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Art for those by the sea

The Mumbai Urban Art Festival explores the city’s relationship with its marine life and fishing community

A mural by Spanish street artist Okuda San Miquel at Sassoon Docks. (Photo: Sohil Belim)

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In the early days of my career, I had rented a tiny place in a fishing village in Mumbai. It overlooked a small harbour and every morning I would wake up to colourful fishing boats gleaming in the sunlight. 

The megapolis has an inseparable relationship with the sea, hemmed in as it is by a 149km coastline. The ongoing Mumbai Urban Art Festival, organised by the public art organisation St+art India Foundation and Asian Paints, explores this interconnectedness through the theme Between The Sea And The City.

The two-month event, from 22 December-22 February, has talents from India—photographer Sohrab Hura, contemporary artist Sameer Kulavoor and anti-caste poet Shripad Sinnakaar—and a handful from abroad, including street artist Andha Ras (Malaysia), multidisciplinary artist Serge Attukwei Clottey (Ghana) and mixed media artist Filthy Luker (England), who capture the theme through ginormous murals, installations, words and more. Their work is supported by auction houses, such as SaffronArt, and galleries like Chemould Prescott Road, Experimenter and Tarq.

Luker has a playful, giant inflatable installation of green octopus tentacles emerging from the clock tower at Sassoon Docks. I was told it is a travelling installation and will be moved to other areas of the city. The festival is spread across multiple venues, from Sassoon Docks to Colaba, Worli and Bandra. At Sassoon Docks, it is unspooling in three phases. The first, titled Intuitions, is open for viewing; the second, titled Illusions—in another building a stone’s throw away—will be unveiled later this month; and the third, The Asian Paints Art House—in a heritage bungalow next to the clock tower—will be ready by the first week of February. The idea is to keep introducing something new.

A massive mural on a 9,000 sq. ft wall outside one of the buildings by Andha Ras and contemporary Warli artist duo Vayeda Brothers depicts a woman from the Koli fishing community, believed to be the original inhabitants of Mumbai, and a fantastic re-imagination of Maharashtra’s tribal Warli art with marine creatures.

Inside the building are mixed media installations, interactive posters, with washrooms doubling up as art spaces that make for perfect selfie spots. Apart from those categorised for men and women, there’s a “genderless” washroom, with artwork by the media platform Gaysi Family.

For a Mumbaikar, the exhibit Metamorphosis by Sameer Kulavoor and Sandeep Meher will perhaps have the deepest resonance. It has meticulously designed miniature architectural models depicting cities within a city. Next to this exhibit, a large wall is painted with words by the Dharavi-based poet Sinnakaar. A line reads, “Hands don’t reap what hands didn’t sow, and water does not ask what the caste of your thirst is.” It is the only artwork that spotlights a sociopolitical issue. There’s nothing, for instance, about the environmentally controversial Coastal Road project, and disappearing mangroves, in a city-based art festival. “We did intend to do something and draw attention to these issues, especially the mangroves, but things didn’t turn out as planned,” says Arjun Bahl, festival director.

Swiss street artist Mona Caron, known for her intricate botanical murals, has created wall art with plants from the mangroves. “We tried to speak to the Mangrove Foundation of Mumbai but they weren’t very responsive. Now Mona will be working on a mural, with healing herbs like tulsi (holy basil), in a building in Parel later this month,” he adds.

For updates, check @startIndia on Instagram, and visit Sassoon Docks at dusk when fishing boats return to the harbour after a long day at the sea.

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