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Public Art: there’s more to it than meets the eye

Public art can express community values, enhance our environment, transform a landscape, heighten our awareness, or question our assumptions write Sonali Chaudhari and Gaurav Chawla.

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Think of Art; what comes to mind? A splash of colour, beautiful forms, even the downright grotesque. Art is an expression, a reflection of our innermost thoughts and emotions, manifested upon a surface. Look at it as you like, love it or hate it but you can never ignore it. Public art is a reflection of how we see the world; the artist’s creative response towards the times we live in. It plays an important role in any nation’s history and culture, reflecting society and enhancing the appeal of any place by adding a human touch. 

Public art is not just any art form. Unrestricted by size, genre or medium, what distinguishes public art stands apart thanks to the unique combination of how it is made, where it is made and what it means. Public art can express community values, enhance our environment, transform a landscape, heighten our awareness, or question our assumptions. Visible only in public places, this art is there for everyone, a form of collective community expression. It directly influences how people see and connect with a place, making people feel appreciated and valued. It also provides a visual mechanism for understanding other cultures and perspectives, reinforcing social connectivity. It’s a known fact that art reduces stress and increases the happiness quotient, hence Public art also addresses public health by reducing stress and providing a sense of belonging. 

Since time immemorial, monuments, memorials and statues have perhaps been the oldest and most obvious forms of officially sanctioned public art, although it could be said that architectural sculpture and even architecture itself is more widespread and more or less fits into the definition of public art. Independent artwork, created and installed without being officially sanctioned is ubiquitous in nearly every city today. 

Like any other city, Delhi has its share of public art. Moving around the city, one can spot remnants of the Raj era and the Mughal Era at various places like Rashtrapati Bhawan, India Gate, Amar Jawan Jyoti and the Red Fort. One can spot the imposing Yaksha and Yakshini by Ram Kinkar Baij; deities of wealth and prosperity, they stand in front of the Reserve Bank of India, holding a bag of money. Several statues of important public figures can be seen all across the city. Public art acquires a status that goes far beyond mere visualisation and decoration; it is a lesson in history itself. 

There have been many who have used Public Art to voice their opinions, like ‘Daku, who collaborated with different artists to comment on various social issues through graffiti and started using his pseudo name in Devnagari script on walls to reach the larger Indian population who understood only local languages. He regularly commented on social issues through his works like the stencilled LPG cylinder rocket to highlight price rise before the 2010 Commonwealth Gamesin Delhi; he also modified several stop signs to deliver messages and provoke a reaction from the public. He tagged many garbage bins with KuDa in Delhi, an anagram of his own name. Before the 2014 Indian general elections, a graffitiMat Do at F-block, Connaught Place which had a dual meaning (don’t give vote or vote) had come up showing a fisted hand with an inked middle finger. Recently Lodhi colony has come up with an art district, where several artists have painted different walls, voicing their opinions and their perceptions. 2019 witnessed 20 new murals , where the artists depicted their interpretation of social causes such as women’s empowerment, climate change, waste recycling and various other pertinent issues. New Delhi’s Lodhi Colony got a colourful makeover, turning it into Delhi’s first open public art district.

Public art is an integral part of our history, our evolving culture and our collective memory. As artists respond to our times, they reflect their inner vision to the outside world and they create a chronicle of our public experience. In a diverse society, all kinds of art cannot appeal to all people, nor should we expect it to do so. Art attracts attention; it makes us think. That is what it is supposed to do. Is it any wonder then, that public art sometimes causes controversy? Varied popular opinion is inevitable, and it is a healthy sign that the public environment is acknowledged rather than ignored.

As our society and its modes of expression evolve, so do our definitions of public art. Materials and methods change to reflect the changing times. The process, guided by professional expertise and public involvement, should seek out the most imaginative and productive collaboration between artists and the community, while remaining completely free of any social or communal divide. Likewise, artists must bring forward their artistic integrity, creativity and skill. What is needed is a commitment towards invention, boldness, and cooperation; not compromise.


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