"Sassoon Docks Found Us": How St+Art Is Shaping The Legacy Of Homegrown Urban Art

Symposium for Expanded Painting And Rest Well
Symposium for Expanded Painting And Rest WellPranav Gohil & Sohil Belim

Across the world, the street art of every country encapsultes the naunces, idiosyncrasies, sensibilities, as well as the aesthetic and creative vision of its people. It captures the hopes, the dreams and the collective angst of the masses and has been a tool for change and even revolution throughout history. It can change the entire feel of a location. It allows places that have been forgotten by the movement of time and civilization to be rejuvinated and imbibed with the vibrant pulse of the artisitc zeitgiest. Similarily, it allows places that have been swept away by the cold, artificial tide of concrete and steel, to hold on to the heritage of a myriad of cultures and communities.

The St+art India Foundation is a homegrown initiative that's been at the forefront of urban art projects across the country for almost a decade now, with an aim to "engage with the public imagination by connecting communities and providing a platform for artists and cultural exchange". The recently concluded Mumbai Urban Art Festival took place at Mumbai's iconic Sassoon Docks and brought together a incredible confluence of art, culture, and holistic community building. For the duration of its three-month run, it was the real-life personifacation of the vision that St+art has sought to bring to life from its inception. It gave us a glimpse of into a not so distant future where modernization, conservation, art, and culture can exist and move forward in tandem.

During the final week of the festival, we caught up with one of St+art's founders, Arjun Bahl, for an insightful and expansive conversation that covered everything from St+art's origins to the future outlook of India's street art revolution.

Could you tell us a little bit more about the origins of St+art? What inspired your initial vision and how has that changed as the organization has evolved and grown over the years?  Could you also talk a little bit about St+art’s role as a catalyst for culture building since its inception?

The origins of St+art date all the way back to 2013. For me personally, it was a matter of chance. While I’d been working with artists who came from more of a performance background, in 2013 I met with my cofounders who wanted to do an art festival in the public space. It was exciting from the very first meeting. We wanted to work within various spaces across Delhi and at the time and we didn’t really think beyond the city because didn’t really know where this would go. We had a proposal and an idea of what it could potentially turn into and we had plenty of artists who wanted to come to India and participate and just that idea is what truly excited all five of us. That’s pretty much how we got together. 

We slowly started to work towards the festival and we realized we needed some form of support; some seed that would start the whole process. We went to the New Delhi Goethe Institute with a proposal for a project that was quite literally small, medium and large, both in terms of scale and budget and they chose medium-large. That was the first seed funding we got to do a project and I think that’s something which is very important to recognize. Goethe as an institution has been incubating and supporting organizations like ours for a very long time. Their role in giving us that initial amount went a long way towards us establishing ourselves. Furthermore, it gave us the confidence to believe that we could actually do something. 

After this, we started getting a little more support and worked on some more projects across Delhi from other partners. We identified two primary areas of Delhi — Hauz Khas Village and Shahpur Jat. That’s what really kickstarted St+art. We knocked on doors for permission, which some people gave us and some people didn’t. People were both curious and suspicious about what we were doing. Some people even thought we were doing an ad. Once we started working on the ground, we realized that the people in these areas and the artists were working with were really serious about creating art. The people were letting us have a virtually free hand in painting their houses, gates and boundary walls and seeing the community come together like that and become a sort of family over a common love of art really gave us that spark and energy. 

There was also a proposal to work on the boundary wall of Tihar Jail. At the time there was a compilation of poems written by female inmates called, ‘Within Four Walls’. We took one of those poems and painted it across the length of the jail wall. The poem stretched out for over 1 kilometre and every 100 metres, the type and text form changed. This led to a project where, with the tremendous support of the Delhi police, we took the wall at the Delhi Police Headquarters and created a portrait of Gandhiji. This was an extremely vital project because of how prominent the wall in question was and the artists we were able to work with. It started a larger conversation about the work we were doing and opened a lot more doors for us. People were reacting and interacting with our art; we were organizing tours and workshops on the streets and that’s really the moment where you know that all your hard work is being appreciated. It made us want to do even more. 

I think what struck us was how much more we were putting into this than we had initially planned. We were all aiming to balance this with our day-to-day jobs and careers but as time went on we began to ignore our own careers for a bit just to get this off the ground; if nothing else just to get a sense of how we were going to move forward and grow. 

Our ambitions started to get even bigger and we began to think about how we could truly put together projects that encapsulated our vision of “Art for All”, that broke away from the traditional notions put forth by museums and galleries. We wanted to bring art out of these spaces and into public spaces so it could be enjoyed by everyone. 

How do you think art as a whole has evolved over the course of the last three years? Has the isolation and the uncertainty caused any sort of a stylistic or ideological shift in the art people either create and/or consume?

I think there are a lot more events, especially with the concerted efforts of both our foundation and other organizations across India. I think people are becoming more and more exposed to art as a whole and it’s gone beyond just trying to take a selfie. They’re trying to understand the art, appreciate it and speak to people who’ve created it and who exist around it. Everyone who is exposed to our art comes from their own unique backgrounds, cultures and mindsets and we welcome this diversity and variety of interpretations it creates. So I think there’s far more maturity now when it comes to art. Street art itself is part of alt culture in new cities and it’s now part of everyone’s travel itinerary when they visit.

All of this gives a person a sense of belonging to their own country and if you’re not from the country it helps you understand the art, the culture and the community in which the art exists and comes from. These places are now a part of the artistic history of the country. The projects we do not only cater to a younger demographic but also to an older one. Traditionally, there aren’t a lot of artistic spaces that cater to older generations. But with the tours we have organized, we try to ensure that we cover every demographic, irrespective of class, age, or social background. We like to see the art that we create as a binding factor that brings us all together; encouraging us to talk, communicate and find common ground.

During the pandemic, we took a decision to keep doing the work we were doing, after getting all the necessary permissions and ensuring the safety of our team. We didn’t know where we were going and we couldn’t step out of our houses for a long time but at the same time, the city was still moving. There were essential workers and services running. The streets were quiet but they weren’t dead. We took the opportunity to undertake projects in areas that would have otherwise been impossible to work in. We tried to use the trying circumstances to do something that was productive, positive and brought a little bit of light and joy to the city.

There’s been a long-standing misconception that art and its spaces are reserved solely for people who come from a certain level of privilege. Could you talk a little bit about how St+art aims to break down these arbitrary walls of separation and attempts to democratize art?

One example is when we did the WIP Show at Tughlakabad. Tughlakabad is a space which in many ways is known for all the wrongs. The place we worked in is one of the largest dry ports in India, behind one of the biggest landfills in New Dehli. It was a location that didn’t have any affluent people living for quite some time but we wanted to engage the community there. The conversations we could have with the people working there, be it truck drivers or officers and other logistical clerks about the medium of containers was what really stood out for me. We wanted to create something beautiful using these seemingly mundane shipping containers.

When we did the first show, there was no entry and everyone who entered was made to wear a construction jacket; which became a uniform of sorts. This uniform unified everyone in attendance and in a sense, for that brief window of time, it vanished the distinctions that traditionally separate all of us. We had visitors and people who saw shipping containers every day consuming the art as equals. And that doesn’t usually happen in India.

It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, how “intellectual” you are or how much of a connoisseur you are; we create things that everyone can view together as equals. While art has divided people in the past, we look at it as a force for unity.

Now at Sassoon Docks, we have people from a wide variety of communities all coming together in mutual appreciation of art and it’s all seamlessly integrated into the space itself. When people ask me “What should I bring to Sasoon Docks?” I say leave your ego. Even if you can’t leave it, it just sort of dissipates as soon as you arrive. You’re not in the “cleanest” place and you’re in a space that certainly does smell. But you’re here to see the art and you’re here to see an important dock that’s largely underappreciated. For many people in Mumbai, even those who’ve been here all their lives, this would be the first time they’ve ever stepped foot in the Sassoon Docks. They get to see exactly what happens at the docks every single day and take ownership of their own spaces.

Street art has always encapsulated the vibrancy of the culture and draws largely on the power of the spaces in which it exists. Take us through how Sasoon Docks became the venue for the fest and how you’ve merged some of its cultural as well as historical nuances and idiosyncrasies into the exhibits and installations.

The first Sasoon Docks art project happened in 2017 and it was a much smaller project than what we had this year. That taught us so much and was a wonderfully enriching experience in so many respects. After that, we said we had to come back.  We had further conversations with the Mumbai Port Authority, who have been incredibly helpful and instrumental in allowing this year’s event to take place.   

They’ve been very understanding about how art and culture should become a focal point of the Sassoon Docks and how the communities which are here should be integrated. The artists working on this project were encouraged to ask questions and to use materials which are commonplace at the docks including fishing nets, boats, fish crates, and even water itself. We’re using subjects that are close to the individuals and communities that work and live in the docks. Our artists worked alongside these communities; they went out to the fishing boats to take pictures, understand the types of fish, the boats that fishermen use, and every other conceivable facet of their day-to-day lives.  

For the fisherfolk, it was a refreshing experience because not only were people coming up to them to merely buy fish, but they were also taking an interest in key aspects of their lives and jobs. They were both appreciated and brought into the process of creating art. I think Sasoon Docks found us rather than the other way around because there’s just such a perfectly suited location to everything that we do. The atmosphere and ambience are incredible and tell the reality of the communities that inhabit it.

In terms of avoiding gentrification, we’ve taken a conscious decision to work with government properties and government buildings. We know that the docks may one day be modernized, in line with global standards. The question we ask is, while we modernize things, can we keep some of our heritage and some of our culture, and some of our art alive?

Real estate is at play everywhere across Mumbai and there’s a clear scarcity of land, but can we have art and culture as an important and integral part of the ‘now’? We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future but if we can push for this idea across the spaces we inhabit, then let’s absolutely do that. Let the people come and experience art in harmony with the inhabitants of the spaces themselves. 

That’s what heritage is. That’s what we’ll miss in 20 years if we let go of it.

St+art has spent the better part of the last decade reclaiming the power of art and bringing it back into the purview of the masses. Could you talk a little about the journey you’ve been on and some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way? What are some things that need to change in order to truly see an Indian street art revolution that’s comparable to global movements? Do you think we’re in the middle of one currently or is there still a way to go?

I think India’s already in the middle of a revolution. In the last ten years, we’ve grown quite a bit. There are international artists who are participating in the revolution and there are countless Indian artists who’ve managed to make full-time careers out of street art. I think our country is so big and so vibrant that it’s already out there when it comes to street art and other forms of art. There are so many urban organizations with fantastic ideas going ahead and building so much art infrastructure. Organizations like ours need to have a large role in intervening in some of these spaces and bringing in a “softness” to the hard infrastructure that exists. We have to ask how can we create community space and  public spaces. 

What we do is essentially create the work you see in front of you but what we do is also create spaces for communities to come together. While growth is happening, we have a larger responsibility towards shaping the future and building our cities around art and seamlessly integrating art into the spaces in which we live. So I think it’s important for us to be a part of that conversation. I think we’re already in a good position. We’re moving away from the strictly commercial aspects of the art we create. While we need the brands and we’re thankful for the support we get from Asian Paints as such a mature brand, it’s not like it’s the sole determinant of what we create. 

We’re not branding what we create. That’s the scary part of what could happen and we’re trying to avoid having these spaces becoming nothing but advertisement spaces. That’s what’s happening in the west also. But I think it’s a thin line because, as I said, funding is important. Policy and funding are aspects that we need to focus on and what need to be well-interpreted by organizations. But I think the authorities are working towards that with us because they understand that these cultural spaces are required for the city to breathe and have a more balanced outlook, along with opening up new avenues for tourism. So I think we’re in a very good position in India to take this even further and also work with the policymakers to request certain changes and to get and promote more public art projects on the whole. We want to enable rather than restrict.

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