The kaleidoscope of Kobra
An Olympic-inspired mural in Rio De Janeiro, painted last year, runs the 15m length of an abandoned warehouse wall that stands 170m high. It holds the Guinness World Records title for the “largest spray-painted mural”. Titled Etnias, the colourful mural depicts the faces of five indigenous tribes—the Hulis from New Guinea, Kayin from Thailand, Mursi from Ethiopia, Supi from Europe and Tapajos from the Americas. The piercing gazes and aged faces overlook a street filled with bars, restaurants, live music and food trucks. In Los Angeles, California, a 9x36m wall has painted images of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Saint Teresa, the life in their eyes captured exquisitely.
This week, on the façade of Churchgate station in Mumbai, a larger-than-life Mahatma Gandhi is stepping out of a train. At 54x81ft, the backdrop to the busy junction of Churchgate is suddenly bursting with colour.
The man behind all this street art is Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra, 42, who was commissioned to do the mural by the St+art India Foundation, in collaboration with the firm Asian Paints. Since 2014, the Delhi-based foundation has been holding street art festivals in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, and collaborating with local and international artists, with the aim of making art accessible to a wider audience.
Sitting across the station building, and looking at the mural from a distance, Kobra looks cool and casual in his fedora and paint-smeared clothes. Speaking in Portuguese, communicating through a translator, the artist recalls the days when he first began to paint the streets of suburban São Paulo, in 1988. “I was about 12 years old. I had no inspiration from any specific artist, no precedence, no government or organization promoting me. But I had a strong instinct that this is what I want to do,” he says.
What he did have were history books. Kobra’s work—in cities such as São Paulo, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Rome, Tokyo, Moscow and Dubai—often lies at the intersection of history and modernity. “I love old stories of the world. My work has connection to memory, to the past. It’s about people who have fought with their lives, for freedom, for civil rights, for equality, people who stand for a cause, icons who have brought about change,” says Kobra.
So the idea of making Mahatma Gandhi the subject of the Mumbai mural was natural. Kobra references the incident in South Africa when Gandhi was asked to deboard a first-class train. Taking off from there, he portrays Gandhi using the transport “of the masses”. It’s only fitting that the site of the artwork is also a railway station, a city lifeline. “It is my intent to connect with the people of this country. Gandhi was a person of the masses.”
Street art is by default art for the public, and Kobra’s perspective aligns completely with its democratic aspect. “I started (work) from the streets.I believe people shouldn’t have to pay for art. It’s for everyone, regardless of money, caste, community, religion.”
The self-taught artist has developed a distinct style and technique. A profusion of colour caught in grids, monumental in scale, three-dimensional in effect, and near photo-realistic in its portraiture. “When a project site comes to me, I take its exact measurements and then prepare a small-scale artwork on paper. I do several alternatives, sometimes almost 20. I choose one finally, which then goes from paper to wall. Sometimes it changes in the process of being made,” he says.
On this first trip to India, Kobra is excited to have been given a landmark space. “This year I’ve visited 12 countries and I had thought, that’s it for now, no more. Until the invite to come to India. I packed my bags and left without a second thought. It’s also the space that is given to me; in the heart of the financial capital of the country. It’s difficult to get a spot like that, it’s prestigious,” says Kobra. As he adds the finishing touches to his artistic interpretation of Gandhi, we ask him if he knows the real identity of Banksy, the famous street artist? “I have no idea,” says Kobra, with a hearty laugh, “but I certainly love his art.”