“Hope!” “Hope!” “Come get your hope!” the call rang out in the narrow, overcrowded lanes of Zamrudpur, one of New Delhi’s ‘hidden neighborhoods’ made up of the city’s working poor who service the wealthy colonies surrounding them.
As our team of performance artists pushed their cart through the crowds, off-duty cycle-rickshaw pullers, maids, cooks, guards, street vendors and shop-keepers looked up, surprised, confused. These are Delhi’s low-income migrants, uneasily gathered from all over India, overworked and underpaid, often abused as ‘outsiders,’ vulnerable survivors, clinging to their own ethnic groups. They were used to the cries of the vegetable-cart man, or the man who calls for your used cardboard and glass bottles, but this—“Hope!” “Come get your hope!”—was strangely different, stirring curiosity, and something deeper within.
Ahead of the cart two of our artists were handing out free ‘money’. Where the currency of India’s capital city is power and wealth, we were introducing a new currency based not on what you can get but on what you can give. The money had “I ♥ Delhi” on one side and the Hindi equivalent of “I ‘Mother Theresa’ Delhi”, “I ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ Delhi”, or “I ‘Martin Luther King Jr’ Delhi”, etc. on the other.
This piece was just one of an energetic spread of performance art pieces, murals, paintings, installations, photography, and video art that resulted from our 2nd Annual International Artist Residency. For three weeks 20 artists, 13 from around India and 7 from as far away as Australia, Palestine, and the US worked jointly on the theme ‘I ♥ Delhi.’ As a microcosm of a city historically settled by migrants—with its accompanying culture of ‘grabbing what you can get’ and ‘looking out for your own’—we had picked Zamrudpur, a bite-sized community of the city’s vulnerable, to make art with, for, and about. Our goal was to love Delhi by helping people see their city—and each other—with new eyes.
The Residency started with the artists led on a series of immersive walks through the community in groups of 2-3, with each walk ending in a separate Zamrudpur home, a cup of tea, and the opportunity to hear stories and see lives up close. The tours and homes were organized by a partnering organization which had been running a crèche and a women’s empowerment project for the last 10 years and had won the trust of women in the community. But those interactions, and subsequent visits as and when the artist needed, formed the basis for discussions examining themes of migration, citizenship, diversity, urban development, and more.
We were thrilled with the number of people who engaged with the art, whether through the six murals we painted on Zamrudpur’s walls, the ‘walking gallery’ in which each artist carried one of their artworks through Zamrudpur’s narrow lanes, or two performance art pieces like the one described above. An exhibition for the general Delhi public brought together all the art forms under one roof, along with some live ‘free-style’ rapping by our graffiti artist from Phoenix, AZ, joined by some Zamrudpur youth—for an evening that had the energy of a circus. In all, perhaps a thousand people directly engaged with the art—although a drop in the ocean of New Delhi’s 17 million, yet at least a thousand new perspectives, seeing themselves and their city with new eyes.
Our annual International Artist Residency is designed to bring together sensitive professional artists from abroad to work alongside Indian peers, making for some beautiful connections, a wonderful mix of ideas, and lasting consequences. And for the artists it indeed was a life-changing experience. “We made an international bond of love,” “It was a short time, but a time I will remember for the rest of my life,” “I don’t want to leave,” were some of the reactions.
When our artist from Kashmir, mistreated earlier as an art student in Delhi, was asked why he applied for the residency he responded: “Because I hate Delhi.” “I wanted to see what you would do.” He went on to share: “When I start painting I’m always angry. I poke nails into the canvas, throw paint, scratch. This time I decided to start with innocent things.” He did so by getting children from the streets of Zamrudpur to paint on his canvas. His conclusion? “I didn’t think this residency would work. But it did.”