Unusual Art Around the World

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Travel Features >> Unusual Art Around the World

Unusual Art Around the World

September 06, 2011

For a long time now travelling for art has meant landing up in the polished hallways of The Louvre having paid a hefty sum of money to be a part of the crowd that's making its way from masterpiece to masterpiece, gallery to gallery. Undoubtedly, some of the most stimulating pieces of art hang at museums but what often escapes our antennae is the art that's all around us, lit not by lighting engineers but by the sun, aired not by rotation but everyday.

Here are some kinds of artworks that don't require that you buy tickets (and retain the stub, please) at galleries that don't reserve rights of admission; they're a reflection of a community rather than an individual, of the passion of the collective rather than an individual brilliance.

Aboriginal Art, Australia
Australia's indigenous peoples have an art form that rooted as it is in the land, expresses a harmony of spiritual, moral and physical elements of the world. Called the Dreaming, it is a collective consciousness of a past that goes all the way back before the creation of land and its physical features (the Dreamtime), to ancestors who were the creators, and lives on today in a philosophy that sees spiritual, physical and moral ties between all the creations. The Dreaming manifests itself in songs, paintings, ceremonies and the Aboriginal worldview.

It is a view in which the Ancestors rose from the earth itself making cave openings or waterholes. As they rose they sang in identification of themselves: I am the Rainbow Serpent, I am the Honey Ant, I am the Kangaroo and so on. As they traversed the flat and barren land they created trees, mountains, rivers and deserts with their verses, by singing them into existence. Their songs still remain in the lay of the land, and the topography is seen as 'songlines'. At the end of their long journey the ancestors sang themselves into mountains and other various landforms and thus returned to where they came from - the land. The land and all natural things are therefore sacred to the Aboriginal peoples - as far as they are concerned these are their ancestors.

The Dreaming is also a personal thing for every individual who believes in the system: it is the source of the totem of that person. If you hear somebody saying that they have the Water Dreaming or the Kangaroo Dreaming, they're in all probability referring to the landscape that their mother first felt an intimation of her pregnancy in. They might also be referring to the location of their particular belief system within the Dreaming; one can have a combination of Dreamings too.

Paintings from the Dreaming now decorate tee shirts, boomerangs, calendars, public places, mugs, placemats - you name it and the souvenir producers will ensure that you get your Dreaming on it. Originally, paintings were made on rocks. Then they came into ceremonial use and were painted on shields and posts. The introduction of acrylic paints to the Dreaming artist means that now anyone can paint their Dreaming on any surface. While there is great license for interpretation and rendition, the art does have some stock symbols. Concentric circles or large dots are waterholes, lines between these are paths, wavy patterns refer to running water - rain or a river, U shaped figures are a view from the top of a gathering of people and small lines beside them are their implements. Dreaming art usually depicts many animals; a particularly popular motif is the snake, which after the Rainbow Serpent, is seen as a symbol of fertility. The animals are depicted as though one were looking on from above.

The Dreaming is a very attractive belief system for obvious reasons. The art too is. When you're in Australia try and find your Dreaming; if you can't, at least get the tee shirt.

For more information on Australia, click here

Underground Art - London
The London Underground or 'the Tube' must be largest art gallery in the world. Through advertisements and posters even a single journey on the tube could be a journey into the best and worst of our times. It's also a huge marketing platform in spite of studies that show that humans, creatures of habit as they are wont to be, actually notice less and less in familiar surroundings. So the proverbial 'faceless executive' who takes the Tube to work every morning (and the next morning home for a splash and dash change-of-clothes?!) is perhaps too preoccupied with the Financial Times to even notice all that great art. But with more than a million commuters there's hope that for every one of the busy ones there is at least one curious individual.

Underground art is mostly promotional - there was a whole "Love Is" series to promote tube etiquette like 'Love Is not putting your feet on the seat', and most of the wall space at the station and inside the trains is taken up by advertisements for random products. But ever so often gems like the 1986 David Booth - Tate Gallery by Tube, which featured a map of the lines of the Underground made by squeezing a tube of paint with the Tube logo and Pimlico (the station closest to the Tate) on it, appear on the scene and become classics in their own right. The art in the Underground - paintings, murals, posters - sometimes also gives you a hint about the associations that the name of the station has: find murals at Baker Street of who else but Sherlock Holmes, and at Paddington of what else but the lovable Paddington Bear.

The London Underground is as much a place for the display of art as it is a display in art! Having inspired countless deodorant ads, an anthology of poems - London: Poems on the Underground (ed. Chernaik, Benson, Herbert), novels - Underground by Tobias Hill, Tunnel Visions by Christopher Ross, the Tube has come to be an icon, a symbol for the throbbing and vibrant city of London.

If you enjoy what you see at the Underground enough to want to see more head for the London Transport Museums at 39 Wellington Street. And if you're taking the Tube, your station is Covent Garden.

For more information on London, click here.

Truck Art - Pakistan
More than 100,000 trucks run up and down Pakistan's vast network of dusty highways on any given day. Carrying grains, foods, iron girders, fertilizers, backpackers and a range of other things they're amazing works of attention-catching art on wheels. When they pass you by all you'll see is a lurching mass of technicolor woodwork (yes, in the Subcontinent wood still works fine for cargo-carrying vessels), but on closer inspection you'll find that it's actually a collage of motifs, a collection of ideas, a motley crew of religious, secular, political and popular symbols executed by a skilled and patient artist.

The recurring motifs are of Buraq (Prophet Mohammed's celestial horse), of birds, animals, mountains, fields and flowers and Koranic verse in delicate calligraphy. You'll see these painted on the side slats, on the back and on the narrow metal separators between the panels. Eyes are meant to ward off the evil eye. You'll see the map of Kashmir and missiles on some, and in all you'll see paintings of Mecca and mosques. Inside the driver's cab there might be pictures of film personalities; anyone from Rambo to Lollywood queen Reema will fill up the panel above the windscreen. Of course, the density and degree of ornamentation will depend on whether the driver's gone in 'disco painting' or 'simple painting', the former being a far more laboured enterprise that frequently leaves the name of the truck company painted on the side of the truck largely illegible.

Apart from the paintwork, patterns are also employed for the metal work of the truck. The 'crown' or the 'taj' above the cab is often styled into birds or animals and goes a long way in completing the picture. Truck art is an important folk art form that luckily you don't have to buy a ticket to watch nor go to a special destination to see. Just hit the road and take in the sights; if you're backpacking simply climb on and be a part of the picture!

For more information on Pakistan, click here.

Poster Art - India
Dominating the landscape of every Indian town and city, billboards and banners loom overhead giving you a free look at what definitely is classic kitsch. Except that this stuff actually puts a good twist on what is recognised by purists to mean 'pretentious decoration trying to pass for Art'. Bright and big, the posters of the Indian wayside are as telling an image of the nation as any.
A majority of this public art is about films - 'just releasing', 'sensational - running to packed houses', '3rd week! Full house', 'now showing at…' - but come election-time in the world's largest democracy and the landscape is completely taken over by 'vote for' messages. As the political wagon cranks itself into 4th gear larger than life cutouts stir up the skyline, every vertical surface becomes a canvas.

Besides being a source of great 'time-pass' (Indian slang for activity that involves doing nothing but at the same time excuses it), looking at posters will tell you a lot; look a little carefully at the posters and you'll begin to discern a subtle subtext. For example: the Congress, which is arguably the biggest political party in India's multiparty system has for its ballot symbol a hand, palm facing outwards. So, cutouts of Congress leaders invariably show them waving their hand at the great Indian polity that passes below. Film posters too will tell you quite a bit about the movie - while horror flicks employ the 'chilling' font (you know the one where it seems like the letters will drip all their grime on you), sugar pop dramas "for the entire family" tend to have their names rendered in a glowing 3-D format in passive pinks, cheery yellows or powder blues. Action films these days are all dedicated to the service of the nation - and 9 times out of 10 the Indian tricolour will find its place in the picture. Any product that seems like its being endorsed by a celebrity probably features a cricket player (and the way to tell is by looking at the model - if he isn't particularly good looking, you know it's the personality). However, if it still looks like it's a celebrity endorsement and the model is also fairly pleasing it must be a famous actor or actress. (In India they're usually referred to as a hero or heroine.) Forget news magazines and tedious tomes on Indian culture that tend to get outdated - just a look around will tell you more about what's happening in Indian movies, cricket and politics that day than any guide ever could.

Posters in India are the splashes of colour that enliven what could otherwise be a fairly humdrum existence. They provide employment to thousands who climb mile-high into the sky on fragile scaffolding and bring funk and fun to the world around them. Some of these even graduate into the realms of high art - M. F. Hussain, perhaps the biggest name in Indian art today, started his career as a hoarding painter getting the contours of every hero and heroines face just right.

Take a loosely stuck film poster off the wall the next time you're in a Bombay back-alley and put it up into your drawing room. The print just might be a reproduction of a something that'll later turn out to have been the work of a master!

For more information on India, click here.

Murals - San Francisco, USA
San Francisco is the city that stands apart in a globe full of famous places. Making it special are its espousal of the offbeat, love affair with the outré and free spirited irreverence for all things staid. In keeping with the soul of the city, its streets, its cafes and its art galleries are flamboyant, fun and relevant. Not to be missed in San Francisco are the murals on building walls. On Jack Kerouac Alley, in Haight Street, Broadway and at the Mission District in the Bay area huge murals cover walls, some even spanning the entire height of 4-storey buildings. These are testimonies of political movements, cultural affiliations, social comments; they're bright, they're big and almost always they are brilliant too.

There are about 600 murals in San Francisco. Remnants of 70s flower power still colour the walls at Haight with Bob Marley figuring prominently in character and in quotes. Broadway's concerns are less weighty and most murals capture the arty freewheeling spirit of that part of town. The San Francisco mural however, really comes into its own in the Mission District in the Bay area. This, the Latino quarter of San Francisco, has the lion's share of the city's wall art, almost a third of all the murals. There are huge Mexican landscapes on pure US bricks and mortar, the political struggle of the people against the law of the gun back home finds expression here. In keeping with the vocabulary of the 'Los Tres Grandes' - the renowned Diego Rivera (husband of Frida Kahlo), Jose Clemente Orozco and David Siquieros - the murals of the Mission bespeak of a longing for home and are tempered by the tragedy of political repression, burgeoning crime and general social insecurity. There are works dating back to the 1970s when the first lot of Mexican immigrants arrived here. Most are community projects that were started to foster unity. The famous Balmy Alley here is where the results of the PLACA movement still glow in bright hues. This artists' movement was begun in the mid-80s and its fruits, a series of 28 murals that strike against US interventionist policies in Central America, can still be seen here.

But, perhaps the most famous of San Francisco's friezes is the reproduction of a 38 feet mural on the wall of the City Lights Bookstore in Kerouac Alley that was originally made on the wall of a Mexican municipal building in a Chiapas village. The day after the original was completed it was totally destroyed by government soldiers. That was in 1998; the reproduction has only recently been completed and what better home for it than San Francisco where culture and politics and the politics of culture are appreciated like few places elsewhere, where freedom is at the very core of the city's life.

When you're in San Francisco, negotiating the loopy lanes and crooked streets with the breeze in your hair and the sun on your back, let the art of the city's everyday take you into its very soul. Take a walk down any alley and you'll be strolling past some very compelling art.

For more information on San Francisco, click here.

Pata, scroll painting - West Bengal, India
Have a painting sung to you.

In India's eastern plains where paddy fields fill the vision and everything is still distinctly rustic, the insidious intrusion of a motorway and satellite TV has done funny things for traditions. The neem stick, a 2 in 1 way of getting teeth sparkling and breath clean, has been replaced by Colgate's multiple innovations. The bullock cart has given way to the truck and the tractor, home-brewed wine to sometimes-lethal-sometimes-not country liquor, three days of serious walking to Standard Trunk Dialling to instant communication on the ubiquitous mobile phone.

Against this backdrop traditional crafts have either survived or petered off into extinction. That's the development dilemma, a phenomenon that's hardly remarkable anymore. We have got so accepting of the notion that the best these stories elicit now is a shrug. But every once in a while a tale comes along that puts the sting back in the debate; apparently there is scope for innovation, invention, for survival and strengthening. Such is the deal with the traditional Pata art of India's east.

Pata is the name for Indian scroll paintings; the word refers to the Sanskrit term for jute, the material on which these paintings were originally executed. The paintings are now no longer done on jute but paper, though the painters still use vegetable dyes. However, contrary to intuition, this art form was traditionally not about the painting at all but about the singing that accompanied it. Before the days of mass media and the tube this was infotainment, the means by which folklore was passed from one generation to the next, a sort of illustrated story telling exercise. The artists were paid not for the paintings, which they retained with themselves, but for their singing.

With the cable TV revolution fewer and fewer people had any time for oft-heard tales. That's when the patua (the artists) realised that not only was their art threatened but so were the customary ways of life. The search for new subjects yielded the present form of pata, which is equally concerned with the dissemination of information as with the preservation of folk culture. The search for a new bread-winning formula resulted in a unique turnabout; the scrolls were put up for sale and the singing that accompanied it was thrown in for good measure, gratis. The market for pata is now mainly the urban art-gallery crowd and you can try your luck at galleries in India's major cities if your itinerary is city-centric.

The corpus of pata motifs has grown beyond the traditional, expanding to include these innovations. Older subjects of pata were the Creation Myth, the marriage of fish, depictions of agricultural activity, village life and community events. The pata of the Santal tribe of Bihar and West Bengal is inspired by its belief system - the creation myth of the world on the back of a giant tortoise, the fish as a symbol of femininity, fertility and plenty. Animals found in the lush jungles of eastern India also feature prominently in the art since this tribe is animist. But a host of modern issues have found their way into artistic interest now: contemporary social, political, economic and environmental concerns are addressed by the patua in his/her scroll. The scroll is divided into panels and each of these tells a part of the story, a composite picture emerges from the whole. However, not all paintings are accompanied by song and not all are scrolls either.

If you're ever in India and choose the lush greenery of the Bihar, Bengal and Orissa countryside over the done-to-death big city schedule, meander through a slushy village and ask for a patua. The pleasure of sipping sweet tea while a throaty voice takes you on a journey that maps the imagination of his community, even if it's in a language you cannot really understand, is unique. In particular, try to find your way to a small Bengal district called Midnapur.

For more information on West Bengal, click here.

Earthworks - USA
On the slopes of the hills near Atchison in Kansas, USA, is an unusual work of art. Plants, stones, rocks and various other materials gathered or sprung from the earth have gone to make a celebratory portrait of Amelia Earhart, the first woman to have crossed the Atlantic on a solo flight. And a more fitting tribute could not have been, for Earthworks, like this one-acre portrait etched into the very landscape and like the Peruvian works in the Nazca Desert, make no sense if viewed up close - to get the complete picture one must be airborne!

Since the earliest of times man has used elements from nature in his creative communication - from the early cave drawings to the current works of artists Robert Smithson who's done the 'Spiral Jetty' at the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Robert Smithson in fact was one of the founders of the Earthworks movement, which began in the early 70s. While Smithson drew particular inspiration from the Pre-Columbian Indian monument of the Great Serpent Mound in Utah, there are other examples from ancient times that have influenced the Earthworks artist. The Nazca Lines that date back to prehistoric times must've given the first Europeans who flew over Peru in the 1920s the shock of their lives. But they also demonstrated that art and landscape could have a relationship of startling physical intimacy.

Every year thousands of farmers in the prairies turn into artists on their farm land coaxing patterns out of the crop with implements like the tractor and the harvester combine. Crop art is an example of Earthworks art. The modern Earthwork movement however has looked for permanence in the work, and has taken to using not the standing crop but elements like rocks and permanent grass. Earthworks are necessarily communal works; true they need a director who can conceive of the work in all its magnitude and beauty, but not much can be achieved if it's a one-man show. The Amelia Earhart project, which has come up near where she was born, had just such an able designer in Stan Herd among the most famous of all earthworks artists. Among his famous works are the Prairie Man of the Cowley College in south-central Kansas and the Amelia Earhart Project. The Project was commissioned by the people of Atchison, her birthplace, in honour of her birth centenary in 1997.

For more information on USA, click here.

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