“By pulling remains of posters from the walls and making collages from this material, Fels and Noufal completed a circuit of production and consumption that once made Surya Noufal redundant, but here provided him with a new situation to develop his work. On multiple levels this project communicates the rehabilitative nature of this intervention…”
– Robert D’Souza, India’s Biennale Effect, Routledge, 2017
I was invited by curator Sumesh Sharma to create a project for India’s Kochi-Muziris Biennale. In 2004 I began a collaboration with the billboard painter Suryal Noufal (the Vasco da Gama Project) and have worked with him there several times since. Sharma credits our work together in a Mattancherry 350 year-old ex-pepper warehouse (godown) as having established the trend of artist studios in the old Muslim part of the city. Mattancherry, once Kochi’s main port, is now the center of the biennale; installations and exhibitions happen in old godowns throughout the area.
Noufal agreed that I’d come to Kochi for three months and that we’d work “live” daily in the godown space we were to be provided. Most all the other participating artists on the biennial installed their artworks and left. We felt it important to do our work in full view. Every few days I would scour the city on a bicycle, looking for old posters left pasted to walls. I would collect fragments, most all from movie posters.
The act of collecting the papers itself recalls three other situations:
- In 1978 I completed a series of photographs of and collages based on wall posters in Rome. Returning to Seattle I formed the group “See-Through” which created and performed sound/music installations based on the Roman imagery.
- In 1985-6 I carried out a project in Bologna, Italy in which I had a poster of my own design posted on the city walls. For months I “altered” my posted posters by drawing and painting directly on them throughout the city center. The project ended with a large exhibition at Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna. In 2016, in the museum exhibition “Street Art in Bologna,” I was credited with beginning art-making in the streets of the city.
- Noufal worked for many years as a highly sought-after billboard painter. He painted enormous billboards (hoardings) above the streets of Kochi. Most all advertised Bollywood films. In 2000 giant globally-sourced print machines began arriving in India and by 2003, all the hoardings in the city were printed on paper, rather than hand-painted. Noufal and all the other hoarding painters were put out of work.
Our Biennale project was intended to invoke the contradictions surrounding an “international” biennial. I came to participate from far away, choosing as my media found-paper from the industrially produced movie posters that put the brilliant and locally-based Noufal out of work. I created small collages from the retrieved papers in the godown daily. Noufal and I collaborated on turning them into large hoardings that he painted with enamel on aluminum sheets. Based on the success of the Kochi Biennial project, Sharma invited me to come to Bombay in 2015-16 and create an installation for the Clark House Institute which he curates and founded.