The desecration of a large charcoal mural made by Australian artist Daniel Connell for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), India’s first art biennale, has made headlines around the world. Vandals launched their attack on the artist’s work some time during Wednesday the 19th of December, rubbing it with a burnt coconut husk and water.
“It seems that it was premeditated to a certain extent in that a tool was sourced rather than just using the hand,” Connell says of the attack. “The charcoal was simply smudged and wiped. If they had been really angry they could easily have removed the whitewash with little effort.”
Titled LOOKHERE, the project that was vandalised consists of two 2mx2m portraits of locals as well as a series of paste-ups displaying images of local residents. The portraits were applied to the wall of a local tea shop owned by a Muslim man by the name of Achu who is the subject of one of the main portraits.
Considering that Achu is a Muslim man and that India’s first mosque was built nearby, Connell’s first reaction was that the vandalism may have been an anti-Muslim act. Locals were, however, quick to dismiss this as a motive for the attack. “It was not in any way like that,” locals assured him.
According to Connell, some students staged a sit-in on the Saturday after the attack positioning themselves in front of the work with notices reading “don't attack art” in English and Malayalum. Someone had also sprayed graffiti reading “DONT ATTACK ART”. “There has been quite a bit of anger from locals who frequent the tea shop too,” the artist advises.
Some artists have challenged Connell regarding the ethics of “using” Achu in the portrait and exposing him to the risk of being assaulted. The fact that Achu was the one who asked for the portrait to be painted is evidence that the artist is not to blame for any negative sentiment. This has not stopped him dwelling on the ethical and moral implications of his work, however.
Although the exact reasons for the attack are not clear, Connell has several other theories as to what motivated the vandals. First on the list is the anti-biennale sentiment that has arisen within the ranks of the local artistic intelligentsia. Angry at being left out of the Biennale, some elitist individuals took to expressing their dismay at workshop sessions and talks. According to Connell, the dissenters were “intent on opposition rather than debate.”
Connell suggests that the jealousy amongst the artistic intelligentsia draws attention to the fact that this Biennale more than any other is really under pressure to be inclusive. “I have been really impressed however, with the way they are responding to this,” Connell says. “Local painters and photographers are being heard and given KMB Open slots and promotion.”
Another possible motivation for the attack could be the opposition to Western influences expressed by some of the extreme leftist groups that are active in the area. Their belief that the Biennale is an elitist event has seen them launch poster campaigns accusing the Biennale of corruption.
Returning to the subject of the tea shop owner Achu, Connell proposes that local jealousy and resentment of Achu’s successful business could also have evoked the vandalism. “He is a very personable, likeable, and extremely energetic fellow, and because of that and his hard work has done very well,” Connell says. “However, nobody has spoken of this, and I have spoken to many local people from all walks of life,” he adds.
In an effort to draw attention away from Achu, Connell made a portrait of one of the tea shop owner’s staff members who had been asking him for a week to draw him on the wall. Since the defacement, Achu’s staff and other people including rickshaw drivers and others have asked to have their faces on the wall. Most of the drawings the artist has done since the mural have been on paper, but the subjects want them on the wall. “They are prepared to take the risk and they should be allowed to,” Connell says.
The act of drawing or painting portraits on the walls in India is very common. Usually reserved for politicians and actors, the portraits are regularly seen on the street – the concept was nothing new to Achu. By engaging in this act and being allowed to take the risk, Achu was afforded a certain level of dignity. He knows his friends and enemies if he has any; He knows his neighbourhood. While he was sad the day after the attack, he is not a victim. “He is a bold and gutsy man who soon began telling me who next to take on as a subject,” recalls the artist.
For Connell, the central ethical question revolves around exposing Achu to the possibility of being insulted. An interest in the development of a Post post-colonialism and the end of the notion of the “other” has caused him to wonder if there is new notion around the corner which will allow people of diverse backgrounds to engage in collaborative art projects where diversity is NOT the framework. “I guess this could make my work irrelevant or perhaps more relevant as it creates sacred spaces of reflection on the individual rather than on their exoticism,” Connell muses. “Having to resolve the ethics over this issue has refreshed my resolve that this is important.”
Having produced a work for the Biennale that is in the public realm, Connell was well aware that he would have to trust that people would respect the work while at the same time acknowledge the possibility of it being invaded and desecrated. Although his trust was violated, the act of desecration made people in and around the area more aware of the vulnerability and resonance of the works and, of course, the trust involved in taking care of precious things.
Ever the optimist, the main issue for Connell has not been the vandalism but the enormous outpouring of support for art and its freedom and right to exist, and for the Biennale itself. He has received overwhelming support in the streets for the works from hundreds of local passers-by. “People are engaging with my relatively accessible work and then going to see the quite difficult but beautiful work in the venues, which have until today been free of charge,” Connell says.
Determined to not to let one negative incident ruin his time in India, Connell has instead focused on the positive aspects of the event. Reflecting on his Biennale experience to date, Connell said: “this Biennale is shaping up as one of the most democratic, inclusive, anarchic, and ambitious Biennales the world has seen, which I think will leave a legacy of deep and caring personal relationships with art.
“I was given a tour of one of the venues by a local policeman; he showed me with sheer delight the beautiful video pieces of Angelica Mesiti and knew each work almost by heart. A group of teenage boys crowd in to see them too; a mum and her teenage daughters all in traditional clothing laughing as they walk around Sudarshan Shetty's carved arch in a dug-out pit. It’s a rare and wonderful experience to witness the discovery of art from genuinely curious and open people.”
Connell has become so well known that as he walks around the streets people know his name and call out to him. “Are you Daniel, the artist from Australia,” they say and then apologise for the attack – a reflection of the widespread support that the artist has received from locals. “Yesterday a street seller showed me the paper he was reading – an article about my new pieces,” Connell recalls. “He provided a basic translation for me and a local beggar who has taken an interest in the work over the past few weeks.”
Since his mural was damaged, Connell has had the opportunity to make the necessary repairs to the portrait of Achu. “I guess someone cared enough to destroy the portrait of Achu; many, many more people have cared enough to rally around to speak up for the work and for Achu himself who has received so much support too,” says Connell. “Perhaps this is the greatest response to a work. The worst response would be that no one cared.”
Following the attempt to vandalise Connell’s tea shop mural, an attempt was also made to deface another sketch by the artist on the wall of the Cochin Carnival Office. A work by South African artist Clifford Charles was also damaged when coloured paint was thrown on the Aspin House wall installation. Biennale organisers have filed a police complaint.
India's first festival of international contemporary art, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, seeks to invoke the latent cosmopolitan spirit of the modern metropolis of Kochi and its mythical past, Muziris, and create a platform that will introduce contemporary international visual art theory and practice to India, showcase and debate new Indian and international aesthetics and art experiences and enable a dialogue among artists, curators, and the public. The three-month long Biennale continues until March 13,2013.
For more information on Daniel Connell and his work visit his website here
A video of Daniel Connell repairing his mural can be viewed below.