The Sovereign Forest + Other Stories

Ambika Rajgopal of Saffronart shares a note on Amar Kanwar’s show ‘The Sovereign Forest + Other Stories’ at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

London: Amar Kanwar is regarded as India’s foremost contemporary artist. His cinematic focus challenges and redefines the politics of power, violence, sexuality and justice. Fusing the documentary perspective with a unique aesthetic, his work opens out multiple layers of experience and perception. His work has always aimed to expose and shed light on social and political issues that have plagued the Indian subcontinent since the partition.

The Sovereign Forest, 2010-2012, Amar Kanwar. Image Credit:

The Sovereign Forest, 2010-2012, Amar Kanwar. Image Credit:

Yorkshire Sculpture Park will be the host to Amar Kanwar’s first major UK exhibition The Sovereign Forest + Other Stories in October 2013. The Sovereign Forest (2011-) is a conglomerate of films, objects and stories, where each element interacts with the other. It is a body of work that has been done with the collaborative effort from farmers, indigenous tribes, artists and activists in Odisha; and highlights their state of conflict with the government and mining corporations. It has the transformative ability to function as an art installation, a library, a memorial and an archive. 

Farmers and local tribes in the state of Odisha have been in the middle of a clash with government against building open pit bauxite mines. These mines displace forests, agricultural lands, rivers, coastlines, homes and livelihoods of all the agrarian communities who have been forced out of work. The Sovereign Forest has special resonance at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, since it is situated on the Yorkshire coalfields and surrounded by former mining communities.

The Sovereign Forest 2012-, Amar Kanwar. Image Credit:

The Sovereign Forest 2012-, Amar Kanwar. Image Credit:

At the crux of the work is the film The Scene of Crime, which provides us with a vision of the natural landscape of Odisha, prior to its acquisition and division for commercial use. All the images are from land captured by the government and the corporations. It bears testimony to the extent of damage caused due to these mining sites, which strips the local communities of their access to the natural resources.

Some of the other exhibits on display are 272 different varieties of rice seeds brought from the farms of Odisha, which show the disappearance of local crops, and the effect global agriculture has on local organic farmers; and handcrafted books with the text silk screened onto banana fibre paper, which narrate stories that expose the concerns of those affected by the flux of global demands.

The Sovereign Forest in on permanent display at the Samadrusti campus in Bhubanesawar, Odisha. The work is in a state of constant evolution by encouraging visitors to contribute to the evidence presented. The evidence on display includes photographs, lists of residents, land records and tax receipts, proofs of occupancy, maps of acquired villages, documents.

Also on display are The Listening Benches, Kanwar’s first sculptural objects for the open air that are situated around Bothy Garden, situated within the sprawling confines of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. This work is a commission by the artist specially made for the YSP and is made out of the timber of a 19th century organ from the estate chapel. The benches offer a place of quietude and contemplation while overlooking Bretton Estate and coalfields beyond. The work is completed by an audio installation of music, which imparts a voice to the now nonoperational organ.

The show is on view from 11 September 2013 till 2 February 2014.

For more information, please access the website.

About the Author

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Ambika Rajgopal, originally from New Delhi, currently resides in London. She has an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmiths, University of London and an MSc in Art, Law and Business from Christie’s Education, London. Ambika has previously worked in the Indian and Islamic Department at Christie’s, South Kensington, London. In addition to this, she has written extensively on art, with a special focus on the Asian art scene. She has written for Art Radar, Saffronart Blog, Avenir and Culture Trip, among others. Ambika spends her time cruising through museums, pop-up galleries and cultural institutions searching for that flicker of novelty, which captures her imagination and sends it soaring. When she isn’t culture-vulturing, Ambika can be found holed up in her crib reading something completely unrelated to art theory (usually Irvine Welsh or J. M. Coetzee); or clanging on her piano, in the hope of creating something akin to music. In 2015, Ambika, in collaboration with Delhi Art Gallery, wrote a monograph on the Bombay Progressive modernist - Krishen Khanna, which was published by the gallery. Ambika has previously worked in London, New Delhi and Frankfurt.

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