A constellation of stories: India’s Amar Kanwar exhibits in Yorkshire

Amar Kanwar’s multi-faceted, expansive exhibition portrays the injustice and hardship faced by local communities in Odisha, India.

New Delhi-based artist and filmmaker Amar Kanwar’s first major UK exhibition, “The Sovereign Forest + Other Stories”, is ongoing at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) in Wakefield, UK. A body of work spanning film, photographs, books, documents, installation and 272 varieties of rice seeds, the exhibition opened on 12 October 2013 and will run until 2 February 2014. 

Amar Kanwar, ‘The Sovereign Forest’, 2012. Photo by Anders Sune Berg. Image courtesy the artist and YSP.

Amar Kanwar, ‘The Sovereign Forest’, 2012. Photo by Anders Sune Berg. Image courtesy the artist and YSP.

Born in 1964, Amar Kanwar makes work that revolves around social issues in India, such as sexuality, oppression, power and justice.

“The Sovereign Forest + Other Stories” is an enquiry, memorial, testimonial and documentation of the plight of local communities in Odisha (Orissa), India, who are suffering as a result of industrialisation projects such as proposed bauxite mines. According to the exhibition leaflet, Kanwar seeks to explore “the human and environmental cost of industry” through “respectful and extremely careful intervention.” Curator Anannya Mehtta, quoted in the Indian news magazine Tehelka said:

Kanwar’s engagement with questions of violence and nonviolence has been a constant leitmotif in his work. For me, the work occupies and creates a space where poetry, memory and evidence are equally important in understanding one’s idea of oneself and the other.

Amar Kanwar, ‘A Love Story’, 2010, video still, commissioned by the Independent Cinema Office and LUX, England. Image courtesy the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery (New York, Paris) and YSP.

Amar Kanwar, ‘A Love Story’, 2010, video still, commissioned by the Independent Cinema Office and LUX, England. Image courtesy the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery (New York, Paris) and YSP.

The deliberately silenced, the preferably unheard

The premise of the exhibition arose nearly a decade ago from the conflict between the government and mining corporations on the one hand, and local farmers of Odisha on the other. As author Arundhati Roy said in her 2004 Sydney Peace Prize lecture, “there’s really no such thing as ‘the voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, and the preferably unheard.” The deafness of those in power towards those most affected by such a change is insensitive and indifferent; but the community continues to fight back.

As an artist, Kanwar gives the struggle between development and displacement a human face, highlighting personal histories, voices, the questionable classification of evidence, the vocabulary of crime and systematic oppression. The exhibition is a result of a long-term collaboration with activists, farmers, locals and institutions. First opened for public viewing in Bhubaneswar, Odisha in August 2012, “The Sovereign Forest” is constantly evolving and invites visitors to participate and contribute with any form of ‘evidence’.

Amar Kanwar, ‘The Sovereign Forest’, 2012, installation, rice seed samples. Photo by Jonty Wilde. Image courtesy the artist and YSP.

Amar Kanwar, ‘The Sovereign Forest’, 2012, installation, rice seeds samples. Photo by Jonty Wilde. Image courtesy the artist and YSP.

War against the people and their land

The politics of industrialisation often ignores people’s livelihoods and the long-term environmental effects of industrialisation in favour of unequal economic growth. In the Yorkshire Post, Kanwar told Jon Cronshaw that,

Land is not just dimensions … You have 272 varieties of rice here, which is a knowledge system. So if you lose this knowledge system which has been tried, tested, shared and re-tested over so many decades, how do you place a value on this loss?

These 272 varieties of indigenous, organic rice seeds are displayed in the gallery, along with a seed book. Visuals are provided in the form of two films, The Scene of Crime (2011) and A Love Story (2010), of which the former depicts scenes and landscapes that will soon cease to exist. A Love Story is a five-minute film exploring a moment within a series of migrations at the edge of an ever-expanding Delhi through poetic imagery. Three handmade books tell stories through projections of moving images and other mixed media like fishing nets and newspapers embedded within the pages.

Amar Kanwar, ‘The Sovereign Forest’, 2012, projected book. Photo by Jonty Wilde. Image courtesy the artist and YSP.

Amar Kanwar, ‘The Sovereign Forest’, 2012, projected book. Photo by Jonty Wilde. Image courtesy the artist and YSP.

Amar Kanwar, ‘The Sovereign Forest’, 2012, projected book detail. Photo by Jonty Wilde. Image courtesy the artist and YSP.

Amar Kanwar, ‘The Sovereign Forest’, 2012, projected book detail. Photo by Jonty Wilde. Image courtesy the artist and YSP.

One room is dedicated to documents, tax receipts, photo albums and maps: what would be considered actual “evidence” of the right to occupy. The rest is an exploration of what constitutes evidence. According to the exhibition leaflet:

“The Sovereign Forest” bears witness to communities in resistance as well as lone, ordinary individuals who speak with extraordinary voices. It continuously reincarnates as an art installation, an exhibition, a library, a memorial, a public trial, an archive and also a temporary proposition for a local space.

Listening: oral history and storytelling

As a part of the exhibition, Kanwar was also commissioned by YSP to create sculptural forms outdoors, for which he used timber from a 19th century chapel organ that was dismantled due to irreparable damage. The Listening Benches and Six Mourners and the One Alone were a result of this, taking stories from the exhibition into the Yorkshire landscape through audio installations. This location has a special link with the subject of the exhibition, as the site was formerly a coalfield and is surrounded by now abandoned mining towns.

Amar Kanwar, ‘Listening Bench’, 2013, installation. Photo by Jonty Wilde. Image courtesy YSP.

Amar Kanwar, ‘Listening Bench’, 2013, installation. Photo by Jonty Wilde. Image courtesy YSP.

The Listening Benches are an outdoor audio complement to and extension of the stories in the indoor exhibit. Some narrate stories while others share music and prayers from an indigenous community in Odisha, whose land has been sold to corporations for bauxite mining – though strong resistance has delayed it for years. In an interview with Daniela Zyman for TBA21 (Vienna), Kanwar said:

Oral traditions contain multiple forms of narrative that are fluid, capable of adapting and shifting between various forms of comprehension, description and expression – they can be surreal, factual, mythical, practical and so on, all at the same time.

YSP is also collaborating with the National Coal Mining Museum for England to invite the public to share stories of memories and the impact of mining for an oral history project.

Amar Kanwar, ‘The Six Mourners and the One Alone’, 2013, outdoor installation. Photo by Jonty Wilde. Image courtesy the artist and YSP.

Amar Kanwar, ‘The Six Mourners and the One Alone’, 2013, outdoor installation. Photo by Jonty Wilde. Image courtesy the artist and YSP.

Collaboration and community

In recent years, many Indian contemporary artists have collaborated with smaller communities to bring the stories of the marginalised to national attention, especially those related to social and ecological issues. Navjot Altaf has been working with artists and craftspeople from the Adivasi community of Bastar, India, for over a decade on public art projects. Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh of Black Ticket Films worked closely with locals in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra to tell stories about sustainable environments and lifestyles and community-driven initiatives. Their 2012 film Timbaktu has won several awards including Best Environment Film at the 60th National Film Awards of India. Rintu Thomas told Art Radar that the locals “relive the whole journey of their collective transformation with us. The research is done with them and using their narratives as testimonies.”

Such artistic projects and interventions highlight the social and public nature of art and its ability to transcend barriers and bring together multiple voices.

Kriti Bajaj

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Related Topics: Indian artists, events in the UK, film, sound art, collaborative art, art about environment, art and the community

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