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Still the city of contrasts

Peter Bialobrzeski's new series reiterates a clich that could be a truth about Mumbai

The series provides an outsider’s view of Mumbai. Photo: Peter Bialobrzeski
The series provides an outsider’s view of Mumbai. Photo: Peter Bialobrzeski

Amakeshift hut glows blue in between worn-out structures. Corrugated metal shanties stand in stark contrast to luminescent billboards. Two motorcycles thrown on a pile of rubbish are decorated with a flower garland. Laundry put out to dry dots the facade of a run-down apartment block with surreal colours. A sales booth stands in front of a construction site.

These photographs are part of Mumbai Suburbia: Urban Environment In Crisis, an exhibition of German artist Peter Bialobrzeski’s work, now showing at the Max Müller Bhavan, Mumbai. Going by the photographs, Bialobrzeski, a native of Wolfsburg—a city founded by the Nazis and planned solely for the purpose of manufacturing Volkswagen cars—seems to have been overwhelmed by the city during his three-month residency at the Goethe Institut in Mumbai at the end of 2017.

The 1961-born photographer’s project Die Zweite Heimat (Second Homeland) was shown last year as a solo exhibition at Deichtorhallen Hamburg, the most heralded exhibition space for photography in Germany. In his most prominent project, Neon Tigers (2004), he drew Bangkok, Singapore, Shenzhen and other megacities of South-East Asia as dynamic, everchanging urban landscapes dominated by glitzy skyscrapers. When Bialobrzeski looks at Mumbai, he sees mostly patchwork architecture and crumbling concrete, a lot of filth and billboards everywhere.

This surely is the view of an outsider aesthetisizing poverty, litter and failed city management. But is poverty and filth all that one can see in the city? Of course, there is also so much more—shiny tall buildings, the new middle class in their new apartment blocks, a buzzing art scene, capital investments and an elite that sometimes feels more at home in London or New York. But if you are an outsider, like this German photographer, you will—at least at first sight—see what most residents have come to ignore: the filth, the poverty, the huge disparities. Yes, this selected view is superficial. Yes, it sees only a cliché. But one that has truth to it—even if it’s only part of the truth.

During the three months in Mumbai, Bialobrzeski, who is also a professor at the University of the Arts Bremen, worked together and exchanged experiences with several local photographers: Ritesh Uttamchandani, Akshay Mahajan and Natasha Hemrajani, among others. At the same time, Mumbai Suburbia, which is also supposed to be released as a book in 2019 complemented by an essay by architect Rahul Mehrotra, does not offer more than the well-known cliché.

But the photographs in the exhibition do serve a role. They tell us something about a city which doesn’t care for its citizens. There is this one picture: a polluted canal, a pipeline, a strip of greenery, all in nearly mathematical order, with a whirlwind of billboards and high-rises in the background. The people—sitting and walking on the huge pipes—seem to play only one role: mere trophies for a megapolis that serves money and fame.

Mumbai Suburbia: Urban Environment In Crisis is on till 22 November at Max Müller Bhavan, Mumbai.

The writer is a Media Ambassadors India—Germany fellow with Lounge for two months.

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