A Life Less Ordinary in the Taj Mahal of Chicken Coops
On 9 March 1902, in the village south of Guadalajara in Mexico, a boy named Luis Barragán was born. Raised on a family-owned ranch just outside the village, Barragán went on to become one of the greatest architects of the Mexican avant-garde movement, and is renowned across the world for his bold use of colour and space.
Said to be influenced by the ranch’s earthy reds, rolling green hills and vibrant sunsets, Barragán’s architecture is characterised by his unconventional use of what we tend to consider ‘clashing’ colours: aqua blue meets sunflower yellow meets crimson pink, all on a single wall. Across the 50s and 60s, and until his death on November 22, 1988, the Mexican engineer-turned-architect wowed the world with a backlash against the minimalism of modernity, and paved the way for future artists and architects to embrace unconventional uses of colour in their work.
Fast forward, and jump oceans, to a scene in Kerala. Not in the town of Thrissur, Kerala, where photographer and multimedia artist Vivek Vilasini hails from. But close. In the late 90s, Vilasini – who trained as a marine radio officer and completed a bachelor’s degree in Political Science before his rather late foray into the world of art – noticed that the house next to his studio just outside Kochi had been painted in a bright and rather shocking pink.
As he looked around further, the artist realised that increasing numbers of people had begun painting their houses in colours that seemed to echo the work of architects like Barragán. And just like all good ‘protectors’ of the pure and the modern, Vilasini’s first reaction was disgust: he was repulsed, and he was not alone in his sentiments. As he began talking about this new phenomenon to friends, many of them said that the paint companies were paying villagers to use these products on their homes. He recalls, “They just couldn’t admit that people actually wanted their houses to look like that.” At a time where for most people in Kerala, white clothes and cream coloured houses were the norm, Vilasini’s own first reactions to these vibrant exteriors were of suspicion. “Initially, when such houses started coming up around my house, I hated it. These aren’t the sort of colours an artist would like to paint with, or would even dare to paint with…I was playing the ‘aesthetic police’, and I rejected them. But then I started wondering, why do I feel so much resistance?”
In a bid to answer this question, and then some, Vilasini’s latest show in Mumbai at the Sakshi Gallery is titled “…and for those who do not sing the national anthem in their mother tongue”. Fifty-year-old Vilasini has had over 10 solo shows in countries across the world, and has contributed to numerous group exhibitions. His Mumbai exhibition is a collection of photographs that is largely the product of the artist’s decade-long documentation of houses in Kerala. From the walls of houses to creatively constructed and coloured chicken coops, Vilasini’s photographs serve as a tribute and testament to the new paths forged by the Mexican avant-garde that sprung up in a completely unrelated and unrehearsed manner in Kerala’s villages. And most strikingly, “…and for those who do not sing” is an onslaught of colour – from the deep greens of banana leaves to the burnt browns of human skin. Visiting the show is rather like standing atop a work of découpage: bits and pieces of coloured flashes pull my eyes in every direction, and for a little while, I am unsure where to begin.
A rectangular frame borders an image of fluorescent green cement railings flanked by two strips of azure, with a bold red stripe on the left hand side. Green leaves peek out from in between, and the shadows of un-photographed plants fall into the frame. This photograph is one of 30 images that comprise ‘Housing Dreams – Walls’, a collection of pictures that span a large wall of the gallery’s space, and document 30 brightly coloured walls of the Kerala homes that Vilasini once detested. If you have ever visited the southern states of India, you’ll know exactly what these images refer to: houses upon houses in colours that India’s upper classes would have never imaged befitting of a home. Colours that, like Vilasini, people may often reject for the very brightness that gives them beauty in a starkly white gallery space. The gaudy pinks and cobalt blues that would make stomachs turn were they the walls of ‘respectable’ dining rooms.
Many art historians and anthropologists believe that chromophobia – a desire to not only eradicate colour, but to control and limit its uses – is tied to a history of colonial rule and oppression. From the 17th century, much of the British East India Company’s trade revolved around cheap, coloured cotton textiles that were imported from India, only to be exported again to English colonies in the Caribbean or in Africa. In this way, the use of bright colours came to be associated with colonised peoples, who were ‘othered’ as inferior in the eyes of their colonisers. Or, as Goethe wrote, “Men in a state of nature, uncivilised nations and children, have a great fondness of colours in their utmost brightness.” Today, instead of the hierarchies of colonial rule, we have equally dividing class lines. And prejudices against the ‘excessive’ use of colour continue to persist.
Interestingly, however, the use of colour on houses in Kerala can be linked to prosperity rather than poverty. Vilasini tells me, “[In Germany, for example], the industrial revolution’s modernity made their design quite bland…But the reverse was happening in Kerala, where there was a little bit of prosperity [in the 90s], and you found that everything was just exploding with colour.” This prosperity was, of course, relative, and most people living inside these brightly painted constructions remained on the lower rungs of the country’s economic ladder.
As a visitor to the show, I am awed by the Rothko-like experience of some of the larger images: the experience of their colours draws me into the frame. But I wonder, were I to pass by such a wall on a busy street, or were I to call upon its inhabitants for a visit, would I be so taken up with the pink-blue-green combination that is so beautiful to my gallery-adjusted lenses?
For Vilasini, there has always been a fascination with bringing ‘ordinariness’ into the gallery space: the painted walls he features here are, of course, simply a matter of everyday life for those who live within them. We see this trait in his earlier work, too. For instance, a piece in his series “Between One Shore And Several Others” depicts a set of villagers from Kerala, with their names printed below their head-shots. While this seems a straightforward enough idea, children in Kerala are often named for great Marxist leaders. So the end product is a series of Indian men, women and children with name tags ranging from ‘Stalin’ and ‘Che Guevara’ to a woman named ‘Soviet Breeze’. While the use of such names in Kerala is undoubtedly common, or everyday, when they are transported into the gallery space, this act of naming comes under closer observation; it becomes what is for Vilasini, ‘art’.
He explains: “When you cross-locate [an object], you are calling [it] into closer observation; that’s why I do it…The gallery space is calling attention to something; it is pointing at something. You’re asking for something to be aesthetically or culturally scrutinised. It’s like a scene of a crime, where [once you mark off the area], people analyse it.”
When talking to me about the wider themes present across his work, Vilasini cites the example of artist David Hammons, who, in the midst of a New York winter, set up a stall in the middle of other vendors, where he tried to sell snowballs of different sizes. Vilasini says to me, “Art is all around us. It is the role of the artist to make people see.”
In fact, the desire to make people sit up and take notice was at the heart of Vilasini’s interest in the potential of art. Vilasini’s father was a trade union leader, and much of his childhood was spent in Kerala’s oil refineries watching the struggles of common people. As he went on to do his bachelor’s degree in Political Science, his education was surrounded by an active student body that was constantly inventing new ways to conduct protests. “And that’s when I realised that as an artist, I could point to things,” he says today. “No, you can’t change everything, but if you are socially conscious, you can get people to look. That’s what art can do.”
In this way, whether it is the walls of houses or the unlikely names of Malayali children, Vilasini transports every day phenomena into white galleries traditionally reserved for ‘high’ art and ‘pure’ aesthetics, calling on viewers to look. Art critic V Devakar writes, “[Vilasini’s] photographs particularly point to the already evident carnivalesque existing in the midst of our every day life.” And in fact, the way in which Vilasini’s work strives to close the space between the gallery and the outside world greatly mirrors Bakhtin’s notion of the ‘carnivalesque’.
The carnival – a public celebration in the form of a street party or parade, often involving circus elements and traditionally taking place before Lent – erodes the space between the performer and the spectator; where hierarchies between different groups or classes of people are momentarily suspended. A wall, in its practical usage, is a divider; designed to keep someone out, to keep someone else safe. However, as we view the photographs of the walls as beautiful, the idea of the wall itself erodes: we occupy if not the same aesthetics as those live within them, then at least one that is not too far away from it. Vilasini reflects, “I was inspired by Bakhtin’s carnival, because it was happening all around us…it is nice to see that we are all in this kind of circus together.”
Vilasini’s body of work is large and overflowing any cup that seeks to define its limits. From a group of Kathakali dancers mirroring The Beatles’ Abbey Road zebra crossing with the first dancer in line having fallen over, to a piece entitled Last Supper in Gaza, where all the attendees at Jesus’ table are women in burkhas, his work can be read, perhaps, as a foray into the multiple ways in which people negotiate their identities. “For me, I have only one way of looking at things,” Vilasini says. “I’m interested in how people construct their identities…And it’s all a matter of looking. So what I’m looking at may change, but the way I look, and what I look for, always remains the same.”
As an exploration of identity, Vilasini’s show is framed by its title, “…and for those who do not sing the national anthem in their mother tongue”, which the artist describes as a “dedication” to people living on the margins of a singularly constructed national identity. “I want[ed] to understand how these people negotiate their identities in these [different] spaces,” he says. And for Vilasini, ‘understanding’ means immersing himself into the realities of people’s lives. He tells me that while on the road shooting the walls of houses, he was charmed by how friendly people were. They would invite him in for cups of coffee, and freely talk to him about their lives and homes. The three-part series entitled “Housing Dreams (Chicken Coop)” on display at the show is, in fact, the product of his relationships with the people living in these brightly coloured homes. The series features three uniquely constructed chicken coops: one from the skeleton of a car, one shaped like the Taj Mahal, and another almost house-like structure. All three chicken coops, I later learn, were built by Vilasini after the owners of one of the homes he photographed commissioned him to help house their chickens in a manner as equally creative as the bright hues of their own home.
For me, as a viewer, it is this inquest into identity that saves Vilasini’s work from falling into the trap of exoticizing the lives he seeks to portray. Taking bits and pieces from rural India to re-configure for upper middle class gallery spaces is not uncommon in India’s art world today. And these houses of Kerala are oftentimes not the houses of the wealthy; however, as Santhosh S writes in an essay, “By partaking in the politics of everyday life, [the images] refuse to produce any space for the middle class intelligensia to invest pity and sympathy.” Rather, viewers to the show are encouraged to consider these brightly coloured walls through the human lens of lived experience.
“The houses are also part of how people construct their identity and how people identify with these colours…Who are the people living in these houses? [Since] there are people living in these structures saturated with colour, what kind of clothing would they like to wear? What kind of design would they like?” Vilasini’s questions echo in the minds of his viewers, and in asking them, the space between the subjects and the audience grows even smaller – somewhat like in a carnival.
This piece was originally published on Yahoo Originals on 24 January 2014