Riyas Komu’s show is an artist’s instinctive reaction to a fragmented society

An artist is vigorously alive to the times he lives in. And as an artist Riyas Komu is truly a man of the moment. He is actively engaged with the volatile present commenting strongly on the topical through his art works. In the ongoing show, ‘Condition’, at Kashi Art Gallery, Fort Kochi, he dissects and debates on a range of subjects of the recent past. The conspiratorial political murders in the State, the lop-sided obsession with gold, the resistance to culture, the continuing political game of divide and rule, subjugation of women and the prejudices in religious identity are the subjects he deals with.

Portrait of an activist

Riyas is known for his populist voice. In a powerful self portrait where he has camouflaged his face, he explains, “that is to save my dignity.” As a cultural activist, he finds resistance to art painful and disappointing.

Kerala, which is his root, is where he belongs and draws his strength from, but it disappoints him at times. “It is painful and dangerous. But I am an optimist.”

As a co-curator of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, Riyas had been away from his art, into administrative work, but this show has put “me back on track.”

In ‘Duroohatha’, an installation in aluminium, a prototype figure is repeated over a 100 times and covers the expanse of an entire wall. It is imposing and a comment on the recurring political murders. The repetitions are to hammer in a reality that is disturbing but true. Artistically, the small figures on the wall, Riyas says, is inspired by the traditional mural.

Is the installation a whole unit or can it be displayed as a fragmented truth? It is the condition duroohatha that decides the display. Riyas explains that a similar installation which he made for a show in Iran was being displayed in Tel Aviv and in India simultaneously.

The Gandhi-Jinnah figure installation strategically placed above all works, high on the walls, loops the whole show. The famous divide and rule story of partition continues in the present day where society remains fissured and in conflict. ‘Puthiya Yakshi’ comments on man’s obsession with gold. Riyas uses very strong language to express his distaste, an idiom that includes a gilded vagina, a dog and a skull.

He says, “Men use gold to decorate women and they dismiss her intellect. Gold is the manipulative currency. Anything you decorate beyond a point loses its strength.”

In the installation, ‘Salt and Pepper’, made in recycled teak wood, he carries forward the metaphor of the freedom movement. Gandhi used the basic salt as a symbol of freedom, of the ground realities, and a good woman is referred as “true to her salt”.

The work ‘Truth’ comprises two entities—one, a powerful photograph of a helpless, bleeding Christ and the other, a poem, by Rafeeq Ahmed done in archival print on brushed silver metal. The poem dissects contemporary realities and the work, in its entirety, revels in the cultural plurality of Kerala.

A powerful, though small work, ‘Engagement’, made on a found object, the hand, in Korea, the artist has placed a ring on the finger, a ring bearing the crescent moon and star, the symbol of Islam. Here, he says, he is troubled by the identity crisis Islam is facing due to the excesses of a few.

And though the present condition the artist paints is tough and at times bleak for Riyas “it is one of the best times to be an artist.” For therein lies the challenge for a man who wishes to tell the story differently, in a language that is contemporary and incisive.

The show runs through October and the gallery—café timings are 9 a.m to 7 p.m.