Navjot Altaf Unpacks Eco-Feminism and Post-Pandemic Reality at Ishara Art Foundation
By Insun Woo
Published on December 9th, 2022
Ishara Art Foundation opened Dubai’s fall season with Pattern, the first solo exhibition of Navjot Altaf (b.1949) in the Arabian Peninsula. Featuring site-specific installations, sculptures, videos, drawings and photo prints, the exhibition foregrounds Navjot’s longstanding commitment to issues of climate-change, ecology, and feminism and the challenges they face in the digital age.
We had the chance to interview the artist as she traveled to Dubai for the exhibition’s opening. The following conversation was held on September 16th, 2022, at Ishara Art Foundation, Alserkal Avenue.
Insun Woo: This is your first show in the UAE. What was it like to show here? And what is your impression of Dubai so far?
Navjot Altaf: I haven’t been to many art spaces yet, but I enjoyed visiting the Jameel Arts Centre, and we are going to Sharjah tomorrow to visit exhibitions. In terms of audience, I think that there is an awareness for contemporary art here. A number of people came for the opening of Pattern, and I hope the exhibition will attract more visitors.
I.W: I feel that visitors would learn a lot from your work. Just from walking through the exhibition, I already learned a lot about the community in Bastar.
N.A.: I was quite politically engaged when I first got started with my artistic practice. This was 1972, and the times were politically charged in India. There was a student-led movement across the country, and my partner had just come from England where he was also part of a student organization. Through him, I came to know another student group in Bombay and became a member. As a group we participated in rallies in solidarity; we believed that the system had to be changed. We were part of a cultural group and concentrated on art and culture, we were reading books like The Necessity of Art by Ernst Fischer. It was inspired by Marxist thinking, so Marxism laid some theoretical premise for me to think critically not only about art but also about artists and society. Marxism made me understand that things cannot be seen in isolation. You can't be isolated from the social system that you're part of and nothing is static. Everything moves. Change is inevitable.
Nothing is static. Everything moves. Change is inevitable.
In 1997, I relocated from Mumbai to Kondagaon, an indigenous area in central India to see the representation of the female body in indigenous art and memorial pillars installed in public spaces. In that area, I saw a beautiful center opened by the indigenous artist Jaidev Baghel, who had this vision of local artists interacting between themselves and with the visitors. An anthropologist from Australia and a social scientist had visited the space just before I went. I was told that there was hardly any interaction with them. They came to the center to buy their art objects, ask how much it was, and bargained down the price. No meaningful discussions were happening with the local community or the artists. These artists wanted to take time off from their routine for experimentation. So, when I was invited to write a proposal for a scholarship to experiment with artists from different cultural backgrounds, whether it was possible or not, I went back to the center, also known as Shilpi Gram, and asked those artists if they were interested in writing a joint proposal? That’s how we started our first project. Over the period I started to interact with local communities, including farmers, and educational institutions. I was intrigued by the idea of school teachers’ interest in inviting us to have workshops with schools. At that time, we did a few workshops with school children. We talked about what the students felt about famine. As that year faced a famine situation, and the rice had become very expensive. We asked them questions like, “Why does famine happen? Had they heard about the Chipko movement? Had they heard about Chipko’s influence on other states, like Appiko Movement in the South?” They didn't know about these things and nobody had talked about these movements or whether one could think about making art like that. The outcome of the workshops was very stimulating for all.
The anthropologist and I started to interact and I came to know about other art forms, like orally sung epics. On the other hand, my indigenous colleagues and I made our own works at the center and experimented with many ideas. During that year, I realized that my colleagues, the artists I was working with were also farmers, and had to do part-time jobs besides their art practice.
Staying in Bastar and seeing what was happening around, such as mining, made me more interested in environmental issues. The year I went had a drought, there were no rains, poor rice crops and people suffered. Seeing problems like these I got deeply interested in the root causes of such situations.
The energy of that place was very different. Our focus was also on travel within Bastar which exposed us to the infrastructure of that place. Gradually in the second year, we were interacting with community people outside the center and by the end of the year negotiated a strategy between us to collaborate with the people interested in working on site-specific projects at hand-pump sites where people of all age groups came to fetch water. This was not work which is predecided and done in a studio and then brought out as a complete object. The significance of the work resides in the fact it was built with the people and for their use. Some artists and critics visited Bastar to see how the project was moving and there were new questions about collaboration and autonomy of the artworks, different modes, and what questions such collaborations raise.
I.W.: Your work is very tied to feminist ideas. Could you unpack the term for us and what it meant to be a feminist artist in India in the 70s and 80s?
N.A.: As a woman and an artist, I started to be conscious of gender issues in the socio-political system one lives in, I observed how men and women were treated differently in workplaces as we were working closely with the workers in Bombay. In the art field, there was no discourse as far as women artists were concerned when I started in the mid-70s. Most of the senior women artists didn’t want to see the difference between male and female artists: ‘Artists are artists. We are not women or men’ was their expression. In 1989, I was invited to curate a show for a festival called Expression that brought together women in theater, cinema, academia, and the art world. I was looking at how women who practiced art were doing so against all odds. Instead of selecting only the artists whose works were already being shown in galleries, I focused on women artists who hadn’t had much exposure to the public. I was criticized for that and was told that the exhibition was not comprehensively curated, I could have selected fewer artists. I saw that as a problem at that time.
Around the same time in the late 80s, I came across a book called Vision and Difference by art historian Griselda Pollock, which left a deep imprint on me. I was also looking at all the social movements in India and understanding [feminism] through them. I learned from writings on women in Southeast Asia from an academic, historical point of view. I started to think about questions like what feminism meant in India, in the art world, or around the world. Even though I was criticized for that women's group show, I did the right thing. I was looking at this movement from a collective and collaborative perspective, thinking about how we could come together as artists to spark debate, raise awareness and give exposure to artists who were previously not exposed to the art market. Every action, or every exposure, opens up your own thinking. I also became increasingly interested in non-linear, non-patriarchal sources of knowledge, which greatly impacted me and nourished my art practice.
Even though I was criticized for that women's group show, I did the right thing. I was looking at this movement from a collective and collaborative perspective, thinking about how we could come together as artists to spark debate, raise awareness and give exposure to artists who were previously not exposed to the art market.
It is very interesting to know that even though the term ‘feminism’ was coined in France in 1974, the Chipko Movement took place in India around the same time. Hundreds of women in Uttarakhand [state in northern India] protested against the forest department that wanted to cut trees. It was recognized as our first social and ecological movement much later.
Bottom left: Documents and publications from the collections of Govind Kelkar and Vijay Kulkarni shown in Navjot Altaf: Pattern at Ishara Art Foundation, 2022. Image courtesy Ishara Art Foundation. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.
Bottom right: Books from the personal archive of Navjot Altaf shown in Navjot Altaf: Pattern at Ishara Art Foundation, 2022. Image courtesy Ishara Art Foundation. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.
I.W.: The reading room upstairs opens up opportunities for people to engage with the materials beyond a superficial level. I saw Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble, and I am curious to hear your thoughts about her theories.
N.A.: In Bastar, I was reading a lot about ecofeminism, a natural progression of my practice. Going back to Haraway – thinking about the meaning of our inter-species world is how I accessed her writings. It made sense to me on a fundamental level. If we look at it, we are living in a multi-species world. During the pandemic, I was reflecting on the term “ecological democracy.” That we are inevitably linked to the planet, as compared to what we call “representative democracy”.
There was a farmer’s strike during COVID against the government for implementing laws that threatened to corporatize agriculture. What does it mean to be agreeing on that kind of social system where everything is slowly given to corporate systems? It is affecting the environment. The value of weeds and insects and how they contribute to our food production is a question related to environmental degradation. I’m in solidarity with everybody who is thinking about a multi-species world, and thinking about building another kind of social system, with alternative understandings of interrelationships or interdependency.
I’m in solidarity with everybody who is thinking about a multi-species world, and thinking about building another kind of social system, with alternative understandings of interrelationships or interdependency.
No matter where we are in the world today – I’m not only referring to India as a developing country– but also America, Australia, Canada, Europe – we see the effects of ecological crisis. The UAE is beautiful, but when I see these concrete buildings next to water bodies, I can imagine the after-effects. The groundwater level is reducing, and the temperature is increasing. We know this, so we are living today in a paradoxical world.
I.W. Pattern also shows your previous work about Manhattan. Could you tell us more about your views of New York?
N.A.: In New York, I was impressed with the functionality of our modernity and technology. But when you are in a city for a long time, you start to understand what lies beneath it. I then came across a book called Delirious New York written by architect Rem Koolhaas. The book detailed the history of building Manhattan: how colonizers came into this land, with plans of buildings even before arriving.
Personally, I admire the architecture of New York. Brooklyn Bridge, if you notice every twist of the barbed wire. It is so beautifully designed. It reflects what the human imagination can achieve. To pay tribute to the human mind and human achievement I did the intricate watercolors, though I had not been not painting since 1997.
But what does one do when one learns about New York producing more heat-trapping gasses than all of Central America and Mexico combined? Accelerating climate change?
I was thinking about how one could speak about heat-trapping gases. How does one show that through one’s work? I thought of climate change diagrams and superimposed them on the watercolors I painted of specific sites. What I found interesting was the language of diagrams. One has to learn to read them. I wanted to highlight it.
I.W.: I was wondering how the pandemic has affected your practice. While walking through the exhibition, I noticed your natural curiosity to understand the world around you. Even though our global post-internet community is getting more connected – we have developed this sort of empathy towards people who live in different geographic locations, and also to different species and to different environments – we also remain so alienated from faraway realities at the same time. I think the pandemic changed things a little bit however, it gave us time to reflect.
N.A: We saw during the pandemic how animals and birds started to reappear everywhere. Water was cleaner, and birds returned to our immediate environment, but what troubles me is that there was a forest fire in Australia, in the Amazon, in China, and in India. Why is it that we do not link all these fires together? People see linkages between other things. You see one has to understand development or progress in relation to its impact on the environment.
As the pandemic started to unfold, nature started to tell us to slow down. The water told us that I can be cleaner again for you. The birds said that they could maybe return to your environment. What happened in the past few centuries is that we created an environment that frightened them. But now, we have the potential to go closer to the forest.
As the pandemic started to unfold, nature started to tell us to slow down.
I.W.: I was thinking about the word “imagination,” which you mentioned earlier. We often explain what is happening right now as a result of the failure of imagination. A failure for people to imagine different ways of living, to imagine our interconnectedness with different species. But at the same time, we are capable of imagining. Just look at all the architectural projects, the artistic interventions, happening all around the world today. As you said, they are the results of human imagination. What do you think is happening here? If imagination exists, what prevents us from imagining?
N.A.: I think it’s because humans have taken an ultimate position of control, in a very philosophical, fundamental sense when humans take up the position of the supreme, there is no fear left. For unseen invisible gods there is a kind of fear, that's why people have so many rituals. Forest god is worshipped for the fear of fire, whereas in the ancient text it is said that worship the forest. Forest is God. It contributes to the well-being of the entire planet and is home to diverse life forms. But we have exceeded our limits. This thought goes back to this whole idea and our concerns for sustainability.
We see how intersections of local, regional, and national politics are entangled with the urgencies of development, and the power of national and global capital, which is an obsession with growth but not necessarily for all sections in mind.
I.W: Would you say that is what you are trying to pursue with your practice? To resist this notion of humans as the supreme?
N.A.: Well, we have to think about the consequences of our actions. Your generation, the generation younger than yours, or older – all of us are experiencing the consequences of what we are talking about. Are we not sensing it?
I think our capitalist economy has a very short-sighted vision. Apart from science, we can learn from some of the existing practices of some indigenous societies – when they made decisions, they thought seven generations ahead so that it also benefits their descendants. Why are we not thinking about future generations down the line?
I.W.: Would you say your practice comes from the attitude of learning from nature?
N.A.: It comes from a learner’s attitude; I consciously want to understand the significance of the multi-species relationship. I think it is the need of our time. How do we relate to Nature? If I live in the city, for example, I will know what products and shops each mall has. Similarly, why am I not interested in understanding what soil exists around me, and what it is going to give me? How insects are participating in our environment?
If I live in the city, for example, I will know what products and shops each mall has. Similarly, why am I not interested in understanding what soil exists around me, and what it is going to give me?
I.W.: Considering your practice, which centers on climate change, ecology, and feminism, your work Lost Text stands out as something different. How did the work come about? How would you articulate its relationship to other works in this exhibition?
N.A.: Yes, the context is very different but it is still connected. Lost Texts project evolved from when I was transcribing, translating and editing my Bastar diaries. One day when I opened my computer, instead of my diaries I was shocked to see this corrupted text. I don't know how it happened. I was very disturbed. I tried to recover the text by following computer instructions but with no results. I could not read anything.
It converted the text into an arbitrary mix of numbers, alphabets, symbols, used and under-used punctuation marks – but what I found very interesting was that even though the text structure was destroyed and it had lost its chronology, sequence and clarity, its disorganized fragmented patterns of words further broken by the computer’s selective memory, vocabulary and punctuation markings brought forth narratives out of its meant context or acted as clues to excavate the hidden meanings and created new meanings that were not intended in the first place. The highlighted words on each work are the word I spotted first with a changed meaning. For example, the word Impunity became Imp _>unity. [important unity].
This happens sometimes in the art-making processes, you don’t necessarily get what you set out to do. So through this text-based work, I play with the play of technology and play of memory to create new propositions. I lost my diary, but in the process, I received something which was not intended.
I lost my diary, but in the process, I received something which was not intended.
But since I used the photographs of ancient scriptures on stones for the background, taken by me over the years, which only experts can read, amusingly I thought maybe one day there will be experts to recover corrupted text like mine.
I.W.: I feel like this is an example of the saying “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade out of it.”
N.A.: Yes, sometimes you have to let in some fun, as life is serious.
I.W.: Final question as we conclude the conversation: What advice would you give to young artists today?
N.A.: I think experiencing life is very important. It is great to travel and interact with people in different locations. Allowing that kind of time to yourself is important.
Each place has its set of conditions and one learns to see the peculiarities, differences, and also similarities. You see the pandemic was faced in almost every part of the world yet your experience and my experience may differ - depending upon the kind of situations we were in or the facilities we had access to.
I am interested in wide-ranging awareness and prefer looking at things from far, from very close, and from in-between.
Navjot Altaf: Pattern ends today at Ishara Art Foundation, Dubai.
Insun Woo is an Editor at Global Art Daily and studies at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) where she is pursuing a BA in Art & Art History and a minor in Arabic. Her interest lies in contemporary art curation, arts education, and youth empowerment. Her current and past experience includes writing for Global Art Daily and Canvas Magazine, participating in the Summer College Workshop 2021 at the Guggenheim Museum, and interning at for- and non-profit organizations for the empowerment of youth.
About Navjot Altaf
Navjot Altaf was born in 1949 and currently lives and works between Mumbai and Bastar. Since the 1970s, her practice has negotiated various disciplinary boundaries involving painting, photography, sculpture, installation, video, site-specific works, research and activism.
Navjot has had solo exhibitions in institutions and galleries including the PAV Parco Arte Vivente (Turin), The Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum (Florida), Chemould Prescott Road Art Gallery (Mumbai) The Guild Gallery (Mumbai, Alibaug and New York), Talwar Gallery (New York and Delhi) and Sakshi Gallery (Mumbai). Her retrospective was held at the National Gallery of Modern Art (Mumbai) in 2018 curated by Nancy Adajania. She has also participated in various curated group shows around the world including the Tate Modern (London), House of World culture (Berlin), National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (Korea), Newark Museum and Minneapolis Institute of Arts (USA), The Grand Curtis (Liège), and the Kiran Nader Museum of Art (New Delhi). Her work has been presented as part of the Curitiba Biennial, Yinchuan Biennale, Shanghai Biennale, Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Sydney-International festival of Contemporary Art Biennale, Havana Biennale and the first Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale. A number of her collaborative and site-specific projects can be found in Kondagaon, Chhattisgarh, India.
Navjot’s works are part of a number of public and private art collections including National Gallery of Modern Art (New Delhi and Mumbai), Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (New Delhi), Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (Fukuoka), Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto), PSA Museum of Contemporary Art (Shanghai), PAV- Parco Arte Vivente (Turin), RPG Collection (Mumbai) and The Ishara Art Foundation and The Prabhakar Collection (Dubai).
About Ishara Art Foundation
Ishara Art Foundation was founded in 2019 as a non-profit organisation dedicated to presenting contemporary art of South Asia. Located in Dubai, the Foundation supports emerging and established practices that advance critical dialogue and explore global interconnections.
Ishara Art Foundation is presented in partnership with Alserkal.
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