The Sovereign Forest emerges in my work primarily in the state of Orissa (now renamed Odisha) in eastern India. Odisha has been the epicenter of several conflicts between the local communities, government and corporations over the control of agricultural lands, forests, rivers and mineral sources. The forcible displacement of indigenous (tribal) communities and peasants has been a brutal cycle of life in Odisha since the 1950s. In the past fifteen years, several mountain ranges, wildernesses, and agricultural lands were sold or leased to mining cartels and other corporations for commercial use. A new economic regime allowed for the formal removal of legal and bureaucratic restrictions. The process of land acquisition became easier, and exacerbated the corrupt practices indulged in by political parties, government departments and the judiciary. A series of local resistances by peasants, fisher-folk and tribal communities emerged. Powered by autonomous local leaderships, primarily non-violent, stubbornly resilient, occasionally supported by urban activists, they have shared their experience to enable a local discourse to emerge on development, industrialization and rehabilitation. This resistance has faced police repression or violence by local mafias hired by politicians or corporations. Examples of this include the movements resisting the bauxite and aluminum companies in Kashipur; against land acquisition by the Korean steel company POSCO and the industrial group TATA in Kalinga Nagar.
The above events are similar to the experiences of various communities across India over the past 15 years. Odisha is unique in that the local movement has successfully delayed acquisitions, thus influencing the departure of international corporations or enforcing fresh regulations to be assumed by corporations toward human and community rights. In other neighboring states with widespread poverty as in Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and now in Chhattisgarh, the state governments and the corporations have also faced increasing local resistance. However the land acquisition process by corporations in Chhattisgarh has been more severe.
Over the years, certain regions within these states have come under the influence of militant armed left-wing organizations (Maoists) fighting on behalf of the ´local communities’. The violent Left has always attracted more violence from the state. The state governments have used their mandates not merely to attack anti-state insurgents but also to target local non-violent resistance. As state violence increases, smaller non-violent movements find it more difficult to survive. This creates a spiral of violence in which only those who can practice and negotiate violence can function as the so-called main actors in this ‘theatre of war’.
The Sovereign Forest is inspired by a search for the possible answers to the following questions:
Can an artist intervene in this scenario? And if so, how and where?
Can new temporary cultural institutions and processes be created to respond to this situation?
How to understand the crime? Is legally permissible evidence adequate to understand the extent and nature of a crime?
Can ‘poetry’ be presented as ‘evidence’ in a criminal or political trial? What is the validity of this evidence?
Can we create a public process of ‘evidence collection’ in multiple forms and can this be located/initiated in local communities in a conflict? How can it create a new and valuable perspective about the crime?
What is the vocabulary of a language that emerges from a series of simultaneous disappearances occurring across different lives, domains and terrains? How to see, know, understand and remember this disappearance?
How to look again?
The Sovereign Forest was opened for public viewing at the Samadrusti campus on the 15th of August 2012, in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. The entire exhibition is bilingual and is accessible to visitors in Oriya and English languages. The exhibition continues to evolve to this day. It has also been exhibited in Kochi, Kerala and travels in different forms to several other countries too. Since 30th December 2016 the exhibition in Bhubaneswar is temporarily closed.
The central film in The Sovereign Forest is titled The Scene of Crime. The film offers an experience of a landscape just prior to erasure as territories marked for acquisition by industries. “I have been filming the resistance of local communities in the state of Orissa to the industrial interventions taking place since 1999. In 2010, I returned again to Orissa but this time to film, in particular, the terrain of this devastating conflict. Almost every image in this film lies within specific territories that are proposed industrial sites and are in the process of being acquired by government and corporations in Orissa. In this ‘war by the state against its own land and people’ The Scene of Crime is an experience of the battleground and the personal lives that exist within a natural landscape. ” Amar Kanwar
The Sovereign Forest attempts to initiate a creative response to our understanding of crime, politics, human rights and ecology. The validity of poetry as evidence in a trial, the discourse on seeing, on compassion, justice, and the determination of the self – all come together in a constellation of films, texts, books, photographs, seeds and processes.
The Sovereign Forest also invites visitors to contribute a photograph, a film, a document, a text, an object, seed, cloth, pattern, drawing, or any ‘evidence’ in any form to the constellation of evidence presented. As the installation travels this library of evidence increases and parts are added.
With overlapping identities The Sovereign Forest continuously reincarnates as an artwork, an exhibition, a public trial, an open call for the collection of more ‘evidence’, a memorial, a classroom, a visual archive, and also a proposition for a local space that engages with political issues as well as with art.
- The Counting Sisters and Other Stories
- The Prediction
- The Constitution
- 272 Varieties of Indigenous, Organic Rice Seeds
- 6 Digitally printed Books
- Kalinganagar Series
- Selections from Evidence Archive
- Nidhan's Question
- Listening Benches
The Sovereign Forest
The Sovereign Forest first opened at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany on 9th June 2012. Later, a version of The Sovereign Forest was opened for permanent display on 15th August 2012 at the Samadrusti campus in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. Visitors are invited to add to the growing body of ‘evidence’ collected. Since 30th December 2016 the exhibition in Bhubaneswar is temporarily closed and it will re-open when a new venue is finalized.
Bildmuseet, Umea, Sweden
NTU Centre For Contemporary Art, Singapore
Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, Mumbai, India
Edinburgh Art Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland
The Menil Collection, Houston, US
Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, UK
Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna, Austria
Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, South Korea
Sharjah Biennale, Sharjah, UAE
dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany
Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Kochi, India
Samadrusti Campus, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India
The Sovereign Forest is an installation where its contents keep increasing and we introduce new elements wherever possible. The number of additional elements depends on the space available and the context of each venue and so the design also adapts and evolves.
In collaboration with Sudhir Pattnaik/Samadrusti and Sherna Dastur
Produced with the support of
Samadrusti, Odisha; Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna;? Centre Pompidou, Paris; Yorkshire Sculpture Park, England; Public Press, New Delhi and Documenta 13, Kassel.
The Sovereign Forest has been made possible because of multiple long-term collaborations with artists, activists, farmers and institutions.