Public Art

Revitalising city spaces

Print edition : January 19, 2018

Built in 1875, the Sassoon Dock is still in use and is Mumbai's primary fishing dock. Located in Colaba towards the southern end of the city, the dock is home and livelihood to thousands of people. St+art Mumbai 2017 decided to make it a part of the lives of other Mumbaikars too with its Sassoon Dock Art Project. This public art project was visited by more than 27,000 people in its very first month. Photo: PRANAV GOHIL

"Inside Out" by the photographers Akshat Nauriyal and Pranav Gohil celebrates identity. The portraits are a celebration of the Koli community and an invitation to viewers to enter their world. After the first few weeks, the portraits gradually gave way to the elements, peeling, tearing and coming unstuck. They were not replaced since public art accepts that it, like its environs, is transient by nature. Photo: PRANAV GOHIL

A mural of Mahatma Gandhi by the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra at Churchgate station dominates its surroundings in much the same way that the Mahatma strode tall in his time. The location was specifically picked because the Railways played an important part in spreading the message of an independent India. Photo: AKSHAT NAURIYAL

Psychedelic colours brighten the dockyard as artists Do and Khatra amplify colours that seem to be drawn from the ocean and sunrise and wrap them around the facade of the warehouse. Life at Sassoon is an amalgamation of colours. The illustrative mural on the facade moves from figurative design and transforms itself into abstract shapes that are contextual to the elements from the dock. The duo also used three-dimensional objects found at the site to add specificities on the mural. Photo: PRANAV GOHIL

Jindal House boldly passes on the message "All You Need Is Love". At night the pink heart shimmers, evoking mixed emotions of delight at the happy colours, laughter at the obvious cliche of the design, and a quickening heartbeat at the deep undeniable truth of the message. Photo: PRANAV GOHIL

Jindal House boldly passes on the message "All You Need Is Love". At night the pink heart shimmers, evoking mixed emotions of delight at the happy colours, laughter at the obvious cliche of the design, and a quickening heartbeat at the deep undeniable truth of the message. Photo: EMMANUAL YOGINI

Artist Tan Zi Xi worked with over 400 kg of plastic to create Plastic Ocean. Her inspiration was the Mumbai coast struggling with plastic waste. In this installation the viewer becomes part of the art, experiencing a milder version of what ocean life forms are suffering. Mirrors help in amplifying the impact. The aim is to reflect on, question and change one's lifestyles. Raising awareness and tackling issues is fundamental to public art practitioners. Photo: PRANAV GOHIL

The artist Guido Van Helten spent days photographing local women at the docks and settled on these three. Their vast portraits grace the warehouse where people like them have carried on their traditional business for the 142 years of the Sassoon Dock's existence. An element of stillness and grace pervades these and prompts reflection of times that have past. Photo: PRANAV GOHIL

Faizan Khatri's "Sassoon Dock Dog" is typical material for public art installation. The literal in terms of the skilled wire mesh sculpture and the figurative in terms of the message come together seamlessly in this art form. Photo: PRANAV GOHIL

Mundane elements like this water tank, integral to the dockyard, are magnets for public art artists who are drawn to them because of their pivotal role in their environs. The artists Ella and Pitr depict a dock worker resting after work. Photo: PRANAV GOHIL

Public spaces in Mumbai are redefined by public art installations that nurture a heightened awareness of the city’s environs.

EIGHTY-ONE feet high and 54 feet wide, the mural is stupendous. It depicts Mahatma Gandhi alighting from a train, dressed in his trademark dhoti, with stick in hand, and predictably from a third class compartment. But what really holds the viewer’s attention is not so much the content as the execution. The perspective is astounding since the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra has exploited the corner edge of Churchgate station in Mumbai. The ensuing 3D effect is mesmerising.

At another location in Mumbai, a curtain of colourful designs formed by hoops of fabric linked together moves gently in the breeze, covering the entire frontage of Jindal House on Peddar Road. In passing it seems like a design frippery, but at night it takes on another character altogether when it comes alive with delightful whimsicality as a shocking pink heart boldly lights up in the centre.

Conceived by the quirky designer Manish Arora, it is just one more example of a trend of making buildings and streets into canvasses, thereby bringing to life that well-worn line of taking art to the people or, to give it its proper name, public art.

Wikipedia says: “Public art is art in any media that has been planned and executed with the intention of being staged in the physical public domain, usually outside and accessible to all.” Both those examples are initiatives of St+art India Foundation, a social organisation that fosters public art. Giulia Ambrogi, one of the five co-founders of St+art India, says public art is done in a particular context and surroundings and with the aim of offering new ways to rediscover the city. It sets out to involve people, to become a part of the environs, enhance them and reflect their culture. It is a democratic idea and one that brings together art and the common man in a way that wall-bound galleries often cannot. It also, as is very obvious in the case of the Gandhi mural, proclaims a message that is relevant to the times.

While the Gandhi mural has instant associations with peace, the Jindal House installation is one of love. “All we need is love... we forget love in this aggressive world,” says Giulia Ambrogi. The 1,440 fabric hoops hung in 53 strands at Jindal House are also a tribute to Mumbai’s textile history.

But there is an even larger, more ambitious project—the Sassoon Dock Art Project which has reintroduced Mumbaikars to the city’s 142-year-old Sassoon Dock. Though the dock is open to the public, it is visited only by those who have business there. But St+art Mumbai wanted to change this and bring the life of the Kolis, or the fishing community, to the forefront. They wanted the space to be “transformed into a public art exhibition that will delve deeper into the various layers of the city, and the multilayered contexts of the dock”. And so they invited more than 40 artists from India and abroad to express themselves in the old warehouses, the dilapidated buildings and even a rusty old water tank in the docks. The results were stunning.

The old warehouses were an ideal location and were hung with art that ranges from Koli sarees that are draped from the roofs to murals and written stories of the docks to sculptures and photo images. They all reflect the energy of public art and go a long way towards enhancing the efforts of the Mumbai Port Trust, which is responsible for the docks, at revitalising and restoring Sassoon Dock. Giulia Ambrogi, who has curated this project, says over 27,000 people have visited the Sassoon Dock project over the last one month.

So is this just gentrification and a convenient canvas and not public art? In all fairness, it has to be said that it is a serious effort at public art. As for the looming accusation of gentrification, it is business as usual in the rest of the warehouses, and visitors can go only when the main work of the dock is over. “Gentrification is always around the corner,” says Giulia Ambrogi. “But that is not what we want to trigger.” Instead, what counts the most, she says, is to “gather people, change people’s perceptions of spaces and make art more accessible”.

The art has not interfered with the daily business at Sassoon Dock. The dock is Sheilabai’s daily workplace. Her genial response to the new look of a place where she has been trading in fish for three decades is a <FZ,2,0,30><FZ,1,0,38>mild “Yes, it’s nice and colourful”. A tea shop owner has a more practical response: he says his sales have gone up. The project has clearly passed the test by integrating into the existing culture, highlighting it and bringing the place to the notice of others. The “no logos, no advertising” rules are also strictly followed and though the corporate sponsor is Asian Paints, there is no sign of its name anywhere.

The transient effect of public art is integral to its definition. It makes a point and moves on. Like mandalas—the Buddhist sand drawings—that are wiped out at the end of the day or the life-size chalk drawings of religious and public figures that were so common on Mumbai’s streets until the early 1990s, public art, too, fits in with the ebb and flow of its surroundings.

The huge photographic portraits of Kolis that are pasted on the Sassoon Dock warehouses are already peeling off and the sea air will soon eat away at the painted murals, and rust and brickwork will reassert themselves through the paint. But Giulia Ambrogi is fine with all that.

It strengthens what she calls the “real power of urban art… about it being all about the process… the actual doing and the memories and most importantly, the sense of belonging it generates”.