Covid-19 had brought the world to a ‘pause’, halting the juggernaut of globalisation, disrupting networks, and making governments impose lockdown. Amidst such existentialist crisis and confinement, the pandemic reiterated how human health is deeply connected to neoliberal production and consumption, and urging the need for an alternative political subjectivity. Also, apart from existentialist questions, the geographical dimensions of space, place, landscape, and the environment (both the ‘built’ and ‘natural’ environments under stress) has amplified into planetary, public, and political concerns. The precarity we are experiencing at present threatens humans, other species, cultures, and unique ecosystems; this may be but irreversible. The crisis of liberal institutions has developed from within liberalism itself and grappling with the impending social costs of climate change, we are (still) dependent on agricultural, industrial, and energy systems of an unsustainable growth-oriented economy.
From a feminist geographical perspective, there is deeper understanding that the environment is not just something ‘out there’ with its own logic and separate from the socio-political, economic and cultural systems that threaten it. In fact, the ‘natural environment’ is not distinct from the human at all, but deeply interconnected across all species; if we are to look for an alternative subjectivity while critiquing representative democracy, we need to address this interconnectness. Here few caveats emerge: how might we observe increased authoritarianisms within which lies the challenge of climate change and its moral dimension, particularly that it is knowingly caused by human actions? Also, how does one determine critical thinking, intention, and creative agency within such a moral dimension?
It is amidst such an ironic and moral context that we place Navjot Altaf’s latest series, Cognitive Processes: Imagining Ecological Democracy that has evolved from her responses during home confinement in the Covid crisis - while finding hope and agency in interconnectness, reciprocity, and a circular ‘kincentric’ ecology. During the ‘pause’ that the pandemic created, there has been a paradoxical clash of excruciating situations that we have witnessed in our social life and on our television and digital screens. Caste, class, racial, gender, and policy struggles amplified within the pandemic: migrant families have walked numerous kilometres on our highways amid the internal travel bans - encountering hunger, accidents, loss, and sheer exhaustion to reach their homes. On the other hand, the farmers’ protests (also encountering inclement conditions) became a site-sign of civil resistance, grassroots mobilization, and dissent against state and corporate dominance.
The exhibition consists of photo-montages (concerning issues across geographies), miniature sculptures, audio, video and an installation of farmers’ protest flags in open air. While being embedded in her ideological position in ecofeminism - a turn which occurred from the early 2000s in her adjacent practice with Adivasi artists and communities in Bastar, Chattisgarh, this body of work evoke her recent interest to comprehend ecological democracy. Such a framework presents not only an alternative political subjectivity, but also a cultural shift in understanding that such democracy addresses underlying power structures of exploitation and marginalization. In this context, it would be worthwhile to re-visit Navjot’s theoretical and material readings in relation to feminism, ecofeminism, and social art in her practice, locating her interest in “complexity thinking”, and her present study of ecological democracy rooted in Adivasi philosophy.
To understand the parallelism of her practice in both Adivasi and urban geographies involves the fundamental inquiry: what does it mean to be in the ‘place-world’? Her tentative inquiries with Adivasi life in Bastar (Chattisgarh) can be traced to her association (from 1973) with Jaidev Baghel (1949-2014), a master sculptor of bell metal. In parallel, Navjot’s engagement with marginalized communities began in Bombay in the early 1970s as a member of PROYOM (Progressive Youth Movement) that aligned with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Her travels to villages with her partner Altaf Mohammedi in the mid-1970s and engaging with folk and Adivasi communities opened out questions of class, the subaltern, and the politics of culture. In Bombay, she engaged in artistic interventions at grass-root levels and non-art spaces: factory gates, labour camps, a Dalit colony, colleges and schools that interrogated State policies and identity politics in a post-colonial scenario.
Navjot’s increasing critique of the role of art and artists in political movements, the lack of addressal of gender and caste in Indian Marxism, her absorption of feminist movements (from the late 1970s in India) entangled with environmental actions, and her inquiries into interactive and collective processes of art making marked a major shift in her practice from painting. The development of feminist publishing in India (from the early 1980s) and access to western feminist sociology and art theory (that she found lacking at that time in India) impacted her practice deeply. Other readings (1980s-90s) of Marxist art historians (Arnold Hauser and Ernst Fischer), the Subaltern Studies group, and in particular, Susie Tharu and K. Lalita’s ‘Women Writing in India’ (1991) on cultural history through the interconnectedness of gender, caste and class was a revelation. This access to feminist writings made Navjot conscious that the dialectic between analysis and action is valuable, only if conceptualized by the embrace of collective social change.
Navjot’s travels to Bastar began before Shilpigram was established by Jaidev Baghel in the district town of Kondagaon in the early 1990s, and these explorations underline her search for the experiential features of place - where subjective aspects are phenomenological in nature and engages with first-person experience. To expand, “the relationship between self and place is not just one of reciprocal influence, but also, more radically, of constitutive coingredience…in effect, there is no place without self and no self without place.” From 1997, Navjot worked closely in Shilpigram with Adivasi artists Rajkumar, Shantibai, Gessuram, Kabiram and Raituram, sharing a common studio for long durational projects and collective making in public spaces through context-sensitive practices. This approach to diversity, difference, and dialogical aesthetics in Adivasi contexts opened out critical questions of the subjectivity of an urban artist in conversation with the social, material and cultural histories of her Adivasi colleagues, who themselves see their role as individual changemakers in their own environment. The Dialogue Interactive Artists’ Association (DIAA, 2000) co-founded by Shantibai, Navjot, Rajkumar and Gessuram in the neighbourhood of Kopewada focuses on enabling an inclusive and experimental platform for equal aesthetic rights, while probing systems of knowledge production.
This process of active listening, adjacency, and reciprocity has taken shape for over two decades, and in organic ways; here, place is the immediate environment of the lived body that becomes an arena of action, which at once is physical and historical, social and cultural. In one of the symposiums at the DIAA, Rajkumar Korram articulated what the term ‘collaboration’ means to him – he coined its meaning as ‘akal baanta baanti’ or the exchange of intelligence which led to the co-creating of workshops, children’s curricula, exhibitions, mutual pedagogy and construction of planned infrastructure for community use. This dialogic form of working together involved new ways of socio-spatial thinking and interaction rites for each collaborator, and dismantled the hierarchy between ‘aesthetic practices’ and ‘social practices’ – thus catalyzing artistic research from situated needs, affectivity, and lived experience.The Bastar region is within the purview of development, socio-cultural transformations and fraught with Maoist resistance, state violence and protests over ecological rights for all species. On the other hand, the obliteration of forests, agricultural land, marginalized communities and non-human lives that one witnesses in urban developmental agendas urged for the critique of the paternalistic workings of the state, capital, and corporate interests across geographies. Navjot’s turn towards ecofeminism is located in this analysis of capitalist development and the criss-crossing of environmental awareness with political ecology. She actively sought interconnections between local and global ecological movements, recognizing patterns of planetary intellectual critiques and praxis.
The French writer Françoise d'Eaubonne coined the term ‘ecofeminism’ in her book Le Féminisme ou la Mort in 1974, and a year earlier, the Chipko Andolan (a women’s movement) against the felling of trees was launched in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand (then Uttar Pradesh) – inspiring non-violent conservation of forests. A manifestation of feminist theory in geography evolved in ecofeminist thinking across a range of writings: Bina Agarwal's seminal text The Gender and Environment Debate: Lessons from India (1992) critiques ecofeminist narrations from the West (in particular, USA) that sees the domination of women and that of nature as inherently ideological. She outlines the critical necessity to not position “woman” as a unitary category and urges for a theoretical understanding of the “political economy of ideological construction.” Agarwal’s “feminist environmental” perspective is rooted in material reality and sees the relation between women and nature as structured by gender and class (caste/race), organization of production, reproduction and, distribution. Maria Mies, a Marxist feminist scholar wrote on capitalist-patriarchy and co-authored Ecofeminism (1993) with Vandana Shiva – which is a searing indictment of development strategies practised by the North on the South. Earth Democracy (2005) by Vandana Shiva addressed the privatization of natural resources, the environmental crisis, and the tide of violence against women; but she has seen hope in the global protest movements advocating alternatives based on inclusion, nonviolence, and the reclamation of the commons. Both Mies and Shiva (as materialist ecofeminists) believe for the removal of social and economic hierarchies that turn all aspects of life into a market society. Among other writings, Lucy Lippard’s major exhibition Weather Report: Art and Climate Change (2007) which involved artists working with scientists offered new routes of research for Navjot. This multiplicity and complexity of discourses shaped Navjot’s thinking around gender, labour, class, caste and political ecology - leading her to expand her work across Adivasi and urban milieus through a “critical emplacement” or an experiential belonging in various locales in a transcultural manner.
The public art projects, Barakhamba (2008, 2010, Delhi) are two key examples of Navjot’s ecofeminist inquiries around political volatility and ecological degradation in the urban capital city. As part of In Context: Public. Art. Ecology. initiated by KHOJ these projects engaged with people at the site and in their workplaces to understand the socio-political environment and the complex relationships between urban development and the heterogeneity of people from various backgrounds. As an artist-interlocutor, this involved researching and learning from environmentalists, biodiversity scientists, activists, architects, town planners and residents critiquing the short-sightedness in urban design and architecture in Delhi. These interviews and insights took the form of a 2-channel video installation in Barakhamba (2008) engaging in participant-viewer dialectics, the surveyor-surveyed and also shaping forms of mutualism. Barakhamba (2010) extended learnings from the first project into realizing the removal of trees for construction projects, widening of roads, and concretization of pavements, resulting in the full choking of replanted trees (with concrete tree guards) in two stretches of the historic Barakhamba Road. Collaborating with Ajay Mahajan (an environmentalist) and Fayaiz Khudsar (a biodiversity scientist) to de-choke the trees resulted in working in cooperation with the horticulture department of the municipal corporation of Delhi. This interventionist and collaborative project de-choked 180 trees in this urban stretch, while raising theoretical questions in Navjot about the distance between participatory art making processes, conflicts of communication, and the neoliberal artworld’s problem of object-based work, formulated by the market economy and the values they assert.
Her understanding of “critical emplacement” and “distributive subjectivity” became robust and she has maintained the parallelism in her praxis with long-term site-responsive work in Bastar and an equal investment in other non-art spaces – urban sites, as well as gallery and museum spaces.The emphasis across contexts has been on a research-based approach, the democratization of the ‘aesthetic’ and its merging with the ‘social’ - with a ‘balance of rigour and imagination, and a sensibility to patterns that connect (Gregory Bateson)'18'. Her slow turn toward transdisciplinarity arose from this growing awareness of life as flow – like river systems – that express continuous change in nature and life and of the Marxian logic that nothing is static. In the context of ecology, the theory of constructal law by Adrian Bejan has interested Navjot that puts forth this idea: “Life is flow: all flow systems are live systems…and the occurrence of flow is universal uniting the natural with the mechanical, and the animate with the inanimate.” Also, Edgar Morin’s method of complexity and transdisciplinarity that builds connection and dialogue between isolated bodies of human knowledge has impacted Navjot. Complexity involves a spiral argumentation and Morin’s approach posits for complex relations that do not “institute a linear logic, but a composite dia-logic […] and complexity thinking, grounding a culture of sustainability, should include such a reflexive dimension.”20
The visual complexity in this present exhibition takes its cue from Morin’s ‘spiral argumentation’ amidst many clashing and simultaneous realities: here the ‘spiral’ urges for the re-animation of varied sensibilities that modernity has numbed. With this present body of Navjot’s work emerging during the Covid-19 crisis, her questions became: what can the ‘aesthetic’ capacity do such a grim scenario? If inner and outer ecologies are but interdependent, how might one imagine a future democracy that is ecological at its core? With the current authoritarianisms at play, what might be the kind of revolution or political resolve we can think of? Basarab Nicolescu, a transdisciplinary author, advocates that an ‘aesthetic’ sensibility is a political imperative for revolution to happen, similar to the kind of hope that Edgar Morin identifies in the arts. Nicolescu interestingly says that contemporary revolution can only be a revolution in intelligence, opening the poetic/affective dimension of existence. Let us remember here how the Adivasi artist, Rajkumar Korram, has spoken of ‘akal baanta baanti’ (exchange of intelligence) to define collaboration with his Adivasi colleagues and Navjot in Bastar, which enabled diverse possibilities of change - both civic and aesthetic.
Navjot’s field experience (layered with theory) in Adivasi and urban landscapes has shaped a worldview that does not romanticize one over the other, but approaches the politics of landscape via a spiral lens. In the photomontages (via the Berlin Dadaists), there are two main visual tropes that one sees: composite imagery (arranged with image-editing software) and the employment of the grid that has been a consistent feature in 20th century art (modernist to conceptual). The photo-montages emerged from the artist’s personal archive, and photographing situations and events from the television screen or found imagery on the Internet. Across her oeuvre, the grid has appeared and is read as a matrix to map perceptual processes – in these montages they stand for confinement of the artist amidst Covid and also the grid of capitalism that spreads its scrapes across every landscape. The cartographic imagery, as clashing signs across history, geography and time, examine the interdependency of human and non-human life, while pointing to an overlapping intersectionality that builds awareness to ground differences. Myriad imagery ranging from mining sites (with saal trees destroyed), the crisis of traditional food production in Bastar, the pollution of the Indravati river in Chattisgarh, electronic waste in Korba area, the ubiquitous JCB across the urban and rural (and how natural species like the caterpillar or the crane) stand as names for these JCBs are evoked. Here, we find Louise Bourgeois’s sculptural spider (an ode to her mother) and alluding to metaphors of weaving, nurture and protection juxtaposed with a spider crane used in urban infrastructure. Alongside, the effects of authoritarianisms with police presence, lynching, rapes, land crisis in Kashmir, migrants walking home during Covid, CAA/UAPA protests, border clashes in China or Palestine, drones, guns and even Partition stories feature simultaneously with birds, flowers, insects, roots, trees or water. The measuring device or the scale of the climate thermostat locates the surveillance that natural ecosystems are subjected to, counterposed with the hope that ecological democracy imagines through aesthetic agency.
Using both sepia and colour, Navjot uses the strategies of abstraction in such documentary material with a political edge - with juxtaposition and overlaying of imagery, and legibility and illegibility - evoking how reality is but layered and complex. The grid or graphs of different densities over the images (with cuts and openings) offer both the artist and viewer to engage with all the uncertainties of the world. It is worthwhile to note that much of the electronic media material in the photo-montages are ‘copies of copies’ and draws us to Boris Groy’s question: what does the media image do when it enters an artist’s work? Here, the effect that the montages and video have is that they destabilise notions of the real, immediate, and physical presence. Navjot’s approach is in the conceptualist tradition, and presents a case of how meanings are inscribed in art language, but she also reminds us of the malleability of meanings in the composite imagery that embody perceptual and cognitive aspects of visuality. Over the last five years, Navjot’s situational reach in Bastar has expanded to other terrains: Dantewada, Korba, Raigarh Sarguja, and she finds herself to be in a position to address Bastar’s troubled history, interrogating the underside of developmental politics.23 Such an approach also points out to a phenomenologically understood sensibility for sustainability – where the experience of the weather and climate stands as an experience of a landscape.24 And drawing from Gregory Bateson (discussed earlier), this sensibility is interlinked with patterns that connect, as an intuitive knowledge beyond rationality, and even shared with other life-forms. 25
The installation of farmers’ protest flags in open air is an ode to the spirit of resistance and consists of over seventy collected words from other artists and community members, screen-printed on these flags. Evoking the protests that spread over 2020-21 against three farm acts that was passed by the Parliament of India in September 2020, and described by many farmer unions as ‘anti-farmers’ and ‘pro-corporates’, these protests mainly springing from Punjab and Haryana, began a movement named Dilli Chalo. Consisting of Rail Roko, strikes, blocking of interstate borders/roads, counter protests, a Republic Day Kisan parade, and fatalities, the farmers’ protests became a spring-board for a participative model that emerged to challenge contemporary authoritarian systems, while drawing widespread support locally and internationally. Each of the flags are larger than life, and evokes how such peoples’ dissent was mobilized relentlessly for over a year amidst Covid, state violence, corporate coercion, and inclement weather conditions, with the farm laws finally repealed by the government in November 2021. These protests underlined the problem of Liberal Democracy that is institutionalized in all ways – and have evolved to serve capitalist economy and to temper critical political discourses to challenge this. 26
Extending her understanding of non-hierarchical alliances and contemporary debates about human exceptionalism, Navjot creates sculptural renditions of soil and gut microbiotas that are similar across all species on the planet, and placed on the floor of the gallery. Through this visual sign, she draws our attention to the emerging field of ‘multispecies ethnography’ that examines organisms whose ‘lives and deaths are related to human social worlds.’ “Animals, plants, fungi, and microbes once confined in anthropological accounts to the realm of zoe or “bare life” - that which is killable - have started to appear alongside humans in the realm of bios, with legibly biographical and political lives…and of microbial cultures enlivening the politics and value of food.” Humans are colonised by micro-organisms, and exist across soil, water, air and ice; the loss of these organisms impacts both immunity and health. Here, the aspect of the kincentric becomes palpable – of the indigenous/Adivasi attentiveness to a widely meaningful environment. Thus, “to shape an aesthetics of sustainability, as a phenomenological challenge, implies both a revival of an animist participation to the presence of the living natural world around us, locally, and the construction of a participative perception of the earth as a basis of a planetary citizenship.”28 Here, the sculptural microbiotas serve as a companion and catalyst practice for thinking through and against nature–culture dichotomies.
In a criss-crossing of contact zones, Cognitive Processes offers us a conceptual space to critically imagine a form of ecological democracy which addresses the systemic causes of unsustainability, creates awareness about multispecies equity, and envisions the possibility of “biocultural hope.”29 In such hope is invested the idea to denaturalize intra-human differences established along the lines of gender, race, class, caste, borders etc. – pointing to such affinity in Navjot’s thinking and practice as outlined in this essay. In retrospect, reflexivity (from Morin’s complexity thinking) applies to the kind of first-hand research and expression that Navjot works with, and among the questions she asks are the ‘manufactured risks’ that development politics causes.31 To tie this to the work of Marit Hammond32 who argues in her analysis of ecological democracy, “sustainability in the face of current threats requires a fundamental cultural transformation: not just new policies and technologies but a shift change in the meanings people attach to the future and to notions such as prosperity - and also what it means to be a citizen in such a world. This can only come from everyone’s active engagement, from people’s own epiphanies, slow realizations, being confronted with what is going on in the world at large.”33 This as Navjot says, helps probe the historical roots of unsustainability, with her body of work standing witness to such transformations across geographies, examining herself as an artist-researcher as well as the relationships that are developed in this process.
© Navjot Altaf. All rights reserved.