City Beautiful: Slum Aesthetics (Part 1)

This is the first of two posts on outsiders and art in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum.

I recently checked out a screening of Dharavi: Slum for Sale, where director Lutz Konermann was on hand afterward to discuss his film documenting the story of how powerful real estate interests are eager to develop Mumbai’s massive Dharavi slum. The Q&A quickly devolved into a “who has the most slum street cred” smugfest, from which I quietly excused myself after the second “Well when I was in Dharavi…”.

So I was happy to read Smita Mitra’s article The Slum of All Parts in Outlook India, which chronicles how one of biggest slums in the world has become an unlikely artist’s playground and tourist attraction – and what people that actually live there think of this trend. Mitra was particularly critical of Artefacting Mumbai, a project by  artist/urbanist Alex White Mazzarella and Portland-based urban planner/filmmaker Casey Nolan. In their words, “We immerse ourselves in extremity to experience and excavate from a bee hive of humanity.”  So this is the artist as poverty archaeologist and anthropologist, sifting through the slum with his bare hands, unearthing forgotten but culturally significant relics and bringing them back to share with the civilized world. Interesting.

The community helps a neighbor's injured goat - this boy holds a vial of medicine | Photo: Artefacting Mumbai

Apparently a properly extreme immersion takes about three months, which is how long  Mazzarella and Nolan worked in Dharavi this past winter. They took photographs, blogged, painted murals on corrugated zinc walls, and invited the community to participate in art projects. According to Mitra, though, many locals whose humanness we are supposed to embrace through these acts of expression didn’t really get what these artist/planners were doing, nor did they particularly want to. I’m joining them.

Photo: Artefacting Mumbai

For a project intended to tell the story of a place, I found the authenticity Mazzarella and Nolan were trying so hard to achieve to be lost in their own story (see above image). Artefacting attempts dialogue partly through a provocative action – appropriating space in a community that is not their own to create and exhibit art to people that haven’t experienced anything quite like it.

The team paints a "Welcome Mural" at an entry point to Dharavi | Photo: Artefacting Mumbai

But the whole thing comes off as incredibly (if unintentionally) self-centered, feeling more like a documentary of the intrepid artist/planner’s “extreme immersion” than communicating much in the way of a genuine connection with the community. After all, anthropologists take years to connect with unfamiliar cultures – should we expect a few months of fieldwork to produce much more?

Check out more photos here, and watch the video below for a fascinating story of the  mural painting project. Decide for yourself – an important cultural exchange through the arts, or file under misguided poverty porn?

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of Slum Street Cred (which is far less cranky).




  1. Pingback: City Beautiful: Slum Aesthetics (Part 1) (via Encountering Urbanization) « Urban Choreography

  2. Like the busloads of tourists who come to view the urban “townships” for South Africa such as Cross Roads, Khayalitsha and Soweto, this article questions what is happening while promoting the vibrancy and intensity of these places -s glorifying them the right thing to make them more habitabel for thsoe who don’t only visit but have to live there?

    • I certainly don’t think glorifying is the proper way to go, nor has it been the intention of the project or my motivation to live in Dharavi for 3 months. The team’s effort has first and foremost been one of learning from and trying to understand the daily realities of life in a community that is being marginalized by most. Secondly, the aim of the project has been to use this knowledge to raise awareness while simultaneousely facilitating a local NGO in their attempts to provide community service to underpriviledged residents in Dharavi.

  3. Hi Amy,
    too bad you’ve not even bothered to contact the Artefacting team, of which i am one of them too. You only seem to fish out of a pond that comes from one sole article, while many more exist and endless testimonies of Artefacting’s intentions are readily available through residents inside Dharavi’s industrious 13th Compound.
    A pitty and a missed opportunity to add positivity to a good cause.
    I havn’t been able to find the Pt2 that you’ve announced. hope you take the effort to contact me or one of the other team members before you just copy a negative opinion based on an article about a team that with limited means tries to contribute to the raising of awareness of attention in an attempt to improve the daily living conditions of an otherwise marginalized community.
    Best regards, Arne de Knegt
    ps, hope to hear from you.

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