Joseph Semah's work for biennale is on 72 privileges granted to Jews and Christians by last Chera king

Dutch artist Joseph Semah was on a visit to Kochi in September this year when he came across a story about a Chera king’s 9 century copper plates. The tale soon became the focal theme of his installation art for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Semah’s work will introduce visitors to the 72 privileges granted to the Jewish and Christian communities here by the last king of the Chera dynasty who ruled from Muziris.

The work will feature a 22-m-long wooden table with 72 copper plates inserted, said a communication from the organisers of the Biennale. Five thousand metres of thread will be woven through the holes. “The accompanying 72 drawings will be a visual guide to the history of the 72 privileges,” said Semah, who is in Kochi with his wife and son.

The 64-year-old artist, settled in Netherlands, has had no formal training in art.

“I never did studied art at school. It is embarrassing to be practising art in classroom walls, then becoming an intern under some artist of repute, and all that rigour...”

Born in Iran, he moved to Israel with his parents when he was two years old. Semah later went on to study engineering and philosophy. At 27, he moved to Europe — London, Berlin and then Paris — on a “self-imposed exile.” Semah has been living in Amsterdam since 1980. There, he founded the Makkom Foundation which has been organising projects based on interdisciplinary research in the arts.

Semah’s installation will be opened at Fort Kochi’s Aspinwall House on December 13. The inaugural show will feature public figures from different religions positioned back to back and reading out from holy texts. “They will comprise believers of the Islamic, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish and secular traditions… I’m trying to rope in a member from the only Parsi family left in Kochi,” says Semah.

The back-to-back session will be followed by a dance of 72 children. “There will be no rehearsal for this. It’s up to the kids to do whatever they want. We are in the process of finding the performers.” A record of the live performance will later be integrated into the installation, he says.

Kochi isn’t the first Biennale that Semah is participating in. The artist was delighted to see the peaceful co-existence of different religions in the city. “When issues of religious intolerance are rocking Europe, it is wonderful to see here in Kochi a laboratory of tolerance, where Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians co-exist in perfect harmony,” he says.

Semah feels that the Kochi-Muziris Biennale will “mark a paradigm shift in the history of art. It doesn’t go by the local power structure, it doesn’t feature the same set of faces found in most Biennales of the world, it has curators who are artists themselves,” says the artist.

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