Sprit Image

Riyas Komu’s show titled Out of Place now being exhibited at Gallery Sumukha in Bangalore, showcases a series of works that forces us to pause and reflect upon ourselves as a people who share a certain history, and as a civilisation whose lineages are ancient and complex. Here, images and icons, memories and invocations from the past are transported out of their place in time and placed in the present, in order to counter the civilizational myopia and amnesia that are looming large over us. The show brings together works on different mediums: stone, bronze, iron, aluminium, wood, ceramic, canvas, woodcut, etching, terracotta and video.

"In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times”

Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

To paraphrase Brecht, answer to the question ‘Will there also be art in dark times?’ Riyas Komu’s answer would be ‘Yes, art for|of dark times’. His exhibition titled Out of Place, now showing at Gallery Sumukha, Bangalore, is one such art-making in times of despair and darkness. In fact, several of his art projects during the last decade have been elaborations upon and explorations around this theme. In this endeavour, one strategy he has consistently pursued is to go back to history, to reclaim the past, not as an excavation but as expositions or juxtapositions. He journeys down the memory lane to re-member and re-imagine icons and symbols, sites and practices, forms and facts, in order to foreground them against and place them in the stark reality of the Present.

In his last show Holy Shiver Riyas worked with the images of the pages from Indian Constitution, designed  and painted by Nandalal Bose, and juxtaposed them with  archival images of traumatic historic events of post-Independence India. Along with that were imposing Black & White portraits of Gandhi morphing into that of Ambedkar. Images from Indus Valley and Buddhist age like the Dancing Girl, Lion Capital and Asoka pillar formed yet another cluster of imageries that wove the political argument the exhibition was trying to put forth. It is a conversation through juxtapositions - of the past and present, of myth and reality, of icons and disenfranchised subjects, of promises and facts.

Out of Place extends the conversation further. Here is what the introductory note to the show states:

”The symbols, icons and memories that define us as a people are being assailed. Assaulted by wave after anaesthetic wave of brutal images, our memories lose their hues and contours, poignancy and power. The icons we drew our strength from now appear us as esoteric characters from stories that are turned on their head. The institutions, the temples of humanism we invested our future in, are atrophied from within, and turned into empty shells. Symbols and ideals that guided and inspired us turn awry posing as emblems for exoticized projects. These erasures and fractures call for new acts of imagination that will retrieve, reclaim, recall and recover. That which is erased can be drawn back, that which is removed can be re-moved, that which is obscured can be brought to light. Historically, on many occasions, art has been an act of remembering and re-enchanting the symbols and songs, words and forms that make a people. It thus becomes an archival tool for resistance, a survival kit of imagination.”
A multimedia artist, curator based in Mumbai. He is the Ideator of Kochi-Muziris Biennale and Co-Founder of Kochi Biennale Foundation (established 2010). He has been the Advisor & Visual Arts Curator for Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa in 2016 & 2017. In 2016 he started URU Art Harbour a cultural hub in Mattancherry, Kochi, (Kerala). As an artist, his works have been exhibited globally including Brazil, France, Germany, UK, Italy, Korea, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, USA, China, UAE, Iran, South Africa among others. He often responds to the time and thematically explores the political and cultural history of India especially Kerala.
Sprit Image


Let us navigate through the show and look at the works. As one enters the gallery through a passage, we are confronted with the iconic image of the Ramapurva Bull, whose title – Conspicuous Location - borrows from Jawaharlal Nehru. According to historical records, it was Nehru who insisted that this sculpture should be placed at Rashtrapathi Bhavan, and not in a museum, obviously because that image carries certain civilizational memories and invocations that were foundational to the idea of India. Its conspicuous location in the exhibition sets the political tone to the show and its aesthetic register.


At the centre of the show is the large painting of Dandi Bridge. It is the image of the bridge that is buttressed on both sides by red iron rails, paved with wooden planks leading up to a dark oceanic expanse (open sea of salt?), where bleak, red clouds are thickening in the horizon. It is an image that invokes a historic site that was witness to the start of a profound political act in our nationalist struggle. This image with a fixed perspective of depth and distance is devoid of human figures or any organic presence, which lends a kind of haunting quality to it. The physicality of the bridge as a site and as a memorial is foregrounded both as a provocation to remember as well as an invitation to move on. The absent presence of Gandhi, the man who ignited the struggle from that location, makes it all the more poignant, indicating a certain kind of political void in the present.


Another set of four paintings together titled Memory Store expands this overwhelming sense of foreboding and absence. It has images of drab, solitary prison cells in muted colours. These cells are also without any human presence, and here too, ominous clouds are gathering above. As in Dandi Bridge, here too, there is a certain kind of uncanny stillness before a storm, as if something terrible is about to happen. It is as if the prisoner in the cell was just taken away, whose left-behind pain, anger, thoughts or dreams are looming and lingering there in the form of clouds. Or, are these cells awaiting their new occupants?


 The two woodcut series line the wall that runs through the middle of the gallery. On the one side is the series titled Contortionist, and on the opposite side, the parallel series titled Holy Shiver.

Contortionist, in this woodcut series, we find a lean, emaciated figure in various states of contortion, twisting and turning, and another set of figures whose bodies are hanging from a hook with the body underneath in various states of contortion. These images remind one of yoga postures;  and the human figure reminds one also of Gandhi and the thousands of farmers who committed suicide. If yoga, something that is celebrated and propagated as the authentic and ultimate Indian solution to the body-mind divide, is a repetitive exercise for disciplining of the mind through the body to attain spiritual liberation, here we find the body viscerally struggling just to be, obviously in life conditions where survival itself is a tortuous everyday struggle to keep one’s body and soul together. 

 If in these woodcuts we find black figures in white background contorting one’s self or body to fit into a limited space or into certain enforced postures, in a parallel woodcut series titled Holy Shiver, it is the reverse. There we find white line sketches in a pitch black background depicting horrific instances of state violence perpetrated upon hapless and disenfranchised bodies in post-Independence India. In a way, these two series complement or complete each other: while one series is about the travails and struggles of existence of the common man or the citizen, the other is about various instances of horrific violence perpetrated by the State on its helpless, disenfranchised subjects.


In the context of the show, the figures of the Dancing Girl, Buddha, Cow & Calf and Ramapurva Bull function as image invocations of a different kind; they are not mere excavated figures from a distant past that trigger nostalgia, but invocations to the realm of deeper civilizational memories. Charged with historical significance, they  prompt the viewer to reflect, as if upon an archaeological or excavated figure. Their placement here in juxtaposition with other images from contemporary history provokes conversations and engagements of a different kind between the past and the ‘contemporary’.


Atop a flight of steps, she stands, proudly and elegantly, looking straight ahead of her. In front of her is the imposing and illustrious seat of power, the Lutyens chair designed for Indian President. Is she a messenger from our civilizational past, who is peering at a symbol of democratic power, seemingly wondering about the predicament of a great civilisation?

She comes from the far recesses of our collective memory, from an age of great churning and probably illustrious prosperity. In an art object, time remains mysteriously frozen, to be awakened and sometimes made fluid by the touch of the contemporary. The dancing girl seems to emerge from time immemorial to remind us of continuities and commonalities, and also ruptures and absences. Buried in our collective unconscious, such artefacts immediately provoke ideations and discourses of various kinds that free us from the prisons of the present, prompting us to connect with historical time and geographical space in liberating ways.


Cow and calf and the Bull are enduring symbols that resonate with cultural, historical and political memories; one of the earliest images associated with community life, nurturing and motherhood, care and love, the Cow and Calf has persisted through history in various forms and avatars. And they also belong to art history, invoked and figured time and again to trigger deep social memories and livid associations, as well as for symbolic manipulations and cultural appropriations. Here, the artist picks the contentious image of the cow and ‘domesticates’ it into a familial and personal context, that of the Sindhi cow that his own family owned and milked to nourish its children. It is cow that has travelled great distances in time and space, from one geographical point of civilisation to another, from time immemorial to the present, to be a figure of nourishment and livelihood.


Foundan is a play on words: fountain the English word and as ‘someone who found’ in Malayalam by tweaking and mixing the word. The title also invokes the memory of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, where he placed a urinal in the gallery and called it Fountain, which was an art work that subverted the whole idea of art, demolishing the aura surrounding it. By making this figure of a man who is blind and dumb with glazed ceramic, which is the same material that Duchamp used, the artists juxtaposes different worlds of experience and domains of meaning-making into a provocative relationship. Foundan is a tribute to Duchampian disruption  and an invocation to break established habits and trodden paths.


This is a terracotta work that pairs with Foundan on the other wing of the gallery. If Foundan is made of glazed ceramic, Diminishing Return is a rough and earthy terracotta figure. If the former is blind and dumb, this figure is deaf and has a hole that runs through his head in the place of ears, while his brains growing out of its head like a tumor; all brains and no listening, as it were.


This 2010 one-shot video of 12 minutes duration feature Nasirudeen Shah staring at us or gazing ahead intensely, as if contemplating upon life, the present, or the predicament we are all in.  Placed in the context of this show, this video gathers a different kind of poignancy and resonance.


 This work is placed in front of the Nasirudeen Shah video, has a black Ashoka pillar sculpture made in rubber that is fixed in the middle of a kufic cube chamber of sorts. If the Bull Capital placed at the entrance point of the show was placed upfront and in the open, here is a Lion Capital enclosed within a cube, dark and hardly visible. This interface between the My Grave video and the Ashoka pillar image in front, in a way, reiterates and also starkly rounds up the theme of the show.


It is a series of iron masks with a mike hanging in front of their mouths. Very stark and direct, it is one of the few works in the show that resonates with terror and trembling of the fear to speak, with the rusted iron masks that frame the faces and voices that are confronted with empty invitation to speak.






Riyas Komu is one of the prominent political artists in the contemporary times. His works question the existing disturbances in the social order. Komu's works include sculptures, installations, paintings, video etc.



Indian film critic, professor, documentary film maker and writer from Chalakudi, Kerala. He writes predominantly in English and Malayalam. He won the National Film Award for Best Film Critic in 2009.



Self-satisfaction that leads to recognition. A candid yet complicated belief. Especially for an artist who strive to strike that balance at each stage.



URU art harbour is a cultural hub situated at Kochi. URU seeks to be a space for collaboration and a continual hub for artistic, cultural, and intellectual exploration. Founded by Riyas Komu and Zoya Riyas.


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