BENGALURU: Matchboxes carry amusing and “disposable” art according to Matt Lee, designer and illustrator from the United Kingdom who used to teach at the Srishti School of Art Design and Technology here in Bengaluru. Ten years ago, a mislabelled illustration started him on a collection and today has has over 750 matchboxes from India.
(Excerpts from the email interview)
What inspired you to start collecting matchboxes? Can you mention a specific incident that stirred your interest?
I came across my first matchbox at a roadside chai stall not long after I moved to Bengaluru in 2007. The label had a lovely illustration of a killer whale with a caption that simply read ‘dolphin’ and to me this seemed quite amusing, so I kept it. A few days later I came across another matchbox with a photograph of an ‘Indiaan’ cricketer and then another with some ‘Famous’ kittens in a basket. From then I started seeing matchboxes everywhere I went around the city and without really noticing I quickly built up a modest collection.Looking back, I think that my first connection with Indian matchboxes was that aside from being great examples of disposable design, the choice of visuals and text seemed quite random and this often made me smile. The visuals that adorn the matchboxes often include historical and religious iconography, Indian pop culture, appropriated western imagery, mundane objects, and lots and lots of animals.
How long did it take for you to collect 700 and odd matchboxes?
It has been almost ten years since I came across my first matchbox. Back then I had no idea that this small curiosity would grow into such a large collection. What keeps me going isthat new designs are printed all the time and across such a vast country, as India is, I can only ever have a fraction of the designs available. I do not often go out of my way to find or buy matchboxes, but stumbling across a new design always brightens up my day.
Where were these matchboxes found? What was the price paid for them?
Walking around Bengaluru you come across matchboxes everywhere, sold for only `one a box. Cheap and disposable, they litter the highways and footpaths and are often to be found scattered around any roadside tea stall or cigarette kiosk. I have collected a wide variety of different matchboxes in my travels across the country. As souvenirs, many of these designs signify personal memories. When I look at the labels I am reminded of many things; an early morning walk through Periyar National Park with my father and brother, getting lost with a colleague in the narrow lanes of Varanasi, eating fresh fish in Fort Kochi with my wife and many conversations with friends in Bengaluru. For me this collection is about design that is visual, tangible, yet personal and also somehow elusive and unquantifiable.
Have you tried digitalising matchbox art as well?
The full collection had been photographed and can be seen on my website. The ‘Matchboxes From The Subcontinent’ project page is updated with new designs every few months.
http://www.matt-lee.com/matchboxes- from-the- subcontinent
Has the matchbox artwork inspired any of your creations?
In 2013, I created a series of 10 artworks titled ‘Sandown’. This project took iconography from Indian matchbox labels and situated them within photographs of English beaches. My intention was to create a fragmented narrative where animals and objects were in an awkward and nonsensical dialogue with each other.
Did you face any real-time difficulties in collecting matchboxes?
The great thing about Indian matchboxes is that the iconography and visual aesthetic of the labels often vary from region to region. When I take trains I sometimes get off at stations to buy matchboxes from the local cigarette vendor. On one occasion I nearly missed my train and had to chase it along the platform.