THE BLOG
03/25/2015 10:03 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Gender, Caste, And Crochet: OLEK Transforms A Shelter In Delhi

The fluorescent pink and orange sari skims the svelte frame of Brooklyn's Olek as she glides across the dirt lot in Delhi's South Extension with bags of yarn, needles and fabric slung over arms and shoulders.

The massive new acid fluorescent epidermal transformation has taken a week to complete and the street artist is keeping her head while managing the many hands who are helping, but under the eclectic glamour is always raw labor -- and a generous dollop of drama.

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

"It felt like I gave a birth to an oversize baby without any pain killers. I had to pull the black magic to make it happen. Physically and emotionally drained. Was it worth it? Absolutely YES," she types onto her Facebook page to let friends and fans know that she has finished the seven-day marathon of crocheting and directing a full team of volunteers and St+Art Delhi organizers. Triumphant, she stands atop the woman's shelter, a one story structure of corrugated metal and concrete 40-feet long and 8-feet high, with a fist in the air, a symbol of celebration as well as a show of solidarity with the sisterhood of those who helped her make it and those will seek refuge here when other options have been exhausted.

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

"Raine Basera", a night shelter for homeless women lies just off Sarai Kale Khan here in New Delhi and it is not far from some industrial parks, surrounded by buses and noise from the traffic and temporary markets. A part of the festival called St+Art Delhi 2015, this particular project is conceived to raise awareness of the shelter and its very existence to those families who need it. Given the chaos of color and decorative motifs that have characterized many of Olek's street works, this is one more that will be hard to miss. In this city of about 11 million, there are actually 184 night shelters in the city of Delhi, and 10 Indian artists will be working with the Urban Shelter Department to paint more.

Speaking with Olek you learn that this was a joyful, painful project -- made possible with the help of a number of people, but mostly because of the steely determination of the Street Artist who is defining and re-defining what it means to be an artist in public space, as well as a woman in the art world. Her vigor and her vision is genuine and her struggles with issues regarding poverty, gender, and empowerment were brought to the fore on a daily basis during this project. As usual, we are of the opinion this is still the beginning of what Olek will accomplish in the Street Art world and in the lives of others -- for her the goals are multitudinous.

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

We spoke with Olek about the experience in her first trip to India in the interview below. Following that is a short interview with one of the organizers from the St+Art India Foundation and the curator of this project, Giulia Ambrogi. Both help us position the work of Olek into a greater context in Indian society during this relatively new festival effort, now in its second year.

Brooklyn Street Art: Was there a motif that you added to your repertoire of hearts and butterflies that was specific to this project?

OLEK: You know how when you write for a newspaper or a blog you always have to keep your audience in mind so you use a specific language to describe your ideas and thoughts. So for this project I had to think about my specific audience. There were the people in the shelter and the neighbors around it. Many of them are are simple people without education and maybe even illiterate so I wanted to create a visual work that was accessible and meaningful for them.

So for this project I drew from the basic Indian Iconography such as the elephant, the butterfly and flowers. Of course I have crocheted these motifs before in my work but this time I kept an Indian aesthetic with the shapes and forms and they were more visible within the context of the overall piece. In the case of the butterfly I see it as having a special connection with women.

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

Was it easy to bridge the gaps between cultures when working with the women who assisted in the project?

Well the women I was working with found me to be fascinating. Here comes this woman with tools and yarns and crochet and I think they are used to seeing men doing most of these things - who come and boss them around and tell them what to do. In my case I was sitting with them crocheting together and we were part of a team and at some point I was also wearing Indian clothes and making things happen. They were happy to see me telling the men around us that I was in control and that things were getting done. So due to my experience working with so many different people around the world in small villages in Poland, China and Hong Kong this aspect of the project was the easy part.

The crochet was our language. Once you show them how it all works and explain the project to them you get the respect right away. They liked seeing me working so fast and were shocked that it was actually possible to do this so fast. So once you get their respect it is actually quite easy to work with them. The language of making and producing art is beautiful and universal and you get the connection right away. Some of the women were volunteers but most of them we hired to work on this project. Of course there were other elements in this project that were more difficult but I have never in my life had a problem working with women.

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

In addition to its aesthetic nature, how do you think about your work when you consider that it is literally sheltering women tonight as they sleep?

The most shocking thing for me in India was these massive amount of people who are born in poverty and under a lower class or caste and they are convinced that they will never ever see or experience anything different from what they are accustomed to and people with a higher status in their society see them as "untouchables" and inferior. They were born poor they should die poor - that is the mentality. So for the time where we were working on this project they felt that the spotlight was on them and for once they weren't invisible as cameras and people and noise was all around them and I think they felt that there was something special about them.

Maybe when they come to the shelter at night to sleep and see it transformed they will feel different and maybe they will be inspired to do something else with their lives. My intention as an artist was to show them that there might be a chance to change what was supposed to be in their lives to what it can actually could be. That of course is too little of a contribution from my part.

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

What did you learn about these shelters that you would like people to know?

Right now there are more shelters opening around Delhi than before. It is important for people to know that if they are homeless they have the shelters at night to sleep with a roof over their heads. But the sad part to me is that the conditions in the shelters are not so great. I saw them wearing their same clothes every day and I realized that what they had on them is all they have in their lives. Yet I didn't see sadness on their faces. They are used to living under these conditions and they see it as their life. So all this time I was thinking how actually the project should be about getting them out of the shelters and provide them with education. Access to education is important everywhere. It changes everything. The beautiful kids I think don't even go to school. They spend all day on the streets.

So I felt that the project was only half done and I didn't have the time or resources to do the next step with them and spend more time with them. It was devastating to me to see the amount of pollution and garbage and dirt and in some cases I have this impression that some of them didn't want to be helped because they believed that that was their lot in life by divine decree. I couldn't understand that and the whole trip was confusing. So the experience left me half empty in way with a sense that the project was done - but only half done.

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

When you were a teenager you read a biography of Jerzy Grotowski and his various travels, including his descriptions of India. How did that writing affect your experience visiting the country for the first time?

I studied theater for a while in Poland when I was a teenager and I would go to theater festivals and that really influenced who I am right now. Grotowski had a brilliant mind and was an influential theorist and when I read that he went to India and that the trip totally changed him I was very impressed and I thought India must be a special land. I've been wanting to visit India for a long time but I was also waiting for the right time to visit - when there was a purpose for the trip and the right project.

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

But the land that he saw with his eyes was during the 1970's. I wish I had more time and I will have more time, to go back and travel and re-visit and really see the country more fully. But I think that what influenced me wasn't necessarily about the religion, the colors, the textures, the beauty of the country. What influenced me the most was the poor India. I have never seen so much plastic and garbage in my life on the streets. I saw cows eating plastic on the street. The garbage and pollution is just growing and growing and it is insane. So this was my influence from this trip and I think I could never compare it to Grotowski's trip during the 70s. But I can see how the trip to India changed him and influenced his life in theater.

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

Tell us about your sari. We don't remember seeing you making one of those for yourself before.

I bought a sari because I was invited to attend a wedding while I was in India and I wanted to feel appropriate. I probably don't fit in most places but when I'm invited I like to pay respect to the local customs. So together with my assistant we went to the store full of saris and took in the whole experience. You buy a sari then you have to hire someone to put it on you and I loved it. From the beginning I told people that I wanted to wear a sari while working instead of wearing western fashions. People noticed how comfortable I was wearing a sari for the first time and when they remarked about that I told them I'm around so much fabric all the time that I can easily wear a sari.

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

It is interesting because to me a sari is a sexy dress. Your body is so exposed so it was confusing to me to see all the women wearing such a dress in such a conservative country. It is a very comfortable dress and nothing falls off of you. They pinned everything to keep it all in place. You go to get fitted and out of the same fabric a tailor makes the top and the underskirt and you can choose from many designs for the top. The tailor is not in the store where the sari is purchased. You have to leave and go someplace else for the fitting. But they can make it all in two hours. I loved seeing the women in India being very comfortable with their bodies. Women of all shapes and sizes wear the saris with the utmost comfort.

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

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A brief interview with Giulia Ambrogi from the St+art India Foundation:

BSA:For her installation Olek was assisted by a number of diverse volunteers whom she first taught about the crochet needs of the project. What was the incentive that motivated all these people who helped her?

Giulia: Actually most of the women were already trained because they belong to the "Indian crochet community", a reality that we were pretty surprised to discover. All of them knew Olek's work and were extremely enthusiastic to have such an occasion to be together and to practice their passion for a wider cause. This big community doesn't have many initiatives dedicated to crochet so this project, by being so ambitious, public and based on a social cause was per se the main incentive for all of them.

Many other volunteers instead have been with us since the day 1 of St+art Delhi 2015. They are mostly really young and they just love urban art and what all we are bringing in the city. Thus, they are keen to be part of the project, to be in a stimulating environment and to give their contribution. It was amazing to see how all these people from different backgrounds and different ages (from 18 to 60) collaborated together and how strong was the feeling to be a big family.

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

Women in India are often at huge disadvantage financially and socially when compared to the status that men hold in society. What is the significance of bringing women artists to install their work on the streets of India?

First of all realize artworks in the streets is already a sort of revolution. Public spaces, especially if peripheral, are most of the time neglected and are crowded mostly by lower social classes. The process of creating huge artworks for everybody's eyes and the attitude of the artists and the team of involving everyone and gathering people under the signs of art-making and artworks - which is absolutely new in India, is an empowering breakthrough or a certain kind.

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

By calling women artists we enhanced this prolific dynamic. It meant that we introduced a change, showing both to men and women that no matter the gender and the class, everyone has the same strength and rights of living, appropriating and positively acting in public spaces. Olek's work brings back to the streets a tradition that is usually practiced by women in the private and closed environment of their homes. Also, this work highlighted the power of people, especially women, when they cooperate together. Aiko's work celebrates the most dangerous and powerful woman in Indian history, Rani Lakshmi Bai, who became and still is the symbol of women empowerment.

Many things are changing in India and it is a transitional moment in which we try and hope to give our contributions by designing artistic interventions based on critical and current topics.

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

We have written before about Aiko's participation in St+ART Delhi. We wrote that her contribution was a departure from her highly sexualized iconography. Would it have been impossible for her to paint her sexually charged women in India? Can you tell us about the character whom she chose to paint and why she selected that character within the context of the festival?

By painting her characteristic women in very sexualized scenes, her work would have been meaningless within the Indian environment. Not just deeply disrespectful it would have been totally sterile because it would not have been in dialogue with the cultural context. Since the beginning of the project Lady Aiko asked about Indian culture with the intention of creating a powerful and empowering work in relation to the country.

After some brainstorming she fell in love with both the story and the iconography of Rani Lakshmi Bai. She was the most dangerous leader in Indian history, a symbol of resistance to the rule of the British Company. In her brief time she cast aside many conventions to unite peoples of all castes and religions in her cause.

She encouraged other women to do the same and trained them to fight and support the army. She cut across the social norms of the time, refusing to accept her fate 'as a woman'. So in this case Aiko's piece was mainly the symbol of women empowerment...and much sexier than pin ups in this sense!

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

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Olek (photo © Pranav Mehta/St+ARTIndia)

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The organizers would like to thank fashion companies Tarun Tahiliani and Manish Arora for contributing materials and labor, Allkraftz & Usha Sewing Machines, The Polish Culture Institute, the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), and all the volunteers and participants who helped make this project happen.

We would like to thank the organizers of ST+ART Delhi; the curator Giulia Ambrogi and Pranav Mehta for the photos. And of course to Olek for taking the time to answer our questions.

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This article is also posted on Brooklyn Street Art.

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