Navjot Altaf at Ishara: Art, activism, and the larger web of life

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The exhibition titled ‘Pattern’ by celebrated Indian artist Navjot Altaf at Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai is an apt opportunity to dive into her five-decade old practice of fusing art and activism, and of balancing ethics, aesthetics, and ideology.

This is the first solo show of Navjot in the Arabian peninsula and it features site-specific installation, sculptures, videos, drawings, and photoprints highlighting her longstanding commitment to issues of climate change, ecology, and feminism, and the challenges humanity faces in this digital age.

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Using Big Data and visualization tools, Navjot tries to connect the pattern, which is overlaid, in her case with lived experience, being among the leading voices of her generation to regard art as a medium of social change.

 Indian artist Navjot Altaf. (Photo by Aparna Jayakumar)
Indian artist Navjot Altaf. (Photo by Aparna Jayakumar)


Formerly based in Mumbai, Navjot relocated to Bastar in the rural districts of Central India during the late 1990’s to work with indigenous artists and communities that have borne witness to the enormous scale of deforestation, mining, pollution, and displacement. Through collaborations with artists, activists, workers, and organizations, her projects trace the complex connections between human exploitation and environmental crises that lie at the heart of climate change today.

“Environmental exploitation is closely connected to social exploitation, and that is integral to the climate crisis,” Navjot says at the opening of her show at at Ishara.

Navjot Altaf, Installation view of How Perfect Perfection Can Be (2014-2020). 18 watercolour drawings on Wasli paper and PVC on acrylic, 81.3 x 57.1 cm each. Shown in Navjot Altaf: Pattern at Ishara Art Foundation, 2022. Image courtesy of Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. (Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things)
Navjot Altaf, Installation view of How Perfect Perfection Can Be (2014-2020). 18 watercolour drawings on Wasli paper and PVC on acrylic, 81.3 x 57.1 cm each. Shown in Navjot Altaf: Pattern at Ishara Art Foundation, 2022. Image courtesy of Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. (Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things)



‘Pattern’ presents works by Navjot created since 2015, the year of the UN Climate Change Conference and the Paris Climate Accords.

Consisting of six major bodies of work, the viewer is first confronted by ‘How Perfect Perfection Can Be,’ an immersive presentation of multi-layered works comprising prints, watercolour drawings, and PVC transfers that reveal the paradox between the great accomplishments of modern architecture and their adverse impact on the planet. With intricate details of building facades of mega-cities such as New York superimposed with abstract graphs intimating the corresponding ecological destruction, the works question the value of human achievement and visual splendor that are simultaneously symbols of society’s collective failure towards the environment.

Navjot Altaf, Detail view of Pattern (2015-2016). Unmilled rice grains, Dimensions variable. Image courtesy Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.
Navjot Altaf, Detail view of Pattern (2015-2016). Unmilled rice grains, Dimensions variable. Image courtesy Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.



The work titled ‘Seriousness of Issues’ on the adjoining wall amplifies the statistical information seen in the previous work into bold lines that track seven indices of ecological disasters collected from 2011 onwards in. First presented in 2015 in the wake of the Paris Accords, the ongoing work is updated with each iteration using new data released by major scientific organizations.

The viewer encounters a new metaphor for the horizon in the 21st century through jagged lines mapping the shortage of fresh-water, rise in air and water pollution, and depletion of natural resources. According to Navjot, this abstract representation of the environment has dehumanized our approach to fully grasp the magnitude of devastation and displacement of several species caused by excessive industrialization over many decades.

19)	Navjot Altaf, Installation view of Lost Text (2017-2018). 24 digital prints on canson platine fiber rag paper pasted on archival conservation board and PVC transfer on acrylic, 64.7 x 52.1 cm each. Shown in Navjot Altaf: Pattern at Ishara Art Foundation, 2022. Image courtesy of Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.
19) Navjot Altaf, Installation view of Lost Text (2017-2018). 24 digital prints on canson platine fiber rag paper pasted on archival conservation board and PVC transfer on acrylic, 64.7 x 52.1 cm each. Shown in Navjot Altaf: Pattern at Ishara Art Foundation, 2022. Image courtesy of Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.



‘Lost Text’ is a series of 36 layered digital prints that explore the visual aesthetics of antiquated scripts in the digital age. Creating a dialogue between archaeology and new techniques of data-mining, photographs of ancient hieroglyphs are juxtaposed with digital encryptions generated from a corrupt computer hard-drive containing documentation from Navjot’s Bastar diaries. The work foregrounds the vulnerability of analogue and digital sources of knowledge and the human perseverance to decipher.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is an installation titled eponymously with the show, ‘Pattern,’ made out of unmilled red rice. Displayed on the floor, the work is modelled on an indigenous pattern produced from sophisticated techniques of weaving, separating threads on a loom. The use of rice and the invocation of textiles symbolize the interconnectedness of artistic expression, occupation, and livelihood and the dependence on the earth among farmers that have lost their land to mining companies.

Installation view of Navjot Altaf: Pattern at Ishara Art Foundation, 2022. Image courtesy Ishara Art Foundation. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.
Installation view of Navjot Altaf: Pattern at Ishara Art Foundation, 2022. Image courtesy Ishara Art Foundation. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.



‘Soul Breath Wind’ is a multi-channel video based on the artist's comprehensive research and first-hand observation of how the political, economic, and development policies have led to deep geological impact in Chhattisgarh in Central India. The video presents the testimonies of local inhabitants, several of whom include women speaking against the monopolisation of land, rapid industrialisation, and the extreme conditions of displacement and deforestation brought on by coal and bauxite mining.


‘Patterns Which Connect’ is the final work in the exhibition -- a collection of 24 fossil-like sculptures embodying the diverse ecosystem that is under threat due to the continuously changing landscape.

Navjot Altaf, Detail view of Patterns Which Connect (2018). 24 plaster and clay sculptures. Approx. 10 cm each. Image courtesy Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.
Navjot Altaf, Detail view of Patterns Which Connect (2018). 24 plaster and clay sculptures. Approx. 10 cm each. Image courtesy Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.



Once the connoisseur traverses the multiple dimensions of Navjot’s practice through her artworks, Ishara allows a peek into the artist’s artistic and intellectual influences too by arranging a reading space on the mezzanine floor. Here thoughtfully presented are books, field notes, and posters of various social movements the artist has been part of over the years.

Reading Room in Navjot Altaf: Pattern at Ishara Art Foundation, 2022. Image courtesy Ishara Art Foundation. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.
Reading Room in Navjot Altaf: Pattern at Ishara Art Foundation, 2022. Image courtesy Ishara Art Foundation. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.

Navjot shares her views with Al Arabiya English, saying that “climate change requires everyone’s efforts as well as an increase in the awareness level. By foregrounding the issues concerning anthropogenic environmental changes, my work in the exhibition at Ishara in Dubai evokes this very questioning.”

“As far as the UN Climate Conferences COP 27 and COP 28 to be held in Egypt this year and in UAE in 2023 are concerned, I really hope the dialogue persuades the countries to urgently take action to reduce activities that harm the ecological balance, and reduce the levels of emissions that limit climate damage. As research reveals, half of the population in the world is highly vulnerable to the impact of climate change, which reflects vast patterns of inequality and marginalization. So, countries need to continue to review their failures and climate priorities, by co-operating, and taking action at every level to save the planet.”

Summarizing the long trajectory of her work, she says: “I would say that from the beginning of my career, I have been interested in how to conceptualize and develop a language to express one’s lived, intellectual experience and aesthetic sensibility. My interest has been in the wide-ranging awareness of dealing with the complexity of situations and learning from non-linear sources. I chose to view things through a larger historical perspective.”

“When I look back, I think my exposure to Marxism in the 70’s made me think through man-made asymmetries, its characteristics and how it is introduced in human relations, which is distinct from the natural asymmetry of relations. Marxism created a theoretical premise to critically understand art and artists within social contexts. With feminist philosophy in the 70’s and 80’s, I saw it as a revolutionary strategy; a critique of patriarchal culture and its approach to gender.”

Reading Room in Navjot Altaf: Pattern at Ishara Art Foundation, 2022. Image courtesy Ishara Art Foundation. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.
Reading Room in Navjot Altaf: Pattern at Ishara Art Foundation, 2022. Image courtesy Ishara Art Foundation. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.



“…Ecofeminism brings together feminism and environmentalism emerging from environmental ethics that explore how we relate to nature and think about it. The process of working with people from different places, disciplines, socio-political, and cultural backgrounds in urban and rural areas has not only led me to reflect on diverse perspectives aside from my own perception of situations, but has helped articulate the disjointed points of view of knowledge into an active cycle.”

Navjot says her “long stay and ongoing collaborations with indigenous artists (1997 onwards), my interaction with local communities who are impacted yet collectively resist displacement and forced evictions for coal and iron-ore mining in Chhattisgarh in Central India, for which both human and rich natural resources are being appropriated, has sensitized me to the necessity of being aware of what multi-species relationship and interdependencies mean in nature -- that we / each living being on planet is part of. Indigenous communities do not see themselves outside the natural environment. I support all those who consciously want to imagine and organize the world differently as well as learn and support some of the existing practices that recognize and respect a multi-species existence. The works in this exhibition speak about such concerns.”

Navjot traces her use of Big Data, climate modelling, as well as data visualisation in her work to one of her installations in 1975, ‘Bombay That is That is Not’ to bring forth minimally and visually one of the multiple aspects and contrasts of Mumbai city, which is known to be the financial and commercial capital of India. She used data charts of stock markets in that work.

Navjot Altaf, Detail view of Lost Text - SEPARATION (2017). Digital print on canson platine fiber rag paper pasted on archival conservation board and PVC transfer on acrylic, 64.7 x 52.1 cm. Shown in Navjot Altaf: Pattern at Ishara Art Foundation, 2022. Image courtesy of Ishara Art Foundation. And the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.
Navjot Altaf, Detail view of Lost Text - SEPARATION (2017). Digital print on canson platine fiber rag paper pasted on archival conservation board and PVC transfer on acrylic, 64.7 x 52.1 cm. Shown in Navjot Altaf: Pattern at Ishara Art Foundation, 2022. Image courtesy of Ishara Art Foundation. And the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.



“I was engaged closely with the harshly impacted indigenous communities, fighting for justice against powerful forces destroying rich forests and their agricultural land, both of which are main sources of livelihood, of the people living there for centuries. So, I began to look at the climate model representations and representation of data on climate change through graphs and maps of the countries I visited. What intrigues me is how much the characteristics of the graphs produce reductive renderings.”

While the topics she has depicted are indeed cataclysmic, Navjot says she is an optimist. “Though the process of dealing with the current ecological crisis is not simple, the philosophy I believe in elucidates how to sustain a larger web of life, why humankind cannot be a dominator but a partner with every other life form on the planet. The need of our time is a kind of democratic system, as Vandana Shiva suggests, ‘in which justice is made for humans as much as for nature unlike a system controlled by the corporations for the corporations.’”

The curator’s viewpoint

Sabih Ahmed, Associate Director and Curator at Ishara Art Foundation, says: “I was interested in bringing together works by Navjot that were created around 2015, a particularly important year in any discussion on climate change, coinciding with the Paris Accord and El Niño, and also the hottest year ever recorded in history until that moment since reporting began in 1850.”

Sabih Ahmed, Associate Director and Curator at Ishara Art Foundation. (Supplied)
Sabih Ahmed, Associate Director and Curator at Ishara Art Foundation. (Supplied)



He notes that Navjot is “among the few artists in the world who was mapping this shift as it was taking place.”

And he wanted the exhibition to signpost these ideas and leave viewers with the question: “How do we see climate-change?”.

“Navjot’s claim is that while a dominant mode of representing climate change has come to be shaped by big data, graphs and diagrams, there are other equally important modes of seeing environmental crises. For instance, indigenous knowledge systems have used sophisticated techniques to read seasonal shifts and changing weather patterns for generations, and these knowledges have systematically been endangered as seen in the work ‘Pattern,’” says Ahmed.

”At Ishara, we make a concerted effort to curate exhibitions that respond to diverse artistic practices,” he says. “Along with that, a common tenet for the Foundation is to expand and complicate prevalent notions of geography, identity, and belonging through contemporary art. We aspire for all our shows to be a space for thinking about the particular and the universal in conjunction with one another, where one can map flows and relations between multiple places and political realities.”

Book launch

The exhibition will be accompanied by the launch of her new two-volume book titled ‘Navjot at Work’ and ‘Artist’s Notes’; physical and virtual tours; educational and public programs; a newly commissioned text by Zasha Colah and artist conversations over the duration of the exhibit.

Smita Prabhakar, Founder and Chairperson of Ishara Art Foundation, comments: “Once again Ishara presents a contemporary artist from South Asia not seen before in the region. Navjot is a feminist and has great belief in the intrinsic values of equality and non-discrimination against minorities. Her work with tribals in the Bastar region in Central India and focus on sustainability are at the forefront of discussions in the world today. With this exhibition, Ishara will showcase our commitment to issues that impact us as world citizens and share a practice which is impactful and forceful in its message.”

“Pattern” by Navjot Altaf is open at Ishara Art Foundation, Al Serkal Avenue, in Dubai till December 9, 2022 (Friday).

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