By Jasreen Mayal Khanna.
My first experience of an St+Art show left me speechless. An art exhibition had been announced inside an abandoned warehouse in Mumbai’s century-old Sassoon docks—the smelly wholesale fish market that locals associate with a pungent smell and its fisher people community known as the Kolis. Despite being Mumbai’s original settlers, the Kolis have been sidelined to a few hutments on the seafront today. So a contemporary art exhibition taking place in this district which has a smelly, bustling, seafood auction at dawn and colourful boats bobbing at the jetty was in some ways unthinkable and yet wildly intriguing.
When I dropped in after work one day, I was amazed by what I saw. Graphic posters of ordinary fisher folk with stoic expressions covered the walls of multiple warehouses. In the queue to get in were not only art lovers and bearded hipsters but also the Kolis with their families and friends, a segment of society that I’d never seen interact with contemporary art before. Once inside, the connection between the cool art and its surroundings only grew stronger.
Right at the entrance, co-founder, Hanif Kureshi had typography installation titled “The Idea of Smell” while Singaporean artist, Tan Zi Xi had covered entire rooms with mazes created out of plastic waste found in the Arabian sea.
Australian artist Guido van Helten had painted mammoth, photorealistic murals of fisherfolk and Mumbai-based designer Sameer Kulavoor had designed paper boxes to look like an exotic scent titled Parfum Sassoon (one of these bubblegum-pink boxes sits on my bookshelves till today). The inclusivity of the art show was poignant and transformative and every person there felt it strongly.
St+Art is India’s first urban art organisation and prior to its inception in 2014, the country didn’t have much of a street art scene. In the last six years, the organisation has managed to establish entire art districts in six different cities: New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Goa, Chennai and Coimbatore.
“Art tends to be exclusive in nature and we wanted make it more more democratic”
— AKSHAT NAURIYAL, CO-FOUNDER OF ST+ART
“Art tends to be exclusive in nature and we wanted make it more more democratic,” says Akshat Nauriyal, another co-founder of St+Art. “On one hand, the number of people who visit galleries is low and on the other, Indian public spaces are dynamic, vibrant and inclusive of socio-economic backgrounds. Art interventions in public spaces can greatly impact neighbourhoods and put thought into masses and mainstream conversations and we wanted to explore that within the Indian context.”
While internationally graffiti has a context of vandalism, in India there was no such baggage associated with it. Thus, St+Art was able to present it positively to the Central Public Works Department as well as Delhi Police for one their very first murals which was painted on the Delhi Police headquarters building.
“ Instead of the police chasing us, we were painting their home”
“We thought about depicting a young Gandhi, who would go on to become the nation’s father”, says Nauriyal. “But the Delhi Police wanted something that would resonate and be recognised instantly. This association helped us establish trust with government organisations.”
Since then, the organization has worked with Indian artists like Daku, duo InkbrushnMe, Shilo Shiv Suleman and international artists like Olek from Poland, Axel Void from Spain and Inti from Chile to transform neighbourhoods all over the country.
The impact of these artworks and curating entire art districts in specific areas has been immense and multifaceted. St+Art flies down street artists from all over the world with the help of consulates and their long-time supporter, Asian Paints. The organisation usually selects neighbourhoods that are not conventionally known for art and that may need support or a visual highlight.
Case in point is the Mahim East Art district in Mumbai which is spread over Mahim as well as Dharavi, an area which had a negative connotation for being Asia’s largest slum. Since the artworks have been completed, it now sees locals and tourists visit and discover for themselves how vibrant and culturally rich the neighbourhood is and how welcoming its people are.
The Lodhi Art District in New Delhi now has 50 artworks curated across large facades in the span of three years. It has become a landmark in the city and on any given day, you’ll find fashion blogs, music videos, and wedding photography being created here.
The newest Kannagi Nagar art district in Chennai was essentially built for slum redevelopment and re-housing people from areas affected by the 2004 tsunami with the hope that people will start visiting soon. In a similar manner, each art district has its own distinct flavour and aesthetic; they encourage communication between locals and “outsiders” and often end up breaking the barriers between them. Micro-economies flourish when visitors buy things from local shops and street vendors. Additionally, there is community pride re-instilled within residents who feel happy that they live in a locality that locals and tourists want to visit.
A worthy collaboration that St+Art has invested in is with the Aravani art project, a Bangalore based artist collective that empowers the transgender community through art. One of their very first murals in Bangalore depicted a transgender person saying the words “We all exist” in the local Kannada language and this garnered a lot of attention.
Since then they’ve completed collaborated works in New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. A recent project in Mumbai’s Mahim East Art District was completed in association with Facebook’s Artist in Residence program. Titled “Me/We” this work looked at ideas of identity and sexuality built with crowd-sourced stories and visual gathered in open workshops in the local community. The point of these works is to present the transgender community as able, skilled people and break the existing stereotypes towards them.
Bringing art into the public consciousness in a country like India where matters of survival still dominate the masses’ world views was an ambitious task to say the least.
The fact that St+Art has managed to do so with courage, nuance and respect for the country’s complex context is only testament to their incredible capabilities.