Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Slum as Art

My good friend Dave Palmer just sent these along. He and his wife Mini are returning to the US from India after living and working in the vast urban squatter slums of Mumbai (Bombay).

He took the pics at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Mumbai over Thanksgiving where he and his team had a special T-Day dinner. The mixed media piece represents a typical squatter slum in the city.

The artist used resin for a base and then covered it with pieces of scrap metal and other typical building materials that slum dwellers use. If you look at the "up close" pic carefully you can even see a slum church and two Hindu shrines. The church is red and the shrines are red, yellow and orange so they stand out, which makes a lot of sense in a country as religious as India. If you look really hard you can even see little used tires – less than 1 inch in size – on some of the rooftops.

The Hyatt is one of the swankiest 5 star hotels in India's wealthiest city, so needless to say Dave didn't expect to find any art there focusing on the worst of Mumbai's squatter slums. It would be a little like running across an expletive laced hip hop south central art video projected on the walls in the lobby of the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.

Estimates vary, but most sources believe at least 6 million people--and possibly as many as 10 million--do life in the sewage and shacks of Mumbai. It's a collection of squatter slums roughly the size of New York City.

I guess I'm not surprised you'd find that kind of jarring juxto there. Because of Hindu philosophy and particularly their ideas about karma, a lot of people on the subcontinent apparently live comfortably with extremes of all and nothing and up and down and right and left.

But still, you've gotta wonder what the hotel folks were thinking when they decided to feature that particular piece of art.

Since it depicts the slums from above in a kind of God's eye view, maybe they were referencing the way most of the wealthy people who stay at the Hyatt normally see Mumbai's slums--from above as they fly in or out of the city. Could be a way to remind the well-to-do just how lucky they are without requiring them to actually go into the slums and see and smell and hear and feel them up close.

Or maybe there's some justice oriented subversive working in management at the Hyatt :^) Some of the folks paying $500 a night may be uncomfortable looking at a piece of art depicting the millions who live in Mumbai on $500 a year or less.

Or maybe they thought it was just a beautiful piece of art.

I've loved and followed art of all kinds since I was a teenager. I often wonder if art has a substantial role to play in seeking greater justice. I hope so.

Maybe some folks at the Grand Hyatt in Mumbai are trying to find out.


Blogger jon said...

I really hope there's a subversive working there. That'd be awesome.

3:33 PM  
Blogger 3wishes said...

Wow, 10 million squatters. Could there be that much Bad Karma? :^

3:50 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Wack holiness contributes to poverty everywhere including here at home, 3. Maybe bad holiness and bad economics are the dynamic duo of poverty everywhere.

8:57 PM  
Blogger Matthew Pascal said...

I definately think that art has a huge role to play in justice oriented work. I'm probabaly a bit biased, seeeing how I'm a musician (or try to be:-)), but I do think that the arts have a role to play.

I helped to start a music program for youth in a squatter settlement in South Africa between 1999 - 2001, and the youth that we taught music to ended up forming a group that travelled around the Cape Town area singing and performing songs that had to do with racial reconciliation. If racial reconciliation in South Africa isn't fighting for social justice then I don't know what is.

I believe with all of my heart that the arts have a huge role to play.

Whether it be painting, music, poetry, novels, etc., the arts can reach and impact the greater society in a way that politics, etc., often can't. The arts can reach people groups that are often times unaware of the grave injustices of this world.

I believe that empowering and encouraging artists to speak out through their talents is a way to open the eyes of the world.

Just some thoughts from a rich westerner though.

10:09 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

I agree mostly MP. But a lot of people--and I tend to agree with them--think that art is supposed to be ruthlessly honest and transcend, as much as possible, various ideologies and movements.

So real art may not fit well into movements for justice that take a particular ideology as a starting place, which most of them by necessity do. In a way, art may be too anarchical by nature to serve justice directly since its really fundamentally about beauty and not changing the world.

I guess I feel that ruthless honesty does ultimately serve justice in a deep way, but maybe not in ways that you can see immediately.

Some folks--myself included--have difficulty with things like "contemporary Christian music" being considered art since so much of it seems to be trying to enforce a message or particular doctrine. As good as much of that message may be or as sound as some of the doctrine may be, its not completely clear to me it qualifies as art, if you're going to view art as something fundamentally creative which--at its best--breaks boundaries and serves up reality in a fresh way.

That's also why I thought some of early hip hop qualified as art but now I think very little of it does.

3:12 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:13 PM  
Blogger jon said...

"art is supposed to be ruthlessly honest and transcend, as much as possible, various ideologies and movements."

"As good as much of that message may be or as sound as some of the doctrine may be, its not completely clear to me it qualifies as art, if you're going to view art as something fundamentally creative which--at its best--breaks boundaries and serves up reality in a fresh way."

I don't think I understand what the contrast is in the statements you are making. How does "ruthless honesty" make something automatically counter to an ideology? How does something being "fundamentally creative" mean that it can't agree with doctrine?

4:03 PM  
Blogger Matthew Pascal said...


Ya, I agree that art, in a ruthlessly honest approach might not be able to serve a justice movement in ways that we can see immediately. However, I think that we can encourage artists to continue to be radically honest and authentically creative in hopes that eventually it will be seen and understood for what it was originally meant to be seen and understood as.

I guess that is my radical idealism that is coming out - I believe that often times art is very prophetic and might not be interpreted, seen or viewed for what it actually is (or for what the artist intended) for many years, or even hundreds of years... but that eventually it can change people's deeply seeded worldviews in radical ways.

The slum art that Dave P. noticed in the Hilton might be viewed as just some sort of "nice and pretty art work" for many years, but I have the hope that eventually someone who passes through the Mumbai Hilton will actually take notice and speak out with the power and influence they have, which will eventually bring change to the world.

In my opinion we shouldn't underestimate the power of an artist to eventually being able to speak true justice to the world. Often times art isn't seen for what it truly was meant to be seen as for many, many years.

9:49 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Fun stuff :^)

Ideologies aren't 'automatically' counter to ruthless honesty. I guess I can imagine an ideology that isn't.

Ideologies don't develop in a rational and experiential vacuum. They develop out of particular and specific histories and prejudices and usually rely on coercive power to sustain them if they become successful. That's true of all ideologies in my view.

Or put in another way, no ideology ever developed out of an honest socratic method or an honest committment to prophetic revelation. All of em represent prejudice and narrow minded self interest and a pretty inaccurate take on the world. That's just a biblical take on human frailty and the fallen worldly powers, which includes the 'visible' church.

If we're talking about doctrine, I guess the question is what doctrine do you mean? Some truths and insights are deeply and always true, but the vast majority are not. They're simply cultural constructs and the result of the same dynamics as any other ideology. Getting to the heart of the truth of religious revelation that makes sense for all cultures is challenging. Serious theologians and honest missionaries struggle with those questions every day.

I singled out contemporary Christian music because I think it's mostly just a mouthpiece for conservative Christian American theology and culture right now.

Real art--like real theology and real anything--tries to stay as true as possible to experience and operates with a humility that recognizes the frailty and arrogance of any ideology or theological system.

I'm not saying everything has to be real art or real theology. There is a place in the scheme of things for simply advancing a narrow ideological or cultural agenda. I'm just typically more interested in folks that are pushing the envelope. I think that's the place that most really powerful art and doctrine comes from.

I hear you MP. I just think musicians and painters and sculpters and poets and architects who toe a doctrinal or ideological line normally makes for bad art. Justice movements normally get caught up in narrow thinking (Marxism, free markets, blah, blah, blah), so art that just parrots those takes may contribute some good things but it really isn't honest art.

10:38 PM  
Blogger 3wishes said...

Pardon my white bread thoughts here but isnt art a reflection of humanity? If you dont like a certain piece of art, be it music or paintings don't you still give a nod to the artist? And as for the term "justice oriented", what is this now, "team art"? I hope I dont see 10 names as contributors to the art piece at the Hyatt. Then in my estimation it would not qualify as art but propaganda.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Bay Area Gal said...

Interesting discussion, no doubt.

The ideology thoughts are taking me back to collge. Whew! Only at UC Santa Cruz do you take a class from a department so named "The History of Conciousness" all about culture and ideology. By the time i left i was conviced that all ideology was the by-product of a way of thinking created to explain (read: justify) why something that is not okay is okay; i became convinced that all ideology was reactionary. And yet we all have ideologies... i used to think that mental clarity would come by buddhist-style removal of all ideology from your head. The Christian woman i am has found this impossible, call it sin nature or weakness OR both. And some part of me recognizes that the absence of ideology is an ideology itself, as athiesm is a form of faith. Emptiness is no finish-line--it is just the beginning. Anyway, i ramble and i call that out as my repentance of it. Sorry.

Especially props to you Tom on the Christian-music-scene mini-analysis. Ayup. I tend to like music by recording artists who are Christian, but not on a Christian label. I want to be stretched, edified, but not indoctrinated by the music i listen to. Never mind that it is generally poor art at that. Not that i have any feelings about that (and, uh, not that i don't own a few Jen Knapp CDs).

To harken back to the first comment... i fancy the "subversive employee" idea. It makes me feel happy.

Dave just stopped in the office last week--so it was fun to see this post about this art he saw. I'm really taken by it. I really would love to know who created it and who put it there.... what exactly were they thinking?

The only bone i would pick is that "art" as i understand it, is a process but the discussion seems centered around it as a product. As though the final statement is the only one. [This is one reason why i would call Christian music "poor art" is because the recording of it seems the purpose of creating it and therefore a product, not an accounting of the processs... Ani DiFranco says in Fuel "people used to make records, as in a record of an event, the event of people making music in a room. Now everything is about cross-marketing, gum and shoes, or drugs and guns, you choose." or religous dogma.] I guess that is why i would love to bring the artist and the hotel owner into the discussion--like a commentary in inductive study--for a chat. (Anyone want to play them for fun?)

-----(unrelated to the post)-----
Came onto P&P today 'cause I just got to check out your SA and family photos WC. Nice! It's like getting to meet you or at least see the world through your peepers.

Thought i'd see what thoughts from the trip might have come up--and am still reeling about thoughts of justice and Sabbath. Perhaps our understanding of "sabbath" is akin to "fasting," perhaps one could subsitute the words in Isaiah 58... what is the sabbath God has commanded, what is the sabbath He has chosen?

Anyway, by your nature-y photos (and location) I wonder if you are a desert-rat. I wish i was. I like the desert a lot. May i suggest for you two children's books, which really are so rich in general: The Table Where Rich People Sit and The Other Way to Listen both by Byrd Baylor. Her illustrator is ridiculously fabulous, but the stories are wonderful. Especially for desert-lovers.

Lunch break is effectively over--good words to fill my head, good food in my tummy. I'm blessed.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Bay Area Gal said...

Musings: Oh, and also, in my neighborhood, i am in the process of trying to decide what of the local grafitti is art. Exe: "Eastlake" tagged on the side of the building in big loopy black aresol painy or "Fu@k you" greeting scrawled on the concrete where i step onto the sidewalk vs. some of the stuff under the freeway overpasses, on Main Street, that is beautiful. I suppose i can't know with out knowing the "artists."

2:22 PM  
Blogger anhomily said...

I like the idea that the slum as a process is art, because as a product it is hard to argue that such suffering and squalor and poverty is beautiful. But when you walk through a slum, and even more so when you live in a slum, you understand that the creativity and strength with which slum dwellers carve out their existence is incredibly beautiful. And not in the cutesy way that the precious moments illustrations are beautiful, nor in the Koontz-y polished form that defines a lot of clever "pop art." It is the power and vitality of urban slum communities in their struggle to survive against all odds which is art (sometimes also involving artifice), and attempts to reflect that can likewise be considered art...

2:09 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Good thoughts Bay and anhomily. Yeah, I think a lot of stuff in the inner city is art and I'm with your take all the way anhomily on the deeper beauty of the whole thing, though I normally restrict my use of the term art to something that expresses that deeper beauty by way of artifice. But what makes the artifice great beyond the simple visual beauty is just as you've said

2:03 PM  

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