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Updated: February 24, 2012 15:48 IST

Through the eyes of art

Harshini Vakkalanka
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TACIT KNOWLEDGE Give and take is important in education, believes Navjot Photo: K. Gopinathan
TACIT KNOWLEDGE Give and take is important in education, believes Navjot Photo: K. Gopinathan

If education has to become a holistic experience, Navjot Altaf says that it should become part of one's experience

When artist Navjot Altaf was asked as a child why she liked art, she pondered over the question. “The teacher was not expecting the same answer from everyone,” she recalls.

Navjot has always been interested in art as a form of expression, but she also questions the meaning of aesthetics, aesthetic experience, how aesthetic qualities are perceived through various skills and how aesthetic skills contribute to expression.

Navjot explores different ways of extending art outside of gallery spaces, through her work on public, in-site interventions largely with Adivasis in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region. “While working with the mothers and women, it was interesting to understand what it is we could do to transform the space and how people would relate to it,” says Navjot, who also works with installations, sculptures and videos.

She is considered one of the pioneers of video art in India with films like “Touch 4” on sex workers, “Barakhamba 2008” on environmental issues and “Lacuna in Testimony”. She was in Bangalore to take part in the recent Arts Education Conference organised by India Foundation for the Arts. “In such public spaces in rural areas, one gets to observe the signs and the unspoken, informal ways that people communicate in, and I tried incorporating that in my designs.”

Her transformation of the space involved creating a large base structure measuring 12x12 ft and zigzagging cut-outs in the inside space, to avoid the formation of muddy pools and help drain water. She has also added levels in the space to help correct the body posture of women while pumping and carrying water. “I noticed while working that a lot of children hung around in that space and that they had no space for learning outside of schools. So we created ‘pilla gudis' designed around children's drawings.”

While spending time with children in various workshops, Navjot walked with them in the forest, where they would collect fallen leaves and branches. “I noticed they knew which plants were harmful and which weren't, while I didn't. This meant that there were local knowledge systems that schools were not aware of. I believe in tacit knowledge, that we know more than we can tell.”

Navjot relates these thoughts with her idea of art as a form of experience. She is a strong advocate of local knowledge systems that are naturally sustainable.

For her, these knowledge systems are more experiential than they are intellectual. “I see myself as a seeker, not as a teacher. I believe that artists working with children create excitement for perception. Once you perceive, one starts becoming an eco-feminist and an eco-artist, where education becomes a holistic experience. As an eco-artist, with little attention one can experience the breeze, the plants, and the many beings.”

Navjot believes that art plays an important role in sustainability. “Through these practices we are working towards the art of sustainability and representation. They also deal with how a system of images works, what goes with that representation and who constructs them and how text and images work together.”

She feels that the present system of education needs to be critically evaluated and reconsidered with art and language as important aspects of learning and teaching.

Aside from public spaces, Navjot believes that art has to be accessible. “What I take in terms of information, aesthetics and values, I give back. This give and take is important in education.”

What drives Navjot's art is her “interest and concern for the human condition through dialogue”.

This has led her to work on a number of issues and themes on history and women.

Her artwork has been exhibited at the Sydney Biennale in 2006 with ‘Zones of Contact'; Newark Museum in New York with ‘Public Places Private Spaces'; the ‘Continuity and Transformation' Museum show, an exhibition promoted by Provincia di Milano, Italy; ‘Century City' - Bombay/Mumbai: City Politics and Visual Culture in the 90's' at Tate Modern, London.

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