‘The copper plates tell us about the 72 privileges given to the Jewish and Christian communities and will be the basis of my work’.

Contemporary artist Joseph Semah had a Eureka moment when he toured Kochi a few months ago to do the groundwork for his project at the forthcoming Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

At the Jewish synagogue in Mattancherry, the artist —who was born in Baghdad, brought up in Tel Aviv and settled in Amsterdam—chanced upon the two copper plates of privileges given by then ruler of the Malabar coast to the Jews and Christians. Semah at once realized this world be at the core of his art installation for the biennale.

“The copper plates tell us about the 72 privileges given to the Jewish and Christian communities at the same time. The plates and the number 72 will be the basis of my work, which will consist of an installation on site including, as it were, 72 copper plates and 72 drawings,” the artist said in an e-mail interview.

Semah intends to open his work with a performance featuring public figures of diverse religious denominations and a secular person, who will read aloud, back-to-back, from their scriptures /book of influence in an impromptu fashion.

A recorded version of this live performance will be integrated into Semah’s installation.

Kochi, for Semah, is a paradise for religious denominations of all kind. “Here we can see how the concept of tolerance took shape by promoting a kind of balance between different religious groups. This could be an example for us in the West. The current era is one of religious intolerance and communal disharmony in Europe and this is quite disturbing,” he says.

Like it or not, every artist is a public figure, he maintains. “The creative process is not the issue here — it is about the moment when the artist exhibits his work in the public sphere. This act is always a political act.”

But Semah thinks artists should steer clear of contemporary political issues.

They must take recourse to a poetic outlook so that the message they want to convey will not be too direct and flaccid. “Poetry asks for active engagement,” he reasons.

On his own work, Semah says he has tried for 30 years to fathom the meaning of contemporary art using his mother tongue, the Hebrew language, as his window to the world.

“I still read each and every art work on display through the tradition/history of the Hebrew language. In this context, one can say each art work of mine is nothing but a footnote to my research, to my desire to understand what contemporary art actually means, what is meant by tolerance, what the meaning of being in exile is and what it means to be a guest.”

The KMB, he feels, will be a launch pad for Indian arts and the Indian arts scene to break into the space of international contemporary art, which has always been overshadowed by the West.

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