A Contemporary Art Survey Highlights the Multiple Identities of the Indian State of Kerala

ALAPPUZHA, Kerala, India — The coastal town of Alappuzha in Kerala, India, recently came to life with art on a massive scale in the first edition of the contemporary art show Lokame Tharavadu (The World Is One Family). Featuring over 3,000 artworks by 267 artists who trace their roots back to the state of Kerala, in South India, the show explores a variety of artistic perspectives on home, belonging, and the universal spirit of humanity that persists in the midst of a global pandemic.

Curated by Bose Krishnamachari, the show harnesses the power of art to “revive and resurrect the dejected human spirit.” In its attempt to highlight each artist’s individual practice, it also introduces contemporary art and aesthetics to the Indian public. Virtually every possible medium and theme has been explored in the show, which collectively evokes a sense of celebration in the sheer diversity of artistic practices coming out of the state. Another unique aspect of Lokame Tharavadu is how it transformed unique spaces, like abandoned warehouses and godowns, into temporary galleries. 

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From the politics of the body to the plight of the third gender, from isolation and loneliness to the relationship between humans and nature, the all-encompassing exhibition has initiated new conversations and provided exposure to art in the town of Alappuzha. 

We’ve selected 15 works from Lokame Tharavadu that left a deep impact on us, both visually and emotionally:

Santhi EN

Santhi EN’s paintings revisit her childhood, with quiet scenes of children in a village playing games, like hide and seek and hopscotch, or leisurely reading amid the palm trees. The Thrissur-based artist explores the pandemic through motifs like the resilient cacti and thin tree branches, which are a symbol of new life. Her detailed clouds, plants, and young children, and the muted color palette, make this artist’s body of work one of our favorites from the show.

Dodsy Antony. The artist’s work celebrates the “innate ecstasy of nature,” as she calls it.

Dodsy Antony

Thiruvananthapuram-based artist Dodsy Antony’s works explore the little things around us that help to forge a connection between people and nature. While her works celebrate the “innate ecstasy of nature,” as she calls it, they also have an ecological layer: The images express the artist’s advocacy for the earth, which is in dire need of healing. The works are created on delicate rice paper, which requires precision, as smudges and marks are permanent.  

Gigi Scaria, “Stuck.” This bronze work, with a mechanical device, explores the theme of migration and displacement.

Gigi Scaria

One of the most powerful installations in the show, Gigi Scaria’s Stuck draws attention to the painful truths about migration, displacement, and alienation within urban topographies. What makes the Delhi-based artist’s work even more engaging is that the components of the kinetic installation move back and forth, making it popular among visitors. 

Tito Stanley, Dreadful Days (2020), a series of paintings made in quarantine during the first wave of COVID-19

Tito Stanley

Dreadful Days is a series of stunning paintings by Thiruvananthapuram-based artist Tito Stanley. Tension, pain, fear, and loneliness are palpable in these hallucinatory paintings, created in 2020, when quarantine measures left the artist stuck in his house, living with his parents. The paintings also evoke nostalgia and reflect a desire for shelter, as Stanley sought to capture scenes from his childhood — for instance, the family’s garden, filled with flowers and butterflies, and his mother’s chicken coop. A painted coffin reminds the viewer that these works were made amid the death and loss of the pandemic.

Devi Seetharam, works from the series Brothers, Fathers and Uncles. This series documents the cultural psyche of the artist’s community in Kerala.

Devi Seetharam

Jasmine flowers scattered on the ground. A gentle touch between two men. A garland of rudraksha (prayer beads) in a hand. Devi Seetharam’s ongoing series Brothers, Fathers and Uncles attempts to “visually narrate the tales of her culture, the historical context and current realities,” according to the artist. The Bangalore-based artist uses the image of men in public spaces in the traditional white mundu, a symbol of purity, privilege, and status, as a way to tackle the patriarchy and question male entitlement. A beautiful, layered exploration of the cultural psyche of her community. 

Untitled work by Lekha Narayanan. The artist’s oil paintings explore home cooking in the pandemic, and how food can become visual fodder for an artist.

Lekha Narayanan

One of the most playful and engaging bodies of work in the show was Ernakulam-based Lekha Narayanan’s. Her oil on canvas paintings playfully merge food and face pareidolia (the phenomenon of seeing human faces in inanimate objects), and drew some chuckles from the attendees. They could also be perceived as an existential expression of the isolation and distorted realities caused by COVID-19 lockdowns, as many of the faces appear to be screaming. More amusingly, they can be seen as a refreshing comment on the resurgence of home cooking during the pandemic, and how food can become visual fodder for an artist. 

Tensing Joseph, installation view. The surrealist works of painter and sculptor Tensing Joseph are a reflection on cultural politics.

Tensing Joseph

Combining fantasy and reality, renowned painter and sculptor Tensing Joseph created several paintings that reflect on the cultural politics and conflicts between humans and the environment. Inspired by Latin American artist Diego Rivera’s Social Realist imagery, the Thiruvananthapuram-based artist’s color palette, particularly his blues, and his Surrealism-inspired style, make his works among the most unique in the show. 

George Kuruvila, installation view of Aravani: Identities in Distress. Kuruvila’s life-like, powerful sculptures of the third gender draw awareness to the marginalized community in India.

George Kuruvila

Aravani: Identities in Distress by Chennai-based sculptor-photographer George Kuruvila is a body of work on the third gender, intended to draw awareness to those marginalized and abused by the state and its archaic laws. The lifelike sculptures stand, bold and strong, compelling viewers’ attention upon entering the room. The series, which combines sculpture and photographs, also attempts to redefine the identity of the third gender in India from that of a social outcast to someone of divine origin — the Aravani are known to be mythological descendants of a union between Lord Shiva and Vishnu.

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Lakshmi Madhavan, installation view of Hanging by a Thread. This installation reveals a woman’s inner thoughts on nostalgia, identity, freedom, and belonging through thread and wordplay.

Lakshmi Madhavan

Mumbai-based artist Lakshmi Madhavan threads her way toward home in her installation Hanging by a Thread, which merges textiles and wordplay in English and Malayalam, tracing her roots through the contours of language. Using the woven panels of kasavu mundu, the traditional fabric of Kerala, she reveals a woman’s inner thoughts on nostalgia, identity, freedom, belonging, and patriarchy in an inconstant world. The work creates a sense of intimacy almost like talking to a close friend. 

Untitled work by Rejeesh Sarovar. This large-scale satirical painting by Sarovar reflects on how human actions have impacted nature.

Rejeesh Sarovar

One of the most thought-provoking works in the show was this satirical painting by Rejeesh Sarovar, an artist living in northern Kerala who survives on agriculture and fishing. He offers his own rendition of the famous blind men and elephant story, and reflects on how human actions have impacted nature in the work. A pipe replaces the elephant’s trunk, a broom replaces the tail, visually conveying the exploitative relation between man and nature. 

Indu Antony, installation view of Aval. This work uses found photographs of people to reflect on the body, memory, and time.

Indu Antony

Bangalore-based artist Indu Antony’s installation Aval comprises a series of found photographs of people, especially images of women, that she picked up in various places, from the streets of India to antique shops. She underscores her feelings of resonance with these ephemeral found photographs by stitching their edges with her own hair. A fascinating reflection on the body, memory, and time. 

Untitled work by Sathyapal T A

Sathyapal T A

Ernakulam-based Sathyapal T A is an artist and writer who has spent months living among the indigenous people in Bastar, Ektal, Barsur, and other regions of Chhattisgarh, India. The influence of the art he encountered comes through in the line work and earthiness of his paintings, which also evoke the modernist art of Paul Klee. 

Untitled work by Anjum Rizvi. Rizvi’s detailed work uses beads, jewels, textiles and mixed media to transport the viewer into a fantastical world.

Anjum Rizvi

Anjum Rizvi’s creative process is inspired by a combination of Mughal and Persian miniatures. The intricate images transport the viewer into a fantastical world, enhanced by a touch of abstraction. Rizvi uses beads, jewels, textiles, paint, and fabric liners to achieve the rich textures and colors. Approaching his art with the precision of a miniaturist, his imaginative, meticulously detailed compositions are a pleasure to see up close. 

Untitled work by Tom Vattakuzhy. Made during the pandemic, this painting explores scenes from the artist’s inner life and home.

Tom Vattakuzhy

For Ernakulam-based painter Tom Vattakuzhy, art is a solitary, meditative experience. His paintings made during the pandemic explore scenes from his home, capturing his moods and feelings on canvas. He calls himself “a painter of interiors — interiors of lives I see around, lives of the silenced, the marginalized, and the alienated.” 

Unnikrishna M. Damodaran, installation view of One Hundred Days of Malayalam Number Portraits. This work uses Malayalam numbers as a starting point to capture portraits of people.

Unnikrishna M. Damodaran

One Hundred Days of Malayalam Number Portraits is a project by Bahrain-based artist Unnikrishna M. Damodaran. The series of 100 portraits, from 2018, uses Malayalam numbers as a starting point to depict portraits of people. The artist makes use of the twists and twirls of alphabetical and numerical forms to express unique human characteristics of people. Drawn on an iPad, the series prompted the artist to play with type, while reflecting on the notion of identity and self.

Lokame Tharavadu continues across multiple venues in Alappuzha, Kerala, India, through December 31, 2021. The exhibition was curated by Bose Krishnamachari.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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