Donkey’s tale

23 Nov

Navjot Altaf’s recent body of work explores the topical, the mythical and the self, says Georgina Maddox

Typically, a nude woman and a three-legged donkey would be a great premise for a joke. However, artist Navjot Altaf’s work is dead serious. She presents viewers with wooden sculptures of the above mentioned woman and two donkeys, one with three legs and the other with a tiny unicorn horn at the centre of its forehead. Navjot places all three figures in the context of mythology and modern day concerns.

The sculpture of the woman, walking towards the donkeys, indicates her desire to associate with the likeminded. She is painted a resplendent blue and is bereft of garments. Her features are broad and her body posture confident. She is neither coy, nor does she invite a roving voyeuristic eye. “I have theoretical reasons to represent women the way I have been doing since the ’90s,” said Navjot, who’s been engaged with art, feminism and leftist ideals since she got her diploma at the JJ School of Art in 1972. “The thought behind it is to reclaim the woman from the sexist or religious connotations that are often ascribed to her.”

The three-legged donkey, in Sassanian culture, is similar to the European unicorn. It is a symbol of purity and power against evil and is regarded as a champion of the oppressed. These works are part of a larger exhibition, titled Horn in the Head, that consists of wood sculptures and video work.

“I conceived this work when I saw a donkey at a construction site near Mahim estuary, where the Mithi river and the Arabian Sea meet in Mumbai. The donkey had an injured leg and it was being ill-treated by the owner. It reminded me of a mythic animal of Ormond’s (the supreme deity of Zoroastrianism) creation, almost contemporary in feeling,” explained Navjot.

The work further evolved when Navjot decided to place these donkeys and the nude woman, which is a self-portrait, in the context of larger socio-political concerns. “I began to explore the connection between the Caspian Sea and the Mithi river to bring to light the concerns about the state of water. The Mithi is stagnant and polluted, in both myth and reality,” she said. “I had recorded the sound of the Caspian Sea in 1973 because I like the sound of water. Later, I began to video document the state of the Mithi river, when the Bandra Kurla complex was being built on acres of the riverbed. A number of NGOs and environmentalists protested about this appropriation of the riverbed. In my work I know who the three-legged donkeys are and who those noxious creatures are in present times.”

In the lower gallery, viewers can also see two large blue sculptures of women sitting and discussing something. Art fraternity insiders may recognise these women as Navjot and art critic Geeta Kapur . It is, in fact, very empowering to see women in charge; discussing myth, aesthetics and epistemology, as is mentioned in the artist’s statement. Kapur’s point of view is symbolised by the open cube that she sits upon, Navjot’s by the joint in a pipeline that facilitates the movement of water, from one pipe to another. The cube symbolises a constructivist’s view on what history is built upon while the pipeline affirms history is fluid. “Next to this sculpture are pieces of iron that resemble rail tracks; it is a puzzle that allows viewers to create forms related to the hand gestures one of the figures is making,” said Navjot, adding that the piece speaks of multiple points of view that may be arrived at through dialogue. One may argue that the entire exhibition is a puzzle and piecing it together requires an engaged viewer.

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