Navjot Altaf, Lacuna in Testimony, 2003, mirrors, three-channel video (color, sound, 9 minutes 26 seconds). Installation view.

Navjot Altaf, Lacuna in Testimony, 2003, mirrors, three-channel video (color, sound, 9 minutes 26 seconds). Installation view.

Navjot Altaf

In her retrospective presentation of Navjot Altaf’s career, curator Nancy Adajania refrained from using chronology to organize the artist’s five decades of work. Instead, she traced patterns across the breadth of Altaf’s oeuvre, bringing together the artist’s varied preoccupations—from environmental destruction, intercommunal conflict, and disenfranchisement of the working class to discrimination against women and queer communities—to underline their interconnectedness in the rise of fascism in India today.

In the exhibition “The Earth’s Heart, Torn Out,” we met an artist who, while conscious of the intrusive and exploitative gaze of the outsider, nevertheless places herself in encounters with the other, grappling with the problems of representation through occasional recourse to abstraction and opacity. At the start of this exhibition of posters, paintings, videos, and installations, Adajania presented us with Soul Breath Wind, 2014–18, an hour-long video depicting a landscape ravaged by mining in the Bastar District in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Altaf zooms in on thriving plant life, attempting to capture its vitality, then pulls back to show the vast scale of destruction nearby. Although the images are interchangeable with tragedies elsewhere, interviews with the landscape’s inhabitants provide context and clarity, addressing loss of land and strategies of resistance.

After Altaf began living part-time in Bastar in the late 1990s, documenting life in a region beset by a Maoist insurrection and state violence, she started collaborative projects with local residents Rajkumar Korram, Shantibai, and Gessuram Viswakarma. Together, they made pilla gudis, or playhouses for children, and nalpars, or sculptures, around water pumps to maintain hygiene and to direct excess water to fields. The exhibition represented those projects here through scanty photo documentation, which failed to show us the collaborators’ process or their impact on the communities, missing the opportunity to highlight an example of potential change.

The videos Links Destroyed and Rediscovered, 1994, and Trail of Impunity, 2014, chronicled Hindu-Muslim riots in Bombay in 1992–93 and Gujarat in 2002, respectively, through interviews. However, the three-channel installation Lacuna in Testimony, 2003, made soon after the Gujarat riots, did not provide intelligible testimony but played scrambled, recorded speech, hinting at the experience of trauma itself rather than providing information about the events that caused it. Adajania placed these installations near footage of sex workers discussing social stigma in Touch IV, 2010, the pairing suggesting similarities between sex workers and minority religious groups in the struggle against nationalist and majoritarian forces.

The show demonstrated that Altaf has consistently paid attention to urgent political questions; in fact, the artist recalibrated her position whenever she found her politics to be insufficiently progressive. In the early 1970s, after graduating from Mumbai’s Sir J. J. School of Art, the artist joined the Marxist cultural group PROYOM, or the Progressive Youth Movement, with her husband, the artist Altaf Mohammedi. In Altaf’s posters from the time, she marshals heroic figures drawn from the vocabulary of social realism to criticize the military policies of the US in Vietnam. The artist adopted a more pared-down aesthetic a few years later, when she created silhouettes for posters protesting the Indian government’s suspension of civil liberties between 1975 and 1977. This work culminates with stark renderings of unmanned machines in black ink in the 1982 series “Factory,” made during strikes in Bombay’s textile mills, which are now luxury housing complexes and malls.

These posters appeared in the middle of the three-floor exhibition, and their generic style heightens the import of Altaf’s subsequent detachment from political groups in favor of a concentration on the politics of form along a solitary path of activism. This rupture gave Altaf the freedom to change course and to focus on building relations with individuals, rather than agitating against the state or corporations. Thereafter, the artist became visible in the work’s making, in her appeals to the conscience of the public through her art, evoking the tension between political ambition and the commitment to the development of an artistic voice.