30 September, 2019

The Kashmir Valley to Fort Kochi, India to Venice

Tata Trusts’ Students' Biennale Awards broadens students’ horizons

The support for the Students’ Biennale (SB), the education platform of the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF), by the Trusts started in 2016 – the second edition of the Students’ Biennale. The exhibition sites had grown from the first edition and an effort was made to include new media, installations and performance art along with the rest of the visual art practices. It received a favourable reception, both from visitors and critics.


It is the only such platform for students from fine art colleges from around the country that allows for mentored time and exhibition space – allowing voices from otherwise remote corners of the national contemporary art scene to be heard and talent to be unearthed, and fine art colleges in tier 2 cities to participate; all these are reasons that fit with the Trusts’ Arts and Culture portfolio's vision of working with multiplicity, the marginalised and with excellence. 

In 2018, the Trusts extended the support once again, to a programme that incorporated feedback to tweak the model to include an “expanded education programme” at 6 of the 55+ colleges engaged with, and to host the exhibitory platform mentored by six senior curators. This time an open call was put out for the selection of students to participate and a jury comprising of all the curators, selected the final 220 works exhibited for which production grants were included. This inclusion of production grants was reflected in the more imaginative leaps of faith that students took in expressing their concepts. The education interventions are being documented and will serve as tools for further use for all the participating colleges.

It is always a challenge to work with such numbers, co-ordinate the logistics of workshops, timely execution of works and final display, and keep within timelines and budgets; yet this was ably managed by a team led by Education Co-ordinator Faiza Hasan, who was one of the young curators from the previous edition. The final days of installation are always tense. The previous edition had to bear with the effects demonetisation had on vendor payments and on-time delivery; this edition saw the team function with a new lead and spaces that were acquired at the last minute.

On opening day, most exhibits were up though not in an ideal setting – labels especially were not up while some installs were not complete due to a power outage. This should be kept in mind for the next edition as it has repercussions.

The Students’ Biennale now attracts the important community of gallerists, curators and collectors, on the look-out for the next generation of talent. While the biennale runs for three months, most of the crowd come for the opening of the main biennale – the Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB) – and rush over to the Students’ Biennale sites, to see and seek, eager to discover the new talent that the Students’ Biennale already has the reputation of throwing up. This year, irate posts of labels not being up surfaced. While this was dealt with quickly, it indicated a back-handed compliment – of the serious interest shown by the art community wanting to seek out the names of the young artists whose work caught their eye and how the Students’ Biennale had grown to firmly acquire its own space alongside the giants of the art world showing further down the road. One needs to program better, perhaps bring forward deadlines. There is a talented and dedicated work team in place to see through a perfect opening.

The seven venues displaying 220 works, along Bazaar Road between the markets and shops of Fort Kochi, were thronged by thousands of visitors (KMB received 5.92 lakh visitors, a large majority include SB) comprising various communities – art lovers, the local inhabitants, the curious tourists, artists, schools and colleges, and the media. As in the last edition, the works vied for the Tata Trusts’ instituted awards, for three individual students (international awards) and a group (national) award. The group award came about in the previous edition, as several of the curators had worked with the students from a particular college or colleges on a concept that yielded a work or a body of work that had been collectively worked on by all. 

The jury this year consisted of Bose Krishnamachari (Director, Kochi Muziris Biennale), artist Madhusudhan and myself. The idea remains as in last edition’s intent, to expose the winning students and group to national and contemporary art practices through travel grants enabling studio visits, residencies and visits to international exhibitions.

As recorded by KBF in their report:

“Umesh Singh, Maksud Ali Mondal and Akanksha Agarwal were awarded the Tata Trusts Students' Biennale International Awards. Their work was particularly acknowledged for the manner in which they had engaged with their practice, their medium and the strength of their visual language.

“As part of the award grant, Maksud and Akanksha travelled to Venice between July 12-19, 2019. Due to a delay in receiving his visa, Umesh travelled from August 12-19, 2019. The travel grant to Venice, Italy, is intended to encourage the experiencing of art and architecture – an important part of the educational nature of this trip. The trip itinerary included visits to the Venice Biennale, its collateral exhibitions; Fondazione Prada; Punta della Dogana; Murano Glass Factory; Peggy Guggenheim Collection; and other important landmarks and institutions.

“Ahamad Muzamil, Anis Wani, Arona Riyaz, Asif Haneef, Mir Lateef, Numair Qadri, Owais Ahmed, Saba Altaf, Tabeena Wani, Ushmayo Dutta and Zaid Bhat were awarded the Tata Trusts Students' Biennale National Awards for 2018 for their individual projects.”

There was no one collective work this time for the group (national) award, rather we felt that the 11 artists' individual works drew from the contemporary – both politics and art practices – to build a narrative that unmistakably evoked both the famed beauty of the state as well as the underbelly of concerns; together they built a haunting anthology. The students showed adventurous and imaginative use of material: wool, clay, photographs, film, found objects, new media and installation, to build up the intangible – the memories of homes and lost ones, of violence and of beauty. Saba Altaf built a home using the phiran of her mother, lost early to a stray bullet; Zaid Bhat's photographs are portable memories of homes lost, the blueprints of each superimposed on his torso; Ahamad Muzamil retells stories like the ones he heard his grandmother tell, only now there are abandoned spaces and whispers spread over nine screens that flicker, struggling to remember.

The time spent at the residency at Kochi will allow for more play in imagination and material, strengthening their practices and the hope that it helps them emerge onto the contemporary art scene emphatically. The group of 11 students came to Pepper House for their month-long residency in two batches.


KBF further reports the following as the residencies played out:

“The first batch of the National Residency awardees completed a month-long residency at Pepper House from July 1-31, 2019. Projects by Ahamad Muzamil (‘Massacres at Home’), Anis Wani (‘Jannat e Benazeer’), Arona Riyaz, Numair Qadri (‘Memoryscape’) and Tabeena Wani were on display to the public as part of their Open Day on  July 28-29, 2019.

The second batch of awardees completed their residency period between August 5 - September 3, 2019. At their Open Day on August 30-31, 2019, Mir Lateef displayed his project titled ‘Father and Son (hand in hand)’, which was a tribute to his father, a craftsperson and shawl-maker in Kashmir. Owais Ahmed’s residency project, ‘My Burning Valley’, was a mixed-media, video-based installation. Ushmayo Dutta utilised his residency period in research and video documentation.

Zaid Bhat is currently completing his residency at Pepper House. KBF is also attempting to establish contact with Asif Haneef who was to participate in the August residency. However, due to the ongoing situation in Srinagar, there has been a loss of contact with Asif.”

In addition to supporting the Students’ Biennale, Tata Trusts has also supported the Video Lab, both in equipping it and in training personnel. The in-house videos produced exceed 200+ – artists’ talks and interviews; interviews with museum directors, curators and historians; recordings of community involvement of the behind-the-scene workers; site visits; and recordings of the biennale itself – and has grown to become an important archive of both Kochi Muziris Biennale and the Students’ Biennale.

— Deepika Sorabjee