PAINTING THE (SHANTY) TOWN
Colourful patches form a pixelated pattern across the shanties in Nargis Dutt Nagar, which have been part of the Bandra Reclamation skyline in Mumbai for the past 15 years. The squares and rectangles painted in distinctive pista green, Rani pink, Krishna blue, lemon yellow and white are part of an artistic collaboration between American painter and sculptor Jeff Gillette and Mumbai-based artist and designer Samir Parker over April 11-12.
Based in California, where he teaches art to high school students, Gillette’s fascination with the slums can be traced back to his first trip to India in the 1980s. His most popular collection of paintings, titled Dismayland, with its post-apocalyptic slumscape
peppered with Disney characters, is said to have inspired Banksy’s Dismaland. Parker, who teaches design to undergraduate and postgraduate students, also finds inspiration in Mumbai’s shanties. One of his biggest projects has been the 2015 Roof/ Tarp/City project that involved the use of colourful tarpaulins to form a pattern on the roofs of chawls across Bandra.
At Nargis Dutt Nagar, Gillette and Parker hope to draw attention to the living conditions through their work. Garbage and faeces lay sprawling across the expanse just outside the slums, the grey walls blackened with dust. But the ‘Slum Rehabilitation Authority’ is not a beautification project. “Beauty is everywhere. Even if we hadn’t done this, this place would be beautiful to me with its textures, compo-
sition, volume, light and shadow, solid and void; add to that the complexities of the lives, the political undercurrents and the fact that it’s going away. We are not activists or social workers so we can’t do a clean-up drive. But as artists we can engage, be clever, provocative and draw attention to the situation,” notes Parker.
“It’s sad that people have to live like this. But I see it as robust, full of life, a place with a lot of smiling people,” adds Gillette. His signature subverted Mickey Mouse shows up in a few spots. “To me, it’s like a sign of distress, that things aren’t the way they should be. Mickey Mouse here is a symbol of Disneyland, which professes to be the happiest place on earth. I juxtapose the so-called happy place with a real place,” he says.
Built with corrugated sheets, abandoned doors and ladders leading out of the windows, the landscape holds a deep fascination for both artists. While the idea of Parker’s Roof/Tarp/City was to bring colour to the city’s rooftops, the collaborative painting project brings the tarpaulin art down to eye level.
By doing so, they hope to humanise the area for those driving by the Sion-Bandra flyover, catching a glimpse of the slums with the highrises in the background. “Behind a slum window, there might be a woman who wants to move to Dubai, or a lover who left someone, or kids who have big dreams. We are trying to suggest this uniqueness through the patterns across each home. The inhabitants appreciate it too— ‘Now we know which one is our home,’ they laugh,” Parker reveals.
The colours they chose are the ones you would find on the walls of the homes if you were to walk inside. The chalky colours seem to define domesticity, believes Parker.
The Mumbai skyline is in a constant state of flux, and this is Parker’s way of expressing the urban fabric and marking time without being sentimental about it. Their next collaboration will be a monsoon project when Gillette returns in June. The duo plans to use found objects, inflatables, remnants of pandals, thermocol mouldings to create a “larger metaphor for an amusement park for things that would only pop up amidst Mumbai’s flooded streets”.
“IT’S SAD PEOPLE HAVE TO LIVE LIKE THIS. BUT I SEE IT AS ROBUST, FULL OF LIFE, A PLACE WITH A LOT OF SMILING PEOPLE,” SAYS GILLETTE
ROOF/TARP/CITY Samir Parker’s 2015 tarpaulin project in Bandra