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Apartheid, sea, Kerala colour South African artist's work in Kochi

Posted on Dec 15, 01:10PM | IANS

Memories of apartheid, a traumatic childhood, Mahatma Gandhi, politics, multi-racial cultures and the sea have translated themselves into abstract forms on the canvas of South African artist of Kerala origin Clifford Charles at the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012.

Clifford, 47, is presenting two contemporary art projects and a performance art series on the streets of Kochi. They portray the plight of the people living in old cities by the water by playing on the idea that "detritus or waste is life itself".

The first of the art projects, "The Five Cloud Room", is a series of concepts painted on the walls of the heritage Aspinwall House - the main venue of the biennale. In bright acrylic colours, the thought compositions probe the idea of Communism as a thriving political ideology against the backdrop of environment, nihilism and art.

The pictorial essay begins with "The Communist Reading Room" - an introduction to the ideological dialectics of Communism - and moves on to explore the philosophies of loss and awakenings that accompany any political movement. The segments include "Absence: The Loss of the Body", "The Room of Profound Essence", "Detritus", "Profound Profanities" and "End of Painting", marking the end of art in a rigid political system.

The second project is "The Steps to Villa Serbellani" - a composition in ink and water at the historic Pepper House, next to Aspinwall. "As my art is inspired by water, I use the local water of the places I visit to paint. In the 'Villa...' I use water from Italy's Lake Como," Clifford told IANS in an interview.

"I began the project in Italy in July and completed it in Kochi with the water I carried from Lake Como," the artist said. The abstract ink patterns flow on the surface of the canvas like a landscape in impressions of an Italian villa.

At the heart of Clifford's work in Kochi is the "concept of fort" - the British spice trading post of Fort Kochi that Clifford compares to Cape Town in South Africa.

"This fort town grew up economically on the strength of spices, plantations and colonialists - which is similar to the idea of Cape Town. I like the geographical idea of forts as tourist hubs. I work with its inhabitants and static objects," said the 47-year-old artist, who works out of Britain.

In Fort Kochi, Clifford is working on an interactive public art project, "Street Walking With the Hijras", simultaneously with his paintings.

"I have been performing on the streets of old Kochi with members of alternative sexual groups to create a context of the incredible lives of the fringe groups and the daily commuters to tap into their energy," Clifford said.

He transfers the "emotions" he experiences after every performance into huge sheets of paper in water and coloured ink.

"I hang the sheets of paper on pipes or hooks and drip coloured ink on its surface. The ink tilts, flows and morphs into nebulous shapes some time even as the performance is in progress or after it. The water on the surface follows the ink and gives it the rhythm of the movement and the moment," Clifford said, explaining his work.

Clifford is connected to India in several ways. The artist says his paternal ancestors migrated to Africa from Kerala.

"I grew up in the Indian neighbourhood Cato Manor in Durban - where the descendants of the indentured workers lived.

The arrival of the Indian indentured workers was followed by attacks by the white settlers on the blacks and Indians, Clifford said, recounting the stories he had heard from his mother.

As a child, India existed in Clifford's mindscape as "cumin, coriander, exotic herbs, fiery eastern spices and jackfruits" that the labourers grew in their gardens and used in their hearths.

The neighbourhood was also the beginning of racial trauma in Clifford's life.

"As a child growing up, I saw my grandparents forcibly removed from the neighbourhood. My father wanted to be a scientist but was not allowed to become one. I was not allowed to attend a white university to study art and settled for a black one instead...I was considered an Asian even though my mother was African," he said.

The artist joined the anti-apartheid movement in his 20s. "We drew inspiration from Gandhi, Tagore and Marx. Race was central to discourse - we challenged the orthodox view of culture and colonialism," he said.

The apartheid felled Clifford's brother. "I was stripped and left on the streets," he recalled.

Post-apartheid, Clifford addresses liberation on his canvas with water.

"It is a medium that is extremely seductive, life giving, destructive and powerful. It brings rain and washes away things... Including pain," the artist said.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)