Imagining the ‘Anthropo-scene’9 min read . Updated: 31 Jan 2020, 08:31 PM IST
A growing tribe of young artists is responding to issues of the Anthropocene through sculptures, installations, paintings and botanical and entomological studies
At his home in Goa, artist and product designer Waylon D’Souza has been thinking over issues of the Anthropocene. He has learnt to look beyond the sunny vistas and sandy beaches to the more pressing issues plaguing the state currently—coal mining and the rising toxicity of sea waters.
He cites a Hindustan Times report, which mentions that coal handling at the Mormugao Port (MPT) is a hugely controversial issue in the state. “MPT has been handling 12 million metric tonnes per year of fine particulate coal that is imported via the Goa port by steel manufacturers to plants in north Karnataka," it states. The mercury from coal particles finds its way to the Mandovi river and the oysters harvested from it.
In response, a concerned D’Souza has reinvented the Azulejo tiles, a Goan heritage item, for a process-driven exhibition—in some of the tiles, he has used ghost nets, washed up on the beach, which strangle marine life forms. In others, he has converted a washed-up Flipkart bag into a tile pattern to symbolize the consumerism of people across the globe. “And some tiles feature designs from photos of the machines constantly digging away at the Goan topography," he explains.
Nearly 500km away, in Murud-Janjira, in Maharashtra’s Raigad district, Nibha Sikander too has been engaging with her immediate environment—albeit in a slightly different way. Since 2012, she has been creating portraits of the moths, mantises and birds that she encounters regularly at her home—built by her grandfather 40 years ago—in the coastal town of Janjira. Her fascination with birds started in 2012 when she chanced upon the Great Indian Hornbill at the Nameri National Park in Assam. “I was mesmerized by its scale and the way it moved," she reminisces. Soon, Sikander started referring to books to find similar forms. Around four years ago, she started spending more time away from Mumbai at the house in Janjira, where she would come across Paradise-flycatchers in winter and moths in the monsoon.
After carefully documenting the insects, she would deconstruct the beautiful forms, almost in 3D relief, using paper layering. While Sikander, who hails from a family of naturalists, didn’t intend her work to become a visual documentation of the insect population of the area or a commentary on their falling numbers due to climate change, it has inevitably become so.
Both D’Souza and Sikander are part of a growing tribe of young artists who are responding to issues of the Anthropocene —a proposed geological time period that describes significant alterations to earth systems caused by human activity—through sculptures, installations, paintings and botanical and entomological studies. Some do it with a touch of humour, others with the precision of a scientist. Issues of displacement, ecology loss and species extinction inform their practice, leading them into the territory of art activism. Some have chosen to move away from the city to live in an environment where understanding these issues becomes easier.
This commitment to ecology isn’t an entirely new concept in contemporary Indian art. It has been seen in the practice of senior artists such as Arunkumar H.G., Rohini Devasher and Atul Bhalla for some time. For instance, while growing up in a farmer’s family in Karnataka’s Shivamogga district, Arunkumar H.G witnessed the degradation of the Western Ghats. He set up the Centre for Knowledge and Environment in Shivamogga—an idea which is still a work in progress. He also became conscious of the material he was using and turned to wood collected from industrial scrapyards around Gurugram, in the National Capital Region, among other things.
A decade ago, however, there were only a handful of artists like him. Today there are many more, referencing not just an affinity with ecology in their work, but in their style of living as well—practising what they preach.
For, the world is facing the sixth mass extinction, set to lose 50-95 % of its biodiversity due to accelerated extinction rates. It’s a time when it becomes even more critical for artists to ask questions about our relationship with the environment, and present visions of an alternative future in a manner in which scientists and politicians might not be able to.
This investigation has led to some interesting curatorial interventions—in the exhibition Mutarerium, held at the Mumbai Art Room from June-August, and more recently in the public art project We Are Still Alive: Strategies In Surviving The Anthropocene, by the MASH Sculptural Space (by Shalini Passi), in collaboration with the India International Centre, Delhi. Both looked at artists whose life practice coexists with the subjects of their work, “and not someone who is just catching on to a trend", says Adwait Singh, who curated Mutarerium.
Passi concurs and adds, “One of the primary curatorial concerns was to have the works of artists whose engagements with ecological issues were in line with what we hoped would be the purpose of the show—to meditate on strategies to survive the Anthropocene." The artists taking part in the show, on view till 2 February, include Asim Waqif, Arunkumar H.G., Priyanka Choudhary, Atul Bhalla, Ravi Agarwal, Sultana Zana, Vibha Galhotra and Achia Anzi.
In Mutarerium, Singh took his curatorial vision a step further to critique the very term “Anthropocene". According to him, the problem lies in our patronizing appropriation of authorship of the stories of others as requiring or not requiring protection from knightly humanity. “Why do we get to decide on this role of being the champion of others? This project (Mutarerium) aims to convey a vision of geological time that decentralizes the human, in favour of more-than-human evolutionary trajectories that far exceed anthropic timelines, adaptability, resilience and capacity for survival," he says.
Writer and curator Skye Arundhati Thomas describes some of the works on display at Mutarerium in her essay for ArtForum: “In The Cascade of Futures Past: Journey Through the Eocene to Speculations on the Post-silicon Age, 2019, Waylon James D’Souza assembles an apocalyptic mandala of the Ganges’s Himalayan watershed. Printed on eco-friendly hemp, an image of the city of Varanasi spills into a dried, dammed-up riverbed, encircled by a ring of Gangetic dolphins represented in various stages of their evolution." Priyanka D’Souza’s How To Unromanticise The Anthropocene, 2018, “charts a history of industrial whaling and marine pollution across four panels delicately painted in a Deccan miniature style".
It is this idea of the post-Anthropocene that Ravi Agarwal addresses in his staged photographic work as well, currently on display at the MASH Sculptural Space and at Sunaparanta, Goa, as part of the show Games Of Chance. One sees a photograph of two people dressed in safety gear walking through the forest. Not Just Another Day looks at the possibilities of man-made disaster looming as an everyday reality, almost becoming part of the routine. The difficult part is to assess just how life-threatening these changes are, when they are not visible or apparent in a “catastrophe-like" way. “My work looks at power structures within society, and how art, natural sciences and social sciences need to talk to each other. Also, there is the idea of the multi-species and decentering the human," he says.
Of fishing nets and mushrooms
Many of the practices stem from childhood trysts with nature. For instance, Waylon D’Souza grew up in Mumbai but spent his holidays in Goa and Sri Lanka, since his mother was from the island nation. He grew up watching monitor lizards basking in the sun near his grandmother’s home, situated next to the swamps. Instead of cable television, he grew up on a hearty dose of National Geographic documentaries. “I was interested in becoming a botanist or a zoologist, but the education system and structure made it hard to express math and physics as a dyslexic would. However, I had an aptitude in design and art and gravitated towards animation and industrial design," he says. Today, D’Souza draws on his fascination with biomimicry for his designs. This essentially means mimicking systems in nature in his designs—how do corals purify water or how do kidneys function? “I always ask myself why I am creating something," he says.
It helps that during a scholarship to study in Melbourne in 2007, D’Souza got introduced to hydroponics, aquaponics, permaculture, mushroom farming and composting. People tell him to focus solely on art, but D’Souza is more interested in creating a sustainable community, “where some are farming and greening urban spaces, or tackling waste management and water resources. And simultaneously, in collaboration with city planners, educationists, lawyers, entrepreneurs and policymakers, there is a possibility of mines becoming botanical gardens and agro-forests," says the artist, who will be exhibiting at the forthcoming Wildbiyoo Festival in Goa.
Priyanka D’Souza had a similar upbringing. Seven years ago, her father left his family business and started a permaculture farm. “That led to a big shift in our understanding of the ecology," says Priyanka, who shuttles between Mumbai, and Delhi, where she is studying at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
She attributes her interest in ecology to chance encounters too. For instance, while at a residency in Delhi and another in Vadodara, where she was working with a marine biologist, she got to know about the whale fall phenomenon—when the carcass of a whale falls to the ocean floor at a depth greater than 3,300ft. “Since mine is a sculptural practice, I wanted to find material that resembled whale bone. Plaster of Paris came the closest but it wasn’t the most environmentally friendly of materials," she says. Priyanka chanced upon a social worker in Vadodara who worked with mushrooms. He would go around villages, trying to educate students and the elderly on ways to convert agricultural waste into substrate for mushrooms. This led her to work with mycelium, or the vegetative part of the fungus.
In continuation with her “overarching concern of what one considers truth", post the Pulwama attack in February 2019, Priyanka began to observe the way people consumed different versions of the same news put out by the media. In response, she set out the mycelium of oyster mushrooms to consume the newspapers. These mushrooms would then be consumed by humans—symbolic of the many prisms and filters through which news ultimately reaches us.
Her ongoing project looks at consumption patterns and diets, and how these are affected by environmental changes. She also draws from the fact that we are still not aware of a lot of species—with new ones being discovered every now and then. “When we look at scientific diagrams from the 18th and 19th centuries, we find them so absurd as we know better now. So, what will future generations think of our diagrams?" she wonders.
She has made a list of nine fictitious marine creatures, derived from different mythologies, some of which consume plastic and could solve the ecological crisis. All the creatures are political satires in response to our times, as the environment has a direct relationship with power. Take, for instance, one of the creatures, the Goose barnacle. “A Barnacle goose is an actual crustacean. The myth goes that people mistook them for bird’s eggs on driftwood," she explains. This was followed by a debate among religious communities on whether this was to be considered fowl, fish or a sea vegetable. “In my fictional world, I have placed this creature as a dietary staple of certain communities of Mumbai, which will be endangered with the coastal road and statue projects," she concludes.