Monday, October 3, 2016

The Aravani Project

Poornima Sukumar (right)
Poornima Sukumar- a muralist, artist, illustrator and documentary photographer talks about her  journey as an artist and how her belief is using arts and crafts as a medium to engage with communities on various social issues acted as a catalyst in founding her organization ‘Aravani Art Project’.

Can you tell us something about yourself?
My name is Poornima Sukumar and I am from Bangalore.  I pursued a degree in Fine Arts  from Chitra Kala Parishat and was also training to become a faculty at The National Institute of Design (NID) Ahmedabad in the field of  Visual Semiotics for Design Communication.  When I returned to Bangalore, I started playing around with the idea of using the wall as my canvas and that led to my foray into the world of mural art and graffiti. 

‘Using the wall as your canvas’ , that sounds interesting! Could you tell us more about the work you do?

I paint walls for a living and currently work as a freelancer based in Bangalore. I firmly believe that art is a great medium of self-expression while also giving the artist an opportunity to connect with the society in various ways. In addition to this, I am also a vivid traveler, and my work takes me to different parts of the country where I try to bridge my art and travelling by painting walls with people belonging to that space and community. And this has further fueled my quest to reach out to more communities and people and intertwine their journey into mine, artistically.

You started your own initiative- the ‘Aravani Art Project’.  What was your motivation behind this initiative?

Aravani Wall Art
In the numerous travels that I undertook, I had the privilege of working with social causes, human welfare- mainly with children, women and the transgender community. And it is while undertaking these projects I realized that I could use art to engage with different communities and address various social issues that continue to plague our society. I was involved in a documentary film for about 3 years which entails the Transgender community. This gave me a firsthand experience in interacting with them and understanding them as individuals and a community. When the documentary was coming to an end, I had an urge to keep my association with them going.  Art being such an important part of my life I thought I would address their societal situation by painting walls with them. A series of discussions with Sharanya Ramprakash who is a vital part of Aravani Art Project and an advisor led to the founding of this project.

What is Aravani Art Project?  What is your organisation's founding story? 
Aravani Art Project aims to create platforms for the Transgender Community creating consciousness and well being through art, awareness & social participation. Aravani Art Project’s objective is to organically create a space for the transgender community in the society by voicing their expressions mainly through visual arts- art as an expression, art as recreation and the idea that art is available and viable to all.  I believe that this would enable them to access and understand their involvement in the society and act as a vehicle for them to voice out their rights and concerns.  No change or empowerment is possible if you do not involve the community and make them part of the process. Thus, the idea is to involve *Aravanis in the process of creativity and equip them with the artistic tools where they can express their stories of freedom, their dreams of acceptance and their hopes of being at par with the society they live in.

(*Aravani (derived from Tamil Nadu, India) is a chosen name to remove the innuendo of the word 'Hijra' hence, a non stigmatized name like that was the intention. The meaning of the term “Aravani” literally means a person who worships Lord Aravan.)

Aravani Art Project began as an experiment for me, to know and observe the responsiveness it creates. It is easy to make a plan, but to know how it works in a community and in public spaces is something that cannot be measured without doing it. 

The experiences after 3 projects in Bangalore and Mumbai collectively was nothing short of a magical synergy of the Transgender Community, artists and public trespassers. We have had our shares of challenges, but the immense amount of support that was received on all the days was remarkable. One cannot expect everything to be a cake walk considering we want to make a difference by Including the Transgender community and the rest of the LGB community to gather and want to be a part of this. 

It is close to impossible for me to imagine if i did not have a strong group who stood by me and travelled with me wherever the project took us! Sadhna who is the design head for the walls we design, Roshnee who is incharge of making sure the Logo is painted and is taken care of, Abhishek Choudhury who makes sure he strikes a conversation and makes them comfortable being amongst a big group of people. Karthik Shetty the official videographer of Aravani Art Project seamlessly mingles with all of them and makes them look so comfortable in front of the camera. Prathamesh, Deepak, Navin, Divya, Charan, Adrita, Rutuja, Sheetal and all those magical people who came and helped in various ways. Its wouldn't be fair to say that something this large can happen without all of them being mentioned!

The impact of the project for the transgender community is very positive until now, They understand the importance of gathering and to work on something together. It is the first time for almost all of them from the community to paint walls in Public spaces and especially closer to where they belong. It was a conscious decision to intervene into their spaces and for us to go there, instead of finding a wall in famous spots. it was important for me to do so, for their comfort. The response after the project is usually overwhelming followed by some happy tears shared by all and feeling so together! This has been a priceless journey. I can’t wait to do more projects anywhere in the world, just so we all understand that  Humanity, Dignity and Equality matter beyond, race, colour, sex and borders!

Could you talk about some of your projects/ art installations and the impact they have had? 

The first project executed with the community- Aravani Project #001 started with a mural art installation in Bangalore in January 2016. The aim of the project was to create space for the transgender community and to familiarize them with Art.  The project consisted of painting 2 murals on walls in the bustling K.R market area.

While we kicked started the installation on Saturday as scaffolding structure was being assembled and  the artists involved began sketching and marking the walls, Sunday was an important day as it brought members of the transgender and art community together to paint, create, interact and open up a platform to discuss and exchange stories with the artists and with the on-lookers. The day then unfolded into a wall art installation by the participants who came forward to get themselves painted to be a part of the wall art.  The theme of this ongoing project will be the term ‘INCLUDE’- Verb .comprise or contain as part of a whole. This extends to the following themes of inclusion: inclusion in society, inclusion in art, inclusive to their expression and what they feel about inclusiveness in retrospect. The idea is not to make Aravanis the subject, but include the community to be a part of this entirety. 

The entire process from when it was conceptualized until the time when we all assembled at a local bar (which is where they usually hang out) after the painting  was rather an intense yet heart wrenching process. As the members of the transgender community trickled in while all of us waited for them to come and join us, the trans* women and other community members were very touched by how seamlessly they got along with the artists and did not feel excluded or mistreated.   They enjoyed painting together, discussing the hardships and breaking all stigma attached to them. Thus, it facilitated respectful and meaningful exchange of conversations for both the transgender community and the artists.

Why have you chosen Mural Art/ Public Art as a medium to address the issues and get conversations going? 
To get to the point straight, Wall painting was the only way I discovered to express myself as an artist. Slowly, I started painting for communities like children, orphanages, schools. I realized later instead of me being a mediator, I should let art do the talking. So it was an experiment to let them paint on behalf of their own community. It was more impactful and they felt a sense of belonging. When it involves the people of the community, I wanted to also have a first hand experience of how my own circle of friends and artists would react. And needless to say it was an eye opener for all of us  this project facilitated innumerable conversations, helped us break myths and presumptions and understand their woes and challenges.

Painting or art as an activity is very therapeutic and relaxing. It breaks all silences and opens up spaces to let go all inhibitions and engage in small but significant conversations facilitating personal exchanges. 

In the work you do, what are some of the challenges you encounter and of course how do you overcome them? 
The challenges are plenty the minute one decides to take a path that no one has taken. I feel as a society we often are insensitive to the issues and needs of minorities. I find the whole attitude of how we can be so heartless to people who have been created by nature, and make them feel so insignificant that they need to fight for the most basic rights like existence the most challenging. In the recent years, we have seen numerous discussions around gendered social norms and their polarization. But this project made it possible for me to realize that having discussions in one thing but engaging with these concepts towards changing the attitude and thought processes is not only different but extremely challenging. Thus, my primary concern and challenge was to instill trust and build that relationship so that the transgender community is comfortable to engage with and be part of the process.

The second biggest challenge is to give the Trans* community their financial empowerment. Most of them come from a disadvantaged economic background and have had to quit schooling. So I believe that some kind of vocational training needs to be made available to them to enable them to find better opportunities. And it is here that I would like to start providing them some classes/ lessons in English as that would help them develop their communication skills and build their level of confidence to express themselves better. In addition to mural art, through my organisation, I will look at designing and offering other programs to help them develop their skills and become economically independent.