India is a no-show at the Venice Biennale — and this may be a good thing 

The nation-based format of the Biennale demands statements. Which of the myriad issues plaguing our country would we draw attention to? Or not at all?

April 22, 2022 01:45 pm | Updated 04:13 pm IST

Cameroonian artist Angèle Etoundi Essamba’s crypto art ‘A-FIL-LIATION 06’

Cameroonian artist Angèle Etoundi Essamba’s crypto art ‘A-FIL-LIATION 06’ | Photo Credit: Angele Etoundi Essamba/ Cameroon pavilion

Croatia will exhibit “nothing” at the Venice Biennale this year.

Tomo Savić-Gecan, the country’s representative artist at the Olympics of the art world, exhibits “nothing” as a rule, and has instead created an artificial intelligence that will guide five performers to move around Venice inconspicuously. Given that the 59th edition of the Biennale, which opens to the public tomorrow, takes its title ‘The Milk of Dreams’ from the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, this post-truth presentation is very much at home.

It’s not all surrealism and spectacle though. Alongside the Central Pavilion curated by Cecilia Alemani, there are 80 national pavilions set to make strong socio-political statements at what remains the contemporary art world’s most prestigious biennial event.  It was postponed last year due to the pandemic, something that has only occurred twice in the event’s 127-year history, during the two World Wars.

‘Paradise Camp’ by Yuki Kihara, New Zealand pavilion

‘Paradise Camp’ by Yuki Kihara, New Zealand pavilion | Photo Credit: Luke Walker

The global ecological crisis (Chile, Georgia, North Macedonia, Serbia) and the status of indigenous people (Canada, New Zealand, Peru) appear to be focal points this year. In the New Zealand pavilion, Yuki Kihara will be the first artist of Pacific descent to represent the country, focussing on stereotypes about people who identify as Fa’afafine, the Samoan word for the third gender. 

For the people

In her poetic curator’s statement, Alemani asks, ‘How is the definition of the human changing? What constitutes life, and what differentiates plant and animal, human and non-human?’ while underlining that art can help us imagine new modes of co-existence and infinite possibilities of transformation. 

I am looking forward to two national pavilions in particular. The Nordic pavilion, which represents Norway, Finland, and Sweden, has changed its name to the Sámi pavilion in honour of the three indigenous artists who will take over the space. The Sámi are indigenous people scattered across the Nordic countries and Russia’s Kola peninsula. Living on the perilous edge of climate crisis — threatened by mining, logging, global warming and new culling laws — they will take their place as a nation for the first time. Artist Máret Anne Sara, born to a reindeer-herding family, views the animal as a close relative. “Humans, nature and animals are interdependent and equal. So destroying any part of this is like suicide from our perspective. What’s happening to the reindeer is our story as well,” she said in a recent interview in The Guardian.

Archaeologist and museologist Liisa-Rávná Finbog, co-curator of the Sámi pavilion

Archaeologist and museologist Liisa-Rávná Finbog, co-curator of the Sámi pavilion | Photo Credit: Eirin Torgersen

Curtain of bullets

Some of Sara’s most powerful art has been protest art. In 2017, in front of the Norwegian parliament building in Oslo, she made a “curtain” of 400 bullet-ridden reindeer skulls. Another artist exhibiting in the Sámi pavilion is Pauliina Feodoroff from the Finnish-Russian border. Her work is a conceptual project where she auctions rights to view pristine Arctic wilderness, and uses the proceeds to buy and protect the land.

It is only natural for an art event of such scale and prominence to be entangled in the geopolitics of the moment. The other potential headliner at this year’s event will be the Ukraine pavilion which is proceeding as planned (Russian artists and curators have withdrawn their participation). Additional tributes to Ukraine include an exhibition of works by famed Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko, whose paintings were reportedly destroyed by Russian forces.

None of this is surprising. The Biennale has consistently made room for political statements, both sharp and subtle. In 2015, the Iran pavilion featured artists from the Indian subcontinent — Bani Abidi, T.V. Santosh and Riyas Komu — as well as those from Afghanistan, Iraq, the Central Asian republics, the Kurdish region and Iran, in an attempt to address the flows of power and influence across these parts of Asia. That same year, Indian art patron Feroze Gujral sponsored a collateral event titled My East is Your West that juxtaposed the works of artists Rashid Rana (Pakistan) and Shilpa Gupta (India). This year, the Dutch have handed over their prized location to Estonia, to “welcome young nations to the centre of the Biennale.”

“I wonder what an India pavilion would have chosen to present this year. Unlike art fairs, a biennale has no direct commercial proposition and allows artists and curators to chart new routes in contemporary art and public discourse”

When, after its late arrival to this global art party in 2011, India was a no-show in the 2013 edition, artist Bharti Kher was among those who expressed exasperation at the state of India’s arts infrastructure. In an email circulated within the art fraternity, she wrote: “As I sit these mornings and look at my mailbox something about where I’m from bothers me as the news from the Venice Biennale filters in: pavilions from Angola (population 19.6 million, civil wars 1975 to 2002), Azerbaijan (9.173 million), Bangladesh, Tuvalu (population 9,847)... yes smaller than Lajpat Nagar! Iraq, Kuwait, Maldives, Montenegro... special participations from Palestine, Tibet...We didn’t bother to make it happen. Again.” 

Eight years later, in 2019, India did manage to present its second national pavilion. This year would have been the edition to keep up a permanent presence. But there is no India pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Again. The big Indian connections at the Biennale this year are Subodh Gupta cooking inside an installation made of used utensils (a collateral event organised by Galleria Continua), and Prabhakar Pachpute’s and the late Mrinalini Mukherjee’s works as part of Alemani’s Central Pavilion. For context, Nepal is exhibiting for the first time this year, as are the Republic of Cameroon, Namibia, the Sultanate of Oman and Uganda.

A display of the Biennale in Venice

A display of the Biennale in Venice | Photo Credit: Getty Images

While I have shared Kher’s disappointment all these years, I am now relieved. The 2019 presentation was a complicated affair: organised under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture, with the Confederation of Indian Industry as a partner, the Director General of the National Gallery of Modern Art as commissioner, and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art as curator. Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary celebrations were extended to create a theme for the pavilion. In interviews I conducted around the time, a curator, on condition of anonymity, told me that “the singular celebration of Gandhi as a symbol at this point in our history as a nation and broader region is ridiculous.” 

I wonder what an India pavilion would have chosen to present this year. Unlike art fairs, a biennale has no direct commercial proposition and allows artists and curators to chart new routes in contemporary art and public discourse. The island nation of Tuvalu, for instance, forecast to be one of the first countries to disappear due to rising sea levels, used its first national pavilion in 2015 to highlight the effects of global warming on the island. 

All art is not political, but no art is free of politics. The nation-based format of the Biennale demands statements. Would the India pavilion draw attention to the various ecological crises plaguing the country? Would it, like the Nordic pavilion, accord the idea of a nation state to the disenfranchised Miya Muslims from Assam, to Adivasis struggling for land rights in various pockets of the country, to migrant labourers who found themselves in no-man’s land when the pandemic struck? Would the India pavilion focus on communal hate crimes or targeted violence against Dalit women? I am fairly certain of the answer, which is why I’m glad there is no India pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year.

To not speak at all is better than to whimper on a global stage. 

ON SHOW: Biennale Arte 2022: The Milk Of Dreams; Venice; till November 27, 2022

The arts journalist and editor is based in Mumbai. Her debut novel The Illuminated was published in 2021. 

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