Doing their bit in beautifying the city’s physical nature, St+Art India has created somewhat of a public art revolution. Creative Director Hanif Kureshi and Content Director Akshat Nauriyal spoke to me about their visual art movement.
Visual art for long has remained confined to elite galleries. Taking that bit further, with a dose of social relevance is the not-for-profit foundation of St+Art India that bring artists from India and around the world to take art to the visible, public space. Their small team comprising of Festival Director Arjun Bahl, Creative Director Hanif Kureshi, Curator Giulia Ambrogi, Projects Manager Thanish Thomas and Content Director Akshat Nauriyal have initiated a legit street art movement with their St+Art festivals that took place in Mumbai and recently concluded in Delhi on a massive scale. You can follow their work here.
1. How important was it to bring an art movement that is so socially relevant to India?
Akshat Nauriyal: The whole street art movement is an inclination of the current global subculture. So it was obviously important to tie up and link up to the global community and put it out there that there is a scene in India, there are artists in India. To formulate that presence of street art in India was essential.
Hanif Kureshi: Art has become like a market now. And art has generally been in custody of collectors, galleries and top selling artists. Common audience never has the chance to forge that connection with art. There is barely any interaction. The concept with St+Art India was to take art to the masses, to the people, and revive the space.
2. How hard was it procuring permissions from the government for such a large scale project?
Hanif Kureshi: It actually was the other way round. For the first edition of the fest, we didn’t really have that many difficulties. That time we’d just taken up 2-3 villages in Delhi, and the entire process was very organic at that point. Bandra was a little more difficult in regards to taking permissions from societies and residents. Now, the difficulty is on another level. We suffered a lot because of the government bureaucracy. For instance in Lodhi colony, we initially wanted to have 10 art works, make it an open art gallery in that sense. But because of the ego of some junior architect at the CPWD (Central Public Works Department), we couldn’t get that going, leaving us to finish only one art piece.
Akshat Nauriyal: There is the bottom-up and the top-down approach. The latter has the Delhi Police, Sanitation department, and the former has the local communities and land owners. It’s worked in our favour to work on a few pieces that have gained momentum. In Bandra, once we did a few walls, a lot more people opened up to the idea of street art. There is no manual, as such. The visibility just helps make things a little easier.
3. When you go up to government bodies for permissions, do you feel your art is being constricted within the shackles of what the government finds acceptable?
Hanif Kureshi: Oh, multiple times! See, our society still needs to open up. It will take some time before we embark on to ‘bold’ artwork or abstract art. Gandhi and Phalke are the subjects that work, and are readily agreed upon.
4. ..but don’t you think it’s sad that Gandhi and Phalke cannot co-exist with something slightly risqué, like the Kamasutra, which is also Indian?
Hanif Kureshi: That can exist in the gallery, sure, where it caters to a certain audience. On the street, it largely depends on the acceptance levels of people. One of our last art works, an idea by Chilean artist Inti has this character, and a person from the NDMC (New Delhi Municipal Council) told one of our members Thanish Thomas that it looks slightly Christian, and it cannot be allowed because “it belongs to your religion”, cause he’s catholic!
Akshat Nauriyal: The responses are not classy at all, very cold and cut. But there has always been a friction between government bodies and creative work. However a movement is, however abstract or figurative, to reach a point, it needs to work within the public space.
5. So in this space of constant censorship, do you the last refute is to hide behind the veil of anonymity as artist Daku does?
Hanif Kureshi: Artists are free to do whatever they wish. However when it comes to festivals, there are a few guidelines which we must adhere to. But if someone wants to do it, they’re free to. I, in fact, wish for more Dakus to come up. But you don’t need a festival for that.
6. Is an artist’s individual mural left to his/her thought process or does the team get the team get together to ideate a spreadsheet?
Akshat Nauriyal: We have an initial conversation, of course, on what the artist may be interested. We give them a cultural background of the place, obviously but there is nothing binding after that and it’s all discussed via an open dialogue. The only factor is we cannot work on something that’s a taboo. For instance, Lady Aiko wanted to do something around women empowerment so Guilia, our curator spoke to her and the artist decided to work on Rani Laxmi Bai. Like the Inti sketch that wasn’t approved, we ultimately got it made inside Khirkee village rather than at the original, more visible location.
7. What is the process wherein you choose your artists?
Akshat Nauriyal: That happens through curation. Guilia, our curator then has an initial dialogue with the artists depending on their availability as most of them are travelling, so we need to book them for the project as soon as possible. So the process starts few months in advance. The aim is to increase the scale and the visibility every time. Ultimately we also aim to serve as a platform for Indian artists.
8. How rewarding is it to involve local people in the process?
Akshat Nauriyal: Our foundation has tried to focus on the ignored dying arts. Like Hand painters, the hand painting style is a dying art form so we worked with them. For the crochet art piece, we worked with work representing various volunteer organisations. We try to involve the community as much as possible, as with their acceptance, the art thrives.
9. Was there an underlying theme to the St+Art Delhi edition?
Akshat Nauriyal: Not really, it is fairly open ended. Sure, the individual pieces have certain ideologies. Like the crochet art piece by artist Olek aimed to highlight the rainbaseras we have in Delhi, which are night shelters initiated by the Delhi Government for the homeless people especially during the harsh summers and winters. It’s a fantastic initiative but very few people know about it. And Lady Aiko’s was the Rani Laxmi Bai piece which was about women empowerment.
10. Do you feel that there is enough done for public art beyond the commercial space?
Akshat Nauriyal: Not really. Cities are inert, dead, concrete facades, and spaces need not look this way as a testament to a modern city module. They should be interactive, and more expressive. There is a strong need for public art.
11. Do you feel the government should undertake commissioned public art projects to sort of revamp the city?
Akshat Nauriyal: The idea is to bring public art into mainstream cognisance. There is a need to recognise that public art can have larger impact than other mediums. The idea that public art can force or change thoughts needs to come about. Of course, we don’t expect the government to suddenly recognise this and take an initiative. There are other genuine social issues to focus on. But from our end we’re trying to present street art in the best way possible.
12. So would you approve of public art that comes without any permissions, and may be termed as vandalising?
Akshat Nauriyal: That’s very relative. I definitely want people to go out and explore their public spaces, either via art, or photography or writing. And for anyone to be a street artist, you need to start with a few squiggly lines. This is not the foundation’s opinion and is strictly mine that I may be up for vandalism too, as long as it is nice to look at. The idea is to encourage people to adopt different ways to interact with their city. I mean, you need to start somewhere, right?
(all images courtesy: St. Art India Official Facebook)