Queer art in Kochi Biennale

Prema Viswanathan | Updated on April 12, 2019 Published on April 12, 2019

Beyond binary: Tilly Gifford (standing) used theatre and drawing exercises to examine male-female behaviours   -  IMAGES: PREMA VISWANATHAN

Scottish artist Tilly Gifford reaches out to children and adults in the coastal town

As the fourth edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale packed up its last canvas, it doffed its cap to efforts by artist-activists seeking to usher in a more inclusive life.

One such effort was a series of workshops organised by Art By Children (ABC) at the Cabral Yard venue in the city to sensitise participants — including children — to divisive and damaging perspectives around gender and the environment.

Blaise Joseph, programme manager of the workshops, sought to achieve this through paintings and play in a space where participants could mingle and question stereotypical notions of social intercourse.

“This space, which we called the Art Room, is a concept and a physical reality where children and adults alike can engage and create art works, with a disposition that is non-competitive and non-judgemental,” says Joseph.

The Art Room was one of the best-attended venues at the 108-day festival, which ended on March 29. Over 30 artists from various disciplines facilitated these workshops, according to the organisers. Among the more innovative ones was a workshop titled Queer Life Drawing, conducted by a 35-year-old queer artist from Scotland, Tilly Gifford.

It was originally intended for children. Some parents, however, were not comfortable with the theme, which centred on examining and deconstructing gender identities. Then a few open-minded adults registered for the workshop, and children were later persuaded to attend it.

The initial hiccup did not, however, dampen Gifford’s enthusiasm. Using exercises from theatre and live drawing, she examined so-called male-female behaviour patterns.

For instance, participants practised ways of walking, alternating between stances seen either as “feminine” or “masculine”. How do our arms move; how would people respond if we walked in another way — these were some of the questions they examined. Soon, it became evident that gender stereotypes dictated their behaviour.

Many of the participants said it was a challenging experience. It was no less exciting for Gifford.

“For me this workshop was a big gamble and a big experiment, as I had never done it before. I have done a lot of workshops in the past, but never one combining the visual arts and gender,” she tells BLink.

The workshop, she adds, came with its share of responsibility: “To encourage adults to play (with gender identities), in a culture that is so emotionally stunted, without upsetting them was a challenge.”

Gifford was in her 20s when she formed an interest in “subverting” gender stereotypes through art.

“I was always interested in art, ever since I was a kid. And later, as a teenager and an adult, I also became interested in activism, in challenging dominant positions and authority. But it was very hard to live in the world that way.”

And that’s when things started to get interesting, she says. Her discontent with the world and her desire for it to be different were funnelled into activism — around gender, environment, capitalism, the right to land and other such issues.

“We could be living in a way that is so much more fulfilling and happy for humans and other animals on the planet,” she says.

And when that larger concern merged with her art, she felt she had finally found her calling.

“While campaigning or indulging in activism, there is often a lack of creativity, of appeal to the imagination. The challenge is in adopting unorthodox ways to communicate your concerns, as activism can otherwise become very predictable.”

As a queer person, she has been constantly dealing with issues around patriarchy and gender identity, but she wanted to combine this preoccupation with live drawing, which is very technical. Although her ceramic sculptures, expressing her vision of gender and environmental dystopia, have been exhibited in Europe, none of the works were on display at the Kochi Biennale. Her presence at the Kochi event was more geared towards gender sensitisation than artistic self-expression.

“My intention in the workshop has been to encourage people to question and come up with their own answers to issues of patriarchy and gender norms and not to impose answers or teach. That’s why my approach is to ask questions. And for people to analyse how they internalise assumptions and prejudices and how much more expressive and empathetic we could be if we understood this internalisation of gender norms.”

For this, she underlined elements from theatre. Participants, for example, were asked to adopt “feminine” or “masculine” postures and then “subvert” them.

“I wanted to create the kind of empathy that I encountered in the installation Sweet Maria displayed at this Biennale,” she says. She was deeply moved by this work created by artist Aryakrishnan Ramakrishnan as homage to his friend Maria and other LGBTQ activists who lost their lives while asserting their right to their identities.

Across the rainbow: Sweet Maria by Aryakrishnan Ramakrishnan


Gifford hopes she has contributed in her own little way to the larger effort to chip away at regressive social thought. She finds it much more interesting to attempt this in India, where behaviour patterns are not masked as much as in the more developed countries. Responses are more “authentic” than those in the West and therefore have the potential for transformation, she says.

Prema Viswanathan is an independent journalist

Published on April 12, 2019
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