Art Scan: Clarion call

A debut solo on the anti-colonial politics of sketching Birds of Paradise


A leisure trip to Indonesia’s West Papua province to see the Birds of Paradise—its 32 documented species are only found in this South-East Asian belt—turned into illustrator Garima Gupta’s artistic calling. In 2015, over 261,000 hectares of forests and peatland there were destroyed in a forest fire. In 2016, Gupta, an illustrator known for her work in the 2013 graphic novel When Crows Are White, returned to West Papua. This time, she wanted to understand what it meant to live in an ecologically precarious zone, home to an illegal trade of Birds of Paradise, and companies seeking to extract palm oil from the rainforests.

The resulting sketches and videos form part of her first solo exhibition, Minutes Of The Meeting, which opened at Mumbai’s Clark House Initiative last week.

Gupta travelled through West Papua, to Afrak and Nimbokrang, and Papua New Guinea, to a few villages in the Huon peninsula. In Sapmanga, she met inhabitants who had given up hunting birds, part of their traditional way of life, and turned into conservationists. In Nimbokrang, she met a local who told her of the difficulties of hunting in a rainforest, but explained that he had no other options for an income. In the pit stops she made in Indonesia, she found a thriving and illegal market for Birds of Paradise. In a Bali hotel, she found a stuffed Bird of Paradise, and wondered if a Dutch colonialist had left it behind.

“These birds have been exoticized for centuries, from plumes in hats to stuffed birds. So I was trying to understand, where did this exoticization come from? Why were people in Jakarta buying exotic birds? It’s easy to call it ecological devastation, but there is a colonial history,” she says.

The sketches, taken from her diary and framed in a clear reference to a colonial style of information gathering—seen, for example, in the annals of the Geological Survey of India, attest to Gupta’s awareness that her exercise is not devoid of the politics of representation. Yet she is unlike the colonialists whose enterprise exoticized the native. “I am not a scientist or a conservationist. I was looking to understand the person, who could tell me why he is doing what he is doing.”

Minutes Of The Meeting is on till 8 March, 11am-7pm (open all days), at Clark House Initiative, Colaba, Mumbai. For more details, visit here

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