Promoting art in Mumbai slums

A group of French artists, along with children from Mumbai-based NGO Apnalaya, are creating contemporary art in the slums of Shivaji Nagar, Govandi

Mumbai: Shivaji Nagar in Govandi, Mumbai next to India’s oldest dumping ground, Deonar dumping ground is bustling with activity. French visual artist Georges Rousse and his team of seven artists and photographers from France have come to transform a space and create contemporary art in Shivaji Nagar, as part of an initiative in conjunction with the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Apnalaya, which focuses on building self-sustaining communities to promote art in slums.

Apnalaya CEO, Dhun Davar. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

Along with Rousse’s group of seven artists, the team includes five teenagers working daily with the artists and 15 children, who will participate in art workshops. The project site is an Apnalaya community centre at Shivaji Nagar. The aim of this project is to provide an opportunity to kids from different backgrounds to meet and interact with those from another and share a significant humanitarian and educational experience. The project which began on January 10, will be completed with a community gathering on January 20, at Shivaji Nagar.

Malik Mouellef (C) and other members from Georges Rousse’s team at work in Shivaji Nagar. Pic/Sameer Markande

The final installation will be presented in forms of photographs at Saffronart Gallery in Mumbai on the January 17. The objective for Rousse is to transform an empty space. Every single detail of the setting is carefully prepared: the walls, ground and ceilings are either painted or cut to enlarge the available space; also, unusual constructions are added to shape the existing architecture of the building.

The French artists along with some members of the Apnalaya team at the project site in Shivaji Nagar. Pic/Sameer Markande

Unfazed by the dirt, pollution and constant stares, Rousse says, “The idea behind this project is to get young Indian and French artists together and create art, and transform a space in Shivaji Nagar into a visual spectacle. The project will be an installation of geometric shapes, painted in trompe l’oeil (an art technique which uses realistic imagery to create the illusion of three dimensions) in a challenging environment.I have worked with children from different backgrounds, not only in France but also in America since 2002, and I wanted to do the same here. We are introducing contemporary art to these children, who otherwise would not have had an opportunity to know what contemporary art is.”

Georges Rousse

Rousse’s daughter and artist Julie, who is also a part of the team, says, “We came in last January to see the possible project sites, get to know the people from the slum, the space and conditions we would be working in. Since Rousse’s work needs a tangible surface, we decided upon Apnalaya’s community centre. We wanted to paint near the Deonar dump as well, but due to lack of funds, we are unable to do so.

Artists Yvan Robin (L) and Atek Zabat (R) at work. Pic/Sameer Markande

All our funds are provided by well-wishers and people who collect Rousse’s artwork in France. There are many spaces in Mumbai which could use this kind of art, especially the abandoned buildings. But here, kids are creating something meaningful, and I think it makes them really happy, knowing that they are contributing to something important. Though the kids are having fun most of the time, they are also very serious about what they are doing, which is incredible.”

Julie Rousse, Student Salman Khan and MBA Shuhaib Muhammad

To this Rousse adds, “Walking through Shivaji Nagar for the first time, I felt the energy of this place. Everyone was working and doing something and there was a connection that immediately attracted me towards this place. We chose Apnalaya because they have been here in Shivaji Nagar for more than 30 years. Since they are literally of the slum, by the slum and for the slum, they are the best guides we could ask for.”

Creating any form of art in a challenging environment like the Mumbai slums seems like a demanding task. But apart from taking part in the painting process, Rousse’s friend, educationist and project coordinator Daniel Siino’s main job is to keep the onlookers at bay. “Locals are very curious to know what is going on here. Though we understand the curiosity, we can’t let everyone in the room to watch us paint. There is always a fear of the artwork getting damaged and since we are on a tight schedule, we don’t want to take any chances,” he explains.

He further adds, “Art is for the rich and the poor and we want to create a diamond in the slum. The vibe I get from Shivaji Nagar is that of New York, always moving and always bustling. Here, people have so little and yet they are happy, and that astonishes me. There is a sense of unity and belonging that they share. There is neighbourly love, friendship and everyone works so hard for their daily bread. We hope to learn as much as the kids hope to learn from us.”

Junior College student Salman Khan (17), who lives in Shivaji Nagar and is a part of the project team, says, “I first came to know about this project through Apnalaya. Though I was always interested in art, I was never introduced to this kind of art when I was school or in college. It is very interesting to paint something so unique and different. Also, interacting with the French artists is exciting.

All my friends ask, ‘Gore log kaise hain, kya baat karte hain?’(How do you interact with foreigners and what do they talk about?) They are very curious. At first so was I, but after meeting them, I find they are just like us. Initially I was hesitant to talk to them because of language, but I feel if you want to communicate and share, language is not a barrier. In just a few days, I have learnt about unity, friendship, creativity, and also things like eating with a fork and knife, and playing football.”

Khan hopes that many other such projects will take place in Shivaji Nagar. He says, “This way the youth can concentrate their energies into more productive things than just loitering around. My college starts at 8am and I am here painting from 11am up to evening. I am busy all day and I feel I have contributed to something significant.”

An MBA from Kannur, Kerala, Shuhaib Muhammad was invited by Siino to get involved in the project. “I met Siino when I was in Kerala and over email he told me about this project. I had just graduated but I didn’t want to get into a corporate atmosphere, so I decided to be a part of this project. It’s very interesting to have different people come together and create something without any monetary incentive.

It’s all for charity and to help others. This project promotes community development and also highlights the plight of the people living in slums. Individuals are unable to express themselves, and through this project they have an opportunity to do just that. Children and women can participate and we will end up creating a masterpiece!”

French artist and stage designer Yvan Robin says, “When you enter Mumbai, you see the stark contrast in the city with the slums and the high-rise buildings. This symbolises the life in the city and also represents our art. Finding contemporary art in a slum is rare, and I am glad we are doing it. All the materials we have used are recycled and easily available, so if people want to recreate what we have done, they can.”

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Apnalaya Dhun Davar says Shanti Nagar, which is a part of the M/East ward of Mumbai, is one of the most underprivileged wards in the city. “Children from such areas do go to school but they don’t necessarily get the opportunities to explore cultures, art and craft, and extra-curricular activities. Education isn’t complete unless you have opportunities to explore these spheres as well.

Hence it is important for kids to have exposure to international artists, work environment and so on. Personality and life skills are unwittingly developed in this way among kids and we should encourage such cultural programmes. Through this project we want to promote education through art on a larger platform, and we need to create more opportunities like this, to allow children explore their creative side,” she says.

Who is Georges Rousse?
Georges Rousse was born in 1947 in Paris, where he currently lives and works. While attending medical school in Nice, he decided to study professional photography and printing techniques, then opened his own studio dedicated to architectural photography. He followed the footsteps of American masters like Steichen, Stieglitz and Ansel Adams.

He began making installations in abandoned buildings, creating ephemeral, one-of-a-kind artwork by transforming these sites into pictorial spaces that are visible only in his photographs. Since his first exhibition in Paris, at the Galerie de France in 1981, Georges Rousse has continued creating his installations and showing his photographs around the world including Europe, Asia (Japan, Korea, China, Nepal), United States, Quebec and Latin America.

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