For 15 months, Paul Cohn had his base in Chennai while in India. Cohn started to take photographs focussing on the abstract images formed by fragments of posters on walls. His fascination propelled his intention to share what was “hidden in plain sight” in our busy environs. He walked and drove all over Chennai exploring walls minutely to find the exacting compositions that he believed he could never paint.  The eye of a man peering through peeling layers of paper and paint became the surreal Daliesque and in the kinesis of type and rhythmic brush strokes of blue and red, Cohn framed his Jazz Composition. Away from America, Cohn had found familiar strokes of Kandinsky, Stuart Davis and Dali in India, readymade. “Chennai’s walls, to me, were canvases created by people and weather, with layers of poster and colour put up, taken down and worn away. Many people told me that my work transformed the way they looked at the city, and that they were truly looking at the city now, not just looking past the walls.” 

We have always painted on rock-faces and temple walls in TamiNadu. We do it so naturally that it is easy to forget how remarkably this is the public face of culture. On walls, we paint and carve images of deities, mythologies and cinematic characters larger than life. In the Palani Hills, Nilgiris, Villupuram, Sivaganga district and areas outside Madurai, caves and dolmens have rock-faces painted over with red oxide and white kaolin suffused with animal fat or vegetable juices. Some over 2,000 years old have withstood the test of time. 

Art historian K.T. Gandhi Rajan, at the heart of many discoveries, says, “The purpose of these paintings has always been one of two — for communication or decoration. They are brilliantly executed with clarity in proportion and composition.” A photograph can never replace the real experience at a temple or cave, yet the photograph transforms the way we see walls. Abstract artist Gita was inspired by Gandhi Rajan’s photo-documents at sites to revive older forms. After the Patteeswaram temple was whitewashed, only 12 feet remained of the original painting. Gita captured a woman in a black and red check sari in part using dots, a scintillating technique derived from the old painting. “It is very therapeutic practice”, she says. Interested in meanings behind the narratives on walls, Gita says, “When I hear a guide telling his version of history to a group, I like to listen. It is fun to hear even if it is not completely true and sometimes an adulterated version.” By recreating the past, Gita is leaving something behind — as one admirer remarked — for people to see hundred years later. Noting the volume of discoveries, archiving for accessibility is imperative, Gita emphasises. Yet, the vernacular image is part of a changing landscape in contrast with the artist’s intention to preserve. 

Cohn returns to a whitewashed wall, never to see what he had photographed earlier. In both temples and cityscapes an excess of imagery and information proliferates, difficult to absorb. The visual cacophony of the street can be an assault on the senses, especially to those foreign to Chennai. Here, cinema has shaped modern visual culture phenomenon. This exuberant spectacle of posters and hoardings attracted Roos Gerritsen from the Netherlands to Chennai. The vernacular production and consumption of images in connection to fandom and politics became Gerritsen’s course of investigation as also the social production of urban spaces.  In Gerritsen’s photo-documents, the frame extends to the surrounds of the painted image — vegetable vendors seated before a trompe l’oeil and painters at billboards. The inhabitants of space and the painting become part of the new picture, a subterfuge of reality. Gerritsen is an anthropologist and Gandhi Rajan an art-historian: both are researchers whose concerns extend to arts and its reflection of society. 

Cohn and Gita are artists. Mimesis and recall is part of the mnemonics of art. Here, the primary fodder comes from billboard and poster artists of today, mural makers and painters from centuries past. The spaces the four are traversing are very public, but their photographs and paintings take their audience to private spaces, in filtered messages.  With seriousness of intent, public art can make lasting impressions to cultivate — this is who we are.

Chennai Canvas links art to design and culture through an inside look at the city.