In recent years, there has been an uptick in targeted attacks on artworks by environmental groups—to spread awareness about safeguarding the planet, a man smeared cake on the protective bulletproof glass of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting ‘Mona Lisa’ at Paris’ Louvre Museum in May while, in another attempted vandalism, Just Stop Oil protestors threw soup on Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ at London’s National Gallery to bring into focus escalating fuel prices. Art has forever been a medium to disseminate information as well as draw attention to social and political issues.
And while some take the unnecessary, destructive approach by trying to damage works by artistic geniuses, there are others who believe—and rightfully so—that creation is the best form of activism. By means of the exhibition ‘Echoes of The Land’, Mumbai-based Sarmaya Arts Foundation—a digital museum with a physical archive in Mumbai from the personal collection of Paul Abraham, a former banker and founder of Sarmaya—and Ojas Art Gallery, Mehrauli, partnered to put climate change front and centre through the eyes of a multitude of contemporary and indigenous art practitioners who work across mediums.
A natural connection
Giving us an insight into the exhibition, Avehi Menon, Archive Director, Sarmaya Arts Foundation—she is also the curator of ‘Echoes of The Land’—shared, “This was our first show in Delhi, and we looked at ideas of ecology, the climate crisis we’re in the midst of, and how artists record their relationship with the natural world. We did the same by curating this exhibition through the lens of 20 artists [24 works], some of whose works we acquired from Ojas Art Gallery.”
Talking about how, through this exhibition, the viewer will notice that ‘art bears witness to a changing planet’, Avehi mentioned, “Looking at our collection, we realised a thematic pattern that many artists were talking about, which is their relationship with nature. On examining further, we realised that the curation was also about ‘what is our relationship with nature?’, ‘how do artists [like Manisha Gera Baswani, KP Pradeepkumar, Aditi Singh, or Durgabai Vyam] observe it through their personal memories or others through community history [like Ram Singh Urveti] and the intrinsic belief within the community?’ We also saw how artists talk about the current moment, because that’s what artists do: They respond to contemporary moments and conversations.”
The works that were on display in this exhibition, which started on November 3 and ended on Sunday, November 20, were distributed across three segments at the Ojas Art Gallery; each showcasing the artists’ evolving interaction with nature and their surrounding environment. The first segment put a spotlight on the relationship between people (also artists) and nature. On walking into the gallery, the introductory piece we noticed was Mayank Shyam’s ‘Transport series (Plane I-V)’, a work using acrylic and ink on canvas. Son of renowned Gond artists Jangarh Singh Shyam and Nankusia Bai, Mayank—also a Gond practitioner—is known for adding a modern touch to this traditional artform. In this particular work, a plane and bird are shown alongside, as is a train and fish—Mayank draws parallels between behavioural and migratory patterns of human and fauna, outlining how, just as birds, urban folk move to cooler climes during the summer months. In another work titled ‘Bada Dev’ by Gond artist Ram Singh Urveti, the artist reimagines the origin story of Bada Dev—the main deity in the Gond-Pradhan community, who is said to reside in the Saja Tree. Urveti takes a contemporary approach on canvas all while using traditional Gond style. Other works in this segment include Durgabai Vyam’s painting that showcases the Gond community’s relationship with the Mahua Tree, which plays a major role in community rituals; Delhi-based artist Manish Gera Baswani ‘Aandhi’, in which the artist draws inspiration from her childhood summers; and more.
In the second segment, one noticed works by artists who have displayed a distinct lack of concern about the impact our way of life has on the planet. Here, we viewed Ahmedabad-based Sanjay Chitara’s textile art of Mata ni Pachedi (literally meaning Cloth of Mother Goddess), in which artists use the central motif of the goddess alongside natural motifs like animals, trees, river, etc. In Sanjay’s work, he shows how the river Sabarmati—the river is crucial in the creation of Mata ni Pachedi; its sediments affect the colours of this textile and the artists need free-flowing water access for washing the cloth during different stages of creating the work—and its pollution has affected the livelihood of artists. Other works include Chandan Bez Baruah’s ‘Somewhere in Northeast India’, a woodcut print that showcases the changing landscape of Assam over the years due to various factors including urbanisation; Warli artist duo Mayur and Tushar Vayeda’s ‘The Wave’ where they depict the Warli legend of regeneration in a pandemic context by using cow dung background on traditionally treated cloth and white watercolour; Gopa Trivedi’s untitled work, which talks about apathy and the indifference we have towards the environment and how it can permeate through the man-made boundaries we have created. Based in Ganjad, Maharashtra, Warli artist Mayur Vayeda spoke to us about consciously choosing topics centred on climate change for his works, “We grew up in the Warli community and, in the last 15 years, we’ve seen massive development and change and have also experienced it [personally]. Warli painting is actually writing—we write daily life, experiences, folk stories, rituals. So, everything that happens around us, becomes a part of our language in the form of artwork.”
The third and final division, however, was more hopeful; it was on how there’s still scope to change the narrative all while protecting and nourishing what we have left. Barcelona-based Rithika Merchant’s allegorical mixed media collage with gouache, ink and magazine cut-outs titled ‘Harvest, A Land of Plenty’, is where the artist reimagines a utopian world in which people are genderless and the resources are unlimited. The Vayeda Brothers showcased another work here titled ‘Kansari (Goddess of Seeds)’ that is about the connectivity of all life forms. A week ago at Ojas Gallery, Mayur also worked on a live mini grain installation to showcase the post-harvest Warli ritual called khala.
This final segment also showcased Jethro Buck’s ‘The Canopy’, in which he uses gold leaf and walnut ink on hemp paper—“the gold is the unity and the trees are the diversity”—to inform how one needs to look beyond their space and understand how miniscule they are in comparison to the universe. The final work here, an untitled gouache and silver foil on wasli work by Gopa Trivedi, is inspired by the poem Ghaas (Grass) written by the Punjabi poet Pash aka Avtar Singh Sadhu, and it depicts how nature always takes back no matter what you do.
A unique part of this exhibition was the feedback wall: Viewers and artists left notes on it with answers to the pertinent question ‘What would you miss the most if the natural environment around you disappeared?’. Other important aspects of this exhibition included nature journalling workshops conducted by wildlife illustrator Richa Kedia for children from Salaam Baalak Trust, Kendriya Vidyalaya, as well as The Shri Ram School; a panel discussion that explored art, history, ecology and food; as well as a screening of the 2017 short film Gyamo: Queen of the Mountains by directors Gautam Pandey and Doel Trivedy. Kedia shared, “Through these workshops, we explained how art is a medium to express their [children's] thoughts and get them thinking about climate change. They could use any medium and style to convey the theme, which was how they [children] perceive nature.”
This exhibition clearly showcased how works by both indigenous artists and contemporary artists shed light on similar issues. During the exhibition walkthrough, Diksha Ahire, collections associate and part of the curatorial team of this exhibition, mentioned, “We wanted to look at indigenous art as well, because, somehow, they are always looked at in silos—either they’re ritualistic or focus on age-old traditions—and not really seen through contemporary themes. We wanted to move away from that and put them [indigenous art and artists] in spaces with contemporary art and artists. We wanted to blur the boundaries between the two, and show them together having contemporary conversations; and what can get more contemporary than the environment.” We ended the conversation with Menon, asking her if the team has given any thought on making this a travelling exhibition, “This has been a question that has come up a lot, and while we haven't planned on that yet, we would love to take it to other cities. So we're thinking about it!”