Snazzing up the Streets

Hanif Kureshi’s brand of art is brightening up India’s urban landscape, one street corner at a time.

hanif-kureshi-1 Hanif Kureshi, Photo: Abhimanyu Singhal

I used to dream about being a street painter,” said Hanif Kureshi, a slight and unassuming artist sitting beside us at a secret dinner held inside the unlikely venue of Mumbai’s Sassoon Docks. We had just been held in thrall by his evocative installation inside a warehouse, which used words strung up on ceiling-to-floor fishing nets. The words brought memories related of familiar smells and scents. Not only was it one of the most popular exhibits in an arts festival full of international artists organised by the St+art Foundation, of which he is one of the five co-founders, but it worked very well to connect the art to the space it occupied, where the smell of fish was the first thing that assailed the senses. Considering the power-packed punch of his work and him having shown at various prestigious exhibitions and biennales across the world, we were surprised that the soft-spoken 35-year-old preferred to stay at the periphery of publicity.

hanif-kureshi-4 A larger-than-life cutout in Goa installed by Kureshi’s St+art Foundation

Delhi-based Kureshi, who grew up in Bhavnagar, Gujarat, enrolled in the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, so that he could become the best street painter! Art school, however, gave him a different canvas to work with. He fell in love with graphic design and typography and landed up in the world of advertising, working with biggies such as Ogilvy & Mather and Wieden+Kennedy. Three years ago, the young creative dynamo co-founded an underground agency called Guerrilla Art & Design. True to its name, the company does highly effective and praise-worthy creative work, but prefers to remain anonymously on the sidelines. Their work for Facebook, Social, WeWork, Times Internet, Jabong and JSW have grabbed eyeballs nevertheless, as has Kureshi’s own artwork even in the non-commercial space.

While graffiti was once considered a nuisance, it is now a wonderful showcase of alternative art, a sub-culture that sometimes surpasses the mainstream in its fanbase.

His long-standing tryst with typography finds expression in installations like the one at the docks, his latest eye-catching murals in Chandigarh’s Sector 17, on the walls of Tihar Jail or Kolkata’s Sonagachi area, as well as on the ‘Letters From India’ pachyderm he painted for charity for the Elephant Parade. But he has a project that he holds close to his heart. With Handpainted Type, he is saving, one font at a time, the fast-disappearing fonts created by traditional sign painters all over India. He is not only documenting their designs and attributing the creativity correctly, but also creating a shareable treasure trove of these typefaces so they can be used in graphic design and advertising. On his website handpaintedtype.com, he declares, “I now know both these worlds intimately and I felt that I should do something to link them before painters disappear from the streets. I also thought it important to preserve this art form for future generations to understand and hopefully, appreciate.”

hanif-kureshi-3 ‘We Love Delhi’ - a mural at Lodhi Colony created by Hanif Kureshi in collaboration with Lek & Sowat.,Photo: Akshat Nauriyal

Kureshi, along with the other members of the St+art Foundation, has brought colour and humour to the walls of several cities in India, starting with Delhi, then moving on to Bengaluru, Goa, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Kolkata, with many more projects in the pipeline. The foundation works to collaborate with local and international artists, who reimagine spaces and reclaim stories through planned murals as well as spontaneous bursts of creativity. While graffiti was once considered a nuisance, it is now a wonderful showcase of alternative art, a sub-culture that sometimes surpasses the mainstream in its fanbase. The foundation may use diverse locations, styles and subjects but its single-minded focus is – art for all. Seeing the way the locals – be they ever so young or of humble origins – respond and bond with the artwork is definitely heartening. One of his giant human cutouts from the Goa project is currently on show in Paris at La Defense until October 21.

hanif-kureshi-2 'The Idea Of Smell' - Hanif Kureshi’s Evocative Installation At The Sassoon Docks In Mumbai Photo: Pranav Gohil

GETTING ST+ART-ED…

Qureshi and four friends came together to start the St+art India Foundation for street art., Photo: Naman Saraiya

Founded in 2014 by Arjun Bahl, Hanif Kureshi, Giulia Ambrogi, Akshat Nauriyal and 
Thanish Thomas, the St+art India Foundation is a not-for-profit urban art festival that brings together street artists

Arjun Bahl a partner with Kureshi on Guerrilla Art & Design has superlative networking skills whose forte is events and entertainment being. As festival director, he helps generate funds and liaises with government bodies.

Giulia Ambrogi has 
worked with Italy’s most important contemporary art museum MAXXI and is an experienced public and urban art curator.

Akshat Nauriyal content director and digital head is a visual artist and filmmaker. Clued into the alternative and subcultural scene in India, he’s been a drummer, and made a web-based film/photo documentary Now Delhi that provides representation for fringe communities.

Thanish Thomas has spearheaded shows like We the People and Big Fight at NDTV. Experienced in training, production and resolving issues at ITES (Information Technology Enabled Service), as project director he handles public relations and the daily work of the foundation.

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