New mural in Oakland’s Montclair spotlights India’s COVID crisis
By Lou Fancher
When Daniel Swafford became the Montclair Village Association’s executive director in 2011, there was one piece of public art in the district’s cozy commercial hamlet.
“It was a very small bronze inlay in the sidewalk recognizing that the Sausal Creek runs under the Montclair Village commercial district,” he said.
Now Montclair Village, in addition to its ongoing Antioch Court Improvement Project, has more than 50 pieces of public art, including a recent addition entitled “Distant But Together.” The large-scale mural using a cement wall as a canvas is on the first level of the Montclair Parking Garage near its exit onto Medau Place. More significantly, the artwork comes through a cross-continental collaboration between Oakland-based artist Darin Balaban and Pranav Bhardawj, of New Delhi, India.
Communicating mostly through email and Instagram, the two artists and friends sought to bring widespread attention — and humanitarian action through a recently launched GoFundMe campaign — to the worsening conditions and dramatic loss of life that continues in India due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I can’t speak on behalf of Pranav, but my personal belief is that artists are not necessarily responsible to take action — people do art for many different reasons — but for me it didn’t seem right to not do anything, especially considering (that) the artist I’m collaborating with is living in a country going through such dire times,” said Balaban, 31, a self-taught artist.
Connecting and compelled by the soul-affirming bonds of friendship and shared suffering and isolation that people worldwide have experienced during the pandemic, the mural represents a call to action. It’s attention-grabbing but not a literal representation of COVID. Swafford says the timelessness of the mural’s abstract composition, brilliant color blocking and bold, geometric shapes makes the mural “something that endures and not just a big drawing of a COVID cell.”
Viewed as a memorial or as honoring the good, collaborative work performed by teams — medical personnel in hospitals, researchers in labs who developed the vaccines, emergency first responders and essential workers in grocery stores, for example, along with these two artists and others — the artwork is symbolic of communities coming together.
“What first struck me about the piece when I came upon their project is sharing what’s behind it,” says Swafford. “We had temporary signage up and are working on more permanent signage to let people know this links to a GoFundMe campaign. That way, even in a few years, they can be reminded of how we came together in a crisis to support a humanitarian effort.”
Balaban says the paint and other materials used to render the mural came from an anonymous donor associated with the E14 Gallery, a space dedicated to showcasing established and upcoming artists with strong ties to Oakland. The money raised through GoFundMe and 75% of the proceeds from sales of an original print based on the mural will be distributed to Doctors Without Borders and GiveIndia.org, two organizations actively working in India.
Swafford noted that India’s recent COVID cases have surged to more than 200,000 daily infections. Oxygen shortages, scarce PPE (personal protective equipment), insufficient intensive-care-unit beds and a slow COVID vaccine rollout have resulted in India experiencing a total death toll that has become the third highest among all nations. Balaban thinks often of Bhardawj, a self-taught designer who has worked on projects with Google and the U.S. ad agency Wieden+Kennedy and is witnessing the crisis firsthand in New Delhi.
“The reason Pranav and I decided to collaborate was because we both ‘speak’ a similar visual language. There were overarching themes in our creations. It seemed only natural for us to merge our styles. We decided that if we could help (provide aid to people impacted by COVID in India), even in the smallest way, we would use our platform to do so.”
Swafford recognizes the ways in which the mural’s benefits extend beyond the two artists to include the greater community.
“Public art pieces add wonderful things to commercial districts, like this mural and others, sculpture, mosaics or other pieces connecting Montclair Village to Oakland with street art,” he said. “The overwhelming response is that it feels like Oakland’s diverse culture is also something we have here. Public art creates character and connects the public to artists and creatives — with something tangible, right in their own neighborhood.”
Swafford adds that the mural will remain for years to come unless Balaban chooses to return and replace it with a new image. Upkeep will not be necessary, other than cleaning as part of routine maintenance at the public garage. In the unlikely event that it is tagged or damaged — there have been no such incidents on other murals in the district during the past six years, he said — the association will coordinate with Balaban to restore his and Bhardawj’s original vision.
Swafford imagines bringing increased visibility to the commercial district’s blank cement walls and unadorned sides of buildings with ideas to display more work from “amazing mural artists” whom he said would jump at the opportunity to have a safe space to paint.
“Instead of being out on a railroad track in the middle of the night, I can give them a space to create art safely. They know it won’t last forever, but it’s a great opportunity for them to have a place to show their skill.” Or skills, as was the case for two artists who connected across continents to design and display Montclair Village’s newest public art.