How unsanctioned street art complicates idea of 'ownership' of public space, and the inherent politics of art

·6 min read

This is the second part of a series on street art in India, and the issue of its ownership. Read the first part here.

In the month preceding India's fight against the coronavirus pandemic, a 40-foot mural was painted at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, reflecting the perseverance of the women leading protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019 and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at the site. It was painted by the Fearless Collective, founded by artist Shilo Shiv Suleman, along with protestors.

Artworks by the anonymous Kochi-based artist, Guess Who, are seen on the walls at Kochi, Bengaluru and Delhi, among other places. His works comprise art with cheeky taglines, criticising the government and media. There's one of a dog barking from within a television screen, with 'Barking News' written above it. The artist often uses humour, which helps disrupt set narratives by presenting new perspectives to the public.

In 2016, frustrated with unfulfilled promises from the authorities to fix roads, a group of young street artists spray-painted question marks over roughly 400 potholes from Virar to Churchgate in Mumbai. Banded together for this campaign, they called themselves 'No One'.

"So if anyone asks, 'No One' did it," one of the organisers told this writer. A moniker was chosen to help mitigate risks and focus on the message, not the artists involved.

Street art has, and continues to, share views that voice political criticism, dissent, social commentary, and the present culture. Most often, the kind of street art that shares the most unfiltered views is that which is unsanctioned such as the aforementioned examples.

What is unsanctioned street art? In the scope of this article, it is defined as art painted in public spaces without permission from government authorities, and without commission from corporations.

Often such art is carried out by anonymous artists under a pseudonym like Guess Who; or known persons or collectives like the Fearless Collective that seek individual permission, pool funds, and work with the community to bring about a cohesive public message, even going to the extent of involving the public in the conceptualisation and production of works.

Street art across the world reflects the culture and community surrounding a single concrete canvas. But when sanctioned by a company or government authorities, it's not immune to censorship. It can present sanitised views. It's important to note that not all unsanctioned street artworks embody political and social messaging, some merely celebrate culture. And while unsanctioned artworks are not necessarily better works than authorised street art, sanctions do involve a centralised authority that could affect the production process.

It is the autonomy to express without censorship that allows street art to reflect public sentiments, or at least initiate dialogue and ignite critical thinking.

"Our work [at Fearless] is always sanctioned by the local community rather than bureaucratic government procedures... None of the communities we work with are likely to be given access to public spaces by government bodies, and that's exactly why we use individual permission," says Shilo Shiv Suleman. Staying autonomous prevents intervention in the messages of the art and ensures the community's voice is the strongest.

The street can be seen as a common platform for those with power and resources €" whether the government or corporations €" and the common public to present information to each other. The presence of such art on the streets creates a space for public opinion in the midst of the 'visual pollution' caused by ad hoardings in cities, as a means of protest, or against the processes of gentrification, thereby, in a sense, reclaiming the authority of the very people inhabiting a space. Shiv Suleman puts forth the idea that the notions of national identity and public space extend beyond government buildings to citizens.

Many factors give this art form its autonomous and authoritative character, one being accessibility. It is a way to reach an unassuming audience and achieve mass communication without going through the media's sanctions. "It's the best way to reach out to a wider and unintended audience," Guess Who says. It's similar to sharing space with advertisements that use public spaces as a viable platform to communicate with the common people, though the intentions of both forms are completely different, he says. Omkar Dhareshwar from Wicked Broz, a community-led street art organisation, calls street art space an "open art gallery".

Besides requiring sanction, galleries and newspapers also need viewers and readership. Street art, on the other hand, takes the message to the viewers. This is not to say that there is only one platform to best communicate criticism on the societal and political environment. We cannot deny the extent of accessibility, anonymity, and freedom to express that social media offers.

However, what is more important than the medium, or even the artist, is the message that is being conveyed, says street artist Shirin Shaikh. "Artists can choose whatever medium they want, but if the art itself isn't impactful, then what's the point?"

Filmmaker and photographer Ronny Sen says, "Content should be radical irrespective of language and form when it comes to political messaging." Sen recently posted stencil artworks around the #NoVoteToBJP campaign preceding the election to the Legislative Assembly of West Bengal on his Instagram account. The artworks occupied space on physical walls as well as social media platforms. He states that the two spaces are real and run parallel to each other, and should thereby be used together.

On the subject of anonymity, Guess Who says, "Anonymous or not, all artists who address social or political issues in their works these days are putting themselves at risk." Sahil Arora, the founder of Method India, a Mumbai-based gallery that recently hosted a solo exhibition by anonymous street artist Tyler, reiterates that while anonymity allows artists to mitigate risks to a certain degree, more people are taking a stand against the issues plaguing our society without hiding behind the veil of anonymity.

Shiv Suleman notes, "We [Fearless Collective] have never been anonymous on the street because we want different people to engage and speak to each other...We want spaces to meet each other €" face to face, eye to eye and have the conversations no one has [the] courage to."

Where the manner of views shared on social media can tend to be polarising, she remarks that murals create space to engage in civic dialogue and act as a platform where binary opinions meet to debate.

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