30 September 2022
Disrupting the Pattern
When you first walk into the Pattern exhibition at Ishara Arts Foundation, two works dominate the space: a large graph engulfs one wall of the room, and a detailed installation made with grains of raw rice is laid across the centre of the floor. Both works represent the knowledge systems of scientific data and lived experiences. By exploring these two systems together, layering them and allowing one to inform the other, the exhibition attempts to unravel the hegemonies that allow for the exploitation of people and natural resources in India, and across the world.
Pattern is artist and activist Navjot Atlaf’s first solo show in the Arabian Peninsula. It is curated by Sabih Ahmed and features sculpture, video and visual installation, prints and drawings from the past eight years. Within it, layers of questions wait to be parsed out among the patterns: ‘How does feminist practice of care and resistance apply to climate issues or in building a multi-species world?’
Navjot’s involvement with activism began at art school in Mumbai in the 1970s. She resisted teachings that suggested art was separate from social issues.
“From childhood we’re taught that anything small is female and anything big is male,” she says. “Things will not change until male children are brought up differently. Because we’ve seen that the moment a female child is brought up differently, she believes she can do everything a man can do.”
Pattern makes the eco-feminist argument that humans cannot be separated from nature; how we care for the environment is inextricably linked with how we care for each other. As you spend time in the space, surveying a graph or listening to the experiences of exploited indigenous populations in Chhattisgarh, you begin to connect the dots between each artwork. A central argument unfolds: that feminist communities of peaceful resistance are a powerful route to a more sustainable and equitable future.
Navjot Altaf , Seriousness of Issues (2014-2015). Paint, Dimensions variable. Graph seven indices tracking ecological disasters for 12 countries (the list includes India) from 1992-2012. Indices include shortage of fresh - water, air pollution, water pollution and depletion of natural resources. Image Copyright & Courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road and the artist. Photo credit: Anil Rane.
A graph, titled ‘Seriousness of Issues’ (2014-2015) towers over the exhibition space. The colourfully jagged lines reveal the human concern for shortage of fresh water, rise in air and water pollution, and the depletion of natural resources across 12 countries. Oddly, the lines rise and fall, as if the climate crisis has ever presented a moment of reprieve from concern. The piece criticises the power structures that allow for the continual exploitation of the environment. “The people we select, thinking they will run governments for the wellbeing of society, are not doing that, which makes it easier for individuals to become careless about situations like the environment,” says Altaf.
Pattern (2015-2016) has been painstakingly installed using unmilled grains of rice arranged in identical ovals, within borders of a large triangle. The pattern which takes inspiration from an indigenous weaving community in India represents the symbol of water. Meanings of labour, food, water and culture are woven into the image. It also carries the significance of the livelihood and history of the people who shaped the pattern, urging us to consider how their lived experiences are directly affected by resource exploitation.
The work is delicate and therefore vulnerable, inducing an anxiety that demands viewers to remain vigilant. Pattern represents the fragility of the way of life of the Bastar people with whom Altaf spent many years in Chhattisgarh. The state is known for its forests and has been heavily exploited for its natural resources, which has destroyed the local economy and disrupted indigenous ways of life. The work makes the viewer complicit in this damage, elevating humans to the same relevance as scientific data, which often dominates global discourse.
Navjot Altaf, Pattern (2015-2016). Unmilled rice grains, Dimensions variable. Image Copyright & Courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road and the artist. Photo credit: Anil Rane.
“I’m in Bastar as a witness,” she says. “My position is different from someone who has gone through the difficulty of displacement or has to constantly resist. The people of Bastar live with the anxiety and fear that tomorrow if this law isn’t passed, they’re going to lose their home. The government is forcibly doing this. People may resist for years, but resistances also fail.”
‘Soul, Breath, Wind’ (2014-18) is a dual-channel video that depicts Navjot’s firsthand documentation of developmental projects in Chhattisgarh that are destroying the land and livelihoods of the local community. The 62-minute video depicts interviews with the indigenous residents of Bastar who are resisting resource exploitation. It is an amalgamation of over ten years of research. The work seeks to reframe the notion of the fall out from environmental degradation as being exclusive to ecology. By including these empirical stories, the work collapses the notion that human lives can be separated from the environment when we often talk about saving the environment alone.
‘How Perfect Perfection Can Be’ (2014-2020) looks like a series of framed black-and-white close-up photographs of skyscrapers. The renderings are actually multi-layered prints, watercolour drawings and PVC transfers that depict details of lauded works of architecture from mega-cities such as New York, Beijing, and Berlin. The architecture is abstracted, making the renderings seem like they could be from anywhere. The work calls on the viewer to look at cities through a strange and fantastical lens. Its details are overlaid with the curves of graphs depicting the corresponding city’s ecological destruction, with data such as China’s annual rate of coal consumption, Germany’s CO2 emissions or the USA’s greenhouse gas emissions.
‘How Perfect Perfection Can Be’ interrogates the absurdity of each city’s claim of representing a height of human achievement when their function and existence are complicit in the destruction of the environment. “Even if they’re thinking about growth, it’s not for every section of society,” says Altaf. “Capitalism and the capitalist economy have become so naked. They’ve become shameless now.”
Navjot Altaf , How Perfect Perfection Can Be (20 17 - 2018 ). Watercolour drawing on Wasli paper and PVC on acrylic, 81.3 x 57.1 cm each. Graph: SECL (South Eastern Coal Fields Ltd), Raigarh area, Baroud open cast mine surface plan as of 2016 with graph of Coal India production. Image courtesy of the artist.
Other sections of the exhibition, including ‘Lost Text’ (2017-18) and ‘Patterns Which Connect’ (2018) ask the viewer to question what the future will look like. The former is a series of multi-layered prints that superimposes hieroglyphs with digital encryptions from a corrupted hard drive. The works are a play on the notion of cryptography where the texts are scrambled and hard to read, positing whether future archaeologists will ever be able to decode our existence from the overlay of climate catastrophe, brought on by digital ascendance. The latter calls on archaeological traditions by replacing fossils with fossils created from plastic toy insects imprinted in clay. Altaf hearkens to a dark future of the natural vestiges of humanity being replaced by false ones, in plastic.
Navjot Altaf, Lost Text – WHISPERED (2017). Digital print on canson platine fiber rag paper pasted on archival conservation board and PVC transfer on acrylic , 64.7 x 52.1 cm each. Image courtesy of the artist.
Pattern as an exhibition argues that feminist communities of peaceful resistance, like the ones Navjot has encountered in Chattisgarh, are a hope for the future. “I felt that the community was a place for care and nourishment. There was no difference between men and women or indigenous or non-indigenous. They became, to me, a community of resistance.”
Altaf’s feminism is expansive and fluid; it allows for contradiction and complexity in proposing an alternative to the destructive capitalist system it calls out. It presents a vision of the future that’s hopeful, despite the urgency of the climate crisis, and it argues for including the human cost within efforts of saving the environment.
“I believe that’s the only way to handle the times we’re in: to pressurise the cracks in the social system and resist power,” she says. “We have to think differently. That’s why I’m in solidarity with all those who are doing wonderful work in the world and those who are thinking about the possibility of organising a different society…thinking about what a multi-species world can look like.”
Pattern is on exhibit at Ishara Art Foundation till December 9.