The Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza and Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21) jointly presented two installations – The Sovereign Forest and The Lightning Testimonies – by Indian artist and filmmaker, Amar Kanwar, early this year.
Kanwar’s practice is defined by the gathering of testimony of India’s most vulnerable populations. What would nature say if asked the right questions? What makes an anti–gender-based violence movement effective? The work of Amar Kanwar brings together the resources of activism, social science, and the humanities in a necessary collaboration through images, documents, and the presence of nature in the exhibition rooms. If we are to understand what nature has to say, what all those who suffer have to say, then we need to invent the emotions, to produce the experiences that would allow us to negotiate differently with life. It is now - given the burden of our times, darkened by the rise of extreme conservative ideas, by policy making deprived of a sense of humanity, openness, or possibility - that we need this illumination. This is the claim that lies at the core of these two works, The Sovereign Forest (initiated in 2011) and The Lightning Testimonies (2007), presented at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza as the second important contemporary art collaboration between the museum and Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21).
The Sovereign Forest has been a long-term collaboration between Amar Kanwar, media activist Sudhir Pattnaik, and designer and filmmaker Sherna Dastur. Kanwar has been documenting the damage caused by industrialisation on Orissa’s landscape and indigenous communities for more than a decade now. He has filmed the industrial activity that has changed and destroyed vast areas of the land in this eastern Indian state. During the 1990s, national and international companies created large-scale industrial and mining zones in various parts of traditionally agricultural Odisha. The resulting displacement, political conflicts, agricultural implications and violence has been depicted in the work The Sovereign Forest.
In an adjacent gallery, the second part of the installation, The Seed Room, contains tables that hold books fabricated from handmade paper, on which films are projected, and a wall of seeds indigenous to Odisha. As Kanwar explains, when a local farmer, Natabar Sarangi, began to grow rice, he realised that few varieties were used in Odisha, whereas he recalled that during his childhood there had been numerous varieties, with different shapes, flavours, and natural characteristics. In order to preserve this heritage and reintroduce these varieties into the seasonal growing cycle, Sarangi set about cultivating, harvesting, sowing, and storing seeds. In this room - adapted, enlarged, and modified as it travels - seeds from 272 species of rice were displayed in individual handmade containers.
In a separate gallery, the eight-channel installation The Lightning Testimonies was on view. The video work, which displayed experiences of sexual violence to reflect on the larger history of conflict in the Indian sub-continent, was first displayed in 2007. The body is the pivot around which the work explores themes of dignity, protest, honour, hatred and humiliation through images of people, memories, and everyday objects. The video reveals narratives of violence and resilience, and voices of women that have often been ignored and drowned out. The objectivity of Kanwar's documentary approach is modified by his own presence in the films. Through voice-over and first-person commentary, the artist introduces an empathetic and passionate presence into a national discussion that is epic in scale and global in consequence. The orchestrated convergence of the eight videos into one projection culminates in the possibility for transformative change.