Last month, ArchDaily had an opportunity to speak with Akshat Nauriyal, Content Director at Delhi-based non-profit St+Art India Foundation which aims to do exactly what its name suggests—to embed art in streets. The organization’s recent work in the Indian metropolises of Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Bengaluru, has resulted in a popular reclamation of the cities’ civic spaces and a simultaneous transformation of their urban fabric. Primarily working within residential neighborhoods—they are touted with the creation of the country’s first public art district in Lodhi Colony, Delhi—the foundation has also collaborated with metro-rail corporations to enliven transit-spaces. While St+Art India’s experiments are evidently rooted in social activism and urban design, they mark a significant moment in the historic timeline of the application of street art in cities: the initiative involves what it believes to be a first-of-its-kind engagement between street artists and the government.
Suneet Zishan Langar: Could you explain the origins of St+Art India? What are your primary objectives?
Akshat Nauriyal: Essentially, we started around 2014, with twin intents: to make public spaces more vibrant and interactive for the people who use them the most, and to make art more democratic as a medium. We have five co-founders and all of us come from very different backgrounds. I’m a filmmaker and visual artist and I have previously worked documenting the city’s emerging sub-cultures. Hanif Kureshi is an artist who has been actively involved in the street art community. Meanwhile, Arjun Bahl and Thanish Thomas have a background in events and logistics and Giulia Ambrogi worked as a curator. We all got in touch around the time of the Extension Khirkee street art festival when we found we were all in six degrees of separation wanting to do the same thing, and that’s how our first project came about in Shahpur Jat.
SZL: Why did you choose the Shahpur Jat neighborhood?
AN: Shahpur Jat provided us a very interesting space for an art intervention since we wanted to work in a high-density area which was also navigable by foot. Moreover, it is an urban village that was rapidly changing. Back in the day, it used to be predominantly inhabited by the Jat community, but due to cheap rents and its proximity to South Delhi, its peripheral areas were becoming really gentrified. So while a lot of posh boutiques and cafés had opened up on the perimeter, on the inside it was still primarily residential with small hole-in-the-wall shops.
SZL: How did you obtain permissions to install artwork on walls?
AN: We sought permissions in two ways: bottom up and top down. Bottom up would mean that we went door-to-door and asked residents to permit us to paint on their walls. Some of them said no, some of them said yes, but that’s how it began. The top down approach meant that we went to authorities such as the MCD [Municipal Corporation of Delhi] and the CPWD [Central Public Works Department] or other faculties that had the rights or the ownership to the places.
Towards the end, we did this mural on the Delhi Police Headquarters, a huge portrait of Mahatma Gandhi by German artist Hendrik Beikirch and Indian artist Anpu. That was a huge moment for us in the sense that, in the historical timeline of street art in the world, graffiti if not street art has always had negative connotations of vandalism. So when we’re having street artists paint a 158-foot mural on the façade of a governmental building, that moment holds immense significance not just for the scale of work, but also for its larger relevance. This marked a first-of-its-kind engagement with the government.
SZL: Where do you primarily obtain funding from?
AN: We work with a lot of cultural institutions, consulates or embassies to bring artists and fund projects. So essentially, most of our projects are funded by some consulate. We work with almost 20 now such as Germany, Poland, Singapore, and Switzerland. Another major supporter is Asian Paints. A lot of the work we do requires huge infrastructure and a lot of paint, so in that sense Asian paints was a very logical match for us.
SZL: How do you choose the artists that you collaborate with? Explain your work process.
AN: We first synthesize the project, and then work backward to see who’s the best fit for the kind of curation we’re doing. We seek very meaningful partnerships with different organizations, whether it’s an NGO or a cultural institution, or brands and corporates for that matter. Once we finalize the artist, we primarily work with them and the style that they use.
SZL: Why do you believe that democratization of art is important?
AN: We feel that art, at least the way it exists as an industry, has become marginalized only to a very small section of society, almost a novelty of the rich and the elite. We wanted to somehow break out of the regular gallery structure, because if you see the kind of footfall museums receive, it’s maybe a few hundred in a month, and that’s a high estimate. But if you flip that and look at public spaces as places to experience art, then you have thousands of people crossing these areas every day, and just in terms of the reach that the artwork can have, it's tremendous, exponentially larger than what it can have in a closed environment.
SZL: How do you think this affects a community or a people?
AN: I think the impact is very multi-faceted and layered. Different places react differently. So we’ve seen in our experience that if we’re working in a neighborhood, it leads to an increased sense of community pride. And it is really endearing to see people take to their own neighborhoods, to feel ownership of their surroundings. For example, in Shahpur Jat, one of the first walls that we painted was this mural of a cat by Indian artist Anpu and it quickly became a locally recognized landmark. People started giving directions based on its location. The people who lived in that building became very well known in the community which led to more people approaching us to paint their walls.
SZL: The Lodhi Public Art District in Delhi is undoubtedly your largest urban intervention. What was the idea behind the selection of Lodhi Colony? Also, how do you think your work has altered the structure and meaning of the neighborhood?
AN: Yes, there was a very clear intent in picking Lodhi Colony. We wanted to create multiple artworks in the form of an open walkthrough gallery where people could just come and spend a few hours a day and have a good time exploring the city. So Lodhi was a natural choice. It is one of the rare places in Delhi which is pedestrian-friendly. It’s also well organized in the sense that it’s easily navigable, and it has symmetrical blocks created in a localized typology. The façades that it presented were beautiful, large and symmetric, which meant that almost every artist got a similar canvas to play with, and hence, there is a semblance of symmetry to the entire project. Moreover, its location in South Delhi and the fact that it is a residential colony were other key points. As a government-owned residential colony, it didn’t face any threat of being gentrified, so we knew that the artwork would stay on.
In terms of its impact, we witnessed that many people started feeling pride that the neighborhood had become a place to visit on the city’s tourist map. Now when you go to Lodhi, there’s something happening on the streets all the time, whether it’s a photo shoot, or a music video, or ordinary people just having a jolly time. We did a wall in collaboration with the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan [Clean India Mission] and I remember speaking to one person who told me about a man who had stopped his car and was about to urinate on a wall when a few local people strongly objected saying, “someone’s taken the effort of painting this beautiful thing. Don’t dirty it, just go to a public toilet.” So the impact could be simple, maybe it just makes you feel better or it distracts you or it makes you think, but it could also have deeper meanings of community building or keeping the neighborhood clean.
SZL: How do you make sure your artwork remains contextual to a neighborhood’s unique identity?
AN: It would be incorrect on my part to say that every project we do is contextual. But that stems from the fact that we work hand-in-glove with artists. So there are many artists that work with themes that are not necessarily contextual. Artwork that is aesthetically pleasing, so to speak, and that is one approach to street art. Another approach is to be highly contextual and socially relevant. I’d say that we have a balance of both. We’re very aware of the fact that using public space is a responsibility and we try to navigate that in the best manner possible.
For example, in Lodhi Colony, there are a lot of beautiful pieces that are generic, say SENKOE’s artwork that features colorful birds, or the one Shoe did based around typography which used an Indian broom as a painting tool.
But at the same time, there are pieces like the one done by Shilo. She worked with an NGO called Sewing New Futures, which works in Najafgarh, Delhi, an area where a lot of women are forced into prostitution by their families. The organization works with these women to empower them with alternative sources of livelihood. Shilo worked with the young girls there, and their stories became the inspiration behind the project.
[The mural “From your Strength, I Weave Beauty” by Shilo Shiv Suleman identifies two women from the community. An older woman steps out of the mist on the left side; her struggle has carved lines into her face as she navigates the night inside her. On the other side, her daughter pulls this fog out of the dark sky and weaves it into alchemical threads of gold, creating a new future for them both.]
Similarly, in Bengaluru, we did a project with this organization called the Aravani Art Project which works within the transgender community to provide visibility, and open up discussion about issues that are prevalent within the larger LGBTQ community. It seeks to demonstrate that transgender people are just as skilled and able as anyone else, and that they can contribute to society.
[The mural 'Naavu Idhevi - We Exist’ by Aravani Art Project features a trans person as its centerpiece to provide a reminder of the community’s existence in India’s dense society. The painting uses geometric shapes that form a gender-fluid face refusing to look away, and the Hibiscus flower which is known for having both male and female parts. The Hibiscus, like the trans person, grows on the fringe and lights up Indian streets in an unapologetic burst of color and diversity.]
We also worked in Delhi with an American crochet artist called Olek. The Delhi Urban Shelter Board had created night shelters for the city’s homeless people and in order to highlight this initiative, Olek worked with almost thirty women from different socio-economic backgrounds to synthesize this project where we used a kilometer-long fabric and draped the entire night-shelter in it.
In Bengaluru, we worked primarily with Indian artists because we wanted to let them talk about their city and build local narratives through the walls. An artist called Ullas did a mural on Kempegowda, one of the founding fathers of the city. Appupen, a comic book artist, did murals in a metro station which chronicled stories associated with Bengaluru’s history, almost like folk stories or fables. So yes, we’re sensitive to the local narrative that the places that we work in offer us and wherever possible, with the artist that we’re working with, we try to synthesize projects that are inclusive.
SZL: Transit is a mundane but unavoidable part of modern city life. Do you believe your work on metro-stations will help redefine the function of transit-spaces?
AN: You used a very important term, function, and we believe that our cities are built to just be functional and nothing more than that, most of the time at least. While urban design is surely evolving in our country, it still leaves a lot to be desired. Transit spaces are increasingly being used as thoroughfares, almost more than streets themselves, as more people opt to use public transport now. These become part of a routine for people and we’ve observed that they can become really inert in the way they exist. So we’re trying to bring in an element of experience to these spaces that are just functional, something that makes them more interactive. It’s about conversation, the intention is that these efforts lead to dialogue between people, whether it’s internal or external. You see an artwork, some people think, “oh, I like it,” some people will disagree, and in the process you think, “why do I like it?” or “why don’t I like it?” or if you have a question you might just ask a person next to you, a stranger, and that starts a conversation.
A good example of that is the Dadasaheb Phalke mural that we painted on the MTNL Building in Bandra, Mumbai. Phalke is the father of Bollywood, the first person to make a moving image here, but nobody really knows about him. When we put up that mural, I remember I was taking some shots as I rode on a bus, and there were two people in the seat right in front of me. The older man asked, ”Oh, what’s that?” and the younger guy, more aware of what was happening in the city said, ”It’s a man called Dadasaheb Phalke but I don’t know who he is.” And as I sat there, I saw this great dialog between two perfect strangers as the older man went on to explain the legacy of Phalke. That’s what our work is about, in essence. So something like that put in a transit space has a profound impact, whether it’s about its pleasing visuals, or a deeper internal dialogue. And in terms of urban design, we believe it is our responsibility to make cities that are representative of the point in time that the country or the city is going through.