Kashmir at Kochi-Muziris Biennale: What happened when Kashmiri artists frisked a policeman

Srinagar: Art reflects what the artist has in his/her conscious and subconscious mind. This held true and manifested itself in what Kashmiri artists displayed at Asia’s largest and most influential contemporary Art Biennale in Kochi, Kerela.

The Biennale takes place every two years. Kashmiris who had participated in the event include Altaf Qadri, Ehtisham Azhar, Gargi Raina, Hina Aarif, Inder Salim, Khytul Abyad, Maumoon Ahmad, Mujtaba Rizvi, Neeraj Bakshy, Rajendar Tiku, Sanna Irshad Mattoo, Sauqib Bhatt, Showkat Nanda and Veer Munshi.

They had presented their artwork in the form of performances, paintings, photographs, paper mache and media mix (photographs and videos).

This year Anita Dube, a renounced Indian Artist had proposed the theme ‘Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life’.

Under that, the curator for this year Veer Munshi, a Kashmiri artist assembled the work of fourteen Kashmiri artists to be presented as one show.

Art display at Kochi-Muziris Biennale by Veer Munshi.

Sauqib Bhatt is one of the regular Kashmiri participants who has been participating in it since it started in December 2012.

Sauqib Bhatt is a Fine Arts Graduate from University of Kashmir who holds a Master’s degree in the same from Jamia Milia Islamia, Delhi. Bhatt had a collaborative performance with another Kashmiri Artist Hina Aarif.

The two stood at the gates of the place where the exhibition was taking place and acted as security guards.

They frisked all those who wanted to attend the exhibition including a policeman. The performance was based on an idea triggered by what the artists had seen all through their lives in Kashmir-frisking on daily basis.

The artists say that surveillance has been normalised in Kashmir and their agenda was to re-sensitize people about the same.

“Since our childhood, the memories like frisking have been embedded in our minds,” says Bhatt adding, “at the same time, we are not only hinting towards Kashmir but a broader problem associated with surveillance that can be experienced globally. Even when we go for shopping at malls, we see guards there who frisk people and no one likes that touch; or their movements being captured in CCTV cameras.”

Art display at Kochi-Muziris Biennale by Veer Munshi.

It causes hardships and impacts our psychological and physical behaviour, believe the artists.

“We have normalised it to a great level. There was a time when I would walk on roads in Kashmir and would be irritated by the presence of Army bunkers which looked like a foreign element in the landscape of my place. Now, somehow, we feel okay about it,” he explains.

Those who do the surveillance are privileged and in power according to Bhatt who says the “act of surveillance is meant to maintain a power relation” between the oppressor and the oppressed.

Asked how people in Kochi reacted after they got frisked by him and Hina, he told Free Press Kashmir that people are “chilled out” and are not used to surveillance acts like frisking. It was shocking to some, offensive to many.

“The art lovers came to the exhibition. Some told us that when we frisked them without talking they felt goosebumps, some resisted and some got involved in a tussle with me and Hina saying we could not frisk them,” shares Bhatt.

“Some pushed me asking who I was and who asked me to do it. They asked me not to touch them and threatened to call the police. Some did not even watch the show and left without knowing that it was a performance,” says Bhatt pressing upon how people in Kashmir are used to frisking which is not acceptable in other parts of the world.

“We checked them like we have been checked in Kashmir at Airports or on streets or malls. And people could not handle it there,” he says.

Interestingly, a high profile police officer had visited the exhibition. “A police officer had also visited the exhibition. As soon as I tried to frisk him, his hands voluntarily got up and he allowed me to check him.”

However, he had not allowed him to take his wireless kit along. After the officer had gotten in, he had realized he was the authority there, he had come back to him, and whispered in Bhatt’s ear, “I can put you in jail for this.”

Later, the artists had made him understand that it was just a performance.

“Certain kind of violence, trauma or conflict becomes memory and memory becomes the trauma. In my work, I want a dialogue through my work. I cannot ignore the things that have made me who I am today. It will reflect in my work, even if I do not want it to,” says Bhatt.

Art display at Kochi-Muziris Biennale by Ehtisham Azhar.

Sharing other details of the event, Ehtisham Azhar, another Kashmiri artist says that their project revolved around a shrine, “one of the most common elements in Kashmir.”

What was shocking to the audience was the way the peaceful shrine had been turned into a morbid place, says Azhar.

“The artwork interpreted the socio-political and cultural situation in Kashmir. I had placed ten sheepskin on a wall and around it were objects like oxygen cylinder, oxygen mask and a school chair. It is essentially brutal as it involves your different senses including the sense of smell with which you smell the sheepskin. It’s about death,” Azhar says. “Whose death is a different question,” he adds.

Art display at Kochi-Muziris Biennale by Ehtisham Azhar.

“Different people interpret it their own way,” says Azhar who like other artists feels that there is a need to help people get sensitized about the things they have normalised in their minds.


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