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Art & Politics : Street Art – The Eternal Revolution

Today for Art & Politics we are exploring Street Art – The Eternal Revolution, with specific focus on the controversy between Budweiser & St+Art.

“The streets have always been owned by the masses, from protest to revolution – it is the streets that have held, nurtured and rooted change. At times she has been a safe space, and at times she has been witness to the most violent of uprisings. Through it all she has been consistent in her presence, and non-judgemental. Do you have something to say? Are you feeling oppressed, misunderstood? Do you have a need to creatively express your discontent? Step into the streets, for she is waiting to embrace you and magnify your voice.”

Divvya Nirula, Founder & Director, Art From Us

Be it wanted or unwanted, change has always been seeded in the streets. Street art or Public art has always been an extension of this, a battle ground of ideas, expression, creative and political tugs of war.

TERMS & DISTINCTIONS

Before we begin, a most important distinction must be made – Street Art and Public Art are not interchangeable. The recent incident between Budweiser India and St+Art has caused some confusion of terminology and intent. Ahead of our deep-dive into the St+Art protestations against Budweiser India’s Messi Mural Campaign – a clearer picture will only present itself once we have definitions and context, to provide a firm infrastructure for this robust debate.

Terms, Words, Definitions – these are important and lay the foundation for all our concept-building. In academia, life, and our interactions. Although many of us use Public Art and Street Art as placeholders for what we view as art in the public domain. We must take cognisance of the differences.

Public Art v/s Street Art

You may ask – If both creative expressions occur in the streets, and are for public consumption, then aren’t they the same? No, is the simple answer. Yes, there are exceptions. Overlaps and communication between the two do occur, however there are some key central, ideological and technical differences between them. Yes, Street Art occurs in public spaces, but unlike Public Art it does not seek the permission of anyone. Least of all government and/or local authorities. In fact they are often found to be the key players in the planning and permissions of Public Art. At times even commissioning the said artworks.

SPONTANEOUS v/s PLANNED

Furthermore, Public Art is planned, approved, and then created, placed, and celebrated. Street Art is planned in the mind of the artist, with her tools, stencils, spray cans at the ready. It is a stealth operation, mostly executed under the cover of night to the early hours of the morning. With great alertness to cops and other authorities the street artists created. S/he known there might be law enforcement at the ready to put a stop and stall! The spontaneous fervour of Street Art is tinged with rebellion and a need to disrupt.

STREET ART : THE DISRUPTOR

Shaking up the status quo, Street Art looks not to be permanent nor accepted. It seeks the viewer to “take notice”, and to be “shocked”.

A great example of this thrust in Street Art, are Banksy’s multiple works at the West Bank, Gaza strip in Israel. From ‘Cut it Out’ to ‘Window on the West Bank’, Banksy is commenting on the 425-mile-long, West Bank barrier. Considered illegal by the United Nations, this wall separates Palestinian territories from Israel. Banksy has shared his thoughts with regards to the Wall, that it “essentially turns Palestine into the world’s largest open prison.”

Ownership in Street Art

Banksy does not take ownership of the wall; he is using his art to drive attention to a political cause that moves him. The space is important for that moment. Street Art shall celebrate any and all who wish to come, comment, tag, create, destroy and recreate on these works. We saw this last year with the Banksy “Rat” replica in San Francisco. On one of the outside walls on Haight Street’s Red Victorian, in 2010 a Rat mural appeared on one of the walls. Many have attributed this to Banksy himself. In 2012 the mural was cut out, with part of the building, toured the world, and is presently owned by Brian Grief. Then, in 2017 an almost exact replica of the “Haight Street Rat” appeared.

Why do we share this with you?

To illustrate the anonymous nature of Street Art. In addition, when talking of tagging, alterations to murals in a Street Art context are a welcome challenge. Famously, Banksy and King Robbo had a graffiti-off in the Camden area of London, tagging over each other’s works, starting in 1985 all the way into the 00’s. If you are intrigued, we would suggest watching the 2011 Documentary by Jane Preston, aptly titled “Graffiti Wars”.

STREET ART : EVER CHANGING

The big takeaway is that Street Art and her artists are pretty thick-skinned, they are in a creative environment that pushed for natural selection in a culturally and politically charged arena. It is this very nature that gave us in May of 2020, a new addition to the Haight Street Rat replica. Overnight, the Rat had a surgical mask on him, a nod to the new COVID reality. Illustrating that Street Art has whimsy to it as well as self-deprecating tinge.

Public Art aims for permanence in its site-specific spaces. It looks to be embedded in a city and her citizen’s physical reality and context. Street Art aims to be embedded in our minds and hearts, across the city in multiple locations. Sometimes Street Art does become Public Art (case and point, the 5 Pointz Appeal: Castillo et al. v. G&M Realty L.P. 2020).

So, What is Public Art?

Anish Kapoor’s ‘Cloud Gate’ in Chicago installed in the Millennium Park is a great example of Public Art. Closer to home, here in Delhi and Bombay, we need not look further than the international and national airport terminals. No less than 1200 artists have contributed across various styles and disciplines. As one walks into and across Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Terminal, one is met with a vibrant assault on the visual spectrum. The collection is museum-esque with approximately 5500 objects and 134 installations across various themes and point of views. Inspiring conversations amidst co-travels and strangers, Public Art works hand-in hand with Urban planning and design. 

THE INDIAN CONTEXT

It is important to note that within the Indian context, the socio-political atmosphere has always brought Street Art and Public Art closer than what has been and is found in the west.  Perhaps it is the semi-dictatorial regimes or hypersensitivities between ethnicities and sub-cultures. Or even the vast disparities of wealth and opportunity that result in “approved Street Art”.

Street and Public Art do find larger overlaps in India than in other countries. They aren’t necessarily anti-establishment as has been the case with (Banksy prior to the Sotheby’s shredding event). Please note when we are talking of Street Art here, it is purely the visual medium. Alternatively, India has had a long and strong tradition of anti-establishment street art in the form of plays, disruptive theatre troops that went from city to city, town to town to awaken a rebellion, inject and infuse new waves of thought. This discussion recognises them, but they aren’t within the scope of our discussion here today. 

A NOTE TO REMEMBER

To summarise, in our opinion, Public Art inspires celebration and conversation, whilst Street Art provokes and jars. By evoking questions, taking us to a place that at times is uncomfortable even, for Street Art is a voice of the masses. This past week the masses were loud about a certain storm across the walls of Haus Khas Village, New Delhi and Chapel Road, Mumbai.

St+Art – Street Fight

Good Friday wasn’t so good for the street art scene in India. Budweiser India launched a multi-city campaign mainly across Bombay and Delhi. The campaign identified public spaces that would be ideal to house and display creative artworks, honouring the life of the great footballer – Lionel Messi. It would seem a perfect marriage between the fan, the beer-can and art. In reality it was much like an unintended hangover, where everything seemed blurry, and the art and the fan collided!

So, what exactly happened? No words could do justice to what we experienced on our Insta-feed. Here is a photo-essay from the stake holders and key players in the upset caused (intentionally or unintentionally). The opinions voiced are across the board, from artists, creators, challengers and viewers. In the following images you will see – passion, concern and a battle of spaces and ideas, the artist v/s a ‘demonic’ commercial megalith.

Is this a Story of David v/s Goliath, or Goliath v/s Goliath?

One would like to add, the above screen shots are a curated representation of the conversations, accusations, justifications, rebuttals, and concerns, by the some of the parties involved.

Believe us when we say that our – Instagram – feed – blew – up. The loudest voices against the Budweiser murals were St+Art and their affiliated artists. They seemed to be angered about how a massive alcohol brand had ‘co-opted street- art’. That too on a wall of a primary SDMC school. They invoked Street Art ethos, when we feel they would have been better served in invoking Public Art guidelines. As that is what Budweiser India did not adhere to. St+Art as an organisation, despite its name falls largely under the Public Art Manifesto. They organise and collaborate with Street Artists to produce and strategically place Public Art. Leading this charge is Hanif Kureshi and the St+Art team, supported by Karuna Ezara Parekh and Sajid Wajid Shaikh to name a few.

The debate online over Easter weekend and Easter Monday spread like wildfire. We saw fervent and urgent cross-tagging. The Insta-stories in support of fellow street artists on social media were seen everywhere. Many responded, backing the claim that street art as a form was indeed in need of nurturance and protection. An argument was drawn up placing the pre-Budweiser murals within the ‘high-art/heritage’ category.

Setting the Scene

Seven years ago, in 2014 international artists Okuda San Miguel and Mariusz Waras (@okudart and @stencilcity) had painted their hallmark vibrant, graphic-cum-geometric pieces featuring 3-dimensional animals, in collaboration with Hanif Kureshi. This past Easter weekend, the fact that these murals had been painted over, replaced with scenes from the life of Lionel Messi, started the online frenzy. The new murals were in in fact a disguised Budweiser campaign, by artists Omkar and Zain from Visual Artists @wickedbroz. This brought the ire of the St+art foundation on their heels.

THE BATTLE

Kureshi, artistic director at the St+art India Foundation, spear-heading this crusade, responded to this act with a series of photo collages featuring a “Then/Now” theme. Spotlighting the popular artworks by artist Ranjit Dahiya on various popular streets of Bandra West, Mumbai, spliced by more campaign art pieces that have obliterated the original works showcased. One of his claims was against the “artistic value” of an alcohol advertisement versus (what he considers to be) “iconic art”.

Kureshi goes deeper still, as he collages Dahiya’s ‘Anarkali’ with the ‘Messi’ art-work commissioned by Budweiser, in collaboration with @weareanimalco. He openly challenges, what he calls a “hijacking” of the street art scene in India. Kureshi states, “This is not art. This is blatant advertising in the name of street art.”


Meanwhile, visual artists Zain and Omkar issued a public apology via IG stories, to the former artist who had worked on the murals in question.

How many apologies stacked up as the days and hours progressed, fewer than one would assume, as new information gave further context.


Losing Leverage

Not to remain quiet, @weareanimalco posted within 24-hours in their defence, that as a company they provide intermediate media support and are primarily an advertising and design company. There has been no retreat from the big wigs though,  perhaps owing to the missive that @weareanimalco decided to post on IG.

In a shock and awe tactic, their insta-story revealed the contents of an email exchange between Hanif and themselves. Discussing the quotes that they had received from Hanif when approached for the same project. Presumably Kureshi and St+Art got as far as financial negotiations for the project, knowing it was for Budweiser India. So, were they promoting the Indian street art scene, or possibly selling out for commercial benefit ? Side-note, some of you might remember St+Art’s tie-ups with commercial big wigs like Adidas and Asian Paints for the “Girls = Boys” campaign, in the year 2020.

APOLOGIES & BACKPEDALLING

Animal’s revelation of the redacted email (as Kureshi and St+Art explicitly state in the email for the energy exchange per mural to be kept confidential) led to some of their initial-supporters to jump ship. An early supporter of St+Art in this debate was celebrity entrepreneur Chhaya Dabas of Baatein fame. She gracefully acquiesced and withdrew her earlier anti-Budweiser India and Animal IG story. Saying that, “I too jumped the gun and didn’t do my due diligence. I apologise for that. Dig deep and be thorough with your information. Social Media is a wildfire don’t be a victim.”

The Counter-Claim

So what really prompted Animalco’s response – was it Hanif Kureshi’s posts that had irked them or was it something else?

Unfortunately, whilst Animal’s claim on the artwork was solid and their allegiance to Budweiser complete, the best argument against them and the beer-conglomerate is that the works have been done on the walls of a SDMC Primary School. One that is housed in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village. This is what takes them into hot water and leaves them there.

PLAY BY THE RULES

There are outdoor advertisement rules and regulations that all companies need to comply with. Advertising alcoholic beverages have been banned in India as per the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Amendment Bill which came into effect on 8 September 2000. Even before that, India has held a strong stance on the ban of advertising tobacco and liquor products since 1995. The ban was enforced after extensive research from the Indian Ministry of Health found that cigarettes and liquor have adverse effects on a person’s health.

The bespoke Messi piece in New Delhi, has come up on the walls of a Municipal Corporation Primary School, in a popular art district. Though Budweiser allegedly sought the permission of the Residents welfare association, how did they pitch it? While talking to Hindustan Times on the 4th of April, 2021, Mr. Deavinder Kumar Chaudhary, president of the  HKV-Residents Welfare Association, said:

“They had come to us to seek permission saying they wanted to make football-related artwork. So, we allowed them. We don’t want any controversy, so if there is something related to liquor, they have misled us, and I will get it removed tomorrow [Monday] itself.”

We are ambivalent about Mr Deavinder Kumar’s use of the ambiguous ‘they’. Clearly there are very big players on the ground across advertising, media and alcohol companies.

At the time of writing this piece, the Art From Us team has been unable to confirm if the mural has been painted over.

Why the Messi Mural in HKV is possibly very Illegal

As one walks past the mural, through the streets of Haus Khas Village, the colourful and vibrant display is eye-catching. You stop, stare, see the large “Gracias” and if you are a football fan you immediately recognise that jersey – it’s Barca 10 – celebrating Lionel Messi! Upon closer look, you’d be hard pressed to know who is behind this large mural. Budweiser have left out any blatant signage on the mural(s), and has opted for imprinting their presence through a QR code. This code links straight to  www.budspace.com  which is a link to the Budweiser website.

This, is where St+Art and their supporters can celebrate a GOTCHA! Moment.

WHAT THE LAW SAYS

Why? – Because, as per the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Amendment Bill the QR code leading us to a site that sells alcohol might be a legal no-no. Say, if this QR code came up in-between your news cycle or entertainment with an image of said artwork. It would be translate straight into penalties for Budweiser. As there are no further amendments to the Bill with regards to public spaces and social media we aren’t exactly sure. We reached out t a Calcutta High Court Lawyer, who said –

“The law only refers to commercial advertising, although advertising alcohol in all forms is banned in India. And with limited presence on print media as well.”

So, our next question would be, if alcohol advertisements are plain illegal in print and media, vis a vis – direct advertising. Then, where do QR codes and Primary School Walls fall in this battle to safeguard the Indian Public from the ill-effects of intoxicants?

BANNED BEER ?

The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) over the last 2 decades has banned 12 liquor companies from using surrogate advertising. As far as we can tell, Budweiser is not on this list, yet.

Further, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation’s (SDMC) press director, Sanjay Sahay, has been silent during the furore. Our reach-out to junior levels of secretariat-ship at the School and the SDMC have come to naught. With no access being granted, what went on in that conversation between Budweiser and the SDMC in unclear.

Final Thoughts on Messy Messi

So, the entire story has shed light on how much ownership a city and its creative communities have on spaces. In our offices at Art From Us there has been much heated debate. With no consensus reached, all perspectives presented here today found support within out ranks. In the end, there hasn’t been a consensus on one perspective here. Hence, we wanted to take you on this journey of Public and Street Art. Presented are the facts of the fall-out between St+Art and Budweiser India. Where you choose to enter and exit the conversation will largely come down to what position you hold in this cultural debate.

We welcome you in! Know you are a stakeholder in everything that happens in your city, in your nation and on the planet. Be vocal, assess, do your research, pick a side, advocate, examine and reflect, and then act, don’t react. In the words of John D. Rockerfeller :

“I believe that every right, implies a responsibility; every opportunity an obligation; every possession, a duty.”

UPDATE : 8th April, 2021 at 11:02 am (IST)

Budweiser India acknowledged the concerns of St+Art and others in a statement via their Instagram account. They said : “We are deeply concerned that the sentiments of the artists and the Street Art comminity have been hurt and we empathize. Our intent was to inspire fans showcasing the G.O.A.T’s journey, through an artform we loved and support. Doing so we have inadvertently hurt sentiments; we have reached out to the artists of the original artworks @bollywoodartproject and @startindia, and will work together to restore these walls – all in good faith.”

At the same time, St+Art also posted to their Instagram : “Update : @budweiserindia has reached out to us, empathising on the current situation. Concerned that the efforts and sentiments of the artists and street art community have been hurt, they have suggested to bring back the impacted murals. Budweiser’s team will be working with the artists directly, in order to repaint the walls.”


For more explorations of Art & Politics visit the archive.

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