The Haunting in Aspinwall House

KMB 2016 artist Gabriel Lester’s installation channels legend of the city’s Kappiri Muthappan

Press Release

The Haunting in Aspinwall House

KMB 2016 artist Gabriel Lester’s installation channels legend of the city’s Kappiri Muthappan

Kochi Feb 22: A mysterious dim-lit room you cannot enter, its lace curtains stuck mid-billow in a non-existent breeze and the hanging smoke of a forever-burning cigar. An interrupted space floating off-kilter, seemingly out of time – like a movie scene stuck on pause.

If the eerie setting of Gabriel Lester’s installation ‘Dwelling Kappiri Spirits’ seems to give off a horror-flick vibe, it isn’t without cause. The Dutch multi-disciplinary artist came to the ongoing third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) “as a filmmaker without a camera”.

“My background is experimental cinema though I embrace all forms of art equally. When you think about it, cinema is an art form. It combines photography, literature, theatre, sound, light, choreography and so forth,” said Lester, who also dabbles in music, literature and architecture.

Lester brought his director’s eye to the Biennale, producing a haunting, yet inviting, freeze-frame at Aspinwall House that serves as both critique of cinema’s casual use of historical narratives as plot devices and as an altar for remembrance, reflection, even worship.

The legend of Kochi’s ‘Kappiri Muthappan’ – the spirits of African slaves who were abandoned to their fates by the Portuguese when the Dutch arrived in the 17th century and are said to reside still in the estates of their slavers – is the peg upon which Lester has built his room.

“On the verge of surrender, the Portuguese buried their loot, made holes in the thick walls of their homes in what is today Fort Kochi, chained the slaves inside and plastered the holes with mortar. The slaves were made to swear that they would guard the hidden riches till the descendants of the Portuguese came to claim it. I was inspired by the local myths and history of those souls of Kappiri spirits still wandering around,” Lester said

Centuries later when houses in Rose Street and behind the Dutch Cemetery in Fort Kochi were pulled down for renovation, chained skeletons were found inside. Locals leave lit cigars, food and toddy for the guardians in the hope that they will part with their treasures. A non-descript shrine dedicated to the Kappiri Muthappan en route to Mattancherry is still frequented today.

In homage to these spirits, Lester has built his structure from burnt wood with every object placed inside being related to the legend and manner of worship in some way.

“The house on tilt, as if tumbling, the frozen curtains trailing out of the window and the eternal cigar smoking, all propose ideas to form as a result of perception. One imagines that the time and movement inside the space have been halted,” he said.

Beyond turning visitors into witnesses of the restless spirit inside his room, Lester seeks to prompt questions and discussions on slavery and colonialism as evidenced through their modern-day equivalents: servitude and economic imperialism.

“Generally, an artist chooses a topic before beginning an artwork, but sometimes the topic can choose the artist. As such, I believe the spirits found me. The fact that this narrative is strongly linked to the country of my origin, the Netherlands, is one of those coincidences that I believe determines much of one’s artistic practice,” Lester said.


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