“Thoughtful street art is like good fiction – it speaks out on behalf of everyone, for us all to see.”
― Carla H. Krueger
The final day of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) taking place in Glasgow from 1 – 12 November has a special event called “Arts and the Imagination” hosted by Brian Eno, a British musician, composer and record artist, who defined and reinvented some of the most popular songs of the ‘80-’90s era. It will discuss art and culture in building conversations around climate change. Art has often been shown to have a powerful influence in communication on climate change. Where science fails in inspiring public concern for it, art with its visual engagement makes facts relatable and emotively direct.
So how is a street as a space of interaction between people and art? Think of any lane, street, road, anywhere in the world. As you step on the sidewalk, falling leaves crunching below your feet, cars and buses zooming past you on one side, you happen to glance at a wall on one side of the road. Swirls of paint in vibrant colours of blue and green in intricate designs coat the walls, cheering you up immediately. Perhaps, you take a step back to observe, , and see that the entire work seems to have some message. Does it speak to you?– The latest Indian Census figures confirm that the biggest part of India’s working population walk to their place of work or cycle. In both cases, a glance on repeat, at the wall on your way to work is something many can choose to engage with.
According to researchers, streets carry out various social functions, they act like a meeting space to interact with peers, both friends and strangers as well as the society at large. They are ever-changing spaces that symbolically communicate urban problems. Street art in particular, beyond the lens of being a visual image, acts as a mode of communication to other individuals and to protest against an ongoing current event. This conversation is not discriminatory in nature, as the audience is not restricted by class, like it often can be in art galleries. Street art also inserts itself into the small social space within the daily routine. Through this process, street art acts as a connection between the artist and the viewer but also between the individual and society. Street art manages to go beyond the standard, restricted use of space with the help of appropriation and reappropriation of powerful known images and messages.
So how are Indian artists thinking about this egalitarian space, now?
The word on the street (art)
Shilo Shiv Suleman, 32, a renowned artist from Bengaluru and the founder of Fearless Collective, has used public walls as her canvas to draw attention to the livelihood of waste pickers and Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike’s (BBMP) pourakarmikas (waste and sanitation civic workers), during the pandemic. These women work to collect, segregate and recycle the waste collected from residential areas on an everyday basis. These services didn’t qualify as essential services during the pandemic, so they were not considered frontline workers, who had access to emergency payment or early vaccination.To highlight this, the Fearless Collective along with Hasiru Dala, a social impact organisation working for the welfare of waste pickers, started “Essential” and collectively created a public monument.
With the slogan “We are for you, you are for us”, the mural stands beautifully painted on the Utility building in Bengaluru, as a timely tribute to the hard working women, who hold our cities together.
Street art also acts as a medium to celebrate the rich biodiversity of a place. Artist Afzan Pirzade, a street artist based out of Pune, as a part of the Worli Dairy Project, painted the walls in blues and greens, showcasing the diverse biodiversity of Mumbai. Though always seen as the concrete hub of the country, Mumbai also has rich natural heritage that needs to be safeguarded. Through this artwork, he sought to remind the people of Mumbai of the rich fauna and flora they are surrounded with. The artist covers some of the concrete to replicate a scene from nature to convey this message.
An illustrator and artist born in Tamil Nadu and currently based in Goa, Osheen Shiva’s mural, “Better Together” showcases the interdependence between nature and us. Painted on the walls of the Kendriya Vidyalaya School in Trivandrum, Kerala, is animal life native to the state. The backdrop and the placement of the art on a school wall, is a subtle reach out to everyone who will care to look at it.
Art to Articulate
John Dewey, a renowned American philosopher and psychologist in his book Art & Experience thought of art to be at the pinnacle of communication when it comes to universality and reach. Art transcends the boundaries of language and communicates shared experiences and thus, a shared sense of meaning. But how do artists use art to communicate?
Scott R. Rudd, a professor of communications at University of Texas, Austin, argues that the artist through their art communicates either a certain experience to the viewer, or leads them to make certain judgements about an experience. They use the material media that art provides to elicit experiences or thoughts about the specific message they seek to communicate. Art does not always convey new information, but creates new ways of communicating it.
So while Glasgow discusses this in relation to climate change, a great diversity of subjects and concerns, both local and national continue to revitalize Indian city and townscapes. So, look up as you walk by and see if your lived experience shows up on the wall close to you.
Devanshi Daga is a fourth year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She has completed her major in Psychology and is currently pursuing her minor in Sociology and Media Studies.
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