Kochi: In the locales of Pepper House, Benitha Perciyal unexpectedly got to reiterate her idea about art as she encountered an animated response to one of her exhibits at the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Now as her work at the 108-day festival is drawing encouraging response, that “fruitful” dialogue has turned out to be one the Chennai-based artist particularly cherishes.
A little over a fortnight ago, an incensed visitor to the sea-facing heritage complex accosted Benitha about her portrayal of Jesus Christ without arms. That triggered “one of the best conversations I have ever had about art”, she recalls the episode which happened by her installation titled ‘The Fires of Faith’.
Notes the 36-year-old artist: “The lady was angry because it goes against the custom of how Jesus is depicted. But I asked her about who makes the customs. At this, we discussed the issue this way and that for a bit. Eventually, she felt sated with my explanation: faith is not about the material (one employs in a work of art); it is about sensitivity and sensibility.”
A graduate from Madras College of Arts and Culture in Chennai where she lives, Benitha’s KMB’14 work is inspired by the antique shops in Kochi’s suburban Mattacherry which stock antique figurines—mostly Christian—dating from colonial times. There, she restored to her specification a warehouse room, which contains two almost life-size statues of Jesus. One of them rides in on a figwood donkey, and here the figure of his mother Mary is worked in incense. This is to convey the “idea of the sweet smell of a mother”—and the apostles, among several other things.
“I generally collect old things which speak to me,” points out Benitha. “On an earlier trip to Mattancherry, I went around the old antique shops and saw religious statues that had no arms and legs. They had come from around the world; they were once used in a shrine. Now, they are in a shop. It was something to think about; so I decided to talk about faith.”
Benitha has also displayed the old things she collected as part of the display in a side room of the venue at KMB’14, which is curated by renowned artist Jitish Kallat.