Sassoon Dock Art Project

Located in and centered around the 144-year-old site of Mumbai’s Sassoon Docks, in its 7th edition the St+art festival organised one of its biggest projects till date - the Sassoon Dock Art Project. Featuring the dock as its main protagonist, the project worked with 33 national and international artists to create an experiential exhibition at the location that was open to the public for 50 days.

Constructed in 1875, Sassoon Docks is one of the oldest docks in the city of Mumbai. One out of the handful of remaining docks that are open to public, Sassoon is also one of Mumbai’s largest fish markets. Despite its immense significance in the city’s landscape, most Mumbaikers had never set foot inside the area. The exhibition sought to reintroduce the area to its city in a novel manner. Nestled at the tip of Colaba, the dock was transformed into an urban art exhibition that remapped the DNA of the city of Mumbai for two months. It was an attempt to help the city’s residents understand and take note of the cultural and historical significance of the space.

The exhibition hosted artists to create installations, audio-visual experiences, murals, screenings and curated tours that were site-specific. Inspiration was derived from local stories, cultures and histories. Materials available in abundance at the site - fishnets, the smell and sight of fish, and colour amongst other things, were then used for the execution of artworks, most of which featured the dock prominently.

Before entering the main venue of the exhibition, visitors were greeted with the sight of more than 150 larger-than-life-size black and white portraits, pasted on the façade of the main building. The monochrome photo blowups of portraits featured the dock’s resident Koli, Banjara and Hindu Maratha fishing communities. The project was St+art’s contribution to iconic French photographer and artist JR’s global participatory Inside Out Project.

The global Inside Out Project celebrates identity and amplifies untold stories with the means of large scale paste-up of monochrome portraits. The Inside Out Project at Sassoon Docks employed the same means to bring to the forefront the very important stories of the original settlers of Mumbai - its fishermen communities. It strived to celebrate the lives, identities and contributions of the diverse fishermen communities of Sassoon Dock.

Upon entering the location, the visitor first came face-to-face with designer and visual artist Hanif Kureshi’s ‘The Idea of Smell’. For the installation, locally-sourced nylon fishnets were suspended from the ceiling and were then woven with words and phrases such as ‘train’, ‘mom’s cooking’, ‘blanket on a cold winter’s night’ and ‘engine oil’ amidst others. Paying homage to the numerous sights, smells and histories that got invoked on one’s visit to Sassoon, Kureshi’s piece attempted to immerse its spectators in a trail of emotions that surfaces on the mention of a certain smell. Through his work, he also hoped to achieve a larger understanding of the intersection of language with thought.

Working with local materials that characterize Sassoon Dock, Kureshi’s piece opened the exhibition by creating a walk-through of sensations that could be thought of but not felt physically. With hundreds of words like ‘varnish”, “municipality dustbin”, “raakh (ashes)”, and “new shoes” floating in the air, woven into fishnets suspended from the ceiling, the artist played with the idea of smell and memory. It was his way of placing emphasis on the senses of sight and smell - ones that were the most active while in Sassoon.

Indian artists Avinash and Pragyesh’s mural was one of the first murals you saw as you walked into the dock yard. It was themed around the dream of a young boy, who hopes to own a boat someday. He sees this boat as the end of the problems for him and his family, and waits for his happily ever after. However, translating this dream into reality is quite challenging. The artists used vivid colors and elements to imbue the mural with a surrealistic and fantastical nature.

More than 1500 trawlers work at the docks, bringing in around 20 tons of fish everyday. Over 150,000 people depend on the docks for their daily livelihood. Australian artist Guido Van Helten spent three days taking portrait shots of the fisherfolk present at the dock. He then immortalised three women he had spent time with on facades at the dock that overlooked a primary space.

Guido Van Helten is an Australian artist who is known for his large scale monochromatic portraits. For the Sassoon Dock Art Project, the artist spent three days taking portrait shots of the fisherfolk present at the dock. In his signature style, Guido then profiled three portraits for facades that overlooked a primary space of the warehouse. The women portrayed were the ones he had spent time with - peeling prawns together and trying to access the variety of stories and life habits existing in the rich ecosystem of the docks. The permanent piece continued to be a tribute to the dock even after the end of the exhibition.

Austria-based multi-media artist Olivier Hoelzl uses stencil as a medium to address the intricacies of the context he works in. His work in Sassoon Dock used the site as a space to converge cultural narratives by splitting the room into two halves, addressing the complex historical junctures that made the city of Mumbai what it is today. The artist placed his recreation of a photograph of Koli women worshiping the sea in the middle of the room, and surrounded it with narratives questioning the validity of urbanization and colonialism.

Known for highlighting neglected groups in their artworks, the French artist duo Ella & Pitr represented the fishermen of Sassoon on two sides of the water tank at the dockyard. They dotted the dockyard with more murals, including a fish, an anamorphic oil barrel and a signature rooftop mural.

Numerous other artists used narratives and sights offered by the space to inspire their artworks. While artist Poornima and Sadhna were inspired by the plenitude of colour in the area for their piece, graphic-designer Sameer Kulavoor used the site’s characteristic smell to conceptualise his piece.

Contemporary artists Poornima Sukumar and Sadhna Prasad, took inspiration from the drapes worn by the Koli and Banjara women for their piece at Sassoon Dock Art Project. Imbuing the mural with their novel style from the Aravani Art Project, the duo profiled women they had interacted with in the chaotic fish market.

Cutting-edge graphic designer and multimedia artist Sameer Kulavoor experimented for the first time with a large-scale art installation at Docks by delivering an ironic dialogue on consumerism. For his piece, using his background in advertising, he tried to market the distinct smell of Sassoon Docks. Making a social commentary, the artist fabricated an experience of being inside a showroom that sold an imagined exclusive cologne from the dock - Parfum Sassoon. “This exhibit is a joke on my own work because I started off working within advertising before I became an artist,” Sameer added.

Shilo’s practice includes illustrations, installation and public art projects. Using surreal and poetic imagery, Shilo created an installation with site-specific materials. With the means of organza and fibre-glass, the artist created layers of panels that the viewer was invited to walk through. Taking inspiration from the timeless space of Sassoon Dock and Hymns of Drowning written by G. Nammalvar, Shilo wove in a mystical love affair between her and her lover onto her panels of intricacy.

Clemens Behr is a multimedia artist, who began experimenting with scrap material 10 years ago to make three dimensional collages that revive context through site specific materials. Ever since, he has created installations that not only shape themselves according to the infrastructure of the space he works in but also its cultural ecosystem. The artist’s project at Sassoon Dock also used fabrics and other key elements from the city’s nooks. While on the outside, he put together a facade that was a mixture of constructed and deconstructed structures, within the warehouse, the artist created the effect of Mumbai’s paradoxical skyline.

Experienced in developing a wide range of design, Mumbai-based Arthat Collective conceptualised an installation that used the primary imagery from Sassoon Dock - the fish, and connected it with the paradoxical nature of the city’s infrastructure. The collective used the skeleton of a fish to convey a narrative that looked at Mumbai’s buildings as an entity, encapsulating the flux between massive urban developments and lost traditions.

Crucial to the lifeline of the economy at Sassoon Docks is Mumbai’s sea. The exhibition also hosted artworks that engaged with the burgeoning problem of plastic-dumping in and around the sea.

Sajid Wajid is a multidisciplinary artist who is known for experimenting with shape, color and design. His piece in Sassoon Docks aimed to develop a deeper narrative about the cultural infrastructure of the city of Mumbai. Using garbage found in a landfill in Turbhe, the artist created sculptures that merged art with politics. Composition of faces mounted on walls, the sculptures acted as confrontational pieces. “I wanted to show the people of Mumbai that when they throw their garbage it does not disappear just because it is no longer in front of their eyes,” explained Sajid.

Artist Zi Xi first debuted her work, Plastic Ocean as part of an exhibition with Singapore Art Museum. An immersive installation, it invited the viewer into a room that created a floating effect mimicking an ocean with the aid of tons of plastic. The artist refurnished her installation at Sassoon Docks by transforming it contextually and adding site-specific elements. Working with about 400kgs of plastic found within the local geography, the artist opened a pathway for Mumbai to connect with the ignored plight hidden inside its coasts.

As we continue to indulge in our lifestyles, we crave for things which aren’t essential for sustenance, instead stretching ourselves thin for things we don’t need. In the sea of capitalism, we become the fish - a commodified version of a living being. We are all hooked. The fish in essence, was truly the main protagonist at Sassoon Dock. It’s the central source of the entire micro-economy of the area. They are the real heroes, even dying for the cause. Yet everyone here, from the sellers to the buyers only see them dead, never alive. Visual artist Tahska’s installation was symbolic of all the fish sold at the dock but rarely seen alive. A celebration of their existence and values was reinforced by the loops made by using photographs taken by the artist at Sassoon Dock.

The Yok & Sheryo have created site-specific murals and installations across the globe. The duo is known for its playful and spooky illustrative artworks in dialogue with the contexts they operate within. At Sassoon Docks, with the support of Arthat Collective, they created an installation inspired by the fishing culture in the dock while connecting it to South Asian mythology. Sourcing local materials, the duo used a fishing boat as a foundation to create an art intervention that highlighted the vehicles of ‘greatness and livelihood’. “These boats help the fishermen with their day to day lives. We see parallel connection between the boats and the Makara - the creature that helps Lord Varuna navigate the ocean,” explained Sheryo.

After working together for a while, the Latin American duo, Curiot and Romina, found balance in their practice through developing a style that they describe as kitsch yet psychedelic. Taking inspiration from the folklore of their home countries and connecting them with the South Asian context, the duo created a museum that attempted to break the fine line between reality and imagination. Created with the aid of local materials, their museum invited the viewer into a spectacle that brought to life elements that seemed magical yet felt actual within the space.

Known for their snazzy style and playful features, Do and Khatra’s illustrative murals are usually more contextual than they appear to be. A mural that wrapped itself around the facades of the warehouse, their project at Sassoon Dock didn’t just beautify and transform its walls but also gave itself an expressive shape. The duo also used three dimensional found objects at the site, to add specificity to the mural.

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