As one walks up to the NSIC grounds, where the India Art Fair is currently taking place, a 50-feet-long mural keeps you company. Presented by the Saffronart Foundation and painted by the Aravani Art Project, it depicts a vision for a free and open society, unshackled by stereotypes and mental blocks about gender. By inserting their frames into simple everyday acts in public spaces, the members of this trans-women and cis-women led collective have painted a picture of an inclusive world. According to Poornima Sukumar, director, Aravani Art Project, the work—The Future is Femme—has nothing to do with being a female. “Being femme has nothing do with the biological gender by birth. Feeling femme, regardless of who you are, should be celebrated,” she adds. The art work is both a tribute and a reminder that all feminist movements should practice intersectionality and include trans and non-binary people in every way possible.
In the past six years, the collective has worked on a myriad of projects—commercial, community-based, grants, digital media, book covers and almost 60 wall projects in public and corporate spaces, schools and hospitals. “This is enough proof that we are celebrated for our work, for the people who do it and more.Yes, We are proud to be part of the change!” says Sukumar. Today, the collective works with almost 30 individuals from the transgender community on a project basis.
The Aravani Art Project began as an experiment in 2016, using art and friendship as tools of social justice activism. “We started re-claiming spaces as cis- women, trans-women/men and queer people to make a point. Our audiences were quite diverse, participative and curious about everything that we did,” she adds.
People were very open to conversations and would sometimes participate in the course of the painting. A mutual sense of respect began to develop between the local people of the neighbourhood where the murals were being painted and individuals from the transgender community. “The most essential part of the project is to stay in touch with the trans-community locally. Every chosen country, city or town will involve the artists, queer people and trans-people from that region,” explains Sukumar.
The streets are an important place for the Aravani Art Project, as it is in these spaces that the transgender community faces violence, harassment, social negligence and pressure. Instead, the collective seeks to transform these into spaces that encourage discussion, openness and debate about gender identities.
So, has this led to change in the neighbourhoods where the transgender communities live? “So many places that we have done community exchanges in are exhibiting a change in perspective. It is very endearing to see how welcoming people are—the way they meet or greet us during or after a project,” says Sukumar. One also wonders if the transgender community has also started perceiving public spaces differently, and reclaiming it with greater confidence than before? “A safe space is made up of many small instances, which we have experienced with the past few projects. It ensures trans people have freedom to be themselves, regardless of whether the space is public or not,” she explains. “These spaces change the way of looking at what inclusion means. Our impact has been so heartfelt, that it did not require statistics.”
Shanthi, one of the core team members, who belongs to the transgender community, appreciates the fact that people have now started looking beyond stereotypes. “We, as transgenders, are capable of doing beautiful things too, hopefully society understands this," she says. Another member, Thara, loves being part of such an artistic project. “To be an artist with Aravani has been very supporting. Especially during the pandemic, as an artist, I have received the support to survive and sail through the difficult times and I am very happy about that. My art has gained me respect from the neighbourhood,” she says. “Everyone always associated me with begging and sex work. All that has stopped now.”
Certain members of the collective have embarked on their personal journeys into art, while also being a part of the Aravani Art Project. They are now painting canvases and also participating in other art groups. “Aishu and Mayuri from our Mumbai team are also make-up artists, and work very closely with various people during Ganapathi Puja, and other festivals,” says Sukumar. Nine trans women from the collective—Shanthi, Chandri, Prarthana, Thara, Shwetha, Sandiya, Veena, Purushi and Jyothi from Bengaluru— are exploring other forms of art such as theatre. “We at Aravani Art Project always encourage one other to take up freelance projects and are always on the lookout for grants and opportunities that help them explore their own path,” she adds.