Fort Kochi has been home to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a very large art exhibition, for almost a decade now. This was a deliberate attempt by the state government to renew historic Fort Kochi, with the help of some of Kerala’s best known contemporary artists. The four month long event in the winter of every even year draws several hundred thousand visitors. We visited in an off-Biennale year when hotels rates have not gone into orbit.
The Biennale leaves a residue of interesting art on the streets of Kochi, and we had great fun spotting these commissioned works. There were pieces executed in 2018, and the remnants of works made in earlier years. Art is ephemeral, and street art is an urgent reminder to enjoy it while it lasts. The enormous wrinkled faces and the protraits of ordinary people seemed to be no more than a year old. The birds soaring over bare concrete was older and will be gone in a few more months. On other walls we saw guerilla art, unlicensed work. That will take another post.
Every so often a wonderful sight slips through the net of this blog. One of the truly exciting things that technology has given us is a lightweight and high resolution camera that we carry in our pockets all the time. If there was something interesting that you took photos of, the chances are they will last longer. And if it lasts longer, there’s a better chance that you will eventually write about it. The great street art that I saw half a year ago in Patna is one of these things.
The glowing street art was visible as soon as one exited the airport, and continued throughout the city. Much of the area around the airport is occupied by government offices, so clearly the state government was involved in this effort to beautify the city. I recognized the Darbhanga district’s folk art style near the airport (most of the photos in the gallery above), but the more well-known style from Madhubani district also appeared in other places. I thought this was a good way to showcase the artistic heritage of the state.
Folk art remains dynamic, as you can see from the adoption of the modern style of wildlife photography in the mural above. A more subtle adaptation was in the clothes worn by the woman riding a croocodile in one of the photos included in the above gallery. The two-horned African rhino and giraffes also appeared in some of the panels; these are also modern adoptions.
In one spot I saw a trotally non-traditional style. The city has an art school. I wonder whether this work was commissioned from someone associated with the school. It was too elaborate to be guerrilla art. I wish I had had the time to take photos across the city. Perhaps, if I go back, this will give me something interesting to do.
The Family has been very excited about street art ever since Berlin. When she saw the remarkable example of street art in Kochi it was a foregone conclusion that we would stalk the streets looking for more. A beautiful example which combined all the tropes about Kerala is the one you can see in the featured photo. I liked the way the door has been just let be, like a panel separator in a graphic novel.
Walking about the streets of the Spice bazaar, I could not help noticing the other thing I love to take photos of: doors. The beautifully weathered example that you see above, showed me the reason for the choice of colours in the big mural of the elephant. This shade of blue is a characteristic colour for doors in this part of Fort Kochi.
Some of the heritage bungalows on the island have been turned into hotels. Near the Bishop’s House we found a bungalow standing in the middle of a lawn so manicured that it could have belonged to the army. But the gates stood open, so we wandered in and found that it was a hotel. The door was lovely, and the tinted glass above it was the blue of Kochi.
Other colours are not neglected though. This giant black door with white trim was impressive. The red post box hanging next to it made a nice picture. I wished the smaller inset door had been open; that might have given me an interesting view into the courtyard beyond. I suppose that the courtyard is surrounded by warehouses.
Not all doors were large and imposing. This little house on the side of the road was unusual, in the sense that it took up harbour-side space which could have been used for a warehouse. Perhaps there was a warehouse here earlier, and it has now given way to the cluster of smaller buildings of which this was one. The cream coloured wood of the outer wall was cheerful, and the wooden door with grills was exactly like the doors I’ve seen elsewhere in Kerala. It was not hard to imagine the people of the house standing behind it, chatting with passing neighbours.
An unexpected find was this cupboard pushed out of a house into a small verandah by the side of the road. It was not a discard. It was certainly still in use. I stood there and waited for something interesting to pass by so that I could have a photo to remember this odd thing by.
I saw very little street art in Nairobi, but there was a lot of art on the streets. It was on the private buses and matatus which you can see everywhere on the roads. Here is a small gallery of this art, collected as I was driven around the streets of the city. I was told that some of the artists charge a lot for the paintings. It is clear why. Enjoy paging through the gallery; just click on any thumbnail to open it.
Somewhere in the Parklands district of Nairobi, I came across a wall with beautiful street art. Markets in Kenya are full of beautifully executed art, sold at heart-breakingly low prices. I’d been surprised at the relative lack of street art, so this discovery was very pleasant. The Swahili word Jamuri means room, and that puts the piece in the featured photo in context. Imaginative, along with the graffiti inside graffiti.
This beautifully flowing piece on the same wall has the inscription Haki iwe ngao, which is Swahili for “Righteousness be the shield”. I like this East African “idiom” which avoids large areas of single colour, but uses stippling and stripes very extensively. On this large scale it makes for an extremely bright effect, somewhat in the way the pointillist experiments of Seurat did.
This superbly painted clubhouse gate more or less explained why this wall was full of street art. The logo of the clubhouse is rather cool I think. That background pink is really lovely.
This last one requires little explanation if you know a bit of Kenyan history. 1963 was the year Kenya became independent.
Parts of Karaköy seem to be in terminal decline. The Family and I walked through back streets of these “old, poor, historic neighbourhoods”, as the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk calls them in his memoirs entitled “Istanbul”. The large number of tourists gave me an opportunity for ambush photography: the photographing of people who are being photographed by others. Where tourists thinned out, the walls became dense with graffiti. Plaster was falling off the walls of some of these buildings, revealing weathered brick. This is the area downhill from the Galata tower.
The outline of the 14th century tower, a tall grey cylinder topped by a darker cone, is so clear and visible that I got used to orienting myself by it. I don’t suppose that there is any trace left here of the Genoese colony which built the tower, since the whole area became a fashionable district during the 18th century. Most of the crumbling buildings in these back streets are likely to be from the 19th century. I should really locate a street by street architectural guide to Istanbul when I go back there.
You might not be surprised by Istanbul’s charm. A little square between buildings in Fatih with a swing and a teeter-totter makes a decent playground for the neighbourhood’s children. A few benches are scattered around for parents who are too tired to stand. And someone has painted a cheerful canary on the blue wall of one of the buildings which encloses the area. Charming? Sure. Surprising? No.
But in Galatasaray, two dolphins rearing up on their tails holding telephones in their plastic bellies is a touch of whimsy that one does not anticipate. We’d watched dolphins fishing in the Golden Horn. Here, a kilometer or two away, a telephone company had decided to use them as a symbol. Nice thinking.
Between the two, in the Eminönü district, a tap at the German fountain still works. Tourists and locals drink the water it dispenses. There is no sign saying which sultan had it placed here, but supplying potable water to citizens was a task that the Roman empire took very seriously, where in its first capital, or in the successor capital, Constantinople. We asked the locals about the tap water. They do not recommend it to tourists, but they drink it themselves. So we followed their example now and then, without getting into trouble.
On our drive through the town of Selçuk we saw an avenue lined with lions. This was quite surprising, and I hopped off the car to take a quick photo. I haven’t come across a description of this before, nor an explanation. Is it recent? Not recent enough for it to be made of concrete poured into moulds. The columns were made of stone. Sometime, somewhere I suppose I will eventually find the history of these lions standing on two paws.
Seats and water fountains are probably as ancient as the very notion of a city. Telephones have had their day, and phone booths are now quaint reminders of the twentieth century. It was comforting to walk by the Halic and see a line of ATMs waiting patiently. I didn’t have to use them, but after spending a week wandering through Anatolia, it was nice to be reminded that one was back in a city.
Istiklal Caddesi. This was the name which I would always think of as essential to Istanbul before I came here. Topkapi palace, Hagia Sophia, the Sulemaniye Mosque, were also-rans in my imagination. My imagination was full of what Nerval, Gautier, and Pamuk had written about Freedom Street. When I first climbed up from the Cihangir district to Istiklal Caddesi, it was everything that I’d hoped for: elegant shops and cafes as well as the charming decay of one of the world’s oldest global cities.
The street is full of elegant buildings slowly decaying, brought alive today by the vibrant street art that you see in the slideshow above. It was dead at noon on a Monday, and came alive slowly as the day progressed. Istanbul is a party town, and this area is not a bad place to be in.
After a week seeing the natural wonders of Turkey, and the ruins of ancient cities, I thought I’d forgotten what a living city feels like. When I got off the taxi in the middle of bustling Eminönü, it felt like jumping into the shockingly cold water of a Finnish sauna. A moment of shock, and then it was wonderful. An exhibition of photos at Istanbul’s new airport had introduced me to the work of the photographer Ara Güler. As I walked through the exhibition (a selection in the gallery below; for a better view follow the link), I realized that many photos of Istanbul are influenced by his vision.
Ara Guler, Istanbul
Ara Guler, Istanbul
Ara Guler, Istanbul
Ara Guler, Istanbul
Ara Guler, Istanbul
Ara Guler, Istanbul
Ara Guler, Istanbul
Walking through the streets I realized that Istanbul has superb street art. I’ll have more to say about this later, but a sampler is the featured photo. It could be an early Braque were it not for the fact that it was a guerilla work in a boarded off lot in Eminönü.
Archaelogists seem to use the word graffiti in the same way that all of us do, to mean art that is made in a public place, usually without the sanction of city authorities. You can see quite a bit of graffiti etched into stone in the lower part of Ephesus. I suppose this is one way of figuring out that this part was not where the rich lived or cared too much about. The two main streets in this part are the Marble Way, connecting the library and the circus, and the Arcadian Way, leading to the docks.
The flagstones of the Marble Way show ruts of chariots, so making graffiti in the road here could get you knocked over. The fact that someone bothered to carve a foot and the faint outline of a woman into it (featured photo) means that they deemed it important. The building next to it was a Roman brothel, so this could have been a sign. The cross on the side wall of the road (photo below) seems to have been made over an older sign. There was an Egyptian temple here, so I wonder whether the Christian symbol was made to erase an older Egyptian symbol of an Ankh. This could be a territory marker. The photo of the circle with spokes comes from the Arcadian Way. I found this symbol in other ruins also, so this could possibly signify another cult. I wish I knew what it meant. Surely someone must have compiled a dictionary of Roman symbols. Otherwise there is an opportunity waiting for a historian.
In a city of about twenty to thirty thousand people, with a mass of sailors coming and going, why did we see so little graffiti? After all, the patricians did not seem to care too much about policing little acts of vandalism. Perhaps most graffiti was like today’s: painted or written. This would not have survived the millennia. Only the few etched into stone would not be washed away by half a million days of rain.