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Installation view: Amar Kanwar: Such a Morning, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York Image Credit: Supplied

Indian artist Amar Kanwar is presenting two parallel shows, ‘Such A Morning’ at Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai and ‘The Sovereign Forest’ at The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery.

The artist’s films and installations in the shows explore in a quiet, poetic way the nature of the many darknesses in our world and question our notions of crime, grieving, injustice and compassion looking for new positions from which to comprehend and respond.

The works are particularly relevant during this pandemic that is forcing us to isolate, introspect and question our way of life and our idea of normality.

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Detail from Amar Kanwar, “The Sovereign Forest” (2012-2017). Photo: John Varghese, courtesy of The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery

‘Such A Morning’ is a feature-length film that contemplates themes of survival, perseverance, and freedom. It tells the story of two fictional characters who grapple with the complex challenges of our times in different ways.

One is an ageing mathematics professor who withdraws from the world and goes off into the wilderness to live in an abandoned train carriage. There he embarks on a sensory journey into a new plane of emotional resonance between the self and the world around him. Covering the windows to keep out the light he embraces and explores the darkness, recording his epiphanies and hallucinations in an Almanac of the Dark, featuring an examination of 49 types of darkness, of which 21 are within.

He later shares his realisations with his students and colleagues through letters emphasising the need to change our ways of learning to avoid a path of self-destruction.

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Installation view: Amar Kanwar: Such a Morning, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, 2018 Photo: Cathy Carver

In stark contrast, the other character is a woman who defiantly guards her home sitting all day in a chair with a rifle in her hand. Yet, she is blind to the people ripping the walls apart and seems powerless as her house collapses around her in broad daylight and simply walks away. The narrative continues beyond the film with an installation of letters, presented as texts, film and light projections on handmade paper representing the professor’s ongoing research.

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Detail view: Amar Kanwar, Letter 7, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Ishara Art Foundation. Photograph by Ismail Noor | Seeing Things.

“The professor leaves because he wants to think about the nature of the darkness that allows us to commit crimes of cruelty, injustice, intolerance against each other and our planet. He is not running away, rather he is delving deep into the darkness and despair to find clarity and emerge stronger. The woman stays put to guard her house but perhaps the destruction of her house liberates her from protecting it. She exists in a zone where she might be experiencing the situation in the present, recalling a past memory or visualising a fear of the future. Perhaps these opposing characters are telling each other’s stories; and perhaps her house is a construct that is disintegrating. We all have the choice to disintegrate our mental constructs, free us from ourselves and reconsider our ideas,” Kanwar says.

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Detail from Amar Kanwar, “The Sovereign Forest” (2012-2017). Photo: John Varghese, courtesy of The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery

‘The Sovereign Forest’ is an equally poetic response to crime, politics, human rights and ecological crisis. It is based on Kanwar’s experience of the political and environmental conflict in the resource rich, tribal areas of Odisha state in India. The artist has been following the industrialisation and alteration of the landscape in the region for over a decade in collaboration with media activist Sudhir Pattnaik and designer filmmaker Sherna Dastur.

The show includes two films — ‘The Scene of the Crime’ and ‘A Love Story’. The first is about landscapes just before their obliteration. It shows proposed industrial sites in Odisha that are in the process of being acquired by government and corporations from the sovereign owners of the land, the indigenous tribes. The second film is a visualisation of the sense of this loss and displacement.

The films are accompanied by three large handmade books with their own films projected on the pages. These include ‘The Counting Sisters and Other Stories’ and ‘The Prediction’, featuring tales inspired by the experiences of the local people and their non-violent resistance; and ‘The Constitution’, which has no text. Instead, embedded in the paper are pieces of evidence such as a fishing net, rice seeds and medicinal plants, reminding us of the missing chapters in national Constitutions that should protect the ancient wisdom of indigenous people. Expanding on this idea is a display of over 200 varieties of rice seeds offered as evidence of the wealth of unwritten ancient knowledge that is lost forever when farmland is taken over by corporations.

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“This work is inspired by a search for possible answers to questions about how to understand crime and conflict around us; how evidence is defined and by whom; can poetry be used as evidence in a trial; how do we see, know, understand and remember disappearances; and how to look again,” Kanwar says.

Speaking about the current relevance of these works he says, “Forced isolation, the fear of the virus, and the uncertainty of the post-Covid-19 scenario has accentuated feelings of generosity, compassion, humility among people, but also selfishness, brutality, bigotry, narcissism and plain stupidity. Like the professor’s experience, isolation will prepare us to comprehend in new ways and just as he did with his letters, we need to reach out and build local and global alliances and use the energy from this crisis in positive ways to change past behaviours and strive for a more harmonious existence.”

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Installation view: Amar Kanwar: Such a Morning, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, 2018 Photo: Cathy Carver.


Supporting artists during the pandemic

While art in various forms is helping to connect and heal people during the lockdowns, artists are being deprived of opportunities to display and sell their work. Here are some local initiatives to support artists.

Free art contests by Hubartz:

Hubartz Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai-based Hubartz organised a free online contest, titled ‘My Dubai’, inviting artists to submit artworks depicting a positive outlook for Dubai and the top ten selected works are exhibited on Hubartz social media platforms. For its next contest, Hubartz is inviting artists to submit Portraits in any medium, style and size along with the original photograph on which it is based to by May 15. Hubartz has also organised Connecting Minds and Creating the Future, a contest inviting artistic interpretations of the theme of Dubai Expo 2020 to keep the postponed event’s spirit alive. Entries must feature the Expo 2020 logo and deadline for submission is May 30.

Emergency grants for artists in Africa:

Artists in Africa
Artists in Africa Image Credit: Supplied

As part of its Art and About Africa online platform for promoting art from Africa, Dubai- and Venice-based gallery Akka Project has issued an open call to artists living in Africa to submit their work along with their thoughts on the pandemic to be published in an e-Book titled, Art: An Essential Need. The book will be sold on crowdfunding platform along with limited edition prints and original works from guest artist. Proceeds will be shared equally among the participating artists to support them during the lockdown.

Heal the World — Defeat COVID-19 exhibition:

Heal the World
Heal the World Image Credit: Supplied

Art4You Gallery organised an online art competition inviting artists from around the globe aged 15 years and above to create their interpretation and depiction of the ‘COVID-19 Period’ through painting, photography, sculpture, or mixed media and digital works. 60 works selected by well-known Emirati artist Dr. Najat Makki are being exhibited in a show titled Heal the World — Defeat Covid 19 in a virtual 3D gallery until June 28.