Transforming lost urban spaces: the Sassoon Dock Art Project in Mumbai – interview

This unique initiative includes the works of both Indian and international artists and will be open to the public until 30 December 2017.

Art Radar interviews Giulia Ambrogi, the curator of this experiential exhibition that has transformed the 142-year old Sassoon Docks by juxtaposing the vibrancy of street art with Mumbai’s maritime past.  

JR, 'Inside Out Project', 11 November – 30 December 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project, entrance view. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

JR, ‘Inside Out Project’, 11 November – 30 December 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project, entrance view. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

The old meets the new

The Sassoon Docks have played an important role in Mumbai’s maritime history byestablishing the city’s position in the flourishing cotton trade of the early 20th century. They were built on reclaimed land in 1875 and despite being nestled in the sylvan surroundings of Colaba, they were one of the busiest commercial wet docks on the western coast of India and situated at the heart of her textile industry. It is fitting therefore that an urban space with a century and a half of history which time and the public have forgotten, is resurrected in the unconventional avatar of a street art festival.

Niels Shoe Muelmann, Mural at Lodhi Colony, Delhi, 2016. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Niels Shoe Muelmann, mural at Lodhi Colony, Delhi, 2016. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

The project has been realised by St+art India Foundation in a unique collaboration with both private and public enterprises, cultural institutions and embassies under the aegis of the second edition of the St+art Mumbai Urban Art Festival. St+art is an organisation that works on art projects in public spaces, in keeping with their mission statement of ‘Art for All’, which aims at democratising art by making it accessible to a wider audience.

In six St+art Festivals and other similar initiatives organised in the last three years in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, they have striven to reimagine conventional exhibition space by stepping out of the traditional white-cube gallery of the western canon and bringing art outdoors. With this interventionist approach, St+art India has given a platform to urban art – a movement that celebrates the vibrant street life of the metropolis. Each edition of the St+art Festivals has created iconic installations with dozens of artists unleashing their creativity and expressing themselves visually, using the largest canvas available in a city – its streets and its building.

Eduardo Kobra, Mural of Mahatma Gandhi at Churchgate Station, Mumbai, 2017. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Eduardo Kobra, mural of Mahatma Gandhi at Churchgate Station, Mumbai, 2017. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

These have ranged from a mural of Mahatma Gandhi on the façade of the Churchgate Station building in Mumbai (2014 and 2017), vibrantly painted containers at the Inland Container Depot at Tughlakabad (2016), murals in underground subway stations in Bengaluru (2016) and Shekhavati-style mural paintings on the walls of the Lodhi Colony Art District in Delhi (2016) amongst dozens of others.

The Sassoon Dock Art Project has witnessed the creation of site-specific installations, murals, audio-visual experiences, screenings, curated walk-throughs, discussions and other cultural events over a period of 2 months, in an attempt to help the public understand the significance of the space, in the context of time and the history of the city of Mumbai. The transformation of a fishing waterfront into an experiential public art exhibition was realised with the collective creative vision of 30 artists from India, Singapore, Germany, Mexico City, France, Austria and Australia. Commenting on this Hanif Kureshi, co-founder and creative director, St+art India Foundation said:

“With this project we invite all Mumbaikars to come and discover a new side to the city and experience art at this unexpected place. The Sassoon Dock Art Project makes our motto even more clear – ‘Art for All’ and ‘All for Art’.”

Nilesh Artist, Mural at Necklace Road, Hyderabad, 2016. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Nilesh Artist, mural at Necklace Road, Hyderabad, 2016. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Art for All

The Sassoon Dock is located amidst a vibrant local fishing community and is home to a busy fish market that continues to be their economic lifeline. The first artwork that greets visitors to the exhibition is the collage of more than 150 larger-than-life-size black and white portraits that are plastered on the façade of the main building in a chequerboard pattern. This installation is the work of iconic French photographer and artist, JR as a part of his global participatory Inside Out Project. It celebrates the lives, identities and contributions of the local Koli community who are original inhabitants of the city of Mumbai and after whose goddess of worship (Mumbadevi), the city gets its name.

Hanif Kureshi, 'The Idea of Smell', 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Hanif Kureshi, ‘The Idea of Smell’, 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

On entering the main building it is evident that an important thread that is woven through all the artworks and installations on site is a homage to the sights, the smells, the lives and the histories than inhabit the Sassoon Docks. In Hanif Kureshi’s The Idea of Smell the Indian artist has suspended from the ceiling, locally sourced nylonfishing nets on which he has woven dozens of words such as ‘varnish’, ‘soil after rain’ and ‘mom’s cooking’ –immersing the spectator in the emotions that are invoked by our sense of smell.

Clemens Behr, 'Sassoon Dock Painting', 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Clemens Behr, ‘Sassoon Dock Painting’, 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Clemens Behr, a German multimedia artist has used scrap metal and fabric in Sassoon Dock Painting to recreate Mumbai’s paradoxical skyline,within the warehouse at the dockyard. Austria-based Olivier Hoelzl uses stencils and coloured light in Koli Women to be able to successfully integrate the intricacies of the contexts he is working within, with his narratives questioning the validity of colonialism and urbanisation.

Olivier Hoelzl, 'Koli Women', 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Olivier Hoelzl, ‘Koli Women’, 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

In the surreal installation Overflow, Indian artist Shilo Shiv Suleman uses embroidered organza, fibre glass and lines from her own poetry to create an immersive experience for the spectator – while Australian artist Guido van Helten’s monumental, monochromatic portraits of three local women on the walls of the warehouse are arresting and stop us in our tracks. Suspended from the high sloping ceiling of the top floor of the warehouse, is Arthat Collective’s Deadfish– a giant skeleton of a fish that seeks to draw our attention to the detrimental effects that urbanisation wreaks on our ecosystem. On the same floor artist duo The Yok and Sheryo, originally from Australia and Singapore have created Varuna Vessel’ – three wall murals and an installation that draws a parallel between the relationship that fishermen have with their boats and the sea god Varuna’s relationship with his own vahana (vehicle), Makara.

Shilo Shiv Suleman, 'Overflow', 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Shilo Shiv Suleman, ‘Overflow’, 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

These are just a few of the experiences that greet the spectator in the main warehouse of the Sassoon Docks and are a fraction of the art that is on display. The interiors of the buildings, their facades, the walls beside staircases, the storerooms, the empty spaces on the promises and even the concrete water tank have all been taken over by the vibrant imagery of local artistic inspiration meeting global urban art talent. The Sassoon Dock Art Project with its dozens of artists, helpers, workers, local community participants, sponsors and partners was an enormous organisational task.

Art Radar spoke to the curator and co-founder of St+art India Foundation, Giulia Ambrogi about her curatorial strategy and her experiences during the realisation of the project.

Guido van Helten, 'Untitled', 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Guido van Helten, ‘Untitled’, 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Arthat Collective, 'Deadfish', 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Arthat Collective, ‘Deadfish’, 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

What were the locational advantages and the challenges of introducing urban art at the 140-year old Sassoon Docks?

Some of the biggest advantages were the availability of source material, the local community involvement and the rich treasure trove of stories that we had access to. The main advantage was the multiplicity of the location itself – it was old, relevant to the current city of Mumbai and also important to understand its future. The second advantage was the collaboration we had with the Mumbai Port Trust – not only didthey gave us the necessary permissions but also organised the cleaning of the premises and the repairs of buildings. In a way, it was the location itself that was challenging as well – especially at the beginning when it was in a derelict condition. It was a big risk to start the project and many people discouraged us initially. A lot of work needed to get done – but as that progressed, we got in touch with the fishing community and that helped them become an integral part of the success of this project.

The Yok & Sheryo, 'Varuna Vessel', 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

The Yok & Sheryo, ‘Varuna Vessel’, 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Street art is an excellent leveller in the art world, inasmuch as it takes art to the masses. What were the urban public in India like and how did they respond to this project, as compared to your international experiences?

In other parts of the world like Barcelona and New York art is quite well integrated into the daily lives of the public with people visiting galleries often. The number of art institutions is also higher abroad and with a smaller population as well. It is quite unexpected for the art world to do something so unconventional in India. It was a bit difficult for us to convince both the public and the art fraternity of the seriousness and the meaning behind the artworks. We had to show that we are not mere beautifiers. This time it was more legitimised, as it was the second time around in Mumbai. I think people are now getting what we do – and by breaking the boundaries between different sections of society and taking art to the public we have involved the masses and that has been quite ground-breaking.

Do & Khatra, 'Life at Sassoon' , 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Do & Khatra, ‘Life at Sassoon’ , 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Ella & Pitr, 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Ella & Pitr, 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Could you share with us the broad parameters that you used to implement your curatorial vision to seamlessly integrate the works of so many artists?

When you work at such a location the curation also grows by spending more time in the environment itself, which I did on and off over the past year. Once I was a part of the dynamics, it helped me develop my creative vision which has always been based on the location itself. The Sassoon Dock is a part of Mumbai’s rapidly changing urban landscape and it’s identity is getting lost – so it was important for me to showcase the DNA of this place in relation with the DNA of Mumbai. The second aspect that was critical, was working with the artists, researching their previous work and methods,and seeing what they would be capable of creatively achieving in this space. We sent different background information to different artists to enable them to develop their own ideas as to what they planned to do on site. For instance Clemens Behr is an architect by profession so we sent him information pertaining to the buildings and their layouts while for Shilo Shiv Suleman, we had to send her information on the histories and mythologies of the region particularly of the Koli women.

Sameer Kulavoor, 'Parfum Sassoon Showroom', 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Sameer Kulavoor, ‘Parfum Sassoon Showroom’, 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Faizan Khatri, 'The Sassoon Dock Dog', 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Faizan Khatri, ‘The Sassoon Dock Dog’, 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

This initiative was a great example of private-public partnership in the field of contemporary art. How was this an important contributor to public engagement with art?

For us the partnerships were all set up for different reasons. We needed the embassies for cultural support as they help promote such events in different countries. India’s art industry has been quite protective so we have seen very few international artists coming to the country. The embassies and the Ministries of Culture were needed in order to help address this challenge so as to encourage more international collaboration which is needed for a more open dialogue in the art world. The private partners also play a significant role as they are not involved in the art world directly – it is important to get their support and a different perspective. The Government has been an important collaborator for us especially since this was a public art event at a location that is under the jurisdiction of the Mumbai Port Trust.  Art is extremely important for the cultural development of a society, to activate its economy, to develop new flows of tourism, to improve local dynamics and also for education – to improve our comprehension and understanding of our surroundings. Which is why collaborative art projects like this one are so relevant.

Tan Zi Xi, 'Plastic Ocean', 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Tan Zi Xi, ‘Plastic Ocean’, 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Poornima Sukumar and Sadhana Prasad, 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Poornima Sukumar and Sadhana Prasad, 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Are there any other future projects that St+art India is involved in that you would like to share with us?  

The art installations at the Sassoon Docks will obviously be moved and handed back to the artist but the murals and the paintings will be there for the future. The Mumbai Port Trust is also thinking of various ways in which they can use this space – one of the ideas being considered is perhaps a fish market like the one in Bangkok with restaurants, cultural activities etc. I hope these ideas shape up. We are now in the midst of wrapping up the St+art India Festivals in Hyderabad and Goa. In February we shall be doing two projects in collaboration with Bonjour India – one in Kolkata and one in Chandigarh. These are smaller projects which will involve an Indian and a French artist. A lot of cities in India have been contacting us to do similar festivals and projects – so we shall definitely look at those opportunities once our current projects wrap up.

 Amita Kini-Singh

2002

The Sassoon Dock Art Project is open to the public from 11 November to 30 December 2017, at the Sassoon Docks, Apollo Bandar, Colaba, Mumbai 400005.

Related topics: Interviews, identity artcommunity art, art and the community, urbangraffiti, installation, events in Mumbai

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