Threads touched

Threads touched

I weave your name on the loom of my mind. To clean and soften ten thousand threads. And to comb the twists and knots of my thoughts — Kabir (translated by Eknath Easwaran)

Ten years ago, Navjot’s exhibit Water Weaving (2005), at Talwar Gallery, New York, had a solitary work: an abstract film based on a myth of the origin of weaving. The single-channel 18-minute projection showed resonant images of the yarn, threads, sun and water — all poetically dissolving into one another.

Commenting on the show, Holland Cotter, art critic of New York Times wrote: “In the past, Ms Altaf has created politically loaded work, often collaborative, often addressing the social divisions and religious rifts that have plagued India. It is possible to see her beautiful film, rigorous and gentle, as a meditation on the interweaving of many contradictory forces. There is no doubt at all that she has touched the thread.”

Five years later, Navjot’s TOUCH (2010) was an expansive 22-channel video installation which had emerged out of a collaboration between the artist and a group of sex workers in Sangli, Maharashtra. It reflected upon a multi-layered discourse with the nuances of touch — be it desire, interfacing with and through the body, intimacy, sensation, feeling and sexuality.

In her recent show (currently on at Alibaug), Navjot has presented yet another visually-stunning video; here the process of warping of threads resembles an instrument being tuned before a concert. “The film was shot in a village, Nagarnar, in Bastar district, known for its weaving techniques and aesthetics,” recalls Navjot. “Sadly, weaving is on the decline here. More and more land is being acquired to build steel plants, which not only drastically pollute natural resources but also cause irreversible damage to the lives, economy and culture of the adivasis. The question I ask here is: who gets to decide?”

Diverse media
In a long and distinguished career spanning over four decades, Navjot Altaf (born 1949/Meerut) has consistently produced socially relevant works in diverse media. An alumnus of Sir J J School of Art, Mumbai, she is known to be one of the country’s first video artists. She is equally celebrated for her work on paper, in sculpture and in large-scale installations. “I’ve always been intrigued by the co-existence of several knowledge systems, and I do not restrict myself to mediums either. I’m neither a trained sculptor nor filmmaker, yet I make videos and sculpt forms as their difference of dimensionality offers me contextual freedom of expression.”

Navjot’s concerns on aspects of human condition, rights, migration and other social issues come through distinctly in her work. While many of her artworks and projects openly question various frameworks of social injustice and violence, there are several others where the form and approach is more poetic, non-figurative and contemplative.
Critics have observed how Navjot has consistently followed a path of unconventional expression, how she brings to her work a sense of social commitment, and how she always takes the side of the marginalised, particularly in the context of gender and sexuality.

Because of her deep interest in collaborative and co-operative modes of art practice, Navjot has worked with traditional adivasi artists from Bastar (both men and women), carpenters, technicians, carvers, as well as documentary filmmakers and classical singers. “From the beginning of my career, I’ve interacted with people outside the art world, like factory workers, college students and social activists,” reveals Navjot.

“This has led to my understanding and the critique of institutions of high autonomous art which creates a world of the elites to set practitioners and consumers apart from other sections.”

She loves to quote Austrian thinker Ernst Fischer (1899 - 1972), one of her favourite writers, who argued that “art is necessary in order that man should be able to recognise and change the world; but art is also necessary by virtue of the magic inherent in it.”

Navjot is inspired by feminist discourses in art and in several of her works, the feminist streak is evident. As early as in 1996, her exhibition of large sculptural installations of female forms (Images Redrawn) had attracted considerable attention. “Women’s issues and polemical enquiry concerning various strata of the society have been of major consideration in Navjot’s stylistics,” said a reviewer. “The sheer scale of her sculpture seduces one to believe in the potential strength and quiet energy of a woman.”

On her part, Navjot says, “For me as a woman and an artist, feminism is a way of life, a critical awareness of the world as a woman... My work views a situation somewhat in the manner of a social scientist. Most of my works are based on in-depth research.”

Importance of life
In the present context, she is drawn to the ‘eco-feminist’ philosophy which stresses on the notion of care and relationship with all life on the planet.

Navjot’s recent solo exhibition, How Perfect Perfection Can Be (The Guild, Alibaug / on till February 10, 2016), is marked by her return to drawings after a long gap. The show is dominated by a series of watercolour drawings of intricately-woven architectural grids and patterns. Initially arrested by the impeccable rendering, the viewer’s attention is gradually drawn to multiple layers of social, political and ecological subtexts the paintings seem to hide.

Interestingly, the trigger for the work came with the visual pleasure Navjot got from the scale, experience and the functional elements of the architectural designs while she was working on a project called A place in New York. “At another level, I was also conscious of New York producing more heat-trapping gasses than all of Central America and Mexico combined. My drawings are a critique of celebration of urbanisation’s limitless desire to lure human psyche at the cost of abusing planet earth by extracting its soul.”

Coinciding with the exhibition, an extensive monograph titled The Thirteenth Place: Positionality as Critique in the Art of Navjot Altaf, authored by cultural theorist Nancy Adajania, was released by the gallery.

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