Street art comes to Sassoon Docks: Mumbai's historic fishing district gets a makeover with the St+Art project
The St+Art project has transformed Mumbai's historic fishing district Sassoon Dock, paying homage to the Koli community — the city's original inhabitants
The smell of fish gets stronger as I walk down a lane in Sassoon Docks, looking for St+art India’s art project, in Mumbai’s oldest fish market. The 142-year-old fishing district — despite its historical value — has not inured too well to the Mumbaikars of present. The fishy smell, nauseating for many, that lingers on a stretch from Colaba causeway to Navy Nagar, the heat and humidity, the noise, and the ease of buying fish elsewhere, have all made Sassoon Docks an area to be avoided.
Like the docks, the memory of Mumbai's Koli past is all but wiped clear, as the city tries so desperately to escape its fishy roots, into a capitalistic wet dream. The venue is thus doubly important, turning the gaze on to the Bombay of history, the docks and the community that lives and works off it.
St+Art India is dedicated to making art public, taking it out from niche spaces of galleries and museums and making it more accessible. Even before I turn the corner into the old Mumbai port trust building, where the Sassoon Docks art project is taking place, I see a massive mural of a fisherwoman made by the Fearless Collective; I know this because I have been following it on Instagram and have seen only fragments of it until now. I also realise later, that I came in the wrong way, and that the actual “entry” of the art exhibition, begins with a series of 300 photos of fishermen and women, by Akshat Nauriyal and Pranav Gohil as part of the Inside Out project.
Much of the art here represents the lived realities of the Koli community — its people, their trade and its smell. Inside, the first installation is St+Art India’s co-founder Hanif Kureshi’s ‘The idea of smell’, it’s hard to miss the allusion to the overwhelming smell of the area, but it shifts the focus to other more nostalgic smells: the smell of your blanket, of ink, an eraser (reminds me of that special satisfaction of writing with a ball pen on an eraser), the arrival of winter, freshly cut grass, your mother’s saris, and the crowd favourite: the first rain.
The words and phrases, in English and Hindi, are strung on fishing nets, and according to the accompanying note capture “sensations that can only be thought of and not felt”.
Graphic designer and multimedia artist Sameer Kulavoor’s exhibit ‘Parfum Sassoon Showroom’, also plays on the idea of smell. A clever take on consumerism at large, bottling and selling the very smelly Sassoon docks as a luxury french cologne — Parfum Sassoon — that is also limited edition. The artist and the audience are in on the joke about the things we are being sold. “This exhibit is a joke on my own work because I started off working within advertising before I became an artist”, explains Sameer in the note accompanying his installation. Could it also be a joke on the kind who would buy this exclusive limited edition cologne?
Koli women are crucial to the running of the fishing trade and multiple installations are built around them: for instance, Australian artist Guido Van Helten’s portraits of three Koli women he spent time peeling shrimps with, the Fearless Collective’s ‘Sustenance’, Hanisha Tirumalasetty’s untitled exhibit that attempts to capture the boxed in feeling of the Koli women, and LIVIL’s ‘Koli women’ a stencil art inspired from a photograph of Koli women praying to the sea.
The highlight of the project, or one that fills most visitors with awe is Singaporean artist Tan Xi Zi’s ‘Plastic Ocean’. An immersive installation that is designed to create a feeling of being in the sea, the sense of wonder one feels upon entering the space gives way to horror soon enough, when you realise you are ‘swimming’ under an island of plastic gunk. The plastic is immediately relatable too, plastic mineral water bottles, bottles of parachute oil, food and detergent wrappings, and other such everyday products. The piece calls attention to our consumerist lifestyles that make us throw things out mindlessly, without any thought for where they may end, or for how damaging these can be for other life forms on the planet. Already there are reports of uninhabited islands being covered in plastic waste and garbage patches floating through our oceans. The fishermen testify to the fact that part of their catch includes more and more plastic these days.
In a similar vein Alt-Q’s ‘The Last Fisherman of Mumbai’ critiques the rapid urbanisation of Mumbai, and looks at (what seems to me) a radioactive wasteland that Mumbai may become in the not too distant future.
Latin American duo, Curiot and Romina’s ‘Shunya’ captures the folklore and mythic aspects of the sea. With diary entries nearly a 100 years apart on the sighting of a mythic sea monster, the walls painted to show pillared and curtained balconies/windows looking out at billowy clouds, the mood for the telling of this tale is set. It feels to me like a story Scheherazade told in the Arabian Nights. Inside looms the sea monster, structured from baskets and other material found at the docks. One wall is entirely covered with a painted ‘Shunya’ in rich hues of purple and blue.
Furqan Jawed’s ‘While you were peeing’ exhibit looks at toilets as spaces that are simultaneously public and intimate. Spread across three toilets — male, female and common, it also makes a comment on how toilets make up for gender performance, the mirror in the women’s toilet says something like watching you watching me, the experience of watching being watched, the gaze forever fixed on the female.
Through all of these, Faizan Patankar’s ‘Sassoon Dog’ meets you at frequent intervals throughout the project space, at the landing of a flight of stairs, behind walls, and in corners, taking a piss on it all. The dog went almost unnoticed by me, as strays tend to, until I spot near the stairs: “And then just like that… he walked away happily into oblivion”. I like the sound of things walking into the sunset, especially when it’s magically taken place just like that. And then outside I see the bigger version of the Sassoon Dog — this one’s hard to miss — and it is taking a piss on it all, which is, well, not an existential statement as I assumed, but a comment on how we may be pissing on “our collective urban” and destroying the world inherited equally by all of us.
The exhibition is free and open to everyone. The murals will remain on the walls long after the installations are gone, portraits of Koli women and mythic sea monsters, among others.
To be held over 50 days, the St+Art India’s Sassoon Docks art project has collaborated with the local community and over 30 artists from India and around the world.
It is open Thursday–Sunday, noon to 10 pm
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