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Amar Kanwar

Indian Contemporary Artist
Born 1964, New Delhi
Lives and works in New Delhi

Amar Kanwar’s works move along the lines of documentary filmmaking, accompanied by various presentation and exhibition methods, exploring issues of exploitation, marginalisation, corporate greed, environmental concerns and governmental persecution. His works are framed within an impassioned activist mode while aestheticising the subject matter, neither one losing out to the other.


Film school in the Mass Communications Research Center of Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi

History, University of Delhi, New Delhi



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Power relations between the common man and government an important facet

The axis along which dictatorial powers and ordinary citizens operate in relation to each other is a primary line of investigation in Amar Kanwar’s works. The reactive articulations of dissent of the common man against the repressive rhetoric and actions of totalitarian regimes hold the narrative focus in most of Kanwar’s works. These are not necessarily vocal, loud revolutionary tales but silent indictments on the repressive regimes at a very personal level, revolving around issues of democracy, freedom and rights.

Kanwar’s The First Torn Pages- Part I, 2005, part of a three-part installation and five channel projection onto paper sheets, explores the eponymous story of such a private articulation of dissent by a bookseller in Burma. He used to upturn the military junta’s diktat of the mandatory propagandist pages that were required to accompany every book by tearing those pages off before selling the books. He was later discovered and jailed by the junta. This story appears as a powerful centre to the multiple stories of resistance in Burma that surrounds this installation.

Amar Kanwar, The First Torn Pages, 2005, digital colour video with sound, duration 38 minutes.  Installation view.

Mostly documentary films but also engages in different mediums

Amar Kanwar mostly uses documentary and archival images for his single screen films as well as multiple-channel video installations. The truth or factual value of these real images provides the authentic strain to the issues. However, Kanwar uses different editing and presentation methods like the use of literature, poetry, songs and objects to excite the truth. This enables him to lend an investigative perspective to uncover more concealed networks of truths and predicaments, and deliver a more impactful stimulus for realisation and change.

The “Sovereign + Other Stories” at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2013 presented an array of films and objects to delve into the politics and histories of coal mining in the state of Odisha in India, the conspicuous corporate entities, indigenous population and the ecology at the core of the story. The exhibition included films, seeds and outdoor sculptural objects like The Listening Benches, which allowed for a more multi-dimensional meditation into the issue.

Amar Kanwar, Listening Bench, 2013, “The Sovereign Forest + Other Stories” at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Activism is centred around the themes of human injustices

Kanwar’s activism through his works is based on a rigorous foray into different arenas of human injustice and discrimination. Issues pertaining to the environment and ecology, political and human rights issues, women’s rights and gender and sexual violence, these narratives of abuse and resistance are carefully orchestrated into his own visual and narrative strategies.

The Lightning Testimonies, 2007, is an eight-channel video installation with first-person accounts by women who have suffered sexual violence, right from the stories of rape from the 1947 Partition to the anti-rape protests of Manipur in 2004. The narratives of rape are mostly so stigma-laden in the country that silence is taken to be the best recourse. The projections of these first-person narratives subvert this overwhelming silence about it and make them a part of the discourses of the society.

Amar Kanwar, The Lightning Testimonies, 2007, eight-channel video installation, duration 113 minutes with English subtitles. Installation view.

The active presence of the artist in a work is a catalysing force

The presence of the artist in the narrative as a catalysing force is an important strategy for Kanwar. His films include voice-overs and first-person commentaries by himself to make an articulate impact on his viewers. The presence of the artist in the discourse, more than the hand in making the piece, through his voice enables him to address the audience more directly, emphasising the debates, empathising with the other voices and present a case for discussion.

This trace of an active presence in his films comes through his leaning towards one side of the two. A Season Outside, 1997, which journeys through a both a personal and collective there is a questioning compel on whether the violence was completely unnecessary, by insisting on a quote by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru, that calls for a violent course if all means fail in reaching the truth.

Amar Kanwar, A Season Outside, 1997, installation view of a colour video with sound, duration 30 minutes. Part of The Trilogy, 1997-2003.

Works lie on the boundaries of documentary films and art

Kanwar’s work as a descendent of documentary filmmaking fall within the narrow margins of what can be defined as contemporary art or just documentary film or art cinema, whether the work belongs to an art gallery or a cinema theatre. The films are never a singular entity, while adopting various methods to deploy the films. The accompaniments are in various degrees. The multi-media exploration can be situated within the use of different projection methods, like video art, on multiple channels, projected on various media like a normal screen or open books with a top projection.

More than the constructs of the installations, the definitive function of a category becomes an artificial one. The political engagements and the aesthetic nuances actively present in his works dismantle any such separable constructs of art and film. The acquisitions of his works by various museums and collections like the Guggenheim refer to a more acknowledged support of his artistic voice and politico-socio currency of his works.

Amar Kanwar, The Trilogy: A Season Outside (1997), To Remember (2003), A Night of Prophecy (2002), 1997–2003. Three color videos, two with sound, one silent; 30 min., 8 min., and 77 min., respectively, edition of 6. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund, 2012, 2012.150.1-3.