Dubai and Abu Dhabi art organisations join forces to show Indian filmmaker's work

New Delhi-born Amar Kanwar will show across two venues in January

The train carriage that the hero of Amar Kanwar’s poetic 'Such a Morning' (2017) retreats into, living in total darkness. The film will be shown at the Ishara Art Foundation in Alserkal Avenue, Dubai in January. Courtesy of the artist
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In a new collaboration, the work of veteran Indian filmmaker Amar Kanwar will be presented at two venues in the UAE – Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai and the NYUAD Art Gallery in Abu Dhabi. The shows will open two days apart in January.

The director, who was born in New Delhi, straddles the art and cinema worlds with his poetic and philosophical documentaries and video installations.

"Kanwar's works speak about very serious issues in very subtle, compelling and thoughtful ways," said Nada Raza, artistic director of Ishara Art Foundation. "His work is concerned with issues affecting communities across South Asia. Violence is a key question for him. What do you do when you are faced with unimaginable violence? That violence isn't necessarily physical – it can be other forms of social violence or injustice."

Kanwar's work has been exhibited extensively, with shows at London's Tate Modern, the Stedelijk in Amsterdam and numerous editions of Germany's Documenta exhibition. But he has been less visible in the Gulf, notwithstanding its large South Asian community.

This absence is something Ishara hopes to rectify. The foundation was launched in March by Smita Prabhakar, an entrepreneur in Dubai, to focus on art of South Asia, and Raza explains that Kanwar had been an important figure to both Prabhakar and herself.

"We had been talking about UAE collaborations," she says. "It's one of the things since the beginning we wanted to do – to work with not-for-profits around the same scale [as us]." When they heard that Maya Allison, the director and chief curator of the NYUAD Art Gallery, had also been interested in showing Kanwar's work in the UAE, it seemed a perfect fit.

"It made sense to galvanise the collective interest between me, Smita and Maya in Amar's work," says Raza. "That way it would be a much more in-depth presentation than we could do on our own." Kanwar was born in New Delhi in 1964 and has been making films since the 1980s. They respond to urgent and often sensitive topics – borders, ecology, agricultural communities and gender – in poetic, beautifully imagined scenarios.

Amar Kanwar’s video installation 'The Sovereign Forest', which will be shown at the NYUAD Art Gallery in Abu Dhabi, addresses the conflict over resources and ensuing ecological cost in the Indian coastal state of Odisha. Courtesy of the artist

Ishara will show Such a Morning (2017), which was first screened in the Athens section of the last Documenta. The film depicts a maths professor who has retreated into a railway carriage in the forest, where he lives in pitch-blackness.

"Throughout, it's uncertain whether he is losing the ability to see or if he's choosing not to see," Raza says.

He writes letters all the while, identifying 49 types of darkness. Kanwar lifts these out of the story of the film; they become art objects in their own right, frequently exhibited alongside Such a Morning itself.

The gallery, in Alserkal Avenue, will not show Letters, as this work has come to be known, but Kanwar will hold various events around the screening that will be announced closer to the date.

It is a unique privilege to host his thought-provoking and critically important work.

In Abu Dhabi, the NYUAD Art Gallery hosts The Sovereign Forest, a complex installation of films and images that changes with each exhibition. The focus of the piece, however, remains constant: the environmental conflict in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.

"It is a unique privilege to host his thought-provoking and critically important work." says Allison. "The Sovereign Forest is, in many ways, a 'living' art work, one that continues to grow and shift with each installation, as do the questions it brings to light."

Amar Kanwar’s ‘Such a Morning’ will be screened at Ishara Art Foundation in Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, from January 20 to May 20, 2020. ‘The Sovereign Forest’ will be at the NYUAD Art Gallery in Abu Dhabi from January 22 to May 30, 2020