Interview by Sourabha Rao
Recently, we had the pleasure of talking to Alisha Dutt Islam, an environmental artist, botanical illustrator, information designer and educator. Her body of work, in her own words, ‘focuses on helping my audience process data in an easy and enjoyable manner with primary focus on the environment.’
Listening to her ideas about art and its power to set in motion positive change was refreshing. We hope you enjoy this exchange of thoughts as well!
When did you discover the artist in you? What were your earliest sources of inspiration that drew you towards your art?
I have painted almost all my life. I studied in Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, and so lived in Bengaluru for four years. I wanted to be a designer, but for my fourth year project, I had to work on exotic and native varieties of trees, which exposed me to the world that it is by itself. After graduation, I worked as a graphic designer for a while. Meanwhile, my painting work also began to get attention and was featured in publications such as Scroll. Currently, I am pursuing my master’s degree in Fine Arts, Zurich University of the Arts.
As an artist, there are certain questions I ask myself constantly that keep me going, that inspire me: How does one introduce people to wildlife they have not witnessed first-hand? Why don’t people know enough about Indian biodiversity, our people and the incredible diversity of our country? To me, if such questions haunt us, it is up to us to fill that knowledge gap.
What about wildlife art had a special appeal to you?
I worked in Calcutta where we always had these incredible trees in the urban areas. I also worked with Madras Crocodile Bank Trust during my Srishti days. Then there came an opportunity to work on the red panda. It is a long process to immerse and engage with my work as an artist. I am continuously questioning myself. I also worked on the Dibang Valley birds and animals from a visual content perspective. It is more important for me to go with a soft approach, with the power of suggestion more than aggressive statements. This is how painting became my go-to option.
Intersection of visual footage, interdisciplinary approach is also something that piques my interest. There is a sea of content, so how to place oneself to be able to be heard, especially while working for some causes that need our immediate attention? This is something I always ponder upon.
What are the causes that are close to your heart that you try to address through your art?
Apart from environmental issues, gender issues are another focus of mine. I also have commercial practice for which I associate with organic/natural products brands.
Please tell us how you got to collaborate with Mr. Pradip Kishen for Abha Mahal Bagh? What is the intention of this book according to you?
Scroll had done an article about my paintings. The designer, Anjali Nair, saw it and that’s how I was introduced to Pradip. I had previously worked on books, packaging etc. Abha Mahal Bagh was a one-year project. I visited Pradip, he took me to Abha Mahal, the garden which he was rebuilding. Rewilding Indian spaces with native species in the intention behind Pradip’s work. For Abha Mahal Bagh, native species growing in the Thar landscape were the subjects of the quest.
Some of them, in the beginning, were alien-like to me, in their rare glory! Now that I have seen them over a longer period of time, I can say they are some of the most beautiful organisms I have seen in my life. Pradip was very clear and specific about this project and it was a delight and privilege working in this project with him.
What are your thoughts on how art can mobilise positive change in people, and in society as a whole?
I believe we need to focus on where the art is – inside the galleries or outside? In museums, footfall can determine how many people witness the art first-hand, which can give us some hope for positive change that we hope our art can make. I see a lot of environmental art lately. You have to show people the small processes magnified.
Nature moves very fast when it comes to birds, and it is very slow when it comes to a seed becoming a tree. This sort of awareness of time ‘movement’ can be powerfully depicted by art in its own time and spatial awareness. This power, I believe, will certainly create an impact on a beholder and hopefully inspire one to act for a more positive change intended by that piece of art.
As an artist, what does a typical day in your life look like?
As we speak, I see finches, sparrows and other birds outside my window. Even when I am walking, as I walk to school here in Zurich, I try to expose myself to new sights and smells. The pine cone fragrance, which I discovered recently, still has me heady and in its grip. A lot of observing the world around, keenly, constitutes my days. How else to understand nature if not by slowing down…a lot? (Chuckles)
What are the current projects you are working on, if you wouldn’t mind sharing with us?
I am currently mostly working on my master’s thesis. There is however a plethora of work I need to return to. And there is a lot of unlearning I need to do. I want to focus more on migratory birds. But foremost in my vision for the near future is representation of Indian biodiversity, both flora and fauna, for an audience outside of India, something I am quite keen on.
What are your dreams for the future as an artist, if you’d like to share with us?
To understand my target audiences first. Instagram is not the whole world, there are people in rural areas to be reached out to, who are at the forefront of facing so many environmental changes. Unless we go into people’s villages and remote dwellings and engage in conversation with them first-hand and establish a personal connection, I cannot think our work is making a difference. I want to spend as much time inside the jungles, with people inhabiting those unglamorous depths. These are the kind of projects and collaborations I will be looking forward to.
You can find the projects Alisha has worked on here.
And click here for her Instagram profile.