Navjot Altaf, Pattern, 2015–16, rice seeds on floor. Installation view. Photo: Anil Rane.

Navjot Altaf, Pattern, 2015–16, rice seeds on floor. Installation view. Photo: Anil Rane.

Navjot Altaf

Navjot Altaf, Pattern, 2015–16, rice seeds on floor. Installation view. Photo: Anil Rane.

Navjot Altaf’s recent exhibition “How Perfect Perfection Can Be” pitted earth against sky. Known for artworks anchored to social, gender, and ecological issues, Altaf here represented the earth through an installation of unmilled red rice, two videos, and three sculptures. Each of the last represents part of a traditional loom from the tribal region of Bastar in central India—if combined, the three works could form a single loom. Sky was symbolized by images of skyscrapers in a group of twenty-four watercolors based on photographs Altaf shot in New York. I beams, facade setbacks, aluminum and steel skins, glass-curtain walls: All appear oversize, at extreme close range. The combination of photorealistic precision and delicate chroma suspends the depicted architectural elements between ethereal fantasy and witnessed scene, suggesting a totalizing view of the skyscraper as perfection. Superimposed over each watercolor is an acrylic panel with graphics related to the effects of global warming: greenhouse gases, tornadoes, crop loss, diminished snowfall. Hence, architecture as perfection is visible as a kind of palimpsest only through these cataclysms. Yet, with the line-graphs often harmonized with the watercolors’ patterning of grids and arcs, the sense of architectural euphoria remains relatively intact. In approaching the watercolors, most visitors inadvertently disturbed the rice-grain floor installation, thus enacting the show’s titular doubt about perfection. You will trample the earth for a piece of the sky—even if a gallery attendant sets it right moments later.

High on the architectural afterimage, most visitors were also likely to sleepwalk past the allusions to the breakdown of traditional lifestyles in the loom sculptures Hatha, Phanni, and Tossar, all 2015, as they made their way to the video Tana, 2015. Accompanied by the sound of a falling tree—an aural metaphor for something dying—a weaver is shown stretching the warp (tana) on a loom but not the weft. Nothing gets woven. Incompleteness as poetics: In the catalogue, this is cultural critic Nancy Adajania’s take on the show, which nonetheless begs the question of what constitutes incompleteness in the first place, and whether the completeness of one thing (New York architecture) might be metaphorically held responsible for the progressive incompleteness of another (tribal arts).

The show presented this dynamic—urban aspiration versus tribal dissolution—as a shock to the system. Altaf obviously wants us to pay attention to our role in global warming, also reflected in the show’s other video, Karvi, 2015, about the decline of a flower that carpets India’s Western Ghats mountain range once every eight years. But simply juxtaposing a critique of posh, ecologically unsound skyscrapers with the loss of traditional lifestyles in Bastar and a local species near Mumbai only mimics the facile strategy of “mindfulness” via which advertisers sell energy-efficient air conditioners or “green” laundry detergents using drone camera images of dense forests or gushing mountain rivers.

With a successful career spanning sculpture, installation, video, and painting, Altaf was Mumbai-based until the late 1990s, when she relocated to Bastar in the state of Chhattisgarh, a tribal backwoods of central India. Hewing to local materials and techniques favored by villagers and tribal artists, she produced independent and collaborative works that swam against the market dynamics of contemporary practice. At the time, Bastar’s plunder and pollution by extractive industries, and the steady degradation of land-dependent tribal communities, also catalyzed violent clashes between state paramilitary forces and Maoist insurgents that continue to this day. Despite Altaf’s genuine engagement with Bastar’s art and tragedies, this show, surprisingly, seemed to represent a merely passing acquaintance with what came across as an unsalvageable world inspiring little more than fleeting melancholia.

More rewarding was Altaf’s 2014 return to painting, after a twenty-year gap, and her rediscovery of its double-edged eros. Her watercolors, of baroque precision, depict tremendous scale, structural clarity, and the triumph of vast capital realized in the architectural imaginary. With their mystically cued tones—amethyst mauve, topaz blue, melanite black, and jasper brown—and fidelity to preconceived notions of perfect form, they evoke the unshakable dread of something far more insidious at work than what the graphs lead us to believe.

Prajna Desai