Riyas Komu is an Indian artist and sculptor who was born in Thrissur District of Kerala in 1971. Consistently attempting to create a sort of an archive, Riyas Komu’s art practice encompasses several mediums, right from painting to photography to installations. Most of his artworks are inspired by the social movements and political events of current times, speculating issues like violence, dispute or displacement. He has successfully worked on several solo exhibitions such as Systematic Citizen, Palette Art Gallery, New Delhi and Faith Accompli, Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai in 2006; The Third Day, Lalit Kala Academy, Rabindra Bhavan, New Delhi presented by Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai in 2005; Subrato to Cesar by Riyas Komu, Gallery Maskara, Maskara, Mumbai, India and Safe to Light, Azad Art Gallery, Tehran, Iran in 2010 among many others. Over the years, his artworks have also been placed in several public and private collections.
Much to his accomplishments, Riyas poses a thorough and grounded approach to art that never fails a collective contemplation. His journey with art began with his decision to pursue art at Sir J.J. School of Art, which began in 1992, and was tainted and moulded with the happenings in the city back then, including the riots in 1992-93 that followed the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya. Trying to draw a parallel between his initiation into the arts to the present day, we asked Riyas a question about a quote from an earlier interview - 'I am trying to defeat the tendency to anaesthetise a mindset.' We asked him what his thoughts were about the current politically-charged scenario in India and how his art was able to achieve that.
A profound response, Riyas acknowledged the largeness of the quote and the question and said that one does witness the tendency to anaesthetize the public through different modes, ideas, and practises. Simultaneously, there is also a system that celebrates and heavily uses a certain tendency of myopia in the public sphere. For himself, however, making art has been an act of archiving his present - the present in which he lives, sees, observes, and reacts. The situations, he says, have always been politically-charged and depends on how one looks at it.
“In my context, my art practise is an attempt to create an archive.”
Riyas is the co-founder of the Kochi Muziris Biennale in India, where he has effectively developed projects that focus on art education in India.
AA: What was your experience co-founding the Kochi Biennale? What was it like for an artist to wear a founders hat for a change?
RK: For me, it has always been an extension of my thinking and my art practice. Like I said earlier, 1992 was a year that transformed my understanding of social space. The idea of co-existence and plurality has always interested me and I have always worked around that. I guess the Biennale came about in that context.
“As an artist, you always have a dream and so do I; even today, I dream of a site of confluence, a site to descend, a site to create, a site to engage in conversations, a site to celebrate diversity, a site, to celebrate multiculturalism, a site to celebrate a larger world.”
In a country where art-making has a very linear process, where it comes from an artist into a gallery space and then to collectors who then acquire it. Kochi Biennale not only changed that pattern but also changed the perceptions of people surrounding contemporary art practices. It created a new site, a new ecosystem for even South Asia to engage in the process of telling one's own stories of colonialism, cultural exchange, and sharing knowledge. So, through a project like the Biennale, I engaged beyond becoming just a founder, engaging as a director of programs, curating the first edition of the Kochi Biennale. Kochi Biennale brought a certain sense of confidence in the community of artists to create - not always for economic reasons but those that allowed a play and comprehension of temporary constraints. So, the concept of art making was challenged and questioned without having the luxury of engaging with the conversation of post-production, wherein the economic possibility of art-making is concerned.
I look at Kochi as a site of experiment and reinvention that aids the ideas of thinking, temporality, and interesting vulnerabilities. At the same time, Kochi became a site of art pilgrimage; it created an art route for people to arrive, engage in conversations, and build new relationships. As a founder, I'm very happy that I could engage in such an exercise!
AA: Out of Place and Holy Shiver, since these exhibitions are a year part, how different or similar are they to one another, according to you?
RR: Thought a long time back, Holy Shiver was an exhibition in the waiting. Four years before its actualisation, one of my friend who runs the Swaraj archive gifted me a very old edition of the Indian Constitution. The book had twenty-six pages inside it that celebrated Indian diversity through the drawings produced by Nandalal Bose and his team. The calligraphy also fascinated me a lot, which was done by Prem Behari Narain Raizada. This catapulted me into thinking about an exhibition that should pose an argument against what is going on today.
For the exhibition, I displayed all these twenty-six pages (produced into a larger print). I presented my lament, my concern in that project wanting to address the issue of lynching, the violent history of India through a narrative project, new possibilities of discussing Gandhi and Ambedkar together as two great phenomenons, along with few other imageries, where I wanted to take steer the conversation and remind people about one's civilizational memories, wherein the nation is moving away from its constitutional morality, how we are discriminating communities and polarizing people through religious differences.
Moving to ‘Out of Place’, this project involved an idea to kind of revisit some historic memories. For example, one of the main work was an invitation to the show was the Dandi Bridge. I painted the Dandi Bridge, an image which almost falls into a deep sea. The exhibition dealt with symbols, icons, memories that define us as people, as a unity. And then, I always believe that these sites of memories have a very powerful context in Indian history, that I wanted to revisit.
This exhibition, in one way, was a call to redraw the things which were removed or erased.
Through our exchange, we also spoke about the art circle today in comparison to when Riyas started as a young artist. Through a thoughtful pause, Riyas maintained the difficulty in comparing art structures that he has deeply been a part of. He acknowledged that the current art structure benefits some while does not benefit the other; a system that doesn’t allow for the inclusive possibility. However, he maintains that he has been integrally involved in creating an inclusive platform through the available systems, today. Whilst being able to speak about the growth that the art market in India has seen over the last decade, Riyas exclaims the new possibilities that liberalisation has brought about wherein museums, collectors, artist/gallery reach, etc. is concerned. Many are also on their way into international institutions as policymakers. There is a positive transformation with events like Serendipity Art Festival, influences of Kiran Nadar, etc; their convictions are limitless and are not parochial in their approach.
Lastly, we spoke about Riyas’s current gamut of work amidst the pandemic. He responded saying that the past few months have been a time of introspections, where he has spent time revisiting artworks that he has produced in the last fifteen years, studying them in detail. He also stated that he was working on a larger project, which will be a collaboration for a photography magazine with Sudharak Olwe!
This has undoubtedly been one of the most engrossing dialogues, not just about art but its current workings.
Riyas is one of the two Indian artists who was selected for the 52nd Venice Biennale by curator Robert Storr in 2007 and later went on to represent the Iranian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2015. He has co-curated the first international football film festival in India at the Goa International Film Festival and Trivandrum
Venice Biennale 2007.