‘Open Canvas’ uplifts communities through public art 

by Ekatmata Sharma
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Anika Somaia, founder, Open Canvas, a public arts project talks to Art Culture Festival about the impact of creating art in public spaces and how it is bringing positive change in the communities.

Ekatmata Sharma

What is Open Canvas?

Open canvas is an organisation on a mission to make art in India more democratic and accessible by painting murals that transform shared spaces.

More and more, visuals in our country’s public spaces have been limited to advertising, religious messaging and political propaganda, rather than art. At the same time, art in the formalised, institutionalised sense is often perceived as a sphere of high culture inaccessible to many.

Open Canvas seeks to remind people what public art can be, and harness the power it has to shape communities – whether by developing an increased sense of safety, prompting reduced littering or nurturing young talent.

What initiated you to start Open Canvas?

It all started with my first experience of public art creation, at a government school in Sarojini Nagar, New Delhi. When I heard about the opportunity through the NGO Each One Teach One, my head began buzzing with ideas. I spent the next week in a flurry of anticipation as I rallied to organize and work with a college art student on a mural design. 

The week after that, I lost myself in a kingdom of pastel colours, singing along to Hindi music, darting between layers of scaffolding as my brush lavished the 25-foot tall canvas with paint. By the end, a forgotten brick wall had transformed into an explosion of colour provoking passers-by to discussion. I woke up to a message from the principal of the school, saying she couldn’t thank me enough for ‘adding beauty and charm to a dull place.’ She told me the mural had become the talk of the town.

I realised my experience with public creation wasn’t just a testament to the importance of creating beautiful things; it has highlighted the need for art to be liberated from behind gallery walls and costly entrance feels, for the rise of art forms that aren’t linked with affluence. And so I worked on two more murals, and another and one more after that. The project seemed to take on a life of its own and with each wall painted, an opportunity to paint somewhere else came up. People began to stop and watch the painting happen, and then they wanted to participate, and then offer up their own walls. That’s when I realised this project that started out as just one mural could have a real impact.

I sat down and reflected on what was compelling me towards mural creation, and I came to realise it was this idea of bringing art into public space and using it to uplift communities. That seemed to be the golden thread tying all these artworks together and it has since become the goal of Open Canvas.

What kinds of murals have been painted so far?

Some of our murals contain explicit messages related to female empowerment and climate action. Others are designed simply to make people smile. We have partnered with NGOs working on the ground in slums and government schools to share art with a wider audience through our murals. We’ve engaged local street artists such as Manmauji and his team of students. 

To date, we have painted murals at 50 sites across Delhi, involved over 200 volunteers, hosted 15 artist-led mural painting workshops to attract young talent, and received funding and support from Nobel Peace Prize Winner Kailash Satyarthi and Nature Morte.

Can public art actually bring a positive change in society? 

I believe it changes the way people view art, it unites people and encourages the community. One of the example is in Rangpuri Pahari, a slum cluster on the outskirts of Delhi, I spent days navigating through long winding lanes, knocking on doors and asking for permissions to create art on nearby walls – and came up against real reluctance at the start. Some residents smiled and shook their heads. Others just slammed their doors.

But it just took one wall, one mural, and after that everything changed. The painting, of two girls at play, came to be a source of pride within the community. For starters, littering in the area dramatically reduced. And before we knew it more and more people – including one or two who rejected our requests to paint initially – stopped by to watch us paint and even began to offer up their walls.

I think those moments’ have been some of my proudest moments throughout this whole project; and as a group of artists, we’re able to see that our art is having an impact, that the way people see art is changing because of us. 

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