Indian artist Harsh Raman’s work at WIP Image Credit: Akshat Nauriyal

The backdrop is Okhla, a colony in South Delhi district located near the border with a huge landfill. The Inland Container Depot (ICD) in Tughlakabad with hundreds of trucks and thousands of steel shipping containers paints a grey picture. In the middle of a clearing, a man squats, spraying a can of pink paint on one container.

Over the past couple of months, some containers at ICD have gone through a metamorphosis with vibrant colours and geometric patterns. A space that is a no man’s land for Delhiites and decried as a pollution creator has been swamped by hundreds of visitors every day.

“WIP (Work in Progress): The Street Art Show”, a massive walk-through art installation has turned the ICD at Asia’s largest dry port into an open-air gallery. More than 20,000 working hours and 24 artists from across the world have transformed the space, using more than 100 shipping containers and 1,000 litres of paint.

The exhibition, which launched on January 31 and will run through February, is part of a street art festival curated by Delhi-based organisation St+Art India Foundation in collaboration with the Container Corporation of India (Concor). Asian Paints has helped out with the raw material needed.

ICD is a busy area both due to its environmental characteristics and its daily activities. Ten thousand employees work here and thousands of containers are handled daily, making it one of the busiest places in New Delhi. Through February, this unconventional space will be an open lab where artists will work on site, while a wide range of cultural activities will also take place. “We wanted to draw the attention of citizens to the spaces in and around the ICD. We hope this will be the first step towards rejuvenation of the neighbourhood,” said Sanjay Bajpai, chief manager at ICD, TKD–Concor.

“WIP” is part of the fourth edition of an annual Delhi street art festival run by St+Art India Foundation, a collaborative platform for street artists from India and around the world that believes in making art accessible for wider audiences by taking it out of the conventional gallery space and embedding it within the spaces people live in — making it truly democratic and for everyone.

The two-month urban arts festival will change the visual landscape of the city with art interventions in public spaces through murals, installations, performances, workshops, talks and screenings. “The idea of ‘WIP’ is to move from the usual concept of exhibiting art and going towards the concept of experiencing it,” says Giulia Ambrogi, festival curator. “The environmental installation of 100 containers and the immersive site-specific art works lead the public to be part of an overall journey which connects art to life and life to art.”

“WIP” takes its inspiration from New Delhi’s constant state of construction and transformation while celebrating those who make it happen. The organisers believe in using art as an intervention to redefine public spaces, especially lesser known areas of the city. Hence, the idea to redefine the neighbourhood of Okhla. St+art has dubbed it “Work in Progress — the nature of the city, of the space, of street art and of our lives”.

“Art has been associated with the elite class of society. ‘WIP’ aims to change this,” says festival director Hanif Kureishi.

The organisers feel in a way, the containers have a strong connection with street art — they are both travelling and going across different cities. The trail of containers also mimics the trains and subways, which are iconic features of classic graffiti and street art.

The project involves artists from India and around the world who paint under the public eye throughout the festival. Among the Indian artists whose works are on display are Anpu Varkey known for her signature cat stencils, Amitabh Kumar who is a member of the Delhi-based group of comic book artists — the Pao Collective, prolific graffiti artist Daku whose works have been showcased at the Venice Biennale, and Harshvardhan Kadam, aka inkbrushnme, who founded the Pune Street Art Project that transformed the city’s oldest residential locality into a colourful open-air art gallery.

Kadam has used images from Indian mythology — of Shakti riding a hybrid of Shiva’s bull, Vishnu’s sheshnaag and Brahma’s swan, forming a Matruka representing the female version of trinity from Indian mythology.

Bengaluru’s Ullas Hydoor has a play on geometric shapes in his artwork. “My piece is very geometrical. It is derived from this space. It is a community space, a space in transit. People are bringing in and taking out goods in containers. Some live on or live with the containers. I wanted to imitate that life into an artwork, into grids and formats,” he says.

International artists include Agostino Iacurci from Italy, Borondo from Spain, Dwa Zea from Poland, Swiss artist duo Nevercrew, Niels Shoe Meulman from Amsterdam, Iranian artist Nafir and Hendrik Beikirch aka ECB from Germany.

Known for his massive monochromatic murals depicting anonymous people, Beikirch’s mural for St+art can be seen on one of the giant silos next to WIP, opposite one of the biggest rubbish-dumping sites in Tughlakabad.

He has depicted a worker from the area, derived from the industrial setting of a now defunct cement factory, next to one of the largest landfills of the city and ICD. He felt the area was lacking a human touch and decided to make a large-scale portrait of an average Indian person who frequents the area every day — to reflect the constant struggle of the people who work day and night in the area, but remain unknown. He has painted a mural of Mahatma Gandhi on the Delhi Police headquarters in 2014 for St+art.

Through February, guided tours, talks by artists and screenings will animate the ICD space. It will also be a venue for workshops and activities with a focus on community-driven projects such as the Pimp My Bike Project in which local children had their bicycles painted, and the Through the Eyes workshop in which locals were given disposable cameras to document the exhibition space on their own, the photos of which are now exhibited in a container. “The idea is to also have a space that will take different forms over the month — from a performance space to community-based projects, it intends to be an exploration of the space itself in a sense,” says content director Akshat Nauriyal.

Other spaces in Delhi, such as the walls of Delhi’s emblematic Lodhi Colony, are also being transformed under the festival. The foundation has been working in collaboration with the Central Public Works Department and Swachh Bharat Mission (cleanliness initiative) to convert the area into India’s first public art district.

If you walk down the streets, you will come across a Shekhawati painting done by Indian artist Mahendra and his team from Rajasthan. Japanese street artist Lady Aiko’s work at Lodhi Colony depicts Rani Lakshmibai, a powerful female leader from India’s history, as a symbol of growing women’s empowerment in the country. Then there is French artist Chifumi’s interpretation of the padma mudra, mixed with the Khmer pattern from Cambodia.

“Original Aboriginal” by Australian artist Reko Rennie touches on indigenous culture and identity in contemporary urban environments. He has used traditional geometric patterns that represent his association with the Kamilaroi people. Rennie worked in close collaboration with a team of Indian painters as part of his practice that often foresees a dialogue with the local communities and local art traditions.

“With the Lodhi Art District project we hope to create an opportunity for a larger number of people to not only experience art, but also have conversations around it — leading to ideas of reimagining public spaces and the effects art can have on building community pride,” says Nauriyal.

Urban scrawls of India

Street art and graffiti has long been a tool of communication, much before television, radio and the printing press. One can perhaps think of cave paintings as the earliest examples of street art. Over the years, it has evolved into interdisciplinary forms from graffiti, stencils, prints and murals, to huge paintings and street installations.

Street artists are celebrities — David Cameron gifted the work of London-based artist Ben Eine to Barack Obama. In Bogotá, mayor Gustavo Petro had to decriminalise graffiti after public outrage over the police shooting of graffiti artist Diego Felipe Becerra. More recently, it was used as a tool during the Arab Spring as an indicator of what people in the street were saying.

Google’s Street Art Project preserves and gives internet access to more than 5,000 photographic records of an otherwise impermanent art. From murals in Atlanta to graffiti in Tunisia, the project’s mission is to turn the world into one huge open-air gallery for everyone to enjoy.

Over the past five years or so, urban India has seen a spontaneous blossoming of street art — it has been emblazoned on walls, in alleys, on storefronts, lampposts and mailboxes. It has been manifested in stencils sprayed onto laneways, in stylised texts and tags to posters, in paste-up murals on buildings and ad-hoc art events in city spaces. There are entire areas in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi where wall paintings, pasted-up drawings and graffiti crowd thickly over walls, shutters and doors. In Mumbai, take a walk in Bandra’s bylanes and you will come across different styles of street art such as those of Parisian street artist Julien “Seth” Malland who calls himself “Globepainter”.

Street art in India combines painting with photography and printmaking; combining handmade and readymade or mass-produced elements; and combining objects, images, and sometimes text to make new meanings. One such example is Guesswho, a street artist from Kochi who converges global icons with an Indian influence to create satirical pieces that have acquired a cult following. The mechanical-looking flying chariots and masked figures of Yantr dovetail into his moniker, which means machine.

Mumbai-based street artist Tyler’s alias is derived from Tyler Durden from Chuck Palahniuk’s book “Fight Club”. His work reflects the attitude of anti-establishment found in the book character.

Sometimes Indian street art absorbs and borrows from popular culture. Communication designer and artist Ranjit Dahiya founded the Bollywood Art Project (BAP), a community visual art project that handpaints famous Bollywood icons. His style is influenced by the dying tradition of hand-painted Hindi movie posters. His mural of Dadasaheb Phalke (in collaboration with Delhi artist Yantr) on Mumbai’s prominent MTNL Building in Bandra is a painted tribute to the father of Indian cinema, the largest in the country.

Often the artworks serve as a running commentary on social issues in the country. Cities such as Kolkata have had a long tradition of political graffiti which attracted attention long before activists actually hit the streets. In 2015, a simple stencilled black silhouette of a young girl appeared on city walls with the hashtag #Missing. It was a public art project to raise awareness about sex trafficking by photographer and artist Leena Kejriwal. Mumbai-based Jas Charanjiva’s piece outside the Bagel Shop in Bandra is called “Don’t Mess With Me” or “The Pink Lady” as she has come be known to many. It was created after the infamous Delhi gang rape in 2012. She was put up again on the wall after the release of the juvenile rapist who served only a three year sentence.

“The Pink Lady originally represented the victim and those who fought for her justice but today she represents all women,” says Charanjiva. “Many women have written to me telling me how The Pink Lady resonates with them. She will be popping up throughout the country this year. Keep an eye out for her.”

Charanjiva is also the co-owner of Kulture Shop, an indie design boutique that curates and retails works by graphic artists from across the world. Jheel Goradia’s bold Bollywood-themed art is a window into domestic abuse, harassment and human trafficking. These are part of Goradia’s project #BreakingtheSilence.

And there’s Shilo Shiv Suleman, founder and director of The Fearless Collective which engages with gender issues and art for social change in India. Her art raise awareness about gender-based violence.

“Street art is an artist’s POV of society. It goes beyond the idea of decorating a city,” says Hydoor, who has studied architecture and is a practising architect.

The work of these street artists may vanish overnight — with new works or blank walls taking their place. India’s city councils and authorities have become friendlier and more accommodating than they used to be but works also tend to get painted over by unfriendly residents or councils — a process known as “buffing”. But this reality is understood by the artists.

After “WIP” is over, the colourful containers shall once again resume their original purpose of transporting goods across India. These works of art conceptualised in a frenzied cloud of aerosol, acrylics and oil paint will travel through India, transforming public spaces.

Anuradha Sengupta is a writer based in Mumbai.

WIP: Street Art Show will run at the ICD, Tughlakabad, New Delhi, until February 28.

The Wall Project

Street art often conveys stories about the city, while also acting as informal playful elements. It interacts with the public in a natural, spontaneous and creative way.

That was the raison d’être of The Wall Project. Before that, Mumbai wasn’t known for its street art. It was an initiative to add visual elements of colour, form and texture to a space, and to make an area more alive. Founded by Dhanya Pilo, the Wall Project believed that the process allows one to be more observant about the spaces we use and move within and how we can use various art forms in the public sphere to generate an interest in the minds of our daily human lives. The wall project in its own way tries to start a conversation, with no political, social or religious attachments.

For more information, visit www.thewallproject.com