The first time New York artist and city planner, Alex Mazzarella stepped into Dharavi, he remembers clutching hard in panic to his knapsack. Now, barely two months on, Mazzarella is seen blithely tripping through the labyrinthine lanes of Dharavi with his two companions, filmmaker Casey Nolan and Dutch photographer Arne de Knegt. The three are on a mission to use art to tell the story of a settlement, through their three-month residency project titled, Artefacting Mumbai.
“The idea is to show how art can engage very distant cultures, places and people,” says the 31-year-old artist. His multi-media project takes a canvass as large as Asia’s biggest slum and hopes to explore community issues through painting, photography, video and documentation by engaging the residents of Dharavi. “In 2007, I was working as an urban planner in Hong Kong. I’d been involved in a lot of bottom-up, grassroot planning in mega cities, but when I first heard of Dharavi, its phenomenon just fascinated me,” he says.
The young Westerners are wary of treading on the path following slumdog stereotypes. “We don’t want to return and sell images of poverty to the West. I feel art can do more than touch upon a culture. The idea is to tell a story by engaging the subjects within,” explains Nolan.
Bringing the spotlight on Dharavi’s industrial microcosm called 13th Compound, the three artistes are busy conducting classes and workshops for a group of 10 to 18 year olds in the area. “It’s a visual journey to document the life here,” says Mazzarella. “People don’t have access to reports, but through an audio-visual medium like art, anyone is allowed to explore the social issues of a settlement.”
So while Mazzarella teaches slum children to paint, by picking up industrial waste and recycling it into artworks, Nolan hands them SLR cameras and shows them how to shoot pictures. Knegt, on the other hand, is hoping to document the life in Dharavi by what he calls the Fall 2010 Dharavi Collection. “We wanted to stay away from depicting pitiable images to the West,” explains Knegt. So the shutterbug has made the working-class Dharavi populace his models for this sort of trash-fashion catalogue.
The three will showcase their findings through an exhibition today, with over 10 paintings and four photographs. “Our final show will be held at the end of January, when the project will be complete. This exhibition is our way of showing a mid-term report of all our findings to those interested,” says Mazarella. The team will be helped by two Indian filmmakers like Nishant Nayak and Parasher Baruah and their final experiences will be exhibited in New York and Oregon in April next year.