In early 2016, an array of institutions, artists and young people participated in a series of community-based public art projects in cities across India, encouraging youth empowerment in order to address critical social issues in their communities. The tour began with a two-week whirlwind of creativity in the Indira Camp slum in south Delhi’s Okhla neighborhood for the Shanti Arts for Action project, organized through the Canadian foundation Give a Hand. At the Vidya youth center, children and teens worked closely with artists from the US, the UK and India to address issues of gender equality and youth leadership through workshops and collaborative art-making. Together, they wrote and rehearsed their own dance and theatrical performances, proudly presenting them to their community during two public events. They designed and painted murals that now adorn the outside walls of the youth center. On outings into the neighborhood, the participants collected metal and plastic trash that they then re-purposed as a giant percussion instrument called the “foundstrument soundstrument,” installed as a permanent sculpture in the community.
The Delhi artist team consisted of visual artists Max Frieder and Joel Bergner, dancer and comedian Karla-Jayne (CJ) Thomas, art therapist Zeba Rizvi and filmmaker Kevin Bagchi from the organization Kid Powered Media. Adding to the excitement of the project, the team presented the young people of Indira Camp with a canvas mural sent as a gift from students their own age in Queens, New York, who also sent them videos of greetings and messages about their lives. Moved, the Indian students installed the mural in their youth center and set to work designing a canvas mural to be sent back to New York as a gift to the students there, along with their own video messages. Finally, after two intensive weeks of sharing and creation in which many beautiful bonds were formed, it was time to say good-bye. At the closing ceremony, there was no shortage of tears and hugs all around, a testament to the powerful human connections that were made through collaborative art making.
Shanti Arts for Action continued in Mumbai with Joel, CJ, visual artist Ilana Price and a team of local young people from a youth leadership program. Together, they facilitated workshops with children, teens and adults at Mumbai Smiles, an organization that works with slum communities in the northern suburb of Andheri East. Through workshops and art-making, the participants addressed important issues in their lives such as gender inequality, child labor and girl-child infanticide. With a focus on these topics, they wrote and performed their own skits featuring dance, theatre and music, which they presented at the end of each of the two weeks. Meanwhile, other groups designed and painted a series of community murals. This process is intended to give marginalized residents a platform in which to share their voice on issues that are important to them and their families, leading to a realization that all citizens can be agents of social change, rather than simply victims of their circumstances.
For the next project, CJ and Joel joined forces with local Mumbai artist Krishna Sharma and a team of students from the Sophia College for Girls. Organized through the Meridian International Center, the US Consulate and local NGOs Safe City and Development Matrix, their mission was to create a 40-foot long mural on canvas, to be installed at one of India’s most famous art festivals, Kala Ghoda. The team met at Sitara Studio in South Bombay, where they discussed the theme of Women’s Empowerment. Ever since a horrific, high-profile rape and murder took place on a public bus in Delhi several years ago, India’s gender-based violence crisis has been in the spotlight, leading to massive demonstrations across the country. Many people, especially students, are leading the movement for wide-spread social change and an improvement in the situation for women and girls.
After exploring these issues in the opening workshop, the team designed their mural to reflect the struggle for equality on the left side through images and words woven through the main character’s hair and hand. The right section is a celebration of the diversity of females in India and the accomplishments that have been made toward creating a more just society. Men are included on each side as well, as the participants wanted to make a statement that males also have a vital role to play in advocating for gender equality. It was a week of bonding, as the artists and students learned from one another, joked around and shared stories. The young women poured their energy and creativity onto the canvas every day, resulting in a stunning and highly detailed work of art that left festival-goers moved when it was finally unveiled at Kala Ghoda. The whole team showed up for the opening and had an emotional final group circle to reflect on their experiences.
In the north of India, there lies a small city called Siliguri at the foothills of the Himalayas. While this region boasts stunning scenery and a rich mix of cultures, it is also known for something much more sinister: the epicenter of South Asia’s human trafficking crisis. Often lured by false promises of job prospects, thousands of women and girls a year are taken from here or brought from nearby countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar by international criminal organizations, who then force them into prostitution in brothels across the country. Others end up in forced labor as domestic workers, while men and boys do agricultural work as modern-day slaves. To raise awareness for this critical issue, Joel partnered with 4 local Bengali artists, Anindya, Saptarshi, Santanu and Binod, to create a public mural as part of the International Anti-Human Trafficking Conclave.
The main image in the mural is inspired by a self-portrait photograph by Sangeeta, a young woman from this area who is a survivor of trafficking. In her photograph, she chose to portray herself with a hand grabbing her ankle while she reaches out to another hand for support. The artists painted her sari filled with depictions of the tragic stories of modern day slavery. The mural, painted in a highly visible wall in the entrance to a shopping center, plays an important role in educating the public about human trafficking. It aims to help residents to recognize it when it happens in their community, know who to inform, be wary of job offers from strangers, and support returning survivors, as they often face intense social stigma. This project was organized through the Indian anti-trafficking NGO Shakti Vahini, the Meridian International Center and the US Consulate in Kolkata. The conclave closed with a dance group of trafficking survivors performing in front of the mural along with other local performers and speeches by dignitaries.
Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) often conjures up images of destitute people being cared for Mother Theresa in the minds of many around the world, but is in fact has a much different reputation in India; that of the country’s premier capital of the arts, a place bursting with color, life and spirituality. On the city’s south side, the Birla Academy of Arts and Culture hosted the next community art project, headed up by Joel Bergner: a 100 foot long mural on the outside wall, designed and painted with 15 local teenagers who are supported by local NGOs, who selected them based on their passion for visual art. These young people had already overcome great obstacles in their short lives, including homelessness, human trafficking and addiction. Their struggles and dreams for a brighter future became the theme of the mural project, in which Joel was again joined by CJ and a team of local artists headed up by Sayak Mitra.
The piece begins by a giant demon filled with smaller demons, which the teens painted as personifications of the traumas they’ve faced in life. This concept was originally conceived by one of the most enthusiastic teens, Prantik, who is deaf and announced on the first day that he communicates with the world through his art. He did not allow his disability to get in his way by any means, and was among the warmest, most playful and personable young people in our group. He volunteered to model for the face of the demon and succeeded in doing a great monster pose! In the next section, each student painted representations of that which gives them peace, strength and support to fight these demons: positive relationships with family and friends, activities such as art and music, religious faith and education. A giant girl towers over the city, a reference to the tendency in Indian art to paint important, powerful people as being larger than others. In a twist, this girl is portrayed as large and powerful despite being a normal teenage girl who has been through struggles, much like the participants themselves.
A boy and girl, modeled after participants Ravi and Jyotsna, have their faces joined together in the center of the mural, referencing the half-male, half-female Hindu deity Ardhanarishvara, and balance in the universe. The girl reaches out from the city and unleashes a river from her hand, which is filled with the future versions of our students: the facilitators asked each one to envision how they see themselves in the future. They painted their future selves as athletes, fashion designers, graduates, artists, politicians, scientists, and as having families. This exercise is intended to encourage young people, especially those who have been through trauma, to envision the positive future that they wish to manifest in their lives. The background is filled with Bengali folkloric art, which the local artists gave the teens a lesson on, and a typical Ganges River boat rests on the water.
At the closing ceremony for the mural project, dozens gathered around to celebrate the artwork and its message. The teens were clearly proud of what they had accomplished, posing for photo after photo with the mural and with each other. This project was organized through partnerships with the Meridian International Center, the US Consulate in Kolkata, local NGO Banglanatak dot com, and Birla Academy for Art and Culture.
The final stop on Joel and CJ’s India tour was Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu. They reunited with the inspiring organization Karunalaya and its director Paul Singh, who they had first met in Brazil two years prior at the Street Child World Cup. Karunalaya works with street youth, doing outreach to homeless families and running two residential centers, one for boys and one for girls who had been rescued from the streets. Many of their volunteers and staff are former street children themselves, and therefore are in a unique position to approach kids and families in desperate situations and help them to access the support they need.
Joel and CJ facilitated games and activities with the children and created a giant mural on the outside wall of the boys’ center. The main image is a sleeping boy, modeled after one of the youngest residents. Above, it reads “I dream of…” in the local Tamil language. Inside the boy’s clothing and in the background, the kids finished this sentence by painting images and writing phrases about what they envisioned for their futures: their educational aspirations, their career goals and the types of families they would like to have. By envisioning their futures in a positive way, these young people were allowing themselves to hope that their lives did not have to be as they had been. They could be agents of change in their lives, with the support of positive adults and institutions in their community.