As the visual arts curator at the Serendipity Arts Festival, to be held in Goa from 16-23 December, 2016, Riyas Komu, is all set to play “facilitator for the expectation of the youngsters”. With hopes that “the youngsters who are going to exhibit there, learn and understand art better”, he is looking forward to the first edition of this cultural project that aims to bring about a positive change in the art scenario in India on a large scale.
In an interview with Firstpost, Riyas spoke about his work, that stems from the sadness within him, the reason for partially concealing his subjects, and his project with Kalki Koechlin. Excerpts:
What makes you depict 'political disquiet' in your works? How much can art actually make a difference in hitting upon the political and social irregularities in the system?
I am of the belief that I am an artist with a strong political tone and feel that my art practice corresponds to what is happening today. And I also see it as a kind of responsibility from my side as an artist, as somebody who has been working in building infrastructure, focusing on the area of art education, working with children, developing a system where things can break boundaries, change the perception of people, and create a very interesting ecosystem.
As an art administrator, my collective responsibility is to change the system we are in. This includes multiple responsibilities. In the context of politics, there are arguments to counter. But in the context of the art world, infrastructure and ecosystem are very important. When it comes to education, there is an immediate urgency to nurture our children around art. Art has multiple possibilities to engage especially children with the contemporary realities around them.
Another important aspect where I am kind of personally engaged in is celebrating the idea of diversity. We live in a multi-cultural space and we need to re-establish this as a conscious effort in every sense. In all these things put together, it is a positive action and it asserts not just art making inside a studio space. It is a process whereby while producing art, you are also in a thinking process. Art production itself is a form of thinking through which you are contributing to the society.
You choose unusual themes as your subjects. Your documentary was titled The Politics of Nostalgia and Food. Do these themes spring from the complexities of the world around you, or do they spring from the complexities of your own mind and thoughts?
We live in a society where many contradictions coexist at the same time. So most of the times it is the artist or the philosopher or the thinker, writer, filmmaker who help us understand, narrate or articulate better. As an artist, I always believe that any media I work with is a response to what I see around.
Your portraits are very 'in your face'. Why so? Do you think they make for a strong statement?
Most of my portraits are considered an archive of the times. They are the contemporary expressions of today. They carry a certain kind of concern, angst, fear, frustration, and most of them are displaced. They are sometimes migrants moving from the villages to the cities because of the conditions in which they are living in. They want to go into an urban space where identity is not a constraint. I feel that people from all over are escaping from caste politics, from poverty; they are escaping from discrimination, from a kind of religious fundamental approach which is harming them. They are also escaping to social freedom, economic freedom in a bid to resolve the identity crisis.
And then there are others that are camouflaged. What goes into your mind as an artist that you choose to conceal your subject albeit partially?
I sometimes like a certain kind of an ambiguity. Once people identify you with a certain kind of language, you can actually take the liberty to play with or bring in the idea of censoring, concealing or creating a certain kind of confusion.
It is possible only if you are a sort of a continuous process artist. I approach most of my work very conceptually. I prepare, have a certain notion beforehand as to what I am going to paint. I don’t paint with just an intuition. I pre-plan my work and decide. Whatever I decide is an ultimate decision of how it should look in the end. I engage a lot and I try to put my craft and skill in executing that into a kind of expression of reality which I expect out of my work.
I work with different mediums and I don’t like the conventional idea of painting an image. I like the process of painting. At the same time I like wood as a material. Wood is almost like a dead spirit. I like to recreate with wood and make my sculptures talk of life and death, politics.
There are blurring spaces even in wooden sculptures. I believe that in today’s times, an artist has to be much more constructive, much more research oriented, much more powerful in his inventions, to be able to survive.
Your works are dark. What makes you not want to paint or sculpt a happy picture/image/photograph? Does this pessimism stem from the artist's own life?
Not necessarily. Most of the time, I like to depict atrocities. I see a lot of sadness around me, a lot of frustration, manipulation, ignorance. I see a hunger for war in us. I see layers of different things emanating from the environment in which we are today. It creates a certain kind of fear in us. Why are we never talking about goodness? So this dark symbolism is actually an argument for a better life.
You’ve done a cover for a glam magazine with Kalki Koechlin. What made you take up this project?
It was a very interesting project to be associated with. Not only with Kalki but I was associating with Jatin Kampani too, an ace photographer of our times. They enjoyed some of the works that I had done. And I could use Kalki not as a diva but as an icon of youth. She is a protester, has a great understanding of contemporary India, and has the willingness to speak against injustice. These things attracted me to work with them. They used my work and I could juxtapose my interest and taste with these two people and bring in much more reality to the glam part.
Art may showcase the realities of life but isn't it the domain of the rich and the socialites who have the money to buy it and the cocktail circuit to discuss it?
That’s a wrong notion. What I am trying to do with my involvement with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is to change those perceptions. Something good about the Biennale is that it has broken the notions that art is an elitist exercise. Art is not recognised when it is bought by some rich person. Art is recognised when it gets acclaim and acceptance in the society. These are misconceptions that people have when they don’t have the time to indulge in what art is all about. It is not just about a stroke here and there. Art is about responsibility. It is about politics. Art is image making. Art has a very strong aesthetic power to indulge in social structure. Art only survives if it has an intrinsic value. The common man doesn’t enjoy a work of art because it has a certain price tag to it. They enjoy it because it simply conveys something to them.
What projects are you working on currently?
As director of programmes for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, we are working on a lot of projects. Then I am involved with a grafting project. Another project is with school children. A project where I have spent much time and energy is the Young Subcontinent where we bring youngsters from the subcontinent together, they stay together, exhibit together, in order to integrate and learn together.
Personally, I am not producing much work at this stage but later, after March when the Biennale gets over, I shall be preparing for a solo show for the Art Summit in January 2018.