Riyas Komu, artist, co-founder of Kochi-Muziris Biennale and co-curator of its first edition in 2012 with Bose Krishnamachari, launches URU Art Harbour in Kochi.
URU Art Harbour is the latest hub for art and culture in Kochi. Art Radar takes a look at the launch event and talks to Mumbai-based artist and activist Riyas Komu, who presided over the event.
It has been four years since Kochi, a city in southwest India’s coastal Kerala state, jumped on the biennial bandwagon with the Kochi-Muziris Bienniale, an event that has contributed significantly to Kochi’s presence as an arts and culture destination in South India. The setting of the so-called URU Art Harbour is an abandoned warehouse once belonging to a cashew factory in Mattanchery and the name ‘Uru’ means ‘Fat Boat’ – a generic name for large Dhow-type wooden ships made by vishwabrahmins in the nearby village of Beypore.
The name was chosen as an ode to Kochi’s history as a centre of trade but also because of the way in which the word ‘Uru’ has a direct connection with local craft practices as well as travel and knowledge exchange – craft and exchange standing at the centre of the new cultural-hub project. Mumbai-based artist Riyas Komu, who was also behind the first edition of the Kochi-Muziris Bienniale in 2012, led the opening events at URU.
Komu is a multimedia artist and activist working towards developing India’s art infrastructure. His critically-acclaimed political works have been exhibited extensively in India and abroad, including several key works on Kerala’s political and cultural history. Speaking to Art Radar about how he became involved in URU, Komu stated:
URU was a dream of mine. Even though my art practice developed and evolved from Mumbai, I was always fascinated with Kochi. Even before the Biennale, I had started working on a few projects that was inspired by Kochi and its history. But after visiting Kochi and staying here, for the biennale, I realised the potential that Kochi holds as a cultural hub.
I always wanted to create a space where people could just get together, and create something. Spaces that evolve its inhabitants. So URU is a cultural space that engages with the local community to not just showcase art and culture but also to be involved where culture ‘is a way of life’ not an exotic item. Of course, it’s easier said that done. But ever since we started the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, I was more convinced of the need to have such a space in Kochi.
So URU Art Harbour was born out of my own engagement with Kochi – as a site where multiple histories, communities, and ways of lives co-exist and merge with their prejudices and beliefs intact, as a place that nurtures “precolonial traditions of cultural pluralism”, and as a place where art and culture has not yet fully discovered its potential for explosive growth.
Komu had previously commented in a statement released before the event, “I have been longing for a marriage of literature and art”, which hints at the projects long term goals of creating a public programme that spans media and disciplines. This desire for an inter- and transdisciplinary programme could be appreciated at the launch event, which included:
- poet Kalpetta Narayanan and CPI (M) Polit Bureau member M.A. Baby jointly presenting a volume on the philosophy of Sree Narayana Guru, entitled ‘Guruchinthana-Oru Mukhavura’
- a preview of K L Leon’s painting exhibition
- a musical concert by local band ‘Olam’
- a screening of the documentary film Kesari (2016), directed by K R Manoj
- a discussion panel with the participation of M V Narayanan, Sunil Ilayidam and C S Venkiteswaran.
- a speech by Kochi Muziris Biennale 2016 curator Sudarshan Shetty
- the opening of an art exhibition by URU Residency artist K P Reji
- the opening of a sculpture exhibition by K.P. Raghunath.
Speaking to Art Radar about how the inaugural event unfolded, Komu commented,
I wanted it to be a small event that would launch URU, but more than 500 people turned up. And a lot of them were from the neighbourhood in Mattanchery and Fort Kochi. It’s heartening to see this kind of support from the get go. It is also one of URUs aims.
The riverside building holds various spaces of exhibition, creation and study, including the studio area home to URU residency artist K P Reji, whose art exhibition opened on the day of the launch. The centre also has performance, screening and exhibition spaces as well as an expanding library area, whose content is currently being overseen by academic Dileep Raj.
Speaking to Art Radar about the challenges that URU Art Harbour may face in the future, Komu stated,
Even though we have a rich history of arts and culture, there is no support systems in place for such organisations to operate. So there is more focus on how to stay afloat than how we can collaborate. Of course, I hope that URU will be able to reach out to organisations from across Kerala to create events and generate more awareness for the need to sustain these organisations.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale has created an awareness about the need to have patronage and support for arts & culture across the State and country. URU will have to start from scratch in terms of building an audience, creating an eco-system for sustaining arts & culture, building networks, encouraging social innovation, and engaging the public.
I also think that there needs to be a shift in the way we approach arts & culture. I think we need more artists and cultural workers now more than ever. There is a clear lack of aspiration, amongst the youth, when it comes to art and culture; this is primarily because of the financial barriers and challenges. So I hope that URU will be able to create a sustainable model for other organisations to follow. This will also require a shift in the public’s perception of artists, of buying art, of engaging and opening up to more cultural activities. I hope URU will help break the barrier of their comfort zones. It’s easier said than done, but as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. URU is here to stay and we are constantly evaluating and evolving as we progress.
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