'I see my works as an archive of our times'

Interview with Riyas Komu, artist and co-founder, Kochi Biennale Foundation.

Published : Apr 11, 2018 12:30 IST

Riyas Komu.

Riyas Komu.

Riyas Komu comes across as that rare artist who does not live in a social vacuum. For him, art continues to be a medium with which to engage, influence and arouse. The twin preoccupations of his recently concluded exhibition (titled “Holy Shiver”) at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, are Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar. Not for Komu, the debate of who influenced whom. His Gandhi-Ambedkar triptych is part of a larger political narrative that does not shy away from tackling ideological paradoxes of contemporary times.

Komu’s recent works carry more than a hint of dissent. Rooted in reality, his oil portraits have redefined the genre. Far from being feel-good portraits, on closer inspection, they reflect a tone of confrontation and ask uneasy questions of the viewers. Little wonder, then, that this co-founder of the Kochi Biennale Foundation has been getting rave reviews from connoisseurs and amateur art enthusiasts alike.

Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline :

The title of your latest exhibition at Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi is quite intriguing. How did you arrive at “Holy Shiver”? In our land, the word “holy” comes with notions of calmness and piety.

The title “Holy Shiver” is inspired by an idea proposed by the Austrian zoologist and ethologist Konrad Lorenz in his book On Aggression . It refers to “the behavioural tendency of willing to kill or be killed in defence of one’s own community”. Lorenz talks about how this tendency manifests itself physically in the tingling sensation in the spine, “a prehuman reflex for the raising of hair on the back of an animal as a preparatory step for a fight when confronted with an enemy”. While the exhibition itself is not conceptually organised around Lorenz’s idea, the title is a pointer to the human tendency to break into violence. And I don’t think as a country, we have a very good track record of “holy” as being synonymous with peace and calm. Recent incidents prove that, in the public sphere, the idea of “holy” is increasingly under attack, and often what remains is the unholy aftermath of religious violence, hate speech, and social oppression.

Your work throbs with immediacy. Yet you insist that it is not a comment on our society, but rather an archiving of the times. Please explain. As an artist who has drawn richly from the tragedies of our times—Babri Masjid, 9/11, invasion of Iraq, and so on, how do you handle such disturbing events?

As an artist, I have always wanted to respond to the times. And to do that one must approach it with the dedication of an archivist. I have always been fascinated by what constitutes the political in the public sphere. For instance, the exhibition “Holy Shiver” while pointing to the state’s and religious institutions’ capacity for violence, also considers the public who themselves are, sometimes, willing participants. So while some of these themes do have contemporary relevance, the exhibition is not just a response to the present or immediate political climate, it has been in my thinking for several years. When I say that I see my works “as an archive of our times”, it does not mean that there is an absence of social, cultural, and political commentary; on the contrary, they are embedded in their conceptual frameworks and in the works themselves—making way for complex and abstract thinking while still maintaining the structural discourse of the archive at some level.

“Holy Shiver”, the woodcut series, explores certain violent outbreaks in independent India. But the public perception of these incidents has fact and fiction confused. So the idea of the “archive” is less a thing than a concept, an actualisation of an immersive environment to jolt the audience out of their induced stupor and consider uncomfortable narratives. The archive is simply the search for truth. Maybe the most ordinary truth, but when it comes to full disclosure, art never ever speaks for itself. But it creates ways, in a world filled with despair to dare to dream, to dare to reimagine it differently, to dare to see the truth behind the veil.

About one of your oft-quoted works of Gandhi and Ambedkar, I am tempted to ask: as the two icons merge in one, did we lose Ambedkar with Gandhi?

The work, “Dhamma Swaraj” (2018), is an overlapping triptych of Gandhi and Ambedkar that explores the interaction between two apparently disparate ideologies in the scope of a single frame. My intention was neither to merge them nor to single out one over the other, but rather to explore the philosophies and ideologies that have, in essence, guided our country and how today we are all but eager to brush them away without being fully aware of their implications. The attempt is not to canonise but to critically engage with the ideas (of the Constitution, rights, religion, secularism, freedom, and so on) that drive us today, to consider both views on humanity and society (with their faults and merits). If you look at the history of political discourses and dialogues happening in post-Independence India and especially in the last two decades, one can see the images and ideas of Gandhi and Ambedkar conversing and coalescing, conflicting and combining, always triggering larger questions about justice and equality. It has been a kind of light-and-shadow play of two political imaginations informing and inciting political action in our times.

Without resorting to hyperbole or sloganeering, you make a strong statement with your works. Would it be fair to call it political art? Where does art end and activism take over?

I am an artist and sometimes I make works that critique political institutions and perhaps politics itself. The best way for me to explain would be to paraphrase Godard who said: “It’s important for artists to make art politically as opposed to making political art.”

For me, activism does not take over my art. So, art doesn’t end. I am sceptical of the possibilities of “art activism” because I think they tend to divert attention from the practical goals of political protest in favour of an aesthetic form. Not that this aesthetic form has potential, to be sure, but in fact it turns into a spectacle and thus neutralises the practical effect of this action. So, in a way, activism through art can always exist only as a weak action—of art, and of activism. I think art that has political considerations is not just about critiquing something but also striving for justice—it comes from a position of self-examining reflection. I think it moves with the struggles and also moves those struggles forward.

You have been at the receiving end of both Congress and right-wing criticism. Yet, you have been quoted as saying, “When there is fear, all my faculties come alive.” So, for an artist, is this the best time to be working?

Since, realistically, we cannot move back (or forward) in time, all we can do is to respond to it, and by extension try to archive it objectively—even if some of these open us up to uncomfortable truths.

Yes, this is a very interesting time to be an artist but I am sure every artist will have a certain affinity for the times they live in. But fear can sometimes be a driving factor—a motivation that lets us imagine a different reality or go that extra mile in search of the truth.

As we see today, we have had instances of artistic voices being suppressed through our history, but people will always find a way to overcome censorship, threats and oppression.

For all the right moves of the art fraternity, isn’t art itself merely a niche activity in a country with no culture of going to galleries or museums?

Yes. We do not have a “culture” of going to museums or art galleries—because we don’t have a lot of good museums and people are intimidated by art galleries. But I also don’t think that a lot of people seeing art is going to make any difference. So how do we engage people when museums and galleries are, conceptually and physically, out of bounds for the common people? That’s where spaces like the Kochi-Muziris Biennale have started to make a difference—it becomes more than just a space to see art, it becomes an inclusive public platform for critical engagement and discourses and opens possibilities of previously unknown types of engagement in the public realm in India. But the bigger problem is that we shouldn’t impose on art what it’s not meant to do.

How do you see resistance art growing in our country? Is it time for artists to engage more actively with the emerging socio-political reality?

Artists do not live separately from their social realities. I believe artists have always been involved with the social, cultural and political realities of the country. A master like [V.S.] Gaitonde is a crucial example of the social awakening of an artist to his times, of the resistance of imagination through extreme abstraction. And if you look at the works produced by students in their year-end exhibitions, or at the Students’ Biennale or as part of the Young Subcontinent project at Serendipity Arts Festival (which I curate), it’s evident and thrilling to see them engage their contemporary concerns critically through arts.

How different has your show at the New Delhi exhibition been from the India Art Fair?

At the India Art Fair, I exhibited an edition of “Holy Shiver”, the woodcut series, that explores some of the acts of violence in social spaces throughout the history of independent India. The idea was to examine the nature of public memory through representative images of violence in the public sphere. This series is a continuation of the “Stoned Goddesses 2013” series that also explored violence and displacement from different times.

Finally, like much of our literature and cinema, is our art moving away from rural concerns to more urban concerns?

There seems to be the prevailing notion that somehow the urban is more civilised and educated and hence has more access to art and culture whereas the rural is considered as a cultural void—places where art does not (or cannot) exist. This simply is not true.

I have been travelling in India and to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and so on, and have found that there is a thriving art and cultural scene everywhere. Of course, cities can sustain larger numbers of art institutions (because of access to capital and other resources) but that’s not indicative of any critical failing from rural areas.

For instance, you could say that the art scene in India is concentrated in a few major cities, but the artists who exhibit at these galleries are not just from these cities but from all over India. I believe the success of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale has proven that this urban/rural divide is a myth. And if there is a divide, I think the divide is in quantity and not quality.

“Holy Shiver”, by positing the Indian Constitution at its centre, consciously resists such divides and seeks inclusiveness. Ironically, the political atmosphere today in India is such that fear has become the unifying element that binds us all together, cutting across social, regional and cultural differences.

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