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Concept note

Migration and exile, in many ways, structure my feelings about and understanding of the world. Many images in my works deal with it frontally, while in many others it is latent, often as enfolded or suggestive layers.

By Riyas Komu

In some of my installation works, the experiences of exile and migration are excavated from history and memorialised as public images. In these instances, art by resisting oblivion becomes a defiant act of civilizational memory.

As a displaced individual, one is always trying to come to terms with one’s "out-of-placeness" in the world, and one’s "out of contextness" in the host (oftentimes hostile) society in which one finds oneself. People on the move form various transversal and transcultural networks that sustain them, giving rise to hybrid narratives, art forms and social practices. 

I am from Kerala in India, which is a subnational entity at the tip of the Indian peninsula. The huge influx of migrants from this region began in the late 1960s, when the oil boom triggered economic progress in Gulf regions and spurred the demand for labourers. Owing to Kerala’s long maritime history and geographical proximity to the Arab world, there exists between these regions a rich and long tradition of exchange of culture, goods and ideas. With the labour flow, the Gulf coasts became the favourite port of call for most of the "undocumented" migrants from Kerala, whose journeys - referred to for all practical purposes as "illegal" - began with a new dream of making lives better at home by being away from home.

Though working in the Gulf was seen as an expression of economic aspiration, the working conditions in the new place, the harshness of everyday life, broken identity, and homesickness produced layers of anxiety in the psyche of migrants. The migrant subject is one who is between past and present, memories and reality. Even while the machinery of Global Capital needs them to run and thrive, they are forced to the margins and into constant precarity. They live a life of conflicts and contradictions, of split allegiances and unstable identities; environments of suspicion, marginality and insecurity – social and political, cultural and economic – always loom over them.

Since the 1990s some of the major motifs in my work have been migration, displacement and exile. At the personal and intimate level, the figure and subject of the migrant draw on my own migrations for educational and professional reasons, and the movement of many of my siblings abroad. For people who leave behind their milieu, childhood, rituals, cults, festivals, families, friendships, landscapes and livelihoods, all these are only memories they carry in a suitcase as they move to a distant land to nurture their homes and build a future. In this unsettling and grinding process, they themselves become anonymous figures at home, people who get lost as they weave and walk their way through the dreams. I place this new series of portraits of working-class men and women in the Gulf into this context. They are figured frontally, their gazes and poses exude a certain resilience and also dreamy aspirations. Isolated but resolute, they stare unflinchingly at the world and into the future. The future is past and present.