The historic Pepper House will now host a residency for artists and an open library on visual art

The walls and wooden floors of Pepper House in Fort Kochi tell tales of Kochi’s rich trade history. Its doors and windows open to the backwaters at one end, while a road leading to the market appends its other. In its heyday, spices from far lands were brought into it across the waters, sorted and packaged in its ample courtyard, and transported out for sale through its front door. Today, Pepper House stands testimony not just to this history, but to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012, remnants of its street graffiti still alive on the sea-facing side. Henceforth, it will continue its tryst with art, as a creative space for artists hosted by Kochi Biennale Foundation’s (KBF) Pepper House Residency programme, set to launch today.

The residency opens with three artists chosen by the KBF — Avantika Bawa, an Indian artist, academic and curator who is settled in the US, German photographer Anja Bohnhof, who is supported by the Goethe Institut and Keralite painter Leon K.L.. “To begin with, we have structured the residency as a two-month period where the artists can live in Kochi and use Pepper House as their art studio. As we go along, the time frame may change; we will adapt according to the needs of the artistes chosen for the programme,” says Vipin Dhanurdharan, residency coordinator for KBF. While the artists may choose to work along the spacious ground and top floors of Pepper House, they could also engage with, and draw from, the culture and people of Kochi city. For instance, Anja’s recent photography project Bahak, focussed on the lives of daily-wage labourers in Kolkata; “if the residency’s artists would like to do similar projects with the city’s locals, we will make that possible,” adds Vipin.

Art for the people

“The KBF’s aim has always been to bring art close to people through every field, and the residency is in keeping with that,” says Bonny Thomas, cartoonist and research coordinator for KBF. At the close of the biennale, Pepper House’s owners Isaac Alexander and Tinky Mathew expressed their wish to continue using the space for art. Thus, besides the residency studios and its in-house cafe for discussions, Pepper House will also house artist Bose Krishnamachari’s travelling installation, Laboratory of Visual Arts (LaVA) — a curated collection of over 5,000 books and 1,800 DVDs on the visual arts. LaVA was conceived by Bose almost as a critique of art educational institutions that didn’t provide its students enough literature on contemporary art practices across the globe. “As a student I felt this need to know what was happening in the art world and there were few resources for us then,” says Bose.

Thus, from 1996, Bose began his personal collection of works on architecture, film, philosophy, dance, theatre, sculpture, design and theatre, among several other branches of visual art. In its original installation form, the works were not arranged by genre, rather mixed and shelved at random. “That was because I believe in an interdisciplinary approach to art, not one where each subject is compartmentalised. If somebody picks up a book on architecture, they may just happen to pick up the one next to it on theatre and discover that they are linked in some way. All the visual arts are interlinked, and we must encourage seeing them that way,” says Bose. Hence, LaVA was constructed to have a modular design, whose shelves could be rearranged to suit the space it was travelling to.

At Pepper House though, LaVA is arranged across the four walls of a sun-lit upper room overlooking the waters. With a view of Vallarpadam in the distance, and boats and ships in transit below, readers are welcome to pore over the treasures of this collection from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. everyday but Monday. The adjacent room features four televisions on which the DVDs could be watched with headphones. “This is our effort to develop an aesthetic thought in public. I hope people will use this open, free library for that,” says Bose. He also hopes that other organisations in Kochi and elsewhere will begin residencies of their own to encourage young promising artists.

For the future, Bose says the KBF is in talks with art institutions world-over in its search for the artistes who will join the residency next. At Pepper House, the plans are to conduct workshops on art, use the open spaces for theatre acts and other shows, as well as to hold exhibitions of the finished work of residency artistes. “We want to make Pepper House an international hub for art.”