by Dilpreet BhullarOct 02, 2022
Site-specific art installations, sculptures, videos, drawings and photo prints make up the exhibition titled Pattern, the first solo exhibition by Indian artist Navjot Altaf in the Arabian Peninsula. The presentation revolves around Altaf's longstanding commitment to issues of climate change, ecology and feminism and the challenges they face in the digital age. She regards art as a medium for social change and her practice is at the intersection of art and activism. Altaf lived in the rural district of Bastar, Madhya Pradesh in Central India to work with indigenous communities. Deforestation, mining, and displacement have caused unprecedented change in the socio-cultural fabric of the region. Her early projects with the local communities collaborated with artists and activists alike, aimed to trace the complex connections between human exploitation and environmental crisis.
In the ongoing solo show at the Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Altaf is showcasing works created since 2015, the year of the United Nations Climate Change Conference and the Paris Climate Accords. Since then, there has been a dramatic enhancement of visual representation of climate change in mainstream media, using new technologies and real-time data. This exhibition constituting six notable works juxtaposes the new and traditional forms of representing environmental crises to critically reflect on the way we think about the future of the planet and society.
I speak to Navjot Altaf on her practice and motivations.
Rahul Kumar: Your practice is highly motivated with social activism. Please talk about the genesis of your concerns for “human exploitation and environmental crises”?
Navjot Altaf: I have been concerned about understanding why asymmetries prevail in the social system. The characteristics of various forms of hierarchies, or man-made inequalities, introduced in human relations from the early stage. An exposure to philosophies of Sufi poets such as Kabir and Guru Nanak in my formative years, writings inspired by Marxist philosophy and further working with people from different socio-cultural and economic backgrounds in a city like Mumbai, in the 1970s and 80s helped me reflect on the issues critically.
Being with indigenous artists, communities, and my observations of the impact of human induced change on the environment since the late 90s (due to coal and iron ore mining) have furthered my interest in the question of anthropogenic interventions in nature and how asymmetries have continued to prevail. Since the past few decades, the capitalists' greed for short term profit has crossed all limits without primary concern for the nature of humanity and its life worlds.
Rahul: How are your recent works throwing light on the climate crises? How are you attempting to help your viewers critically reflect on some of these issues?
Navjot: For example, if my work How Perfect Perfection Can Be recognises the human imagination, innovations and achievements, the attempt has been to point out the consequences and the risks being manufactured by the human activities, and how our response to an environmental issue like climate change is shaping the future of our species on the earth. So, climate crisis graphs superimposed on the watercolour drawings are to underline the fact that human innovations, as research identifies, have come at the expense of the natural systems that sustain us.
Rahul: Do you believe there is a real possibility to make a U-turn, or even slow the process down of global warming? There is a view that whatever be the measures, it will be too-little-too-late and the deterioration is inevitable. Would you then agree to accept the ‘new normal’?
Navjot: Looking at the analysis, how far we have come, to make a U-turn is not possible. By accepting the ‘new normal’ do we then stop reflecting and acting upon… I don’t agree on accepting the new normal.
For a short period during lockdowns, we did experience what slowing down could be. Understanding how as a species, we think and act, how we interact with other non-human species, how we are interconnected and ecosystem is made of diverse life forms… and why we cannot ignore the fact that the ‘progress’ and its economic dimensions have to be understood in relation to its influence on the ecology. Learning from some of the existing practices, still relevant to sustainable way of life can help. Public awareness and voices of common citizens in decision making and building a system which respects plurality for all life-forms including human could help imagine new ways to a sustainable world.
Rahul: It is paradoxical that your works of visual arts “question the value of human achievement and visual splendour”. Isn’t the very act of creating adding to your own carbon footprint, something you aim to question through your practice?
Navjot: I would say that my works address how we deal with these paradoxical times we live in; human achievements when critically viewed in relationship to its impact on the environment raise questions concerning what we have lost and continue to lose. I am interested in understanding the complexity of links and a system of relations.
Rahul: In your ongoing show at Ishara, the centrepiece of the exhibition is an installation titled Pattern. How is the use of unmilled red rice and the invocation of textiles symbolising the interconnectedness of artistic expression, occupation and livelihood?
Navjot: A village Nagarnar, in Bastar District, known for its weaving techniques and aesthetics, has been harshly impacted by the land acquisition procedures for a steel plant and other industrial projects. I have spent a considerable period of time with the weaver’s community there.
The whole process not only acquires mineral rich land, but also pollutes natural water resources, cause hazardous damage to the soil, life forms, economy and the culture of local communities, finally forcing them to leave their land and lose their artistic skills on which their livelihood is dependent. The triangular form symbolises water, the work Pattern is derived from weavers’ use of triangle in their artistic expression. The use of rice seeds symbolises the significance of land, food and water. Loss and shortages we are already facing, and going to face in the coming years. I feel that this kind of approach to development is alienating the communities from their live worlds and philosophies.
Pattern is on view till December 9, 2022 at the Ishara Art Foundation.