SMALLTALK WITH ST+ART INDIA
If you live in Delhi or Bombay, I have little doubt you’ve walked or driven past the efforts of St.art India and no doubt you’ve smiled.
In one short year, they’ve taken over neighbourhoods and bakeries, painted numerous walls, put inflatable octopus tentacles into a mansion, turned a convenience store into an elephant, painted enormous murals on public property and kickstarted a public art movement.
After several unsuccessful attempts in Bombay I finally pinned down two of the co-founders while I was in Delhi earlier last month to find out where they are now and what’s next for St.art. (By the time I transcribed this, this remarkable piece by INTI in Khirki Extension was up too!)
First Akshat Nauriyal and I drove to Lodhi Colony to check out the murals by Da Least and Lady Aiko then headed to Khan Market to see Okuda’s brick wall portraits before retiring to their incredible Hauz Khas Village studio for a short Q&A with Hanif Kureshi. Check out the art, the studio (that sunset) and the interview below.
WHO IS THE ST.ART INDIA TEAM AND HOW DID THIS ALL BEGIN?
Arjun Bahl, he’s the festival director. Hanif Kureshi who is the creative director. Giulia Ambrogi who is the curator. Thanish Thomas who is the production and logistics head or project manager and me, I’m the content director and do documentation.
Hanif had always wanted to do something for the street art community.
A few years ago there was a festival called Extension Khirkee which was a bunch of artists getting together which we were all a part of in some way. The idea came from there to some extent. There was a bunch of talented indian artists that we all knew about all over the country but there wasn’t a common platform for them to come together and express their art especially in public spaces. Hanif was one of the artists. I made a film on it. I’ve been running a visual project for a few years now which documents emerging subcultures from the city.
Giulia was in Italy and she works with museums, restoration of artworks and also helps in organising a few public art projects. She was here for Extension Khirkee with some Italian artists and that’s when we all kinda met. I knew Hanif from before but I met Giulia through Hanif and I also met Arjun who runs an event management company.
There was talk of doing something here, something big locally, that would integrate the scene, so it was born out of this collaborative spirit between all of us wanting to set up something. The idea was to A) to be a platform, B) to have foreign artists visit so that the street art movement is established in the best way possible.
TAKE ME THROUGH THE JOURNEY SO FAR
We’re lucky because India has no baggage of street art, no background. In the west it has many negative associations, of being illegal, of vandalism and graffiti. Here it was a fresh slate.
Obviously there’s no manual on how to run a street art festival in India so we’ve learnt many new things along the way. For us it’s about putting India on the global map when it comes to street art. There’s a much bigger street art community out there.
As the festival has progressed we wanted to increased the scale and grandeur of the projects and try and get artists who have an aspirational quality.
So that’s how the format of the festival has been changing. Earlier it was about working in specific communities which was a great success. The first one we were literally immersed in Shahpur Jat for like a month. Doing work in a confined area has its own charm, you can literally take a space and make it different. And you can see the transformation you can see that in the place, in the people who live there and those who visit.
It was difficult in the beginning to convince people to give us a wall because there was no background to this. Some people said yes, some backed out but then Anpu’s cat happened and everything changed. That house became a local landmark. Everybody started saying billi say left lo, billi se aage jao (Take a left from the cat, go past the cat). The prestige of those people within the community increased.
Suddenly a lot of people were like we also want this which opened things up. In the end we had too many walls and we had to say no to people. There’s an artist called Tona who did a stencil in somebody’s bedroom because they wanted one.
When people weren’t budging, we said to them if you dont like it, we’ll paint it white and to date nobody has asked us to. That means something in terms of acceptance.
WHAT IS GOING ON NOW WITH THE FESTIVAL
We have an inside joke that our festival should be called End because once it starts it never ends. It was supposed to end at the end of March but we’re already in April.
This year the format is a bit more contained. Bigger artists, bigger projects in terms of logistics. With this festival, the idea was to try and do as many different larger scale projects and one of our things has been to work with public and government bodies because we don’t work without permissions.We seek permissions in two ways. Bottom to top is when we go to into a community and we talk to mlas, and homeowners and landowners. In Shahpur Jat for instance, we would go to each house, talk to the people who live there and get permission.
The other way is top to bottom is where we went to the CBWT and MDNC and other bodies under whom several public buildings come under and acquire permission to do these other works. That’s how the Gandhi mural came about because it’s on the Delhi police headquarters and we needed that support. We followed a similar format in Bombay and that’s how we did the MTNL building.
One of the other interesting things in Delhi are these rain baseras that are set up all across the city which are night shelters for the homeless.There are different varieties, some are for women, some are for families, some are just for men. It’s super important to have places like this especially because Delhi is an extremely brutal place to live. The weather is always in extremes and its really important for people who are homeless to get some shelter.
Nobody even knows about these places so the idea was to do projects around them that would bring them into the public light and get people more involved. We are painting about 6-8 homeless shelters.
One was done by Olek who is polish but from Brooklyn. She did this huge crochet installation she’s known worldwide for her crochet. This was the first time she came to a project without actually bringing the material with her. Usually she fabricates everything and brings it to the site.
Here the idea was that she would work with women from across NGOs to volunteers and all sorts of people. Work on a project that is based around women empowerment. A lot of her work is about women empowerment and feminist ideas so we set up a workshop base in south extension where for two to three weeks there were on average about 25 women crocheting. They were taught how to crochet in a workshop she did and then they made these butterflies, hearts and flowers and shapes that she wanted. All of that came together when we took it to the site.
We will be doing a few more rain baseras. Shweta’s doing one, an artist called PCO has already done one, other artists called Ruchin and Munir.
We had another special project with Axel Void from America who does these beautiful, almost renaissance painting like murals. He painted on the Delhi cold storage facility at Azadpur Mandi which is Asia's biggest fruit and vegetable market. It holds the stuff that’s sent all across the city.
This time we did not have an exhibition but usually we have exhibitions to introduce the gallery crowd to street art. The idea for our exhibitions was to take the ‘bourgeois’ness out of art and present it as a medium of expression and show that although these street artists work in a public space, they also have roots in studio based practise.
HOW ARE YOU ABLE TO DO THIS?
We have great support from the cultural institutes so we’ve been working with the Goethe Institute, British Council, the Swiss, lots of these basically. And that’s how we get a bunch of artists, other come on their own accord.
Asian Paints are supporters in that they provide infrastructural support. The scale of the projects now is huge so we need that support with paint and lifts.
We funded the gap for the first two festivals ourselves. As we grow we’re trying to see how these models can work and change. We hope it is a sustainable soon. We’ve set up a not-for-profit foundation called the Start India Foundation which works on public art projects.
The pay-off is not monetary yet but we have a common vision with the common goal to really establish the street art movement.
WHY IS PUBLIC ART IMPORTANT? WHAT DOES THE FESTIVAL MEAN TO YOU?
For me, art is about the conversation it generates as opposed to whether people like it or not. If people are going to look at it and talk about it means something.
Take the Phalke mural for that matter, every time there’s a bus crossing that flyover, there are bound to be people who are like ‘I have no idea who that guy is’, but there are bound to be people who do. In that there’s a conversation starter, in that there’s a conversation about Bombay, and the history of the city and the context and relevance of this man in the timeline of the city. It’s bringing forth these ideas and notions of what a city could be. It should have an impact in some way.
Some of the interactions based on the art blow my mind. For a lot of people it’s like ‘but you forgot the logo’ which in an anthropological sense tells you how we’re so bombarded by advertising that the concept of art for art’s sake doesn’t even exist.
For us, we’re not trying to steer the conversation in any way, we’re just trying to initiate the conversation. That’s why we do what we do.
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO HAPPENING IN THE FUTURE?
More of urban India and not only the main metros but other cities like Chennai, Pune, Ahmedabad, Kochi.
In five years I see us doing more things, supporting smaller projects. For us it’s about trying to change the landscape of urban india by making art more accessible, and to inspire people to come out on the street and create art, make art more free and take it out from behind gallery doors.
FINAL QUESTION. I TRY AND ASK EVERYBODY THIS IN THEIR CITY. WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE PLACES IN DELHI TO
SHOP: Anyplace but a mall
HANG: Slacklining Sundays @ Deer Park
EAT: Andhra Bhavan
SHOP: T-shirts from Sarojini market. Difficult to find but it is around the zine graffiti.