The 2015 Venice Biennale was a circus whose chief clowns were called exclusivity, power, status and wealth, all of whom ran amok in the world’s most beautiful city.
As ever, with any biennale, there were gems – considered thinking, socially engaged practise, playful responses – to be found in the melee. My favourite was the controversial, but considered, Iceland pavilion – a working mosque built by Christoph Büchel. At the time of writing, the political import of this piece sees it closed to the public.
One moment I keep harking back to is a brief conversation with Peter Bazalgette, chair of Arts Council England. I was lucky enough to bump into Peter at Doug Fishbone’s crazy golf course. During our chat – which lasted no more than two minutes – Peter and I discussed the role of art in creating more empathy in the world at large. More than anything else, this is my driving motive, and I often struggle with how to use my skills as a creative to do so. How can art create a world where we are more empathetic – not only to each other, but to the other species we co-exist with? Despite the appointment of Okwui Enwezor as director of this year’s biennale, and a theme grandiosely titled All The World’s Futures, it seemed to me as though this mainstay of the global arts calendar is more concerned with the sustainability of the bubble of the art world, than it is in considering the fragility of the bubble we call Planet Earth, and the part we all play in ensuring the sustainability of other species upon it.
Here’s a snapshot taken by Louise Clements at the rather excellently curated Iranian pavilion. It was taken with a phone which was made by exploiting cheap labour, and plundering swindling natural resources. All of our choices and actions are laced with paradox and complexity; a fact which artist Lindsey Seers reflects upon, as she considers her participation in the Biennale in this enjoyable and reflective blog post.
My trip to India was momentous. I love that country so much that I have decided to try and live there for a bit. It’s something to do with every day living; in India, one’s day to day is replete with nature, in all of its aspects – including human nature. Mumbai’s streets are teaming with life. I am surrounded by animals of all sorts (including manimals), all of whom are learning to co-exist. This inter-species relationship is sorely lacking in cities the West, where we are currently sacrificing our relationship to nature in the name of development.
Besides, India seems to create all manner of adventures and coincidences for me, and I adore a life filled with adventures and coincidences! This trip saw chance encounters and subsequent adventures with the Philadelphia rapper Spank Rock, and the film director Q – both of whose creative legacies I am in awe of. I also lived barefoot on a beach in Kerala for a week, helping a beautiful dog to give birth to six puppies.
The majority of my trip was spent in Mumbai. I made amazing music (as ever) with long term collaborator Bandish Projekt, and also made music with Mawali and Torfor, two brilliant young rappers with whom I look forward to developing collaborations with in the future. But the main purpose of my visit was to work as an artist on the Dharavi Biennale.
Biennales can be mixed bags. On this trip, I had the privilege of visiting India’s second major biennale at Kochi in Kerala. I was pleasantly surprised; the excellent curatorial vision of Jitish Kallat was deeply considered, and – in my opinion – far removed from the circus of wealth, status and exclusion that arts institutions can often promote. As we move into a time where we consider our relationship to the systems which sustain us, I am hoping biennales of the future focus on social responsibility, rather than art which exists to serve a self-elected elite.
As such, the Dharavi Biennale is a two week festival of arts and culture in the heart of one of the biggest informal settlements in the world (I’ve recently learnt that the word ‘slum’ is not politically correct; the people in the know – the people that care – call these areas informal settlements).
The Dharavi Biennale is an initiative spearheaded by an NGO called Sneha. Their mission is to use arts and culture to promote the work of Sneha, which is concerned with public health. How do we make our environment cleaner, safer and happier, without sacrificing the kind of community cohesion that often loses its way in urban environments filled with skyscrapers and shopping malls?
I work in a sector which believes arts and culture can be used to help create healthier, happier societies. This is a world far removed from wealth, status and exclusion; on the contrary, it’s about inclusion. Artists invited into this year’s projects conducted workshops with local residents, which led to the creation of a hundreds of pieces of art, and events which showcased this work. The festival brought together thousands of people, uniting local residents with international visitors; and though – like any festival – it was a party, it was a party which educated all about gender equality, domestic violence, clean air, clean toilets, recycling, and the redeeming power of both art and empathy, amongst many other things.
My work centred around workshops with a group of fifteen incredible ladies, and their children. Ably assisted by Nikita Wadhia (acting as translator) and Aklesh Sutar (aka MC Mawali), my workshops encouraged the ladies to speak about their experiences of gender. What did they like about men? What didn’t they like? Were genders in their society equal? How could it be improved, if not?
(Pictures by Benita Fernando)
Over the course of three days, we produced spoken word, and movement – dance, gesture and mime. We designed a performance which included all of these, which we delivered at the final event of the biennale. The ladies came out strutting their stuff to Kool & The Gang’s ‘Ladies Night’; after sashaying down a catwalk with grace, they held poses which mocked the actions of less responsible Dharavi men. The event was a great success, with an audience of around 600 people. I hosted the evening, dressed as a secular avatar, my back painted with the biennale’s logo.
(Pictures by Ilana Millner)