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On ‘The Sovereign Forest’: Ute Meta Bauer & Anca Rujoiu in conversation with Amar Kanwar

Ute Meta Bauer and Anca Rujoiu discuss with Amar Kanwar the various social and environmental struggles addressed in the artist’s installation project.

The Sovereign Forest (2012–ongoing), a multilayered project, focusses on struggles over the resource-rich land of Odisha (formerly Orissa), in East India – a land marked since the 1990s by conflicts between local communities, the Indian government and international corporations. The Sovereign Forest, a long-term collaboration between artist Amar Kanwar, Sudhir Pattnaik/Samadrusti and Sherna Dastur, initiates a creative revision of our understanding of crime, politics, human rights and ecology. A constellation of films, texts, photographs and seeds are brought together in the project’s investigation of the validity of poetry as evidence in a trial, discourses on vision, compassion and justice, and the determination of the self.

Ute Meta Bauer and Anca Rujoiu: The Sovereign Forest is a long-term commitment to the resistance of indigenous communities and farmers in Odisha against industrial corporations, local organised crime and the government since 1999. What brought you there first?

Amar Kanwar: In the mid-1990s, during the first wave of the so-called New Economic Policy, it was difficult for any ordinary person to get a sense of the scale of the operations. At that time, I decided to collect newspaper reports of the previous two years – of visits, transactions, Memoranda of Understanding and statements by various government and industrial leaders. Most of these news reports were brief and did not have much detail. It was a simplistic way to do research but I didn’t want to ask anyone and I wanted information that was factual and had no spin.

Plotting this research and the areas of interest on a map of India became an obvious course of action. Corporations and cartels that were well known internationally had several reasons to come here. They were all targeting the coastal zones, especially Gujarat but also other states, the alpine regions of the lower and middle Himalayas, and all along the mineral seams of the Eastern Ghats, which is where Odisha is located. I then travelled extensively for a couple of years in these three regions, researching, meeting various people – villagers, activists, ecological groups, journalists, scientists, bureaucrats and others – trying to understand what was happening. I also filmed in all these areas. I made many friends and learnt a lot from these travels. In Odisha, I met Sudhir Pattnaik and worked with him. I worked in different ways with other groups and NGOs, taught film-making informally and filmed in many areas more or less at the same time. I saw several remarkable small villages and hamlets resisting against very powerful multinational industrial cartels, local politicians and mafias. These resistances were inspiring. There was also a history and experience that I came across there. I had no plans of an exhibition at that time; I was interested in multiple ways of responding to these experiences and was trying to find alternative ways of making, showing and relating.

UMB and AR: For industrial corporations, land is a money-making resource; for central and local government, land is a commodity. For the people, it’s their home, their livelihood. On this disputed territory, the interests of corporations intersect with the corrupt apparatus of state while violently hitting the lives and landrights of farmers and indigenous communities. However, in your work, land is not reduced to a single image or definition. Is The Sovereign Forest a way to look at land again and again?

AK: For some, land is water. Water is a part of these people, and they can talk only when it flows. For some land is memory without which you cannot think. For some land is food without which there is no taste. For some it is miles underground, a site of labouring in the dark. For many it offers an embrace that calms them from deep inside. Just as I keep trying to understand life, I keep trying to understand land. At one point land, for me, had become words – words about information, anger, protest, the cycle of brutality and the response to it. Over time I felt the need to find a way to look again, not only at the land but at life, its meaning. Not just at the life of others but mine too. So I tried many things to shift the way I look – to slow down and think, to increase the awareness of every breath, to see every imperceptible movement: the shift of a blade of grass, the sound of a fishing net hitting water, light moving. I even tried to empty the image of emotion, distance the human form and then look and look again at the land, so as to be able to sense and see its inner narratives. I wanted to find the fluidity and interchangeability of these narratives so that any story of any being in any language from any memory could seep seamlessly inside any form or object, living or non-living, in any landscape. Finally, it became necessary to step back and look at the scene of the crime in order to prepare oneself, rather than researching the land. To prepare to enable, to increase capacity, to see the signs of what was no longer there, or of what was about to be erased. To see the enormous sorrow that perhaps had seeped into the soil and was now out of sight.

Amar Kanwar, A Love Story, 2010, HD video, colour, sound, 5min 37sec. Installation view, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore. Courtesy NTU CCA Singapore

UMB and AR: What we see in Odisha resonates with other struggles against land grab. In Papua New Guinea, indigenous peoples are fighting against multinational corporations that often illegally try to get access to their land – that is protected under customary rights law – for logging, mining, land and sea exploitation. In Australia, sovereignty over land is yet to be ceded to Aboriginal peoples. This clash between property-savvy corporations and customary landowners has roots in colonial times. ‘Who owns the land?’ is an essential question in The Sovereign Forest. Do you see the conflict in Odisha as part of a larger history of community resistance against privatisation of land ownership?

AK: Everyone articulates their struggle differently. But yes the Māori resistance in Parihaka in New Zealand for the protection of Māori lands against the British army in the mid-1880–90s; the Chipko (tree-hugging) anti-deforestation mvement of 1974 in Uttarakhand, North India; the 2002 occupation of the ChevronTexaco oil terminal in Nigeria by women from the Ugborodo and Arutan communities; and the 2011 ‘Lying Down Protest’ by the villagers of Jagatsinghpur District in Odisha, against the forcible grab of their lands by the local government and the South Korean steel company POSCO – all have their roots intertwined with each other somewhere deep below the earth.

However, each of these communities is also hierarchised, and they all experience constant aggression, transgression and conflict. There are also systems and traditions of regulation, negotiation and dialogue, most of which have been destroyed in the last several decades. Further, corporations and governments seem to have lost all capability for ecological sustainability, security, self-preservation, justice or respect. From the perspective of the Earth, the human species has become fascist. From the perspective of The Sovereign Forest, perhaps no one owns the land. The land is sovereign. The land owns itself.

UMB and AR: Similar projects that you conceived as complex – and long term – investigations into violence and crime, such as The Torn First Pages (2004–08) are defined by a multiplicity of materials and voices. Yet each work pays tribute to individuals who fell victims to repressive regimes. In The Torn First Pages, there is Ko Than Htay, the bookseller in Myanmar who was imprisoned for tearing out the first page of each book containing the mandatory junta slogans. There is the high-school student Ma Win Maw Oo, who was killed during the 1988 pro-democracy student demonstrations in Myanmar. One of the components of The Sovereign Forest is a handmade book with projection dedicated to Shankar Guha Niyogi, the late workers’ leader. Another book, Memory Of (2012–14), remembers and names each of the farmers in Odisha who lost their lives fighting against the dispossession of their land. You situate their individual experiences and memory in a wider narrative of collective struggle. You also highlight how these communities denounce crimes and express knowledge of their rights in order to demand justice. You bring to the fore the creativity of these communities’ resistance and resilience, expressed through songs, poetry, craft and theatre, and, last but not least, through your own work as a film-maker and an artist.

Amar Kanwar, The Sovereign Forest: 272 Varieties of Indigenous, Organic Rice Seeds, 2012. Installation view, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore. Courtesy NTU CCA Singapore

AK: The Burmese dictatorship has been one of the most brutal regimes in recent times. Not much is really understood about the scale of its violence or the incredible sacrifice made by several generations of students and citizens. Many have been killed or imprisoned for years because they defied the military. The resilience of the resistance has often felt almost impossible to understand.

Ko Than Htay’s act of defiance came at great risk to himself and his family. If discovered, any punishment was possible. And yet he continued to tear out the first page before selling his books. It was a personal act of defiance against the junta, if no real serious threat to the regime. When I heard about him I was quite struck by what he had done and also by the fact that it was a completely private act, almost anonymous, between him and himself. Later he was discovered and arrested. I felt that I – or maybe anyone who makes, writes, or films – owed something to this quiet and principled act of courage.

8 August 1988 was an important day of student resistance in Burma. Parents had hope and told their children to go out and demonstrate against the military. Many students were in the crowd as part of the 8888 Uprising when the military opened fire, including 13-year-old Ma Win Maw Oo. One photograph was taken of her being carried away, seconds after she was shot; this shocking image was published worldwide as news of unrest in a faraway country. It then suddenly disappeared, as often happens. I wanted to remember the moment when she was being carried away, bring back that image, make the image breathe and come alive again. Pixel by pixel, if need be. In many ways the significance of the student movement in Burma, its duration, scale and strength hasn’t really been acknowledged or understood, when we should see it perhaps on a similar level to 1968, Vietnam, South Africa or Tiananmen.

To fully account for the story of Niyogi’s life and that of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (‘Chhattisgarh Liberation Front’), in the state of Chhattisgarh (earlier Madhya Pradesh) in East India, an organisation of workers, farmers and indigenous communities in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, will perhaps take several books and oral narratives. In the context of this discussion I am reminded of a perspective that Niyogi himself put forward, not just as a slogan or stated vision but as a prerequisite for any form of social-political action. His call was to ‘Create and Struggle or Create as You Struggle’. Whenever I lose track or am overwhelmed by the negativity around, I recall this vision. Regardless of how small or insignificant a work I may be doing. It is the act of making, of creating something for one’s self or for others, of contributing to a collective, of generosity alongside or even entwined with resistance that makes life more meaningful.

In The Prediction (1991–2012), a part of The Sovereign Forest, the story of a murder trial that took place over two decades is presented. Those who conspired to kill were first convicted, but all were finally acquitted. Justice was supposedly delivered. And so The Prediction presents a counterpoint from the past, to the present unfolding of crimes in Odisha.

‘Lying Down Protest’ by villagers of Dhinkia, Gadkujang, Govindpur and Nuagaon, Odisha, 11 June 2011. Various photographers. Courtesy the artist

UMB and AR: When anticipating his assassination, Shankar Guha Niyogi didn’t ask for protection. Instead, you write: ‘he had asked […] for a film-maker.’01 What were the hopes underlying this appeal, but also the responsibilities projected on film-makers? And how did you cope with your own emotion, being more or less aware of the potential dangers?

AK: Niyogi predicted his assassination, but didn’t tell anyone about his apprehension. He knew that for the companies to get full access to the land, and the mineral seams, his organisation would need to be destroyed first. He anticipated a severe attack on the local populations, on all kinds of people’s organisations and on the land and forests of the region after his death. All of which has come true unfortunately. But at that time no one knew why he was asking for a film-maker to be around. In hindsight we can see his logic. He wanted the events to be filmed, for a witness to be there, to record the onslaught on the lands and the experience of the people. He was killed in 1991. I was a young film-maker. It was a very disturbing experience but also one that opened up, for me, a world of solidarity and resistance that I hadn’t seen before.

UMB and AR: Can poetry be a form of evidence of a crime? The Sovereign Forest engages a variety of forms of expression and documentation that are yet to be accepted in legal cases. While it redefines the concept of evidence, the project also challenges our understanding of crime. Is crime only a one-off event? Can the series of suicides committed by farmers be understood as a systematic assassination of those who were deprived of means of existence, but also of dignity? Does this systemic violence call for a revision of our legal systems and rules of law?

AK: If every moment contains both the possibility of being alive and of being dead, then could an acute awareness of every moment also create an acute consciousness of living and dying? Central to the notion of crime is the question of evidence. When you look at any crime, it is investigated by an agency, the police or the criminal justice system of any society. The process of justice is based on an investigation that is in turn based on the collection of evidence. Only evidence defined as permissible by the law is presented in court – all other evidence is dismissed as invalid. The carefully crafted texts of the law tell us what is permissible and what is not. They analyse the ‘permissible’ evidence; they then come to an understanding and make a conclusion that all must finally accept.

Central to the notion of crime is the question of evidence. When you look at any crime, it is investigated by an agency, the police or the criminal justice system of any society. The process of justice is based on an investigation that is in turn based on the collection of evidence. Only evidence defined as permissible by the law is presented in court – all other evidence is dismissed as invalid.

But what happens if a crime continues to occur regardless of the enormous evidence available? Then is the crime invisible or the evidence invisible or are both visible but not seen? And what constitutes the scene of crime, what is its footprint? Is the crime always a single cataclysmic event, or can it also be something that expands and is an accumulating process? And which is the vocabulary most capable of understanding the scale and extent of a crime? If I do not understand the meaning of loss, its scale, its extent, its multiple dimensions, how can I even know what it is that is lost?

And who defines evidence? What if the given definition of what is ‘permissible’ and ‘impermissible’ evidence is incorrect? Is legally valid evidence adequate to understand the meaning and extent of a crime? What vocabulary is needed to talk about a series of simultaneous disappearances occurring across multiple dimensions of our lives?

What happens if I ask for permission to ‘officially’ present poetry as evidence in a specific criminal or political trial? If I present poetry not metaphorically or esoterically but formally as evidence in one of its multiple forms? And if I request that you see, consider, evaluate, and compare the nature of the insights and forms of comprehension that you may then acquire about the scale, meaning, and implications of the crime. That is what The Sovereign Forest is about. In other words, it could be an attempt to understand life. Mine, yours, ours.

UMB and AR: You often bring into discussion a state of inadequacy that emerges when art addresses experiences of violence and inequality. You describe inadequacy as a form of incompleteness. The Sovereign Forest is an open-ended project unfolding over more than a decade – it keeps growing and accumulating materials. Is it this form of incompleteness that keeps you going in the process of art-making?

AK: I think my work has continuously been about doubt, about inadequacy, about blind spots and unknown attenuations, and about momentary comprehensions. Almost every film is grappling with obvious and hidden ethical crises and the repeated experience of losing voice and finding it again.

What we perhaps have to relate to and embrace is the inadequacy of the archive or of The Sovereign Forest itself. Presence activates absence. The collection activates the unknown. It is not the archive itself that we cling to but the uncertainty at the core of the archive. Testimonies and memories are fluid and constantly changing. It is this temporary fragility that is mobile, potent, and revealing.

If the attempt to remember is presented along with what is remembered, if what seems definitive is presented along with what is uncertain, if the part and the whole are both simultaneously visible in the same moment, even if only momentarily, then perhaps it may, possibly, create a kind of comprehension that seems new. Maybe we then get a brief glimpse into contemporary memory and what is unfolding. The experience of shifts, transitions, between different methods of comprehension is perhaps the key.

Everything is actually unfinished – an accumulation and disintegration that reveals something temporary. I am mostly concerned with doubt, disturbances and the hope for these temporary insights. I am concerned with intentions too – felt, stated, desired, hidden, unknown intentions. Each of these may spiral into a series of questions. The nature of the hypothesis or enquiry or dilemma inevitably shapes the methodology used to address it – the gaze, the way to be, sit, look and talk. Each answer is different, and even different from itself as the minutes pass. I am concerned with this fluid, repeating, crippling ethical crisis, and the attempts at resolution that accompany it. Each resolution is the search for a language, a way to speak. I am concerned with sharing these attempts. Repeated unsuccessful attempts at answering questions opens out form and helps create a way to talk. The consistent public sharing of these ‘failures’ is what is interesting.

UMB and AR: The Sovereign Forest has been presented in several institutions outside India, from dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21) in Vienna, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, to NTU Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore, Bildmuseet in Umeå and most recently at NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery.02 In parallel, a version of The Sovereign Forest was displayed at the Samadrusti campus in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, from 2012 until 2016. You have said that The Sovereign Forest is a collaborative work with Sudhir Pattnaik and the journal Samadrusti, and with film director Sherna Dastur. What role did each of you take in creating The Sovereign Forest? There are plans for a permanent location of The Sovereign Forest in Odisha. What type of institution do you envisage this to be? What does it mean for the work to be presented in the context from which it emerged? How do you and the community seek collective responsibility? Or is it fully up to the local community?

Amar Kanwar, The Sovereign Forest: The Scene of the Crime, 2011. Installation view, dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, 2012. Photograph: Henrik Stromberg. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman

AK: It’s very difficult to make a film. There was no initial plan. I wanted to make a certain kind of film and then assess it, see what emerged, how people responded, what kind of experience it created and so on. This film was The Scene of Crime (2011), where I looked at landscapes marked for industrial acquisition and erasure in Odisha. To make that film, I needed to go through the process of making of another, shorter film, A Love Story (2010) which, in many ways, helped me find a way to film The Scene of Crime. There were two other friends and long-term collaborators, who made this possible: the cinematographer Dilip Varma and the editor Sameera Jain.

Subsequently, the possibility arose of taking it further, finding different ways to comprehend the same terrain of crime. At different times I had several discussions with Sudhir Pattnaik and Sherna Dastur and we began to add elements to the film as and when the opportunity arose. Stories, more films, books, texts, seeds, different ways of reading, knowing and looking and exhibiting in and outside Odisha. The Scene of Crime became central to The Sovereign Forestand we grew around it a spectrum of evidence. Sudhir and Sherna have both co-created and nurtured The Sovereign Forest over a long time, in too many ways to list here. They usually also don’t talk much about their work, so I interviewed both of them. These texts can be read in the book on The Sovereign Forest and will give a deeper idea of the range of this collaboration.

Two months after first presenting the exhibition at dOCUMENTA (13), we installed it in Bhubaneswar and it was then open to the public for four years, until we had to let go of the building. If it had no meaning it would not have lasted more than a month. If it has and is felt to be of some use, then it will reincarnate, improve and resurface. The next possible location in Odisha is still being worked on, most likely in a rural space, in collaboration with a rural trust/organisation. It will perhaps change quite a bit so as to relate more deeply with more issues around agriculture. Everything is always tentative. We move ahead a bit, discuss with as many people as we can, think more and then try again. We are under no illusions – about ourselves, about our impact or about the communities involved. We are in a terrain of conflict, of depravation, of ecological and livelihood destruction, and acting in this terrain is fraught with contradictions and dilemmas. We try to address these, and to do the best we can without harming anyone, supporting as many people as we can, and are always learning through the process.

UMB and AR: You started your practice with films destined for single projections, typical of cinema presentation. Gradually, your projects expanded in time, but also in space. The complexity and intensity of the themes and stories you were addressing translated into multi-layered installations. In The Sovereign Forest, the acts of looking, reading, touching and listening intersect. What are the aesthetic and conceptual considerations that inform the presentation of this project in an exhibition space? How do the visual, sonic and tactile experiences of The Sovereign Forest become an integral aspect of this long-term inquiry into social injustice? Can an aesthetic and poetic language capture crime in a different way than corrupt systems of justice?

AK: The question of the ‘document’ in the documentary has long been up in the air. Is an illusion less real than a fact? Which vocabulary is most appropriate for a dream? How can a pamphlet be a poem, a poem the story of a murder, the murder then recalled as a ballad? How can the ballad become an argument, and the argument become a vulnerability, the expression of which might negate the argument or instead eventually shift all positions?

If you are in solitude for a few days it is likely that forgotten parts of yourself may slowly reveal themselves. If you are in a forest for a few days it is likely that your sense of hearing begins to improve. You may be able to distinguish between sounds of different kinds of leaves. If you are a dancer and you find the central line inside your body during a performance, the audience sitting several metres away may suddenly experience a moment of joy and revelation.

All revelations and comprehensions are important but all are temporary too. Momentary discoveries of new routes into a thing are exciting. These chance discoveries of new or forgotten senses, physical or bodily forms of comprehension, the loss and regaining of understandings – seem to be valuable terrains to explore. However, I am most interested in the methods that create the possibility of experiencing multiple such passages, allowing for continuous shifts between one and the other.


  • Amar Kanwar, ‘The Little Museum’, Ute Meta Bauer (ed.), SITAC VI: What’s left…What remains, Mexico: SITAC/Patronato de Arte Contemporáneo, AC, 2009, p.183.
  • The project was produced with the support of: Samadrusti, Odisha; Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Yorkshire Sculpture Park; Public Press, New Delhi; and dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel.