Navjot Altaf is making her first solo exhibition in the region with Pattern at Ishara Art Foundation. The exhibition reflects on issues that the artist has long been committed to, this time considering their effect in the digital age.
With a career spanning more than four decades, Altaf has long taken on social and environmental issues with her work, which has been shown worldwide — from London’s Tate Modern to the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.
Her art spans several mediums and has flourished from the frontlines of protest movements perhaps even more than in the studio. Altaf's work is often concerned with granting artistic agency to marginalised communities in India, while showing how their issues resound on a global scale.
In the 1970s, when she was a member of the Progressive Youth Movement, Altaf used her posters to criticise the Indian government’s constriction of civil liberties, exhibiting them across the country’s slums. In the early 1980s, she highlighted the strikes in Mumbai’s textile mills with her series, Factory.
During the 1990s, she relocated to Bastar, collaborating with the traditional craftspeople to create sculptures and installations, exhibiting them in Mumbai. The works confronted themes of deforestation, pollution, mining and displacement. Her art from then on has sustained a collaborative spirit. Her 2010 work Touch IV, for instance, was created with a group of sex workers and examined notions of intimacy, looking at one facet of her lifelong exploration of how the female body is perceived and represented.
In short, activism has long been the aorta of Altaf’s creative output, even when it seemed to go against the grain of her contemporaries.
“My college was apolitical,” she says of Mumbai’s Sir J J School of Art, where she earned a degree in fine and applied arts. “If anyone asked any political question, our teacher would say it was not our job to dwell on such matters. We were taught that artists were separate.
"The emphasis was on philosophy and poetry, but not so much on activism. Not that I understood that what I was doing was activism. It merely made sense to me. I came from a family with a very humanistic value system so it was natural for me to agree that there should be a classless society.”
Altaf's latest exhibition at Ishara Art Foundation, which closes on December 9, presents a body of six works. “The reason we selected such a small slice of her work is because I was noticing something quite unique in her practice,” says Sabih Ahmed, associate director and curator of Ishara Art Foundation .
“Since 2015, when the UN Climate Change Conference took place and the Paris Accords were signed, there has been an explosion of infographics and data visualisation to understand climate change. [Altaf] was one of the few artists in the world who really tapped into this changing visual regime as it was going on.
“She’s made a series of works that look into this overlap between climate change represented through big data with a different kind of pattern recognition from indigenous communities. It is a different knowledge system, in which they read the winds, the rainfall and data from material sources to create patterns.
"She's really juxtaposing two regimes of seeing and visualising climate change. Because how do you visualise climate change? That is a question we want this exhibition to ask.”
The works in Pattern include How Perfect Perfection Can Be, a collection of 18 watercolour drawings of modern architecture from China, Germany and the US that has been superimposed with visual graphics that chart CO2 emissions from the use of coal and fossil fuels.
The works underscore the paradox of these modern accomplishments that come at a great environmental cost. Seriousness of Issues, meanwhile, also uses the chart-based visual language that has come to represent climate change.
The work, which sprawls across one wall of the gallery, shows how citizens from a dozen countries have been showing less and less concern for environmental issues including shortage of fresh water, loss of biodiversity and air pollution despite their exacerbation. The work was first presented in 2015, after the signing of the Paris Accords.
The centrepiece of the exhibition, as well as its title piece, is a floor installation made of unmilled rice sourced from shops in Dubai and imported from India. The work takes its aesthetic cue from a textile pattern produced by a weaving technique that is indigenous to Bastar but is slowly vanishing. It displays the interconnection of artistic expression and livelihood among farmers who are being deprived of their land and culture by mining companies.
“These people aren’t weavers as a vocation or a job in some company or in a mill,” Ahmed says. “Their lifestyle includes cultivating land and weaving. But as their land gets taken away, it’s not just food that’s being denied to them. Their own culture, their skills and techniques are being taken away. They are being sent to different places, displaced, to build roads and buildings.
"When people talk about migrant workers it's not just because people are looking for jobs. It’s because their homes are being taken away from them. So a lot of migrant workers right now are at the same time climate refugees.”
The work is specific in its subject matter and setting but reverberates on a global scale, alluding to the danger industries pose to indigenous communities worldwide, their habitats as well as their cultures.
Soul Breath Wind, meanwhile, is an hour-long video based on the artist's research and first-hand observation of how the political, economic and development policies have led to deep geological effects in Chhattisgarh in central India.
The video presents the testimonies of local inhabitants, including several women speaking against the monopolisation of land, rapid industrialisation, and the extreme conditions of displacement and deforestation brought on by coal and bauxite mining. This extends into the final work in the exhibition, Patterns Which Connect, a collection of 24 sculptures with fossil-like imprints of toy animals that embody the diverse ecosystem that is under threat because of the continuously changing landscape.
The exhibition is complemented with a reading space on the mezzanine that presents books, field notes, and posters of various social movements that Altaf has been part of over the years. The books include Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement, Vandana Shiva's Soil Not Oil, Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed and Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire.
“All put together, you begin to understand that you are not isolated on the planet,” Altaf says. “I got more exposure to the real world when I started spending time with the community, people who were fighting against the powerful forces increasing the vulnerability of the ecosystem.
"A model of development has been adopted, but at what cost? We don’t talk about the loss. Governments only talk about growth. But when dams come up, countless villages go away. How can you compensate people?”
While many communities may be wary of outsiders, Altaf says she has been received positively by people in Bastar, as well as other groups she has worked with. That is mostly because of her eagerness to ingrain herself within a particular community, fighting alongside them to raise awareness on issues that threatened their way of life.
“I go there and meet them and try to understand them,” she says. “If they are fighting a case, for example, and go to court, I will go with them. So, you come to know the people.”
In the case of Bastar, she says it was both the indigenous and non-indigenous people who were affected by the onslaught of mining companies on their land.
“I call them a community of resistance,” she says. “They have come to be. They are not a community that was given, but they made themselves a community.”
Ishara Art Foundation’s Pattern represents the fiery and marked entry of an already established artist into the UAE and the Arabian Peninsula. The exhibition prompts viewers to contemplate the turbulent effects that the world's prioritisation of progress and production has had on the environment. While many of the works in Pattern are particular to Altaf’s experiences engaging with indigenous communities in India, it also tears us out of our isolationism to consider what is lost and what is at stake as our cities grow outward and upward.
Pattern is at Ishara Art Foundation, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai until December 9.