“I don’t have words to describe the experience,” says Poornima Sukumar. The Bengaluru-based artist is talking about her recent trip to Chennai, where she lived with 40 trans women in their house. From the vibrant paints on their walls to eating with them, Poornima is jubilant about her experience.
However, Poornima wasn’t just visiting the Tamil Nadu capital — she was there for the latest project of Aravani Art Project that showcases the transgender community in a new shade.
A one-of-a-kind initiative, the Aravani Art Project encourages art among the transgender community and uses the medium to spread awareness about the community.
Poornima, whose specialisation lies in large murals and wall art, has been working with NGOs and projects for a long time. Her earliest interaction with the transgender community came when she began to help British documentary filmmaker Tabitha Breese on a movie about the community. Her friendship with many members of the community led her to conceptualise a project that would highlight their dilemmas and need for inclusion.
“I am an artist and it wasn’t a tough decision for me to bring art into the project forefront,” she says. “Art makes people more relaxed. We wanted people to feel free.” Combining her artistic acumen with activism, Poornima conceptualised an art project that would offer the community a platform for expression and interaction with society.
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Starting from scratch, Poornima raised the funds for the project but realised that finding the right collaborators was her biggest challenge. She had two concerns — she did not want to be the solo artist on the project and, at the same time, she wanted the spotlight on the community not the artists.
“I was in a dilemma as I didn’t want to do this alone,” she admits. “Around that time, I joined The Roadtrip Experience, and met many other artists during the project. Most of the team that came for our first project were from there. For the transgender community, I felt I could explain practically and asked them to turn up at the venue. They were clueless during the first visit, and so were we.”
Despite the lack of management abilities, the Aravani Art Project’s first wall art venture at a community space in Bengaluru’s KR Market was a success. An abstract, colourful painting enlivened a plain wall, drawing the attention of onlookers and paving the way for future projects.
The Aravani Art Project is named after the followers of Lord Aravan, a revered deity among the transgender community.
The Project brings together experts and art enthusiasts from the community to create large-scale murals, usually in public places. Their work is characterised by vibrant colours and an abstract quality. Since their first undertaking in Bengaluru in early 2016, the Project has travelled to Mumbai, Jaipur, Chennai and Sri Lanka, and their collaborators include the likes of St+Art and Humsafar Trust.
While Poornima manages community interactions, outreach and PR, design professional Sadhna Prasad heads the design division, conceptualising and executing the massive projects undertaken by the groups. “Our recent milestone was when two women from the community joined us — Priyanka who records the audio stories, and Shanthi a self-taught writer who manages our content.”
Naturally, every work of art requires thought and attention. The team undertakes every project with the community’s involvement and consent, and 75 per cent of the painting is undertaken by the community’s volunteers themselves. Poornima and other artists contribute to the painting, and also help to mentor the community artists.
“Many people stop to see their work, and most of the reaction is surprise,” says Poornima. “There are people who point to “those women” and we start a conversation with them. The trans women are happy to talk about themselves. We don’t want to confront them, but rather help them understand. I want to particularly bring about a change in the mentality of the younger generations about the transgender community.”
Taking an upbeat public approach to art also helps the Project reach out to a wide and diverse audience. The audience has grown with each project, and so has the number of local artists and participants. Poornima and her team often find themselves overwhelmed with volunteers, and have come in contact with other individuals and groups that also work to empower the community.
The Aravani Art Project envisions art as not just a means of empowerment, but also the path to a sustainable future for the community.
“They have never been given a chance before,” says Poornima, “but we have recognised some women who are exceptionally good at art.” As an artist, Poornima often employs trans women to work with her on professional projects and thinks that many of the women have the potential to become great artists. Any funds raised by the Project are divided equally among the members and a small portion is poured back into the activities.
Poornima’s hope now is to develop Aravani Art Project as a self-sustaining venture. As an art project, she is keen on grants and fellowships, but also hopes to attract the attention of corporate CSR and organise exhbitions. “We also want to do workshops in colleges. We would like to talk to college students about out work, and undertake wall painting projects together in one part of the campus,” she says.
Art is a therapeutic experience, and many trans women have discovered themselves anew via the project. The Aravani Art Project isn’t simply about empowering a community — it is about bringing them into the fold of mainstream society.