto, a sickle faintly emerges in one painting in an abstraction the student would otherwise perhaps have not realised.  I narrate this because this situation is probably the same in many of the other colleges the Students' Biennale engages with (economic and pedagogical constraints) and should perhaps be a baseline when we talk about art education — students who come from varied backgrounds and regions, access to facilities or new ways of teaching that are limited or simply absent, and faculty and institutions who are often uncomfortable with practices that are happening outside the institution.

At the closing conference, many different ways of engaging with pedagogy were presented. David Sequeira (Director, Margaret Lawrence Gallery) and Kate Daw (Head, VCA Art), both artists and faculty at the Victoria College of the Arts, spoke of the methods of teaching employed at the school. There is the ‘regular’ curriculum and then what they call the ‘incidental’ curriculum — the ways they work other practices — students assisting artists, exhibition making, student evenings with performances, etc into ‘extras’ that enrich the main curriculum. The five interventions developed in the Expanded Education Programme this year could perhaps be an ‘incidental’ curriculum KBF could develop as a practical model (given the daunting task of affecting change in 55 colleges) that could go out to colleges as a workshop format — we have seen the results here at the Students' Biennale and it is encouraging.