Bart Lodewijks Calcutta Drawings 2 1 October - 9 October 2018
The solid crust of the city It’s not my style to run around to all the local arts organizations or worm my way into an articulated network from day one. I’ve received a reprimand from far off Amsterdam for getting ahead of myself: Praneet reminds me that the organization’s modus operandi is for artists to start by becoming familiar with the contacts on the so-called interactive list, a list with names of people and arts organizations and all sorts of handy info. The owner of the grocery store around the corner is on it, who I talk to on a daily basis. Those interactions with Afsar Khan, a fellow as humorous as he is huge, have yielded quite a lot of valuable information because he knows the neighbourhood so well. He tells me that his brothers, sisters and a cousin all live on his street and about how dear family is to him. It’s different in Australia, he says, where he narrowly escaped an attack by three racists. When I tell him about my drawing project, he gives me
a thumbs-up. Every morning I buy a bottle of water from him and leave the change on the counter. People are starting to recognize me on the street; they draw imaginary lines in the air when they see me. A lean young man who runs a makeshift electrical store kittycorner to the grocery asks if I’ll come draw something near him. Praneet writes that I might cause trouble for CARF if I continue drawing. If someone were to get upset about my drawing activities, they could easily call in the police. The authorities here don’t fool around; I need to be mindful of that. Now, while I’m obviously a bit alarmed by his message, I also get a bit steamed. I’ve been drawing in cities all over the world for nineteen years, in all kinds of neighbourhoods. Wherever I draw, people ask about what I’m doing, out of curiosity or sometimes because they think it’s worthless. Without that resistance, my work would be less pointed and it wouldn’t express as much about a particular location. It’s not my style to run around to all the local arts organizations or worm my way into an articulated network from day one. The incipient movements have to occur on the solid crust of the city, exactly as I am now doing. You don’t get an invitation like the one from the young man with the electrical store or a thumbs-up
from someone like Afsar Khan if you keep your distance. Despite the extreme density of people, buildings and traffic, room is being made for my chalk drawings. What might be more of a problem for me here is a lack of resistance. Alarmed by the message from Amsterdam, though, I contact the Dutch consulate. If something were to go wrong unexpectedly, they might be in a position to keep CARF out of trouble. The Executive Secretary of the Honorary Consulate of the Kingdom of the Netherlands explains that the consul is ‘currently overseas’ and won’t return to India until early November, in another four weeks – how different from Afsar Khan, who mans his post seven days a week. Should it come to pass, I would look forward to meeting this well-travelled consul. I imagine us sitting on the consulate veranda looking out over the city lights in the serenity of a sultry November evening as a cool breeze wafts over us and he expounds on his many visits overseas. Maybe we’d light up a Punch (a premium brand of Indian cigar) and he’d reveal the inner workings of diplomatic relationships and the institutions in India, while I would reciprocate by telling him all about chalk. I’ll have to be sure to add his name to the interactive list.
Wouldn’t you know it! No sooner have I regained my drawing rhythm than a man with an embroidered insignia on his khaki shirt approaches me. I’m drawing on a tall wall that shields a splendid villa from the street view. The chalk lines are set off beautifully by the expensive terra-cotta-like blocks. The guy from the electrical store suggested this wall to me. His little shack is built up against it. He mostly repairs light fixtures and does odd electronic jobs. He said the occupants were ‘nice people’, so I didn’t foresee any problems. I haven’t seen anyone in the place all day. I’m drawing within view of the lighting boy, who waves at me every once in a while. It seems self-evident to me that he should have say over the wall. The gentleman with the insignia gets right up in my face, gives me a grave look and starts punching in a number on his phone. ‘It is an art project,’ I say, in an attempt to save my own skin, without sounding too convincing. With all the explaining I’ve been doing to the neighbourhood children, I’ve adopted their childish voices. The chap looks at me as if I’m from another planet. The lighting boy trudges awkwardly over and says sheepishly to me: ‘He is the security guard.’ Passers-by slow their pace; a taxi driver stops and hangs gleefully out his window so as not to miss the show. I
start sweating because with the slightest misstep, I could get CARF into serious trouble. ‘It is chalk from school,’ I try again, hoping to shroud myself in innocence, though I’m not sure exactly what good it will do. Without looking up from his phone screen, the security guard asks if I can show him authorization. The lighting boy looks around nervously, powerless to help. As soon as you venture into the territory of the wealthy, you’re nothing without a network. Where is my consul now? Fortunately, a smartly dressed woman steps out of the now-parked taxi. The security guard is distracted by her presence and puts away his phone. ‘Do you like art?’ I call out randomly to the woman. It’s a question I use in dire situations. The security guard points disapprovingly at the chalk stripes. She pulls back with a start but stands otherwise motionless. She thinks deeply about whether she likes art or not, while I deliberate the pros and cons of calling in Afsar Khan. But his store is seventy yards away. How would I get there? I have no other option than to continue looking at the lady sunk in contemplation and the security guard and put on my nicest possible face. My back is literally and figuratively up against a wall. The security guard sways undecidedly on his feet, as if he too is thinking about art.
‘Yes, I love art,’ the lady decides, shaking her head No. It takes me back to my own culture, which prizes certainty so highly. ‘This is my parents’ home,’ she continues, shaking in the negative, whereupon a discussion I can’t follow ensues between her and the suddenly submissive security guard. The lady waves the taxi driver on. Can I continue drawing? I wonder; seems only logical if she likes art. ‘Yes, you can continue,’ she reads my mind. The security guard walks languidly back to his post as if it couldn’t matter to him less and opens the entrance gate for my art-loving saviour. The lighting boy is already back tinkering in his stall and the traffic starts flowing again in fits and starts, but above all full of vehement honking. I’m left behind in a disoriented state as I take up the drawing again, thinking that while everything looks the same as it did before, a great deal has changed.
Iâ€™m drawing on a tall wall that shields a splendid villa from the street view. The expensive terra-cotta-like blocks form a perfect surface for the chalk lines. The guy from the electrical store suggested this wall to me. His little shack is built up against it. It seems selfevident to me that he should have say over the wall.â€Š
Iâ€™m unable to complete the drawing because a car is parked right in front of it for days on end. I eventually decide to leave it unfinished.â€Š
Two workers from a body shop lead me to their place of work and expect me to draw on the wall. They look at me inquisitively but leave me little time to think. Thereâ€™s a calendar with a photo of a zebra. When I tell them that zebras are my favourite animal because of their stripes, they decide the chalk lines have to be placed next to the striped animal. Two days later, Farhad, a spirited neighbourhood boy who never lets me out of his sight, tells me that coincidentally zebras are also his favourite animal.â€Š
The inhabitants perform their everyday activities just like me. I suspect that the fact of my working means more to them than my drawing.â€Š
A little house occupied by a family with a young mother who brings me ginger tea. This tranquillity is brutally disrupted by a neighbour, a wiry rickshaw driver with a terrifying look in his eyes, about thirty years old, who demands money from me. On the street earlier, he had grabbed my arm and tried to rob me. Fortunately, I was able to fight him off and walk on. Shortly after that incident, I searched him out in his house along the narrow dirt road where I was drawing. ‘You need to be nicer. You’re being very unfriendly,’ I said. To my surprise, he bowed concededly.
But that bow was meaningless; we’re face to face again and he wants money. ‘Give him something,’ says another neighbour pleadingly. ‘He needs to be nice. He’s not nice,’ I say. I’m a bit uneasy, though, because this could go down any number of ways. Suddenly he bows and folds his hands together. Is he mocking me? ‘You should draw on my house,’ he says. ‘You have to be nice,’ I say. He smiles patronizingly at the other neighbours watching in silence and walks away talking to himself. Since then, he folds his hands together whenever we meet on the street, which seems a bit overexaggerated. To neutralize his humility, I too fold my hands together in the hopes that he doesn’t ever show his brutal side again.
Whenever I start on a drawing, I finish it all in one sitting to prevent people from damaging the chalk lines. The sessions can last an entire day. All the while, people talk to me non-stop, vehicles drive by within inches of me, Iâ€™m given tea and ballgames, including cricket, are played in the street. I just barely fit.â€Š
I feel like I’m too close to the occupants’ private lives as I’m drawing, but they say it doesn’t bother them. The family spends the entire day trying to cobble together a bed with scavenged boards, scrap and whatever else they have at hand. Two young ladies ask whether I married for love or it was an arranged marriage. They show me photos of their boyfriends on their phones and swear that they will get married out of love. The bed, incidentally, is for their aunt, who did marry for love, but last night she and her husband fell right through the support slats.
Colophon Bart Lodewijks - Calcutta Drawings Drawings, text, photographs: Bart Lodewijks Editing: Danielle van Zuijlen Dutch-English translation: Nina Woodson Image processing: Huig Bartels Design: Roger Willems and Dongyoung Lee Publisher: Roma Publications This project was possible thanks to the support of CARF, Calcutta; Mondriaan Fund, Amsterdam Special thanks to Praneet Soi Â© Bart Lodewijks, 2018
Bart Lodewijks - Calcutta Drawings CARF, India, September-December 2018