About 4 am every morning, the 148-year-old Sassoon Docks in the Colaba area of Mumbai comes alive. Fisherfolk are seen docking in the small harbour, separating their catch, which they sell to waiting middlemen, who then auction it to a band of agents. A few hours later, hundreds of brightly dressed women walk in to clean the fish, which are then packed and transported to markets in the city and to other parts of the country.
This well-oiled activity within the premises of a heritage structure that is an important part of Mumbai’s history could be a popular sightseeing site. Yet, few tourists visit the docks; locals, too, do not bother unless they have work there.
The Mumbai Urban Art Festival (MUAF), which began on December 21, 2022, and will be on for two months, has changed this. Some parts of the smelly and mostly unfriendly docks have been transformed into an art hub where all are welcome. While the docks are the main venue, events are on show at a few other locations, too, with the mission of taking art to the people.
MUAF is the result of a collaboration between St+art India, a non-profit organisation working on art projects in public spaces, and Asian Paints. In the process of making art accessible to all, the project has given Sassoon Docks a much-needed makeover.
Built by Albert Abdullah Sassoon, the scion of businessman and philanthropist David Sassoon, the docks were opened in 1875 to fulfil the city’s need for a commercial dock as trade expanded. Over time, the dock became a fishing port, as the trading activity, particularly in cotton, was moved to bigger docks that the government built on the city’s eastern side.
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“Between the sea and the city”, the festival’s central theme, has been displayed in three segments: the Sassoon Dock Art Project (which in turn has three segments), the Mahim (E) Art Project, and the Bandra Project and landmark murals. Contributing to the theme are 60 prominent artists, architects, and art organisations from across the world, with installations, digital shows, paintings, murals, photographs, and three-dimensional works.
The environment, with special emphasis on water and the sea, is a focus area, but what the organisers are delighted about is the immersive experience it provides visitors, whose numbers crossed 1.5 lakh in the first month itself.
Bhoomi Kanakia of St+art India said: “Our aim is to involve the local community. Instead of seeing us as outsiders trampling on their space, most people in the docks seem to understand what we are doing. Some of their children have joined workshops, and youngsters are being given part-time work. The response is encouraging. Our mission is to get the audience to absorb, connect, and find issues that resonate. Critical environmental issues need to make an impact and we hope the art works do that.”
Colaba resident and street art enthusiast Ria Soonawala could not agree more. “There is certainly creativity but it is for a mass audience and in that way the festival succeeds. If you ask me if it is high quality art, it could be better.”
Octopus in opera house
On December 21, Mumbai woke up to a giant inflatable octopus whose tentacles were floating out of the windows and balconies of the city’s iconic Royal Opera House. Created by international artist Filthy Lukre, the tentacles were seen coming out of a building in Bandra a few days later. The organisers said the tentacles would travel around the city and people could see them popping out of the most unexpected spots.
Another powerful installation at the opening was “The Plastic We Live With” by Spanish artist group Luzinterruptus. As a temporary exhibit, the artists had collected 8,000 plastic bags from the public, filled them with transparent plastic waste, and used them to cover every window of the beautifully restored Evelyn House at Apollo Bunder, located about a kilometre from the docks. Backlighting made for a visually spectacular effect.
Land, sea, water, and air
A mural titled “Ways of Water” by the Vayeda Brothers has the most intricate details of sea life on a portion of the outer wall of a 20-foot-high warehouse located at the starting point of the art project. The fluidity of the work, which uses a technique inspired by the Warli style, blends seamlessly with a painting of a Koli woman lying on her side, resting, by Malaysian artist Andha Ras. This warehouse belongs to Part I of the Sassoon Dock Art Project named “Intuitions” with several impactful installations.
It begins with Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey’s “Sea Never Dries”, which is a 900-kg net measuring 30 feet x 10 feet, made of plastic squares cut from gallon cans dramatically hung at the entrance to the hall to resemble waves.
French artist Rero’s work in the next room is a juxtaposition of mirrors on the floor, fishnets between them, and large black letters on the walls and ceiling. Rero engages his audience by making them look into the mirror where letters from the ceiling form words such as “selfish”, a metaphor for looking deep within oneself.
A few rooms later, sculptor Sakshi Gupta uses scrap metal to craft an installation that resembles a mound of earth. The structure makes heaving and groaning sounds as it gently rises and falls, representing the earth imagined as a human life crying out for help. A large installation of water leaking from grey pipes titled “Pipes and Leaks, 2022” by Sajid Wajid Shaikh and Ronak Suri “questions the viewer about the work necessary to dominate nature, thus rendering urban life possible, and the destiny of workers that carry it out”.
If the ground floor is engaging, the first floor has the festival’s piece de resistance: “Metamorphosis” by Sameer Kulavoor and Sandeep Meher. It is a sprawling model of miniature Mumbai buildings placed on top of the plastic crates that fisherfolk use for their catch. “The installation’s miniature size ironically highlights the enormous scale and absurdity of the metromorphosis in Mumbai, with its multiplicity, complexity, scarcity, and density,” said the artists.
The city’s metamorphosis since the early 1990s is often in conflict with the demands of workers, the marginalised, and the indigenous communities, including the Koli fisherfolk. “What makes a city is the question that permeates this work,” said Kuvaloor and Meher.
Part II of the Sassoon Docks project, titled “Illusions”, located at another massive empty dockyard warehouse, welcomes visitors with a ceiling installation called “FLOW.0” by Dennis Fabian Peter. Light fixtures are algorithmically activated to create patterns that imitate the fluid and mercurial nature of water, which the artist said, is a take on Mumbai’s chaotic pace and ever-shifting character.
On the floor above, “The Song, The Note, The Whistle” by Tarini Sethi is a poignant metal shadow sculpture that speaks of the artist’s love for the city—its chaos, fluidity, movement, and relationship with the restless sea.
Faizan Khatri entices the viewer into a maze of full-length mirrors positioned between black-and-white images of the city’s streets. Walking through this exhibit is akin to the experience of walking through Mumbai’s gullies, where the bulk of its populace lives.
On a wall near the warehouse, well-known Mexican artist Paola Delfin has painted working Koli women in her signature monochromatic style. She said in her write-up: “I want to tell the story of the people working at the docks. I visited Sassoon at dawn, when the activity was breathtaking—saris with limitless patterns, smiles, voices, trading, friendship and the colourful boats—all getting ready for work. Despite their differences, everyone comes together through a shared past and relationship with the sea. The mural is a reminder of the importance of community and teamwork, of supporting each other.”
“Asian Paints Art House”
Part III, “Asian Paints Art House”, is a renovation of a decrepit port authority house. It is located at the beginning of the famous Sassoon Docks gate.
Most of it painted silver, the house serves as a space for shows, talks, and workshops. Among the few installations, the Busride studio has created seating in a room using waste, debris, and upcycled material found around the dock. The organisers said the art house was meant to be the “energy vortex” of the festival.
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According to Kanakia, the art show includes graffiti, light and sound shows, workshops for students and senior citizens, and street art at different locations in the city.
Given that space is a premium in the city, the sheer scale of the artworks in abandoned properties creates a sense of wonderment. Will the strong messages impact at a deeper level the visitors to the various shows, who largely seem to be millennials or the Instagram generation who unselfconsciously pose in front of every art work for selfies? “Even if a tiny percentage takes away a valuable lesson,” said Kanakia, “perhaps the purpose is served.”
- The Mumbai Urban Art Festival (MUAF), which began on December 21, 2022, will be on for two months.
- The MUAF is the result of a collaboration between St+art India, a non-profit organisation working on art projects in public spaces, and Asian Paints.
- In the process of making art accessible to all, it has given the Sassoon Docks a much-needed makeover.
- “Between the sea and the city”, the festival’s central theme, has been displayed in three segments: the Sassoon Dock Art Project (which in turn has three segments), the Mahim (E) Art Project, and the Bandra Project and landmark murals.
- The environment, with special emphasis on water and the sea, is a focus area, but what the organisers are delighted about is the immersive experience it provides visitors, whose numbers crossed 1.5 lakh in the first month itself.
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