In Little India, Singapore, the seven-storey Broadway Hotel is serving as a backdrop to a unique mural these days. It seems as if the colours of nature have spilled onto the structure. A tree stands as an anchoring image, flanked on either side by two deer, and with countless birds perched atop. Titled Dancing in Unison, this artwork is a collaboration between Gond art exponent Bhajju Shyam and Singaporean contemporary artist Sam Lo.
Similar to how most of the world pivoted to a more digital way of working during the pandemic, the two artists too had online conversations to create this composition. However, due to covid-19 restrictions, only Lo could paint visuals on the actual wall.
Dancing in Unison, created in a partnership between The Singapore Tourism Board and St+art India Foundation, is one of the highlights of the Artwalk 2021, becoming one of the 20 murals created during the past six editions of the public art festival held in Little India. Hailed as one of the tallest murals in the city, it resonates with the theme of the Artwalk for 2021, which is “In Spite Of”, as it sees artists overcome limitations and boundaries to create works that hope for future harmony.
The mural brings together two artistic sensibilities. The tree, for instance, is an iconic element of Gond art. Here, it can be seen engulfing the urban built environment. In a way it becomes a metaphor for a universe in which all is interconnected. Birds, as motifs, occur in works of both the artists. Sparrows, in Lo’s work, are a symbol of freedom. “Sam’s deer, a revered animal in India, serves as a tribute to Gond art, and manifests the contemporary interconnection where elements from different cultures are seen blending together in our globalised and accessible world,” mentions the curatorial note. “Sam further reinforces this idea by designing a red ribbon, another common element in their work, as a reminder of an omnipresent energy that connects us all, and one which connects her beliefs with those of Gond art.” Though the two artists work in very different contextual ways, and yet there is a sense of interconnectedness in both their creations.
Even though the work was created during the pandemic, what worked in the favour of the collaborators was the nature of public art. “Since it is open-air, it has allowed us to create something inspiring for people,” says Giulia Ambrogi, curator and cofounder at St+art India Foundation. However, the modalities of creation have changed for them through the pandemic. Usually the work and festivals created by St+art India bring together communities, with murals created across the neighbourhood. This time, they have worked with single walls, be it in Mumbai or Chennai, with artists from the particular locations. “For instance, if we were in Mumbai, we could only work with artists living in the city due to travel restrictions. That was a bit more challenging from a curatorial point of view,” she adds. But safety of artists and the team has been paramount and the foundation has adapted to this new way of working.
Another good part about public art these days is that it is as much on the street as in the digital realm. “And that has been happening even before covid-19. For instance, a mural created at Churchgate Station in Mumbai would reach not just the people passing by the station but also those who might be seeing it online," adds Ambrogi. St+art India Foundation’s association with the Singapore Tourism Board isn’t new. They have collaborated in the past on projects such as the one at the Sassoon Docks, Mumbai. “Last year, there was a beautiful residency with Bhajju Shyam for a month to restore Gond art to its original context of being painted on walls but in a contemporary way,” says Ambrogi. “This particular mural captures the essence of the role of art in this time. It can be a means of healing, imbued with therapeutic powers. And also create ways of togetherness, while breaking boundaries.”
For Bhajju Shyam, this collaboration presented a new challenge. One of these was the height of the wall, one of the tallest that he has worked with. “Secondly, I had seen this structure only as a digital image,” elaborates the artist, who was born and raised in the village of Patangarh, Madhya Pradesh. He created sketches based on these digital impressions. Even though Lo’s way of working and thinking were very different from him, their creative energies came together beautifully. “At the end of the day, the story is about nature, about the elements and the flora and fauna that co-exist within it. That has always been at the heart of Gond art, and continues to be so,” he adds.