Aradhana Seth and Maurice Sánchez in Delhi (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
Art, at its very core, is a universal language of communication. Popular art, in particular, connects people, preserves cultural traits, records social mores, and defines national identity. Yet, of all forms of pop art including graffiti, decorative art, posters etc., perhaps nothing captures the essence of contemporary culture better than the hand-painted commercial art seen on shops, hoardings, street signs and roads.
Aradhana Seth, filmmaker, producer, visual artist and photographer, first noticed the appeal of this art form, as a student of filmmaking at the Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi, in the late 1980s. While working on a film project chronicling the life of a watermelon, she was fascinated with the visual hand-painted signs depicting a watermelon from a seed to its sale. She soon noticed other hand-painted signs and visual imagery and began photographing them across the country, ostensibly as research to create her detailed film sets, but also from artistic interest.
Similarly led by an interest in graphic design and typography, visual artist and photographer Maurice Sánchez from the Dominican Republic, began documenting hand-painted signs in his country in the late 1990s. He believed they may not survive the advent of digitisation and felt the need to preserve them for posterity. In 2015, he had collected enough material to publish a book titled Flow Tropical, which thematically explored hand-painted signs and their portrayal of cultural traits.
These two visual artists, working on similar themes at opposite ends of the globe, may never have crossed paths, if it hadn’t been for David Puig, the present Ambassador of the Dominican Republic to India. When he was first posted here as a young counsellor in the newly opened embassy in 2006, he noticed this commonality between India and his home country. “I remember seeing lots of hand-painted signs in India, similar to what I would see in my own country,” he says. Having travelled across the world from a young age, he was aware that vernacular art forms allowed the viewer a glimpse into the contemporary culture of a city like nothing else could. “So, when I returned as Ambassador, I thought it was a great occasion to show this commonality between our countries.”
Already familiar with Sánchez’s book, Puig was introduced to Seth through a friend, and realised how similar their work was. He says, “They weren’t only taking pictures of images painted on walls and facades, they were also engaging with these images. They were aware of the materiality and were having conversations with the people who are creating this work.”
Two years and many online conversations later, this passion resulted in the ongoing exhibition, Hand-painted Signs from India and the Dominican Republic, currently on display at the Open Courtyard at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi. Here, 64 installations juxtapose the photographs of hand-painted commercial signs taken by Seth in India and Sánchez in the Dominican Republic. Their carefully selected displays are picked from their individual photo archives of over 20,000 images each, and serve to highlight the numerous similarities, and some differences, between the two cultures. These photos capture commissioned art that signifies a place of work, business, service, or if state-sponsored, a message of national importance.
One sees restaurant hoardings, shop displays, beauty parlours and workspaces of handymen, declaring what’s on offer in the hope of attracting paying customers. Bright colours and tongue-in-cheek humour are often part of the parcel. The more sombre paintings include those of religious and nationalist figures. One also sees names of shops and slogans painted stylistically to catch the eye. They are signs that people see on roads and pathways at every turn, yet very rarely clock their existence.
“This art is ephemeral. It’s there one day and gone the next, because the building may be broken down, the business may change or someone else may paint over it,” says Aradhana Seth, artist and photographer
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Sánchez and Seth hope to change this by coercing viewers to stop and take note of what’s around them, as it defines the times they live in. “This art is ephemeral,” explains Seth, “It’s there one day and gone the next, because the building may be broken down, the business may change or someone else may paint over it. People never notice these things but they should, because they are part of our collective consciousness.”
Through its pictorial narrative, art can distinguish yet it can also unite. Hence, though it may seem like there is little in common between the large multicultural South Asian country of India, and the small island nation of the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean; when seen through the eyes of these two chroniclers of commercial art, they seem surprisingly alike.
The similarities were first discussed virtually by both artists in 2021, when they connected through Puig. They shared images from their archives to discuss thematic commonalities in a virtual public talk titled, ‘Vernacular Graphic Design from the Dominican Republic and India’. The conversation also touched upon the idea that this art provided an opportunity to study the varying social, economic and cultural realities of both the countries.
Both artists have simultaneously pursued commercial and artistic professions. Seth is a production designer and art director with many prestigious film titles under her belt including Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, and Deepa Mehta’s Fire. Her most recent project was producing A Suitable Boy, which was made for BBC and aired on Netflix. She has also directed documentaries like DAM/AGE, made with Arundhati Roy and Omnibus, on Vikram Seth. The Merchant of Images is her ongoing public art project, which is a mobile photo studio. Her vast body of work will soon be reproduced in a book titled Sadak, set to be released later this year.
Sánchez is a member of the artistic collectives Shampoo and Biscuit, and his work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art of Santo Domingo, and the Brooklyn Museum of New York, among others. He now records his archive on street signs on his Instagram account @elflowtropical to display contemporary Dominican street culture.
Their common quest is to record the story of the people who live in the vicinity of these hand-painted signs. In the Dominican Republic, the depictions are humorous, “Many of the images are very playful. They represent people’s imagination, and what they aspire to be,” says Sánchez. Seth, on the other hand, believes India’s commercial art is more representative of the country’s vast diversity. “The art is different in different parts of the country, and it can tell you a lot about the town you are in. You can see it in the way people are shown, the use of colours, and the perspectives they are trying to share.”
As human preoccupations rarely differ, however, the subjects of the work largely remain the same in both countries. Food is a universal theme even though it may be treated differently. A board dedicated to chickens and roosters at the ongoing exhibition, makes for an interesting case study. The images indicate places where meat is sold, but while the Indian roosters are depicted as beautiful creatures painted in their natural glory, the Dominican ones are often portrayed as half-cut, or as comical characters straddling buxom females and guns. Cooked food at restaurants, however, is almost always laid out on a vessel of some kind and painted brightly to look attractive and beat the competition.
Religious figures are also similarly depicted, as both countries take religion seriously. Most figures are portrayed respectfully, with their portraits filling the frame. Sometimes, the artists connect over unusual similarities, as in the case of the dark-skinned Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, which is strategically placed next to an interesting image of goddess Kali, shown with her tongue out, wearing a garland of heads, but also bearing the distinctive stamp of Christian iconography through her robes, necklaces and fair skin. The influence of local communities on the greater religious narrative is evident in both images.
“Many of the images are very playful. They represent people’s imagination, and what they aspire to be,” says Maurice Sánchez, artist and photographer
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Signs for salons and beauty parlours, largely catering to the female gaze, are another commonality between the two countries, as women are portrayed with fair skin and sharp features. The depiction of nature through landscapes is also very similar, and unless one knows the flora and fauna peculiar to each country, it can be difficult to pinpoint the origin country of some of these images. This is also true in the case of quotidian objects like fans, computers and mobile phones, which are usually displayed outside retail or repair shops.
The biggest difference between the hand-painted signs made in both countries is in the way they portray women. Reflective of prevalent social mores, the women are always demure and avoid a direct gaze in India while they are hyper-sexualised in the Dominican Republic. Sánchez puts this down to the “macho culture” of the latter, where voluptuous women and guns are seen as symbols of virility and manhood. “It has always been like that, so people are used to seeing these images. There is no need to show a naked woman riding a chicken, to sell a chicken! But it’s still there. These images serve a macho stereotype, which is a reflection of the society.”
The makers of these hand-painted signs are largely self-taught, but in some rare cases, could be part of a local guild or a kind of guru-shishya kind of relationship that mentors apprentices. A lack of formal art education means they turn to easily available visual mediums for inspiration. Sánchez says, “Some of these artists tend to be very influenced by comics. The population is more visually inclined. These images are self-explanatory, and they appeal to everyone.”
That is also where the real appeal of this exhibition lies—by encouraging a conversation between viewers and their surroundings. It is art that is accessible, democratic and visually appealing. “We can see it happen in the exhibition, as passers-by stop to engage with the art. People have seen these images before, but they are now re-seeing and absorbing them,” says Seth. “We have started a conversation through this newly created combined artwork. It’s a conversation between Dominican and Indian cultures.”
Ambassador Puig adds, “In 2006, I remember seeing these prominent hand-painted signs everywhere. On the Mahipalpur road in Delhi while going to the airport, pahalwans would be painted to show that they could cure broken limbs. Similarly, in Aurobindo Road, there were warning signs to indicate that workers should wear helmets, or they would get hurt. It was graphic and direct. So, when I returned as Ambassador, I was sad to see these had been replaced by digital signs. Let’s hope this show reignites an interest in this shared aspect of our cultures. Hopefully we can also take it to the Dominican Republic in the future.”
(Hand-painted Signs from India and the Dominican Republic is on display at the Open Courtyard at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi till May 5)
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