We’ve all heard plenty of cliche quotes when it comes to art; art is a tool for expression, it is a thousand words, a story, art doesn’t have to look beautiful but it has to make you feel something. I find that Aristotle summed it up perfectly when he said, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” So, when you take a piece of art that is both beautiful and profound and put it on display for everyone to see, it becomes a point of interest, of conversation, discussion and maybe even controversy. Coincidentally, that is the exact aim of public art projects.
In a way, these projects entwine with the lives of the people who interact with them. They incite opinions and emotions in the minds and hearts of their observers. Public art projects have the potential to transform the narrative of a neighbourhood, perhaps the lives of the people inhabiting it too.
Public walls in India are notorious for their collage of movie posters, political advertisements, dried up stains of paan and other substances that aren’t always identifiable. Chennai, despite its big metropolitan reputation, is no different. Especially with its trend of movie star turned politicians, portraits of these influential personas were quite the norm.
In recent years, however, there seems to be a rise in the reclamation of these walls through art. These projects, therefore, transcend their aesthetic value and enunciate their social implications.
The Conquer the Concrete campaign was introduced in 2015 by Goethe-Institute Chennai and Max Mueller Bhavan in collaboration with Chennai City Connect to reinvent the city’s public spaces. The campaign featured several artists from across the globe working together with Indian artists for the duration of a fortnight. It was the initial switch, crucial in the development of street art in the city.
Remarkable projects from the campaign are:
1. The Twin Dragons by Amitabh Kumar
If you frequently fly to or from Chennai, this piece has probably caught your eye already. Located right outside the airport premises, the dragons are a bright orange set against a sober blue background depicting fearlessness and modernity.
2. Mural at Egmore Station by Look
‘Look’ or rather ‘Looktheweird’ is an artist from Berlin. His piece is a fusion of Indo-German art influences and a commentary on the people that Egmore station can witness daily. He uses bold colours instead of traditional skin tones in the mural, most likely a symbolic representation of diversity.
3. Fruits by SatOne, Nungambakkam
SatOne is an artist from Munich. His art is a combination of abstract and futuristic forms that somehow translate to the context of the environment around his art piece. This particular piece creates the illusion that a tree is sprouting out of the art work.
4. MeltingPot by SatOne
Another piece by SatOne at Egmore station with his trademark abstract geometric forms in contrasting colours to create futuristic patterns. SatOne has managed a perfect balance between the warmth of a bright red and the cool blue hue he has chosen for this piece.
5. Base23 in Mylapore
Base23 is another artist from Berlin. His style is an amalgamation of robotic features, Aztec patterns and bright colours resulting in retro, comic book style art. He often features vaguely animalistic figures that seem to have machine parts.
6. Okuda in Kotturpuram
Okuda is an artist from Spain. His work is characterized by dominant geometric forms in pop colours that accentuate the contrast between his work and the environment around it. His work seems to be influenced by surrealism.
7. Life by Axel Void in GreenWays Road
Axel Void is an artist based in Miami known for his realistic pieces with strong social messages. This particular piece showcases a portrait of an old woman in traditional attire. The artwork symbolizes that life is a tool to attain wisdom.
After the initial fortnight of the Conquer the Concrete campaign, its success continued to inspire several other street art projects in Chennai city. NGOs, independent artists and even colleges brought their creativity to the streets, engaging locals with visual treats.
8. Works by ThePaintBox
ThePaintBox is another NGO furthering this initiative. It was founded by a group of Chennai based artists who recruit volunteers to paint a different stretch of the city every weekend.
ThePaintBox has also collaborated with students from reputed colleges like Stella Maris and Anna University to paint the compound walls of their premises.
9. Untitled by Vijz
Independent artist Vijz experiments with Tamil fonts and depicts Tamil Culture in his artwork. His art resonates with younger Tamil audiences with its bright colours and pop culture references.
Despite the stunning pieces above, the most significant work in the street art scene lies within the confines of the Kannagi Art District
Kannagi Nagar is a tsunami resettlement site, home to about 80,000 people. The neighbourhood is infamous for its drug problem among the youth, an aggravating crime rate and distressing unemployment rates. These factors have resulted in a stigma surrounding the area.
St+art India Foundation, a non-profit organization, in collaboration with Asian Paints launched Kannagi Nagar as the site for India’s fifth art district at the St+art Chennai 2020 festival. The project transformed the area into an aesthetic destination for tourists and Chennai locals alike, giving its residents a sense of pride to be associated with such a significant part of the city. Some of the more noteworthy works at Kannagi Nagar are the following;
10. Harbouring Hope by Kashmira Sarode
As the name suggests, the mural is meant to be symbolic of hope, in the midst of change and displacement. It is a tribute to those who lost their homes in the 2004 tsunamis. The mural features a mother, daughter duo serenely gazing up at the sky amidst waves.
11. Sisters by A-Kill
“Sisters” is a larger than life portrait of two sisters grinning widely at you. It was meant to capture the true essence of Kannagi Nagar, the spirit of the people in it and what a wonderful job it has done.
12. The New Door by Antony Marest
The New Door is characterized by its vivid colours and funky geometric patterns. With vague figures resembling palm trees, it almost has a tropical vibe to it, expressing the artist’s hope for a brighter, sunnier future.
13. Protectors and Providers by Osheen Siva
The artist draws inspiration from the livelihoods of women in fisherfolk communities for this piece. It showcases a woman holding a bowl that encompasses the ocean within it. The words “Protectors” and “Providers” are written in Tamil script above and below the portrait, creating a sort of frame.
14. Untitled by David Leitner
The central theme guiding the art displayed at Kannagi Nagar is “People and Environment”. The entire project is meant to highlight the lives of the residents of Kannagi Nagar who look to various sources for their livelihoods, from construction workers to rikshaw pullers. David Laitner manages to capture, exactly that in his Untitled work.
15. Indra Nagar MRTS Mural
St+art India in association with the Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society (Tansacs), Tidel Park is also responsible for the panoramic mural gracing the walls of the Indira Nagar MRTS Station in Chennai. The project intends to raise awareness of HIV.
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