This show of helmet art aims to turn heads and protect them
Saddle up for India’s first display of motorcycle helmet art. Moto Art Show, a day-long exhibition at the Bombay Art Society in Mumbai today, isn’t your average biker convention. Don’t expect flaming skulls, leather jackets and bandanas. Instead, there are 23 custom-painted works by artistes from around the world — painters, jewellery designers, street artists and even a metalwork sculptor.
The idea is to make the helmet an object of beauty, so the art is unusual too — a landscape depicting a road trip through the hills, Cliff Richard song lyrics, underwater fantasies, hand-engraving, gold leaf, freehand pin-striping. All serving a common purpose: to get India, where motorbike safety is largely ignored, to see a helmet as something that can be “worn proudly like a crown”.
A HANDLE ON THE ROAD
In 2017 alone, 36,000 two-wheeler users, riding helmetless, died in road accidents – an average of 100 a day. Two- and three-wheeler riders account for 40% of the 1.5 lakh people who die in traffic-related deaths annually.
It’s easy to see why. Motorcycle use in the West is dominated by biker groups intent on leisure rides, who invest in safety gear – reinforced jackets, protective gloves, helmets that fit snugly enough to absorb shocks.
In India, most two-wheelers are used for transport — mommies ferrying kids to school, men riding to work, delivery men and the like. Few bother with helmets, and those who do tend to buy cheap ones, ride without the straps on, or wear useless hardhats instead. Pillion riders – their fatality rate in an accident can be as high as 42% – usually don’t wear helmets.
It’s what prompted Niels-Peter Jensen, an athlete and motorcycle designer, to start Helmets for India, an initiative to get riders to see helmets as ‘cool’. . “You could fix any other bone, but I’ve known people who’ve hurt their heads in an accident; they’re never the same,” he says. “Your face, your knowledge, your memories, your emotion, your love it’s all in your head.”
He teamed up with Mallika Prakash, 38, a biker and hardware engineer-turned-painter, to organise the Mumbai show. “Indians make tons of excuses when it comes to wearing safety gear,” Prakash says. “They’ll rationalise that they’re not going too far or too fast, they think accidents will happen to someone else. And it doesn’t help that helmets are uncomfortable in our humid weather.”
GOING FASTER, GETTING VISOR
For Prakash, merging her art and biking interests seemed natural. She curated First of Its Name, a month-long show of motorcycle-related art by 12 artists, in Bengaluru last year. “Motorcycle art is work that is inspired by the joy of riding,” she says. “You try to capture the experiences, the views and freedom you have as a biker.”
Jensen says art and biking are natural partners. “Bikers are attracted to the sense of freedom, of being unfettered by limits, of opening up the mind, much like artists,” he says. Both are breakaway paths in a sense.”
To get a better sense of this, check out the helmet created by Ganesh Shinde at this week’s show. The Pune-born artist and advertising executive logs his bike and art experiences on his Instagram handle @MilesOnCanvas. “I love nature and a bike allows you to head out further with your canvases,” he says.
Last month, he took his first trip to Himachal Pradesh, riding though villages, meeting people, seeing snow and getting the peace of mind he craves in the city. It seemed natural to record those experiences, in real time, on a helmet, as a watercolour landscape. “A helmet is easier to paint on than a bike because of the legal constraints [on the modification of vehicles],” he says. “It’s a beautiful way of connecting with my bike and recording memories I would not have made if I wasn’t riding.”
GEARING UP FOR MORE
Over the coming week, Shinde will join Prakash, Jensen and others on a bike ride from Mumbai to Goa, raising awareness about two-wheeler safety and donating 1,000 helmets along the way.
“A thousand helmets is not a lot,” says Prakash. “But we want to pass them on to economically disadvantaged people, particularly to kids whose parents have a two-wheeler as the only means of transport, but don’t have helmets.”
The custom helmets will take a journey of their own. They’ll travel to motorcycle-themed events around the world, and will be auctioned at the end of 2019 to raise funds for a non-profit working towards road safety in India. A new helmet will be added to the collection. Shinde plans to paint a special one chronicling the Mumbai-Goa tour.