Painting murals representing a slice of trans life is how Bengaluru-based artist Poornima Sukumar and the Aravani Art Project tell stories of acceptance, violence, gender expression and equality in the transgender community. The Project is collaboration of three cisgender and two transgender women who by making art together work to gently reshape the politics of inclusion and exclusion that surround gender identities as they create safe spaces for the trans community.
Sukumar worked closely with the trans community while filming a documentary about transgender life in India. She noticed that when she wanted to share stories about her experiences with the trans community, her friends were wary of the subject.
“My friends were ignorant about transgender people’s lives due to the stereotypes they held about the community,” Sukumar explained to NBC News. Due to widespread stigma and discrimination, transgender women in India often resort to sex work and begging in the street to survive.
Sukumar wanted to bring the community out into public spaces where they could be seen doing something other than begging. Being an artist herself, she thought a public art project would be the easiest way for her to help engage the community; and hoped to raise questions in people’s minds about transgender people’s lives and build a dialogue about them and with them.
Trans communities all over the world are in need of support, exposure and most importantly art.
The collective also wants to recognize the strengths in the arts and offer an alternative source of income for the transgender community through freelance art and design projects. In doing so, they can develop organizational skills and advocate social change by raising community awareness in public places.
“I am an artist and it wasn’t a tough decision for me to bring art into the project forefront,” Sukumar tells the better india. “Art makes people more relaxed. We wanted people to feel free.” Combining her artistic acumen with activism, Sukumar conceptualized an art project that would offer the community a platform for expression and interaction with society.
The earliest conversations about the proposed public art project were had with transgender women in Bangalore, where Sukumar lives, and then in other cities across India. Building their trust and having the trans women open up to her took some time. Most of them, she added, weren’t experienced at painting murals and were skeptical of someone offering to compensate them to paint.
“Basically, they are just not used to anyone being nice to them,” explained Sukumar.
Depending on the budget and the size of the wall, Sukumar hires anywhere from just a few transgender women to a dozen to paint the mural that is designed after she and her team spend a few weeks connecting with members of the trans community in the city where the project takes place. They want to best understand the culture, their lifestyle, and any unique issues they may face. Working together, they come up with a fitting theme to paint and a caption that matches the artwork.
With a passion for art as a social practice the collective has created nearly 50 public art projects across India. Through their projects they reclaim the streets on which so many transgender people suffer violence and discrimination.
Although the visibility of trans people is increasing in popular culture and daily life, they still face severe discrimination, stigma and systemic inequality. With a mission of attempting to reduce this in society, The Project works to change the way the society views the community. They advocate the idea of reclaiming spaces in the society by creating large wall murals to raise awareness and to create a community voice. They wish to capture the stories of freedom, dreams of acceptance, and hope for possibilities – the cultural nuances of the community that remain very vibrant and un-explored.
“Over a period of time, the transgender community has started to understand that we share their stories without any agenda and give something back to them.”
In fact, once the mural is completed, Sukumar said the relationship between her team and the trans women they collaborate with does not end. Even if they don’t work together on future projects, they never lose touch. She and her friends can often be spotted around Bangalore working on other art projects or having lunch with the trans people in the community.
The Aravani Art Project is named after the followers of Lord Aravan, a revered deity among the transgender community; and is an art collective which employs a collaborative public wall art project to raise voice and awareness of the friendship between trans-women and women in public spaces. The literal meaning of the term “Aravani” is a person who worships Lord Aravan.
The projects mainly involve the trans community to collaborate with other artists and fellow society as they paint murals together to create social participation and a safe space for conversations. Art meets activism as they paint about issues that prevail within the given geographical space.
The Aravani Art Project welcomes anyone who wants to create and make a difference with the trans community. To learn how you can get involved, visit them at Aravani Art Project.