On a chilly evening in January hundreds of people crossing Azad Maidan, near CST, were bewildered to see a woman dressed in a white salwar kameez lies in a ditch, inviting people to cover her with soil.
Each time someone asked her what she was doing there, the woman, artist Mansi Bhatt, explained that her act was a satirical comment on how people in Mumbai don’t get their personal space until they die.
This display, an example of performance art, are among the rising instances of art activism that the city has seen over the past two years. Many Mumbai artists, including Anupam Singh, Hema Upadhyay, Nalini Malani and Tushar Joag, have begun engaging directly with the public, while city organisations, such as Art Oxygen, Clark House Initiative, the National Gallery of Modern Art, the Mohile Parikh Center and the Goethe Institut are supporting and funding these projects. (See box ‘Embracing the public sphere’).
This mirrors the rise of art activism in other Indian cities, such as Delhi and Kolkata, where Khoj and Experimenter, organisations dedicated to experimental art, are promoting it, says Amrita Gupta Singh of Mumbai’s Mohile Parikh Center, which supports inter-disciplinary dialogue, art education and experimentation. “Artists want to move out of the white cube to engage with people on the streets, and with the city’s social, political and cultural issues,” says Claudio Maffioletti, who co-founded Art Oxygen, a Mumbai-based organisation that promotes experimental art. Many artists want to grapple with public issues emerging from increasing urbanisation and globalisation, the unequal distribution of wealth and resources, rising property prices, threats to the environment and rising crime, instead of just making paintings to hang on a gallery wall to please a few, says artist Sharmila Samant, who has helped raise awareness among slum dwellers and alleviated their problems. She says it is difficult to draw a line between activism and social work. “If art can’t give you answers, it should at least ask questions,” says Tushar Joag.
In December, Clark House Initiative, an organisation that supports experimental art, and the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai, held a rally to spread awareness about the cause espoused by Manipuri activist Irom Sharmila — to push the government to repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. Artists Nalini Malani, Sharmila Samant and students of the JJ School of Art participated in the daylong event, which included screenings of films on Irom Sharmila’s work.
Earlier, for a week in May, Tushar Joag lived, ate and slept in a space enclosed by a dense curtain of string, in Clark House in Colaba. Joag passed his time by filling notebooks with the sentence: I will not lose faith in Indian democracy and judiciary, and requesting visitors to do so, to express his solidarity with human rights activist Binayak Sen, who was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of sedition by a Chhattisgarh court the previous month. At the end of the week, Joag sent the notebooks to the minister for law and justice.
Many Mumbai artists have regularly made intense political and social statements through their work, such as Nalini Malani and Shilpa Gupta, to name just two. In that sense, the trend of engaging with public issues is hardly new. But if one were looking for a point in the recent past when a substantial number of artists began actively trying to occupy public spaces and engage with citizens received an organised impetus, it would probably be Art Oxygen’s first project in early 2010, when it requested five artists to make public statements through their art.
Bidyut Singha invited commuters at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus to stand on a pedestal and made portraits of their feet, as a way of commemorating the victims of terrorist attacks on Mumbai’s local trains. Designer Corrado Cotignano and photographer Binaifer Bharucha created huge cutouts of ordinary
people, with the tagline ‘I am Mumbai’. They put up hundreds of these all over the city. That year, Art Oxygen bore the cost of producing the works. In 2011, along with the Mohile Parikh Center, it roped in seven artists to comment about water problems confronting Mumbai as part of a project called Fluid City. By then, Mohile Parikh Center was able to provide some funds from its grant from Hivos Foundation, a humanist institute based in the Netherlands, as was the Goethe Institut in Mumbai. Vijay Sekhon, for instance, did street plays in slums raising awareness about the residents’ right to water.
Art Oxygen’s third annual project, [en]counters: Land of Mine, included ten artists and the same sponsors as in the previous year. Students of city colleges, including the JJ School of Art and St Xavier's College, joined in. Mansi Bhatt's stark statement on Azad Maidan was a part of this project. For next year’s project, Art Oxygen will rope in fifteen to twenty artists and hopes to get funds from non-profit organisations as well as from the corporate sector, in addition to its existing sponsors.
Art Oxygen does not pay the artists, only covers their expenses. So if it gets more money, it can do more and bigger projects, as long as artists want to participate. “Money is not a consideration,” says Bhatt. “I want to be heard.”