Making Art Democratic
ST+ART India Foundation brings art to our doorsteps and engages with the masses in neighbourhoods making art less elitist and more engaging. Sindhu Nair has a telephonic conversation with Arjun Bahl, Co-Founder of St+Art and David Leitner, one of the artists involved in Kannagi Art District in Chennai, to understand more about the art interventions.
Art was associated with boring galleries within unimaginative buildings manned by intelligentsia who were revered but not liked. Times have changed. In the modern era, galleries and museums are innovating with outreach programmes while art is slowly gaining main-stream attention. But how about having art served to you on streets and familiar surroundings?
St+Art India Foundation, a non-proﬁt organisation has this agenda, of making art accessible to a wider audience by taking it out of conventional gallery spaces and embedding it within cities. “Making art truly democratic and for everyone is the vision of St+Art,” says Arjun Bahl, one of its five core founders and ideators. Since its inception in 2014, St+Art has organised numerous street art festivals and public art projects across India in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chandigarh, Calcutta, Goa and more.
From creating art districts, to reclamation of cities’ civic spaces and a simultaneous transformation of urban fabrics within residential neighbourhoods, the foundation has also collaborated with metro-rail corporations to enliven transit-spaces. St+Art has also been instrumental in creating working partnerships with civic bodies, art societies, and the common man.
This art intervention on a large canvas was the brainchild of five passionate art lovers; Arjun who is the Director of the Foundation and takes care of finances and planning, Akshat Nauriyal, a filmmaker who has been documenting the sub-cultures of India and takes care of digital content, is the Content Director, Giulia Ambrogi, Curator and art restorer, Hanif Kureshi, an artist, who is the Artistic Director and Thanish Thomas from a media background who looks after licensing and overall project management and is the Project Director of St+Art.
“We were brought together with a common vision of taking art away from the commercial model. The first festival was initiated in Delhi in 2014, and we have never looked back since,” says Arjun.
David Leitner from Austria, one of the artists involved in the Kannagi Art District, one of the six art districts envisioned and created by St+Art, is always taken by surprise of what India has to offer.
“Government as well as the society seem to celebrate and welcome artists. After arriving at Kannagi, I realized that the people have their own way of dressing, from clothes to hairstyles and marks on the forehead. By spending time in the district, I decided to change the colour concept. I have never been to a place where I have seen so many bright pastel colours, especially the turquoise struck me,” he says.
About the research and the final artwork at Kannagi, this is what David says, “I started researching about topics that are relevant for Chennai and one of the most obvious one was water or the lack of it. In the end, the praying/hoping woman, seems to fit both topics, the violence as well as the droughts.”
And at the end of the entire Indian experience, what David took from Chennai was the Indian pace. He says, “India is always surprising and new. It’s just such a mass of everything, culture, people, food – and the people are so kind. I always take inspiration from my travels.Seeing and spending time in places like Kannagi makes you think about your life and maybe appreciate how privileged this European life is.”
SCALE is in conversation with Arjun Bahl.
SCALE: What makes St+Art different from other art endeavours?
We did not want art to be a commodity and a highly commercialised entity that it was turning into. We wanted to democratise art, take it to the public and we wanted to do this not through commercialisation but through associations with embassies, cultural associations, civic bodies and even like-minded brands who understand the story behind the venture.
With an active engagement with government bodies, we work towards building policy around the usage of public space. We get involved in ‘Smart Cities’ programmes and the ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’. We build meaningful partnerships and work with a host of cultural institutions, Embassies and NGO’s.
St+Art’s collaboration with Asian paints in some of its latest street interventions is an example of partnerships that are not a force-fitted as the brand is all about the need of beatification of streets. We only take funding from like-minded sources that think about long-term effects than short-term gains. The idea is not to promote brands but to encourage art. You will never find the brand name Asian Paints splashed across the murals or for that matter anywhere on the art. We also have individual art donors who have parallel interests, are passionate about art and support us.
SCALE: How does St+Art compensate artist or do the artist engage in pro-bono work?
We do pay artists for their efforts as an honorary amount since the nature of our work is not commercial. If you see the genesis of all our projects, you will realise that each of them is done with the community at its heart. The community is always central to what we do. We also work with embassies to bring about partnerships with artists from their countries and who are involved with such art on a large canvas.
SCALE: How does St+Art pick on the cities it wants to work within?
We are an urban art intervention organisation hence all our work will be focussed in large cities. It is about the art in the city, the culture of the city, youth, the population and how they see art and the stories behind and narratives of such urban places that motivate us to pick certain segments of cities to display art. Now, we are interested in more focussed art streets than scattered works of art and this has resulted in 6 art districts in cities. We have the Lodhi Art District, in Delhi, the Mahim Art District, in Mumbai, the Panjim Art District, in Goa, the Kannagi Art District in Chennai, Maqtha Art District in Hyderabad and one in Coimbatore where we are currently working on. This is what we build on year on year. With the idea of smart cities coming up, we are invited to such cities by the government, and there is a keenness in joining hands and working together. The administration in India has been particularly inviting and trouble-free and thus it has been an amazing journey for us to bring art so much closer to the people. That has been an important part of our success, the kind of participation we get from the community, the welcome from the administration has made the journey especially joyful.
SCALE: Tell us about the recent Kannagi Art Festival which initiated the new art district in Chennai.
The Kannagi Art festival has to be particularly mentioned as a successful intervention with the great administration from officials of the Greater Chennai Cooperation and the welcome we received from the community with whom we worked. The art district is not made over a year, it is built through years of interventions and our journey so far in Chennai has been so encouraging we look forward to the next such intervention.
This year, we worked with 10 national (including 5 artists hailing from Chennai) and 5 international artists to entail multiple street art interventions in the form of murals, workshops and curated tours in the Kannagi Nagar neighbourhood of Chennai, thus establishing the area as India’s ﬁfth public art district. The festival will also include a collaboration with the city’s Palladium Mall with the aim of activating public art interventions in distant parts of Chennai and connecting the city through contemporary urban art projects.
Kannagi Nagar has another story that needed to be looked into, it had served as a resettlement area for residents of various Chennai slums, including many people displaced by the deadly tsunami that struck the city in 2004.The area was also infamous for the various inhabitants in this area. By creating an open-air art museum of sorts, St+Art wanted people to visit the locality.
St+Art saw an opportunity to turn drab residential housing blocks into a series of huge canvases for Chennai’s first dedicated art district.The aim was also to change perspectives and dislodge social stigmas attached to its residents. While the area’s reputation and its location approximately 15 kilometres south of downtown Chennai might not make it such a tourist location but this endeavour is done with a belief that art will elevate those who live within its confines and make them feel proud of their location and also lift the stigma of the location and soon this will create a wave of interest thus help change perspectives too.
SCALE: How are the artist picked for projects? How does the curator shortlist artists for each project?
There is always a balance of local, regional and international artist and the choice of international artists depends on the type of funding we receive. For example, when we have the Spanish Embassy participating and giving us funds, we support and bring in Spanish artists and so on. It also sometimes depends on the stories we want to focus on that sometimes needs a certain genre of artist intervention and so on.
SCALE: Which has been your most interesting journey within the art interventions? Which city museum envisioned by St+Art has affected you most?
I love all the experiences or exhibitions that we have created but the most interesting has been the initial ones, especially the Work in Progress workshop at the Inland Container Depot in Tughlakabad, New Delhi in 2016, a derelict area in the suburbs which by the end of the workshop had created enough stir around the city.
In terms of projects, the Lodhi Art Colony has been my most favourite. I have grown around the area and I experience the change that this art project has brought about. The Colony housed one of the oldest residential area and I have experienced the change, art has brought about here. From art walks, people taking pictures, being used as film shoots, indigenous people proudly showing their walls,
the discussions around the art, the Chaywallas’ increase in business as he too has become part of one interactive mural at the Lodhi Art Gallery, the success stories from this endeavour is numerous and each one of them makes me proud to have been part of this initiative. Local businesses are doing much better than ever before. It is the first art district we have worked on and it has 50 art walls by local and international artists.