An international art event that takes place every two years, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) is held in Kochi, Kerala, and consists of art exhibitions set up at various venues across the city. The event is named after the ancient port city of Muziris on the Malabar coast, near which the central events take place.
The idea for a biennale was proposed by Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu in 2010 to MA Baby, then Minister for Education and Culture in Kerala. The event was envisaged as a public-facing venture that would host art installations and exhibitions geared towards viewer engagement rather than commercial profit. It was also developed with the aim of organising an international art event outside the West that would draw visitors from around the world, in part, through creating space for new experiments in contemporary art. Consequently, in the same year, the Kochi Biennale Foundation was established and Kochi selected as the host city, owing to its multicultural history, tourism industry, heritage sites such as Fort Kochi and Jew Town, scenic waterfront location and convenient access to logistical support.
The KMB is held between November and March. The first edition of the Biennale, held in 2012, was jointly curated by Krishnamachari and Komu; subsequent editions have been curated by renowned Indian artists, critics or scholars, such as Jitish Kallat, Sudarshan Shetty and Anita Dube.
Since the first edition, the event has taken place across multiple locations in the Fort Kochi, Mattancherry and Ernakulam areas of Kochi. The principal venues are Aspinwall House, David Hall, Durbar Hall and Pepper House. Aspinwall House, a spacious, nineteenth-century British heritage building, was gifted to the Foundation by real-estate developers DLF and serves as a multi-purpose site for the biennale. Durbar Hall, located in the downtown area of Ernakulam, was originally built by the Maharaja of Cochin in the nineteenth century and restored by the Kochi Biennale Foundation; it has since shown works by Gulammohamed Sheikh and Hema Upadhyay, among others. Pepper House is primarily used as an exhibition and residency space for emerging artists. Other locations that have been used for the event include the spice warehouses in the Fort Kochi area and Mattancherry, which have hosted installations by artists such as Zuleikha Chaudhari, Anish Kapoor, Vivan Sundaram and Neha Choksi. While the Foundation has taken steps to maintain the structural integrity of the structures, superficial signs of dilapidation are left untouched to reflect the age of these buildings.
The Foundation has also collaborated with foreign cultural institutions such as the British Council and Goethe Institut. The KMB is largely funded by the state government, which has contributed in accordance to its varying budgetary allocation for each edition and in some instances, as in the third edition, in kind by making heritage sites such as Aspinwall House available as permanent locations. KMB also receives donations from various private groups and raises smaller sums through crowdfunding initiatives and ticket sales.
Over time, community engagement has become an integral part of the event, through the works of participants such as Australian artist Daniel Connell and the Bornean art collective Pangrok Sulap. In 2018, during the fourth edition of the Biennale, the Foundation held auctions to raise disaster relief funds for those affected by the monsoon floods in Kerala earlier that year.
In 2018, Komu stepped down from his post at the Foundation following allegations of sexual harassment. The following year, the Foundation was criticised for failing to pay workers and contractors who were employed for the 2018 edition. There have since been additional allegations about the misuse of funds and favours to ministers involved in organising the event. Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fifth edition of the Biennale was postponed. As of writing, it is slated to take place starting in December 2022.
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