Press Release

The Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza and Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary TBA21 are jointly presenting two installations by the Indian artist and filmmaker Amar Kanwar, The Sovereign Forest and The Lightning Testimonies, whose practice is defined by the gathering of testimony of India’s most vulnerable populations.



International exhibitions

International Archives 1st half of 2019

Amar Kanwar

Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (Spain)

27.02 - 19.05.2019




Amar Kanwar, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

© ArtCatalyse International / Marika Prévosto 2019. All Rights Reserved

What would nature say if asked the right questions? What makes an anti–gender-based violence movement effective? The work of Amar Kanwar brings together the resources of activism, social science, and the humanities in a necessary collaboration through images, documents, and the presence of nature in the exhibition rooms. If we are to understand what nature has to say, what all those who suffer have to say, then we need to invent the emotions, to produce the experiences that would allow us to negotiate differently with life. And it is now—given the burden of our times, darkened by the rise of extreme conservative ideas, by policy making deprived of a sense of humanity, openness, or possibility—that we need this illumination. This the claim that lies at the core of these two works, The Sovereign Forest (initiated in 2011) and The Lightning Testimonies (2007), presented at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza as the second important contemporary art collaboration between the museum and Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), the foundation established in Vienna by Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza.

The Sovereign Forest arises from the conflict in Odisha, India, between local communities, the government, and business interests. For more than ten years Kanwar has filmed the industrial activity that has changed and destroyed vast areas of the land in this eastern Indian state. During the 1990s national and international companies created large-scale industrial and mining zones in various parts of traditionally agricultural Odisha. The resulting conflicts between local communities, the government, and big business for control of the land, forests, rivers, and minerals have resulted in the forced displacement of indigenous communities, farmers, and fishermen while also engendering a climate of violence. The natural landscape is presented to the viewer as a crime scene; every place, every blade of grass, every water source and tree that is shown is located within the “acquired” zone and is fated to disappear. In an adjacent gallery, the second part of the installation, The Seed Room, contains tables that hold books fabricated from handmade paper, on which films are projected, and a wall of seeds indigenous to Odisha. As Kanwar relays, when a local farmer, Natabar Sarangi, began to grow rice, he realized that few varieties were used in Odisha, whereas he recalled that during his childhood there had been numerous varieties, with different shapes, flavors, and natural characteristics. In order to preserve this heritage and reintroduce these varieties into the seasonal growing cycle, Sarangi set about cultivating, harvesting, sowing, and storing seeds. In this room—adapted, enlarged, and modified as it travels—seeds from 272 species of rice are displayed in individual handmade containers.

In a separate gallery the eight-channel installation The Lightning Testimonies is on view. The work reflects on a history of conflict in the Indian Subcontinent through the often repressed, always sensitive, and newly urgent subject of sexual violence against women. This topic is now at the heart of a global conversation, and its centrality to this work shows Kanwar’s prescience as an artist. As a complex montage of simultaneous accounts, The Lightning Testimonies includes stories ranging from widespread abduction and rape during the partition of India in 1947 to the powerful anti-rape protests in Manipur in 2004. Each projection features different women recounting multilayered memories of trauma and resilience, revealing multiple submerged narratives, at times through people, images, and memories, at other times though objects from nature and everyday life that stand as silent witnesses. In all the narratives the body is central—as a site of honor, hatred, and humiliation and also of dignity and protest. Kanwar thereby explores the many ways in which narratives of sexual violence are enmeshed within Indian social and political conflicts. The endeavor was created in part to break through the zones of self-imposed and communally enforced silence surrounding the issue in India, in both public and private realms. The objectivity of Kanwar's documentary approach is modified by his own presence in the films. Through voice-over and first-person commentary, the artist introduces an empathetic and passionate presence into a national discussion that is epic in scale and global in consequence.

Biographies and personal accounts collected by Kanwar on his travels through India and Bangladesh inform his filmic work in a variety of ways: in the form of facts, poetry, song, theatrical performances, and poetic images. Using a variety of visual languages, The Lightning Testimonies transports us beyond the realm of suffering into a space of quiet contemplation where resilience creates the potential for transformation.

Exhibiton February 27 - May 19 2019. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Paseo del Prado, 8 - 28014 Madrid (Spain). Hours: Tuesday–Sunday 10am–7pm, Saturday 10am–9pm.







Amar Kanwar,  The Scene of the Crime, 2011. Single-channel video installation, color, sound 42 min. Overall dimensions variable. Co-commissioned by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, supported by the Centre Pompidou. Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection. Courtesy the artist,  Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris & New York.