Altaf Mohammedi’s retrospective reveals a history that disturbs the present. Its staging at this very crucial political juncture when the shadow of fascism lurks around is insurrectionary. This exhibition poses some important conceptual questions to the arts of our times, which have become a commodity in the culture industry of contemporary capitalism, and have failed to create a community, or highlight the loss of autonomy of the subject and the object in the realm of the aesthetic. Of all the political modernists, Altaf stands apart because of his ‘usefulness’. Referring to Fredric Jameson I would argue that usefulness here does not only mean didactic. In Altaf’s works usefulness must be understood not in terms of reified instrumentalism but as what Marx calls as use-value, which is the opposite of such instrumentalism. Before proceeding ahead, a small quote by Jacques Ranciere will elucidate why this difference is a very important radical position and why we must differentiate between relationality and aspire for parallelism (a separated coexistence of radical politics and radical aesthetics) to imagine a new politics where art or literature is political simply by being art or literature.
“The politics of literature is not the same thing as the politics of writers. It does not concern the personal engagements of writers in the social or political struggles of their times. Neither does it concern the way writers represent social structures, political movements or various identities in their books. The expression ‘politics of literature’ implies that literature does politics simply by being literature. It assumes that we don’t need to worry about whether writers should go in for politics or stick to the purity of their art instead, but that this very purity has something to do with politics. It assumes that there is an essential connection between politics as a specific form of collective practice and literature as a well-defined practice of the art of writing.”
Therefore, it is important to ask what is the politics of Altaf’s art? What makes it insurrectionary? To find answers to these, it is important to put Altaf’s retrospective, Altaf’s time and the revolutionary subjectivity of Altaf in a dialectical engagement with our times and contemporary art. Seizing upon this opportunity, I seek to develop this review as a dialogue between Altaf and us. Instead of not only writing about how Altaf is relevant for our times I would like more to imagine how Altaf would see our times. Curator and cultural theorist Nancy Adajania has already presented an in-depth analysis of Altaf’s times and his comrades in her essay titled The agony of the artist who inhabits an unequal society in the catalogue to this exhibition. Any attempt to surpass her excellent overview of his time and practice would be a futile exercise and not useful to the purpose of this review.
Altaf’s work and life were characterized by a disawoval and withdrawal (Altaf’s silence and the long solitary time he spent in studio, his entries in his personal journal about his melancholia, personal loss and meditations on death has been recollected by many of his peers in the accompanying catalogue) compared to the determination and hope of many of his peers. Because history favours visionaries and celebrates the perceptive qualities of an intellectual or artist who walks ahead of his time, artists like Altaf are seen as an aberration. Altaf represents individuals who have raced ahead of time and witnessed the cataclysm at the end of it all. He has returned to the silence and despair in hopelessness. Altaf’s retrospective titled Altaf: A Retrospective at Delhi Art Gallery, thus represents the courage of hopelessness. Taking a cue from the title of Slavoj Zizek’s book The Courage of Hopelessness and the crux of his argument that “the dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice”, while “the true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is probably the headlight of another train approaching”, I would like to speculate that Altaf’s hopelessness was the result of the existential dilemma caused by the withering of a progressive collective. I believe Altaf foresaw the highly financialized and professionalised contemporary art world, existing in a time where any new framework that revises the field of knowledge is rebuked. Progress has led us to the threshold of the abyss from where there is no return. There is nothing left to be saved, not even the appearances. Altaf’s artworks were not hopeless, like most of the artworks of the progressive leftists, his was also interested in the instrumentality art. But his self-critical subjectivity is more interesting because as Adajania as pointed out ‘he was continually aware of the danger of his work turning into a cliché.’ This self-critical outlook was extant to the dissemination of art; he realized that to subvert the existing bourgeois morality and commodification of art one needs to recognize the processes of reification, hegemony, and ideology. Therefore, he went ahead and displayed his works on the pavement gallery outside Jehangir Art Gallery, he designed political posters along with his artist comrades, and he took his works to factories. Moreover, Altaf and Navjot maintained a dialogue with the Dalit Panther movement and displayed their works in the Dalit colony of Chembur.
Seeing Altaf’s work in the gallery space now generates many questions. Is the museum and gallery the final destination of all art? Why is it that artworks which stood against the social relations of their time seek sanctuary in museums towards the end? Just as the documentaries which were screened in the factories for the workers in the pre-90s world are now screened only in museums, Altaf’s work has ended up in galleries and museums. This is not to belittle the role of galleries and museums, nor to blame them for their commercial nature. These institutions are doing a great job in featuring works which are positioned against mass culture. Paradoxically this shift of receptivity has to be dealt with greater complexity by all of us.
Another important point of Altaf’s criticality is visible in his works such as the ‘The Intellectual’ (1970). In a highly expressionistic portrait, we see a violently crushed face of a man, wearing a tie and coat, the only undamaged symbols of his social class and identity. ‘The Intellectual’ is Altaf’s most powerful commentary on the role of the intellectual and their complacency. As Adajania has observed Altaf’s intellectual invokes Gramsci’s categories of the ‘traditional intellectual’ and ‘organic intellectual’. These dichotomies are more relevant than ever in our times especially when education and cultural spaces are hijacked and depoliticized. We require more and more of organic intellectuals who speak for the oppressed and the dispossessed. But Altaf himself does notgive us an image of the organic intellectual. It is this absence of a proposal which is more curious and worth engaging with. I would argue that like many avant-garde artists Altaf too was sceptical about the possibility of creating strong political imaginations of an alternative. They were more interested in disrupting existing hegemonies and bourgeois values. His self-criticality, existential dilemmas and hopelessness too would have stopped him from rendering such an image.
The retrospective is divided into various sections such as the ‘Hospital Series’, ‘Self-Portraits’, ‘Bhopal and Gujarat’, ‘Portraits’, ‘Fire’, ‘Death’, ‘Faces’, and ‘Landscapes’. In ‘Bhopal and Gujarat’ we encounter the speaking bodies, a human being stripped of all their identity and merely reduced as human bodies to be killed, tortured and locked up. The Bhopal series emerged as a commemorative exhibition in 1985, which was held outside the Union Carbide factory, Bhopal. Through these works which are rendered in serigraphs and watercolours, Altaf asks us an important question, what is the value of these lives? In these two series of works, dedicated to two violent events of modern India, we encounter a haunting atmosphere and figures who remain in perpetual mourning, homeless, mutilated and brutalized. These series stand as reminders of our own callousness and complicity towards the violence.
The ‘Landscapes’, perhaps the more abstract of all his works too strays away from the conventional idyllic landscapes in painting. These works rendered in monochromatic and semi-monochromatic tones, which evoke a bleak terrain rather than a colourful patch of land, are Altaf’s own inner ruminations on hopelessness. With this gloomy palette and an internal logic, he subverts the genre of landscape painting into something which we should despair about. Altaf also explores the materiality of painting with his thick impasto in this series, making a strong statement about what painting means to him and the experience it engenders.
Altaf’s retrospective thus offers a possibility of an art which connects with the oppressed by means of political engagement. He tried to create new artistic interventions and ways of disseminating that would allow the participation of the people. Altaf’s works and subjectivity appear in our times which are characterized by universally accessible mass art production and consumption; he challenges the notion of identity imposed on them. As curator and philosopher Boris Groys has observed, “They affirmed the right of sovereign self-identification. They defied expectations related to the social role of art, artistic professionalism, and aesthetic quality. But they also undermined the national and cultural identities that were ascribed to them. Modern art understood itself as a search for the “true self.”” Altaf found this true self in his interiority, his solitude and in his despair.