KOCHI — The Kochi-Muziris Biennale made worldwide headlines when it opened on December 12 — as India’s first biennale, the three-month long Kerala-based event signifies the area's debut of a major international contemporary art platform. But on December 19, it received a different kind of press when a large charcoal mural by Australian artist Daniel Connell was defaced by unknown vandals, who attacked the work by rubbing it with a burnt coconut husk and water.
Titled LOOKHERE, Connell’s project consists of two 6.5 by 6.5-foot portraits as well as a series of paste-ups with images of local residents. The damaged work is a portrait of a man named Achu, who is a local tea vendor.
“It seems that it was premeditated to a certain extent in that a tool was sourced rather than just using the hand,” Connell says. “The charcoal was simply smudged and wiped. If they had been really angry they could easily have removed the whitewash with little effort.”
The reasons for the defacement are unclear, although Connell has run through multiple possibilities. His first suspicion was that it was a faith-based act — Achu, the vendor, is Muslim, and the biennale is also being held near the site of India’s first mosque — but locals were quick to dismiss this. Instead, Connell now suspects that it might be the work of local artistic intelligentia, angered at having been excluded from the event.
Also possible culprits are extreme leftist groups active in the area, who, opposed to Western influence, have launched poster campaigns accusing the Biennale of corruption and elitism. The defacement might also be an act of jealousy from local business rivals of Achu’s tea shop, envious of his success.
The vandalism has raised a set of moral and ethical concerns for Connell, particularly since other artists have accused him of “using” Achu for his work in a way that might put the vendor at risk of some type of attack. But the portrait, Connell says, was made at the request of the tea shop owner. The act of drawing or painting portraits on the walls in India is very common, if usually reserved for images of politicians and actors. The mural extended the same level of dignity and respect to the local shop owner, and Connell has since received multiple requests from Achu’s tea shop employees, as well as various other local residents.
Connell’s portrait is not the only piece that has been vandalized — a work by South African artist Clifford Charles was also damaged when colored paint was thrown on the Aspin House wall installation. Biennale organizers have filed a police complaint.
Having known that by producing a work for the biennale he was also putting it into the public realm, Connell hasn’t let the incident affect his enthusiasm for the event. In fact, he’s been encouraged by the outpouring of support for his work and for the Biennale itself.
On the Saturday following the vandalism, Connell says, students staged a sit-in in front of the work, holding signs that read “Don't attack art” in both English and Malayalum; the same message was also sprayed nearby in graffiti. And Connell has become so well-known that as he walks around the streets people will call out to him and apologize for the attack – a reflection of the widespread support that the artist has received from locals. “
Yesterday a street seller showed me the paper he was reading – an article about my new pieces,” Connell recalls. “He provided a basic translation for me and a local beggar who has taken an interest in the work over the past few weeks.”
In addition to continuing to create portraits for the event, Connell has been focused on making the necessary repairs to his mural. To him, the public reaction to the incident symbolizes the value of having artwork brought into the area’s public realm.
“People are engaging with my relatively accessible work and then going to see the quite difficult but beautiful work in the venues, which have until today been free of charge,” Connell says. He adds, “This Biennale is shaping up as one of the most democratic, inclusive, anarchic, and ambitious Biennales the world has seen, which I think will leave a legacy of deep and caring personal relationships with art.”
Watch a video of Daniel Connell repairing his mural in the video below: