Matthieu Foss is busy hanging works of photographer Olivia Arthur and Bharat Sikka at Elysium Mansion, Colaba. The quaint pre-independence building is one of locations of the FOCUS Photography Festival that begins today. “It feels amazing to have this festival in this part of Mumbai. I love Fort and Colaba areas for its spectacular colonial and art-deco architecture and its vibrant history,” says Foss, co-founder of the festival.
This two-week festival will give viewers a chance to engage with photography far more deeply. “Everyone is taking pictures and recordings, posting and tagging them. But FOCUS invites people to stop and reflect on photographs that have been selected for a reason, within exhibitions that have been carefully curated,” says Foss.
Now in its third edition, FOCUS is concentrating on taking photography outside traditional spaces. “By bringing photography to the streets, people will start paying attention to their surroundings. Mumbai is a beautiful city with stunning architecture, yet when people move around they barely notice anything,” says Elise Foster Vander Elst, co-founder, FOCUS. “This festival is anchored in a love for the city and a desire to celebrate it.”
More than any other art medium, photography, Elst believes, is the perfect way to draw people’s attention. “I work in the contemporary arts sphere, and I noticed that photography resonates with people in a way that’s very immediate. Photography can be much more inclusive than other art mediums, perhaps because so many people have smartphones,” says Elst. What makes this festival even more accessible is that there will be plentiful opportunities to engage with the artists themselves.
The festival’s outreach events, which include talks, workshops, mentor sessions, screenings, and walk-throughs, allow people to connect with, discuss, and reflect on photographs exhibited at various venues around the city. Elst, from the UK, was the associate director of Gallery BMB before she founded Asia Art Projects, while Foss, who was part of the founding team of the photography fair Paris Photo, is the director of Matthieu Foss Gallery.
Each photography exhibition at FOCUS is given a space that’s best suited to the subject, style, and material. On Carter Promenade, for instance, stand 11 huge prints commissioned by the Quebec government. These include photographs of the sea and nature, perfectly complementing the quiet atmosphere and sea view that the area provides. On the other hand, “Intimation”, a cross-cultural project in Mumbai and Brighton by Sikka and Arthur, looks at each city’s LGBTQ community. “Intimation is a quiet show and needs reflection,” says Elst, “A gallery is a much more suitable space for that kind of subject material.”
But working in Mumbai is a special kind of challenge, according to Elst. Unlike western cities, where there is much more space for public art, Mumbai’s streets are simply too busy. That’s why pop-up festivals are ideal. “The ephemeral activation of a public space is exciting,” says Elst, “They capture people’s attention — there’s a buzz, there are discussions, and it shakes up people’s daily routine. There’s a lot of value in that.”