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Annu Matthew’s Biennale Work Pays Homage to WWII Forgotten Heroes

In Kochi
January 28, 2019

Through her work that draws attention to parallel histories of immigrants and women among communities, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew hopes to enrich a collective cultural conversation with amplified voices. “I do this by drawing on history and the connected role of memory and its effect on identity,” says the 55-year-old artist about her exhibit at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

The ongoing fourth edition of the art festival showcases US-based Annu’s video work titled ‘Unremembered: The Indian soldiers of the Italian Campaign of World War II’. The project is about the forgotten history of Indian (South Asian) soldiers who fought during the Italian Campaign of the global conflict that lasted from 1939 to ’45.

“I stumbled upon the powerful story of a politically-complicated role of Indian soldiers who fought for the British colonial power during WWII,” notes the artist, a professor of art at the University of Rhode Island, 250 km northeast of New York. “I came across it through my decade-long research on the Partition of British India.”

This war had nearly 2.5 million Indians volunteering to fight for the British. In the end, no less than 87,000 people died. The Indian troops did achieve something particularly inspiring what with their role proving critical in winning a decisive battle at Monte Cassino and others in Italy against the Axis powers.

“The tenacity of the troops, especially that of Indian soldiers, is reflected in their being honoured with 30 per cent of the Victoria Crosses the British government awarded to all of the soldiers fighting in Italy during the war,” adds Annu, who was born in London and raised partly in India (largely Bangalore).

As for the installation at the main biennale venue of Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi, the video spanning 3 minutes and 20 seconds has a reflection pool. The work builds on the idea that military cemeteries memorialise the dead while simultaneously reminding the living of their possible complicity in the same soldiers’ deaths.

“These spaces, embedded with multiple overlapping layers of narrative, encourage contemplation and reflection,” notes Annu. “Layering a contemporary inscription of the wartime past expands the narrative and prompts a reconsideration. It goes on to evolve as a dialogue of the larger history of WWII and the understanding of the complexities of the Partition of British India.”

Annu, with familial roots in Kerala, started her research on the project one-and-a-half years ahead of the biennale. She did her test shots while she was attending the Rome Summer Fellow at Richmond International University in 2017. “For that, I projected archival footage of the Indian soldiers in Italy during WWII onto the gravestones of those soldiers memorialised in Cassino, and Forli,” says the artist who was born in Stourport, England.

For over twenty years, she has been mining issues of identity, immigration and inter-generational memory with the insights of a woman who has twice lived the immigrant experience. The vignettes come through her photo-based works. “I work in a wide range of photographic media from the plastic-lensed ‘toy’ Holga camera, photo animation to interactive installations,” she says. “My larger work reconsiders — or what I like to call re-views — different histories. The first time I re-viewed history, it was my own childhood.”

Annu has predominantly worked with photography as a medium. To her, participating in the Kochi-Muziris Biennale allowed her to take the next bold move onto installation art. “Something that I have taken as a small step towards in the last few years,” she shrugs. “It has also been wonderful to see a show giving voice to many unheard narratives and to meet a number of the artists.”