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Home is where the art is

Updated on: 19 April,2024 06:48 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Rosalyn D`mello |

Though I feel like a foreigner in almost every space I inhabit, the arts have been my refuge. I feed off artists’ passion for honing practices that harmonise their artistic proclivities and activism

Home is where the art is

The venue of the Venice Biennale, one of the world’s oldest cultural exhibitions. Pic/X

Rosalyn D’MelloNot all art is equal. Not all art is created equally.’ These thoughts randomly popped into my head as soon as I got off the train from Verona to Venice. I hadn’t planned to be at the pre-opening of this year’s edition of the art biennale. I was invited a month ago  as a courtesy, on account of my contribution to the publication by the Finnish Pavilion. I had been commissioned to write an essay entangling my writing practice with that of fellow Mumbaikar, Vidha Saumya, who is one of three artists representing Finland this year.

I’m not one for pre-openings or even openings. There are too many art world VIPs who take themselves too seriously. I find it anxiety-inducing to be in environments where one has to watch one’s tongue and be civil in a way that feels artificial or falsely intimate. It would also be the first time since the pandemic that I would be attending a large-scale opening. I carved out two days away from child-care and decided to immerse myself in the experience. It has been surprisingly fun. Mostly because I no longer have any kind of FOMO about being at events or trying to be invited to events. In fact, last night, after I caught up with two old friends I got to know from my residency in Venice, and their 28-year-old gay friend, I already sensed how our evening might go. Within the first 15 minutes of our reunion, we were cackling with non-alcohol-induced laughter and before our main course could arrive, decided we would rather spend more time with each other than go to the dinners or events to which we had been invited. 

I didn’t expect to enjoy overhearing all the conversations that happen around me. Because it’s such an exclusive event, most of the people here at this moment are either directors of major art institutions or work as higher-ups in these spaces or are artists and curators. There are members of the press, too, but they are not the kind who take up a lot of space. Fellow art writers tend to be, like me, more prone to observing and recording what they witness rather than being necessarily garrulous themselves. As I stood in line to get a sad sandwich that would have to assume the space of lunch, I heard an Italian male artist talking to an American female about his work and how widely it had been exhibited and collected. He sounded so full of himself, I was surprised she even had an appetite after their conversation. It felt like something out of a movie parodying the art world. I ran into another friend, a native German speaker who has been living in Venice with her partner for several years who now speaks fluent Italian. This year she signed up as a guide to the Biennale. She told me the director of some foundation was talking to her and asked her at some point what she was doing at the Biennale. When she said she was a guide, he actually suddenly realised he had something urgent to attend to and left. One of the two friends with whom I was revelling with last evening said that when she was really a nobody, something similar happened to her. A VIP art world person asked her what she did and when she responded she was merely an art worker, he just left without even bothering to take the trouble to make an excuse.

I find these stories quite hilarious. They always remind me of the strange hierarchies that exist within this world. I have always seen myself as an art worker who feels committed to what artists do. I feed off their passion for honing practices that harmonise their artistic proclivities with their activism. I’ve discovered these are the kind of artists I most enjoy working with. Not the ones that make spectacular art but the ones who nurture both solitude as well as foster community and engender a feminist predisposition towards the personal being political.

It has been unexpectedly fun to exercise agency, to feel like I can have a say in how I want to negotiate my relationships and experiences with this ecosystem. Perhaps my continuing engagement with institutions whose politics align closely with mine helps me nurture a feeling of security. I didn’t always feel this way. I have frequently been in these spaces and felt excluded. Now my approach is different, and maybe that comes from feeling settled in oneself. I no longer feel like I have to prove myself to anyone. I don’t feel an anxiety about asserting the fact that I do indeed belong to a certain space. The theme for this year’s biennale is ‘Foreigners Everywhere’ and is meant to reflect on the experience of alienation within one’s site of dwelling or home. While I feel like a foreigner everywhere I go and in almost every space I inhabit, I realised, yesterday, that I always, inescapably, find my home in art.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D’Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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