The Voice of the Land – An Artist’s Commentary
Sayantan Samanta is a visual artist from Hooghly, Kolkata. He completed his bachelors from Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata (2015), and masters in Sculpture from Kala Bhavana, Visva-Bharati (2017). Samanta has been working on global agrarian issues. He is a MASH Young Artist awardee and is a recipient of the Hyundai Art for Hope 2023 Grant. Samanta is a KCC Visual Arts Fellow 22-23 and his works will be a part of a culminating showcase of the fellowship at KCC on 7th and 8th April 2023. Curator and researcher, Lina Vincent writes on Samanta’s work.
LAND as a physical entity and concept has formed a large part of Sayantan Samanta’s preoccupations for several years now. He has looked at it as the singular element that sustains crops, as a giver of food as well as spatial and material resources, and therefore as the target of human consumption and greed. Coming from a family with hereditary connections to agriculture, his relationship with the shifting structures of a struggling economy (being taken over by powerful industrial lobbies), evolved as a complex interaction with contemporary reality. This is organically reflected in his art making. To begin with, his sculptural work embodied very direct articulations of his angst, and grew subsequently to more refined and subtle commentaries on situations that he observed. His current series delves into a comparison of the human body with the functioning of a socio-ecological system; it is a quiet presentation of factual data even as it carries all the urgency of an activist voice.
As a race, humans leave residues of their interaction and conflict with the land, marking it with different aspects of ownership and control. This is regardless of whether they remain in one place, or migrate to new pastures. A part of this comes to us as the built world, the beautiful side of which stands as revered material culture, and the ugly side consists of many layers of urban and technological detritus. While there is a rhythm in urban mechanisms, life anywhere can be seen as a transaction, one that mostly cedes to the systems of capitalism and constantly shows up the dichotomies that exist between notions of development and the environment. Industry has usurped vast tracts of land across the sub-continent (and globe), justified by the need to sustain growing populations and maintain a quality of human life that goes further and further away from nature. At times, nothing is more visible than imbalanced social hierarchies and class distinctions that differentiate the way people benefit from the land. In a complex and paradoxical game, those who have been living in harmony with nature for generations are often ejected, and vested interests take over the available resources blatantly.
Playing with the notion of polarities, Samanta, in his work ‘I Sugar you Bone to Bone’, creates an aesthetically pleasing form that resembles a puzzle with sections neatly fitted together. Closer viewing reveals it has several sides to it, literally and metaphorically. The work represents a conglomeration of ideas and issues that connect to food and food security, in its many extremes. The interlinked plates also resemble the pattern of human bones, symbolising both strength and fragility. The artist’s engagement with the human form is central to the series, and the evocation of the body as a tool or functional machine is something that he draws parallels with. Muscular arms and legs turn into hoes, rakes and sickles in ‘Sinews of Civilisation’, tackling the idea of labour and the connection of bodies with soil, but also introducing the perspective of the android form.
Samanta has built into his vocabulary, motifs that represent contemporary hybrid worlds, in which the dichotomies of living and non-living, organic and bionic, natural and artificial come face to face and merge into fictional forms. ‘Main Samay Hoon’ (I am Time) is another sculpture that includes the figurative presence of bones; it narrates human beings’ unending struggle against the cyclical passage of time in nature, symbolising the wheel and its contextualisation in the myths of existence. Tools of pre & post-industrial mechanisation continue to be a part of his drawings and relief works, centralising the problematics of ‘work’ in the framework of reaping the fruits of the land.
The reality of today’s world is that the ecological chain is destroyed because of the production and use of synthetic materials that replace natural products; this has contributed vastly to the destruction of nature. Many environmental problems arise from our socio-political choices, lifestyle, and the part we play as consumers. Here, the essence of the cultural role of an artist becomes important. Environmental issues are deeply intertwined with that of culture and history. In a cycle of consumption and neglect, the earth has been intrinsically altered, and all but squeezed off its natural abundance; and as current climate crises demonstrate – we don’t have much time.
As farmlands get fragmented and overtaken, and forests and rivers disappear, the future of natural foods and ecologies looks weak. What remains is special, to be treasured. In ‘Reserve’ Sayantan Samanta brings back the age-old motif of the ‘sandook’ or jewellery box, in which the matriarch may store her most precious items – in this case, seeds of grain. In Samanta’s case, the material acts as the metaphor; he frequently explores new mediums in order to highlight the concerns that connect him to the land and his ardent desire for its conservation.
Reacting to geo-political history, and fluctuating power-hierarchies, Sayantan Samanta’s work moves between a deeply personal and collective voice, presenting choices to the viewer. He continues to forge fresh relationships with materiality and meaning – creating narratives that are as hard-hitting as they are beautiful. Harking back to his ancestral connections to the soil, he sculpts commentaries on human rights and the need for social justice in an increasingly imbalanced world.
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Lina Vincent is an art historian and curator with two decades experience with research, design, curation and public art programming. She is committed to socially engaged arts practice that reflects in multidisciplinary projects she has developed and participated in. She recently initiated an arts consultancy under her own name and is expanding it with a team of creative practitioners. She was the Chief Program Designer, Visual Art & Design for Sublime's ArtEd Bangalore (2017-19). Some of her independent projects include MEMORABILIA, Gallery Sumukha Bangalore (2014); 'under my skin...under your skin' Baptist Coelho (2013); ‘Between the Lines: Identity, Place and Power - Selections from the Waswo X Waswo Collection of Indian Printmaking’ NGMA Bangalore + Mumbai (2012-13).