Noted art historian Kathleen Wyma talks about her project on contemporary Kerala art and her insight into the Radicals.

Art historian Kathleen Wyma talks animatedly about the birth of the Radicals, a reactionary group, in the Indian art scene. That a majority of them were from Kerala drew her deeper into the art world here. Today, as she prepares to organise – ‘The Material Point; Reconsidering the Medium in Post Modern Moment’ - opening at OED Gallery in Mattancherry, on July 20, she is simultaneously working on a major work that surveys the contemporary art scene in Kerala starting from the seminal setting up of the College of Fine Arts Trivandrum (1970s) to the present times, when the State hosted the country’s first art Biennale (2013).

Kathleen’s major contribution to Kerala art history is that she is the first Western critic to position the Radicals in their due perspective.

“As a historian I am interested in who gets included in history and who doesn’t. I found a gap about the position of the Radicals and the part they played. I did not get a proper answer then. It is still a question that needs to be asked,” says Kathleen who began her India visits for her Master’s and Doctorate in 1999. Presently Kathleen teaches art history at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She’s back here after a six year hiatus.

Her interest in the Radicals was sparked after she read an essay by art historian Shivaji Panikkar and went to MS University, Baroda, for research. Baroda was the hub of the movement, and even when Kathleen visited in the late nineties it was still pulsating in its aftermath.

Giving a background to the entry of the reactionary group on to the Indian art scene, Kathleen says: “In the 60s Indian art was facing a bit of an identity crisis. Abstract art was supposedly too Western, it faced opposition. Clement Greenberg, renowned American art critic and an advocate of the abstract form, visited India. But there was struggle for a more home-grown idiom. ‘Place for People’, a landmark exhibition of works by some of the top Indian artists made a strong demand to reject the avant-garde and revert to the figurative. ‘Place for People’ was an all figurative show. It was then that the Radicals came up with a counter exhibition, ‘Questions and Dialogues’ (1987), at the MS University. They rejected the principles of ‘Place for People’. Keep in mind that this was post-Emergency and hence politically it was a very volatile time.”

Kathleen’s ears were pricked by the first sounds of terms like ‘neo-colonists’ used by the Radicals, and at the emergence of a voice against the treatment of art as commodity. “In a sense they were political, questioning the reduction of art into a commodity. But why did no one listen to them? In 1989, they showed tremendous foresight about the commercialisation of art and it has come so true.”

Kathleen specifically speaks of the late K.P.Krishnakumar’s work ‘Boatman’, which clearly depicts a labouring body at work. “The body of the boatman has become the boat. This is the moment where visual representation takes on political shades. It was an interesting comment.” Kathleen, an authority on the changes in the art world, has penned several essays on the vagaries of the art market, of how art auctions work, on bidding procedures and market supplies. She realises the pressures on younger artists from Kerala to be swept by market demands but that she says is true of artists anywhere in the world.

“I am re-acquainting myself with the current art interventions in Kerala. I am excited about dialogue, generating ideas and cross fertilisation,” says Kathleen who has worked with young, talented artists like Zakkir Hussain and Rajan Krishnan from Kerala. The post Radical scenario was marked by a lull, a period of wilderness when many from the State chose to move out and almost all came under the sweep of market demands. “But one thing is clear, art in Kerala remains very dynamic,” she says.