A conversation with the creative minds behind India’s largest street art festival.
Colourful and chaotic, fragrant and fast-paced, spiritual and social. Just a few of the ways to sum up life and culture in India, a country that can’t help but leave a mark on those who have experienced the sensory overload of its streets first hand .
But despite its rich heritage and frenetic urban expanses, I believe that contemporary urban art is not something that many of its 1.25 billion citizens would raise as central element of city life. Well, at least in comparison to those living in the European equivalents such as Barcelona, London, Paris or Berlin.
So when I was invited to watch the making of ‘India’s largest mural’ (full video here) a 120 by 150 foot mural of Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema, I was surprised as well as impressed to find that it was the showpiece from St+art Mumbai 2014. The now annual street art festival with India’s most populous cities as the constantly changing backdrop.
I had the chance to chat with the St+art India team who are aiming to bring another dimension to the country’s already loud and proud public spaces in the biggest edition of this ambitious festival so far, St+art Delhi 2015.
Festival curator Giulia Ambrogi and I batted back and forth on this project as well as the state of the contemporary urban art and street art scene in India.
Urban Kultur Blog (UKB): Can you explain a little about what the St+art India project is and its aims?
Giulia Ambrogi, St+art India (GA): The St+art India Foundation was created two and a half years ago thanks to a project called “Khirkee Extension” which was practically the first street art project in India, held in the Delhi neighbourhood of Khirki.
It hosted a few artists on some small walls, but it got great feedback from the people in the neighbourhood. There was great energy around it, proof of the need to work in urban areas in new and unconventional ways.
Mattia Lullini’s mural for the Khirkee Extension Street Art Project
Arjun Bahl, Hanif Kureshi, Akshat Nauryal, Thanish Thomas, and myself (Giulia Ambrogi), the co-founders of St+art India Foundation, met on this occasion for the first time and decided to create something much bigger with a wider scope.
From the start, the aim was to establish a platform to promote urban and street art on the Indian landscape by providing a collaborative setting for artists from all over the world. The goal of the project is for art to reach a wider audience while having a positive impact on the local community.
UKB: So why set up a street art project in India?
GA: Why not?
All kidding aside, India is a country in which street life is one of the most bustling and energetic in the world. Everything happens in the streets. Vendors of all types of goods and food as well as tailors, barbers, cobblers and unfortunately the homeless. It’s a vibrant aspect of Indian life and one which we felt was necessary to contribute to. Opening new perspectives, involving people and redefining their spaces.
A typical lively street scene from the last time I set foot in Mumbai
Culture, especially contemporary art culture, is something often perceived as inaccessible particularly in India because of the lack of public museums and institutions. Over here art is mostly spread by galleries. This can make it appear closed and too sterile for much of the population, when it should be open to everyone given its importance as a tool for social and cultural growth.
Contemporary art culture…can make it appear closed and too sterile for much of the population, when it should be open to everyone given its importance as a tool for social and cultural growth.
UKB: What lessons did you learn from the inaugural event in Delhi in 2014? What was successful and not so successful, and how did you use that to build the 2015 edition back in the Delhi?
GA: It has been truly challenging because of the characteristics of the city itself. More traffic, more chaos, and more difficulty commuting.
When you have several sites simultaneously open in four different areas of the city, with 25 artists to manage in one month, two indoor exhibitions, seven workshops, a graffiti jam, a b-boying workshop and contest, and three talks – the city doesn’t help you. Everything becomes more difficult.
Rukkit‘s work in progress at Gol Market sub station in New Delhi (© Pranav Mehta)
But, mainly we learnt to go bigger, but go slower.
This is the reason why we decided to stretch the Delhi 2015 project over two months, February and March, working closely with two or three artists each week. We also decided to work in the city in a more organic way, focusing on specific areas at specific times.
UKB: How popular or appreciated is street art in India? What’s the legality of ‘graffiti’ at the moment and is it prevalent?
GA: It’s kind of unbelievable how fast the street art community in India has grown after St+art Delhi 2014. Artists as Harshvardhan Kadam or Amitabh Kumar are starting their own projects in their hometowns of Pune and Bangalore, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (the first Contemporary Art Biennale in India) opened the door to street art interventions, and the Goethe Institute in Chennai organized a street art festival a few weeks ago.
It’s blooming, mainly, because people especially youngsters are enthusiastic and the places are ready.
On our website we have an online application to be part of the crew or to submit as an artist. The number of emails we receive daily is mindblowing. We now have more than 25 volunteers who are collaborating with us every day in a full-time capacity and many more who join us when free from their jobs.
Without them this project wouldn’t be possible and it’s just incredible to be supported by young citizens and art lovers who want to make a difference. This participation is important for the Foundation as education and activism are crucial goals.
Amitabh Kumar in Fort Kochi for Kochi-Muziris Bienniale
Concerning the graffiti scenario in India, there are more and more graffiti writers who are illegally painting in many Indian cities. There is a law against illegal expression on walls which is pretty old, in fact it was created for a different reason, but at the same time the phenomenon is not widespread enough to be viewed as dangerous and widely prosecuted.
UKB: Is there an underground art, street art or graffiti community in India? How would you compare it to say those in London, Berlin or Paris and what styles are popular?
GA: There is, and it’s growing, but at the moment it’s not as big as those European cities because it’s at the very early stages. It’s still small but there’s a fertile circuit in which many of the oldest members belong to the same art college, Baroda University, which is now one of the hubs for the upcoming urban and street art generation.
There are a great variety of styles and techniques which are hard to explain with existing labels, many of which are deeply rooted in Indian culture.
There are a great variety of styles and techniques which are hard to explain with existing labels, many of which are deeply rooted in Indian culture, like in the concepts and actions of artists such as Daku, or in the styles and stories of Harshvardhan Kadam, Amitabh Kumar and Harsh Raman.
This aspect is particularly interesting, adding something new to the often homogenised and globalised artistic expression of the art form.
An example of Harshvardhan Kadam’s work from Mumbai in 2014
UKB: There’s a lot of involvement from local communities in this project. How important was it to make this more than an exhibition and include local residents? How have people been encouraged to get involved and how have they benefited from the project?
GA: We try to gel with the community in which we work. It’s critical that we don’t invade, or are perceived to invade, places but work to create new spaces for the people of the neighbourhood.
Most of the time it’s a natural involvement that starts from the permissions process, in which we explain the project, continuing with the direct interaction between us, the community and the artists.
It’s a real-time practice, a work in progress, in which the dialogue with the people of the area is always really stimulating. For the artists it’s a way to understand, even in few days, a different reality and include some of those elements in their work.
We want to trigger a sense of belonging for the artwork itself, as this is also the best way to preserve the piece. But above all it’s key to work with a view to changing the common understanding of what public spaces are, and can be. It’s not just a matter of beautifying the cities or being a cool festival.
Other times we organise specific workshops with the communities, like we did in Dharavi (the biggest slum in Asia) with groups of kids. We are doing this right now with Olek. We are involved in three different communities that we wanted to give a voice to and have participate in the creation of the crochet pieces designed by Olek for her installation.
Olek leading a group of residents in preparation for the unveiling of her most ambitious crochet project
A group of refugees, one from a village on the outskirts of Delhi and another from the crochet community of India, are collaborating together to make the project happen. This is also a way to bring a piece of work and a tradition which belongs to the women and which is usually carried out in hidden indoor spaces, into a public space. Empowering those women in the collaborative creation of something unique.
We can enhance those communities and make their surroundings important in the geography of the cities, pointing light on neglected areas to create new cultural centres and areas of interest.
UKB: How did you select the local and international artists to be involved? What was it about these artists that you felt would fit with the Delhi landscape?
GA: India is still a virgin territory for this artform hence why we are working on bringing a new “visual education” to the population. The selection starts by considering the style of the artist and his, or her, capability to merge with the different surroundings as well as their ability to be influenced by the context and create a dialogue with it.
Selection starts by considering the style of the artist and his, or her, capability to merge with the different surroundings as well as their ability to be influenced by the context and create a dialogue with it.
Figurativism and use of bright colours are some of the criteria that we consider, but it’s mostly about the site specific approach of the artist which for some is pretty marked. Each artist gives a particular and unique touch to the landscape of the city.
UKB: How did you come to pick the locations for this year’s edition?
GA: The current edition of the festival is in collaboration with the government in order to interact more with the fabric of the city and with all the elements that represent and distinguish the city. Iconic buildings, flyover pillars, underpasses and government buildings are the main locations we are working on this time.
Plus, as always, the focus is on some neglected areas such as homeless shelters, with the objective of enhancing their visual appeal and also increasing the visibility of the people who live in those areas and conditions.
UKB: What would you say will be the highlights of the Delhi edition of the festival? Any particular project you are most proud of or looking forward to most?
GA: Each one has its own specific characteristics and importance.
One of these is Axel Void’s piece in Azadpur, the biggest fruit and vegetable market in Asia, on the Delhi Cold Storage building. This area is bustling and one of the poorest in the city, with an incredible variety of people passing through every day. The building lies on a packed main road through Delhi.
Axel Void’s impressive mural at Azadpur for St+Art Delhi 2015
The building itself is enormous. This piece, a classical extraordinary still life, reminiscent of old masters as Caravaggio or Goya, is a visual and cultural revolution in this context.
Okuda’s work in Khan Market is also notable. This is one of the nicest markets in town. Okuda has painted on a local government building. A sort of untouchable, apparently unchanging, high class spot that has been completely transformed by his explosive piece.
Okuda matching the colours of India with this large scale piece at the city’s Khan Market
Lady Aiko (above) and Dal East brought their inimitable styles to Lodhi Colony
DalEast’s birds at the Lodhi Colony in Delhi have attracted the now expected level of awe and acclaim from observers
Finally, Olek’s work at the family night shelter in the Sarai Kale Khan area of New Delhi is very important. 184 night shelters give protection and a place to sleep to many homeless but they seem to be invisible to the most. She will make it visible by wrapping it in her crochet work, turning the light onto a social issue, which is easier not to look at than deal with.
UKB: What’s the long term aim of St+art India, or is it more short term much like these ephemeral artworks?
GA: There is absolutely a long term aim. The idea is to go to different cities in India, but also to go beyond the walls by doing temporary and permanent installations. We want to expand our organisation by collaborating with urban designers, architects, and traditional hand painted typography artists.
Basically we want to re-think spaces and re-design our cities by creating new networks with various experts who are active in different fields but working in the same locations.
UKB: Are there plans to take the festival elsewhere in India in 2016?
GA: Definitely. Stay tuned.
There’s something quite exciting about seeing public art like this in India, and I’ll be interested to see further reaction as the festival draws to an exciting end, with Olek’s work due to appear in the coming days.
Finally, I’d like to thank the whole St+art India team for considering my questions, and answering so fully at a time when they are sure to be intensely busy.