The Sherp sat down for a conversation with expert urban art curator Giulia Ambrogi – responsible for bringing together diverse art forms for the St+Art India Festival.
The St+Art India festival is nothing short of a contemporary art revolution in India. Not only has the festival remodeled urban aesthetic with their public art projects, but they have brought to public knowledge art forms hitherto unknown. At the centre of the change is Giulia Ambrogi, a co-founder of the festival and its principal art curator. With St+Art Delhi’s 2016 edition underway, we had a chat with her about art curation for the Indian cognizance, the cultural importance of visual art and the evolution of the art movement in India.
1. St+Art India was begun with an endeavour to improve upon urban aesthetic. How would you say the process has been in the last three years?
There was a vision, to make contemporary art, which was limited to galleries for far too long, accessible and free to everyone. The same idea extends to our Work In Progress project, where we’ve taken upon a neglected area – the Inland Container Deport in Tughlakabad, where art never reaches people, and encourage visual art in such an unconventional place. The result of that is a beautiful city backed by visual art. So the vision has always been of cities with spectacular masterpieces.
2. Giulia, how do you curate the artists who work with you for every specific edition. Is there a thematic selection at play?
Throughout the years that I’ve been bringing together artists, the main criteria has always been to select artists capable of getting in touch with their environment in a sensitive way. There are many artists whose work, while brilliant, is pretty much the same everywhere. But I believe that art must be site specific. So when we’re looking at artists, we’re looking at portfolios that have work deeply connected with the places they’re from. Especially in India, where there are so many taboos and religions, some aspects remain very sensitive. So we look at artists who can respect that, and be deeply influenced by their environment and create work that is dynamic and contemporary.
3. What is the process wherein the mural piece is decided? I believe that would be preceded with some cultural exchange?
Oh yes, absolutely! It is a long process that begins seven months before the execution. We start a correspondence by obviously explaining to them the topic of the festival and the way we go about it, including the general idea. For instance, for the current St+art Delhi edition, we have the concept of created an art district in Lodhi. So we communicate this idea to them, and explain to them why Lodhi was chosen for this novelty, the architecture of the location and the vision. We tell them about, for example, the sidewalks in Lodhi, and the many spots conducive to art, so there would be a homogeneous feeling of it being a dynamic museum. Depending on the style and the language of the artist, we also suggest ideas from our culture that they could explore through their work. And our amazing group of volunteers also shoot videos of the location – not just the streets but of the vendors and the environment so the artist gets a feeling of the forms, colours and the imagery.
4. Last year during the St+Art Festival, I had a conversation with Hanif and Akshat about the process, and we spoke about the many constraints that come with attempting to push slightly bolder pieces, especially when permissions from public bodies are involved. As Festival Director, how have you managed to achieve a balance between your creative freedom and censorship?
Now, that’s a great question. I will admit, that in the past, I have had problems with artists sometimes. Because no matter what I told them, once they’re on location, they get stimulated by their surrounding and want to attempt something that could be problematic. For instance, this one time, this artist wanted to paint a bloody, fleshy, carnal art piece of an animal. And we obviously could not have that as public art. I try to counter this at the premier stage itself. When I choose an artist, I choose them if their style and language is suitable for the complexities of our country. Even if I select someone with who, finding the common ground can be difficult, they’re mostly so happy to come here and create. Because India is a blank canvas, so they’re mostly ready to be a lot more collaborative.
5. How is the St+Art Festival funded? Does the Government offer any help?
They offer enthusiasm, which is a huge help to be honest. Yes, they’re eager to give us permissions. Like for the Work in Progress project, the Cement Corporation of India has lent us the space of the ICD, the containers that they rent, so the technical help and support is readily available. But because we’re an NGO, we do like to keep our purposes pure by not being connected, economically.
6. Would you say the public has become a lot more involved in this process, than just acting as a passive receptor to it?
Yes, I’d like to think so. First year, when we began, it was something new for everyone. Apart from the Gandhi mural we did, which is the tallest mural in India, we worked on reinventing an urban town near Delhi, where the reach was limited to a community, which is what we intended at that point. But back then, the reach was much lower. For instance, for every edition, we accept online registrations for people who would like to volunteer with the edition. A lot of people apply to work in production, or even documentation. In the first edition, we had volunteers from Baroda University; for the second edition, we had about 200 people; for the Bombay edition last year, we had 300 people and now we have over 400 people. There have been volunteers who’ve come and joined us after their office. And we had a few women over 60 years of age helping us out. There has been a lot more on ground support.
7. Giulia, as a professor of Cultural Heritage, you would condone the idea that public aesthetic is incredibly valuable to a country’s visual culture. Would you say there is enough of an initiative on the government’s part to improve upon it?
I was speaking about a contemporary vision for the city through art. Unfortunately, there are many other countries, where culture is not taken as a tool, or wealth of society. In India , there are some great heritage sites that are maintained very well. My mother is from Rome, and when she came to visit me, she was impressed by the fantastic condition of the Lodhi Garden or Humayun’s Tomb. But overall, there isn’t much effort, and a vision is sorely lacking in the planning. But I’m sure it will increase in due time.
8. What can you tell us about the Work In Progress project?
So, we’ve taken over containers at the the Inland Container Deport or ICD in Tughlakabad, the largest dry port in Asia. And we have brought together about 25 artists who will be exhibiting their work there. On the opening night, that is scheduled on the 31st of January, we’ll have 12 artists who’ve already worked on their own containers, and have installed their art work. Beginning February, the remaining artists will be working on their containers, so the public can witness it on ground. So, while half the art work is displayed, the other half can be witnessed in process. It will be like being in an open lab or a studio, where you have visual access to the entire project as it is happening.
9. Is the St+Art India project headed towards other places in India soon?
Yes, there are plans. We have a list of cities we want to make a headway into. The top cities in consideration are Bangalore, Chennai, Surat and Hyderabad. But as and when it will happen, Bangalore will definitely be the first.
10. What is your vision for the Indian art festival scene?
It will be a long process but I can definitely see it evolving. There are a lot many platforms and a lot more artists sending in their portfolios. For instance, we have these Indian artists, Harshvardhan Kadam and Amitabh Kumar, who’ve taken the street art project in their own cities. Amitabh is spearheading a fantastic Art in Transit project at Bangalore and Amitabh is handling Street Art Pune. We receive a lot of emails from people telling us they want to start in their own city, so there’s a lot of potential.
(All Images via: St+art India Facebook)