As a visual artist hailing from a rubber tappers’ family at Kunnoth, a small village in Kerala’s Kannur district, creating a counter-history that brings to light the lives kept in the dark of mainstream historical narratives has always been a favourite theme of Sajan Mani. Wherever he goes, he keeps his eyes and ears open to the forgotten and silenced stories from a past his ancestors lived through pain and suffering.
No wonder then that the stories came across those who search for them, even from unexpected places. That’s how he found a treasure trove of colonial archives comprising South Indian photographs in the Ethnological Museum, Berlin. The accidental find, which comprised photographs of subaltern lives in his own homeland, further triggered his inquisitive spirit and fuelled his ongoing inquiry into the often invisible past of his ancestors. Now, the artist-academic is curating an art project in Berlin based on the archives.
The project, aptly titled "Wake up calls for my Ancestors" calls for rethinking the status of colonial archives as incontestable references.
“Wake up call for my Ancestors” is a long-term critical artist-archivist project to give an active call to the muted voices of the Dalit and other archived subaltern subjects who are being appropriated, exhibited, accessed, edited and disseminated as mere photographs, according to Mani. The show, which started on October 28, is on at Oyoun Cultural Centre, a decolonial, queer, migrant alternative space in Lucy-Lameck Street, Berlin, till November 15.
Unearthing the archive
Mani came across the archives quite accidentally when he was in Berlin two years ago. “I saw the cover of a book on an ethnographic exhibition. I found a copy of the book. As I opened the book, I was shocked to find a photograph of ‘thanda pulaya’ (a community placed way below the caste hierarchy) women from Travancore in the catalogue. The photo from 1890 featured three women, wearing blades of grass with their upper bodies uncovered, standing in a field. I then learned that the Ethnological Museum, in Berlin has a huge collection of such materials. When I contacted the museum through a curator and asked about photos from Kerala, they said they didn’t have any. Then I asked about photos from Malabar to which they responded positively. They shared with me the digital versions of a number of photos for my research project. Though the content of the photographs is mostly colonial gaze, one can find clear signs and evidence of caste slavery existed in places like Kerala from them,” Mani told Onmanorama from Berlin.
Access remains a hurdle
Mani, a recipient of the Berlin Art Prize 2021 and a recent fellow at Max Planck Institute, has initiated the project as an interdisciplinary dialogue about the collection of South Indian photographs in the Berlin Ethnological Museum. He, however, said access to the museum has still been a hurdle for taking the project forward. He is yet to see the original materials in the archive. He is planning another exhibition next year and is trying to get complete access to the archives.
As part of the ongoing project, Mani has invited three artists and three scholars from India to Berlin. The artists participating in the project along with Mani are Sydney-based Indian artist Kirtika Kain, Rajyashri Goody who is an artist-in-residence at the Rijksakademie Van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam, and Kochi-based Upendranath T R. Mani presents his work on the archival turn of contemporary history and aesthetics with more experimental mediums including serigraphs on rubber and live performance as a continuation of his decade long take on the black Dalit body as a starting point to speak up truth, according to a curatorial note.
Seminar on colonial photography
Internal workshops, research, installations, performances, films, photographs, panel discussions, interactions and experimental collaborations are also organised within the framework of the project.
Former head of Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR)Prof. Sanal P Mohan, researchers Habiba Insaf, Vinil Paul and Antony George Koothanady spoke about colonial photography and history in a seminar held on October 28 at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (Institute for European Ethnology, Møhrenstraße) as part of the project. Gottingen-based anthropologist and historian Gajendran Ayyadurai chaired the session.
Mani has participated in international biennales, festivals, exhibitions and residencies, including The INHABIT, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics (2022), Galerie Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University (2021-22) and Lokame Tharavadu by Kochi Biennale Foundation, (2021). In 2022, he was awarded the Prince Claus Mentorship Award and Breakthrough Artist of The Year by the Hello India Art Awards. Between 2019 – 2022 he received an artistic research grant from the Berlin Senate, Fine Arts Scholarship from Braunschweig Projects, and the Akademie Schloss Solitude Fellowship, Germany.