Biennale Reconnects China with Kerala’s Ancient Muziris Heritage


Kochi: Kottapuram Fort, a stop on India’s ancient trade route and part of Kerala Tourism’s ‘Muziris Heritage Project’, is a venue of the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) 2016. A giant scroll painting by the late Chinese artist Li Bo’an is exhibited at the Fort.

The scroll, titled ‘Walking Out of Bayan Har’, measures 1.88 m high and 121.5 m wide. It has been reproduced on plastic and stretched out at the fort. The artwork has the quality of a mural painting on paper – something that is rare not only in China but anywhere in the world.

Kottapuram Fort, built in1523 by the Portuguese, was captured by the Dutch in 1663. Before the Portuguese, there were the Romans, the Greeks, the Chinese and the Arabs who came to the Malabar Coast in search of fragrant spices, specifically pepper, also known as ‘black gold.’

The Fort, situated at the mouth of the Periyar in Thrissur district, is one of the 12 venues for the four-month-long Biennale. Excavations in the fort area – located on the Malabar trade route – have reinforced historical evidence of Chinese trade with Kerala. Among the many items dug up are coins, inscriptions and porcelain from China.

Sudarshan Shetty, Curator, KMB 2016, whose curatorial vision for the art extravaganza involves invoking the meaning of tradition and exploring it through fresh perspective, said the ancient fort was an apt location to showcase Li Bo’an’s work. Shetty was introduced to the artist, who died in 1998, by noted Chinese scholar Li Tuo.

The scroll depicts 266 Tibetan villagers living under the foot of the Bayan Har Mountain. The artist spent 10 years working out of his living room, painting a few meters at a time on the artwork, which he did not get a chance to see in its entirety during his lifetime.

“The scroll exhibited is a print on plastic. The original was created with traditional Chinese materials: ink, brush and thin Chinese paper. It is remarkable that he painted such immense figures in this way on this kind of very fragile paper. The effect is miraculous,” Li Tuo said.

Traditional Chinese art often relies on techniques of lines and brush and paper and the complicated relationship between methods exists even today. According to Li Tuo, using such methods to depict modern people is extremely difficult.

“The perspective in Li Bo’an’s works is different from a traditional western painting although when I first saw his work I thought of Michelangelo and Renaissance painting. In combining traditional methods of Chinese painting with 20th Century modernism, he was trying to solve the problem of how to bring traditions alive in the eyes of contemporary people,” he said.