From Mahim in Mumbai and KR Market in Bangalore, to Lodhi Colony in Delhi and Sonagachi in Kolkata, in just six years, the Aravani Art Project has grown into a successful movement that aims to create and reclaim public spaces for members of the transgender community. They do this by using the creative and colorful medium of visual arts and social participation.
“We intend to enable people in the transgender community to collaborate with artists, photographers, filmmakers and other companies to paint large murals and engage them in various art forms to reclaim public spaces for conversations, voicing issues and beginning social participation,” they say.
Recently, the collective collaborated with Absolut Creative Commune to create a new piece of art that they say celebrates the power of love in all its forms. talk about the same with indianexpress.comthe members of the project also talked about their journey, ups and downs, their works and their future projects.
Can you tell us about the collaboration and the artwork?
The artwork we created suffered various interpretations, but we finalized something very effective and celebrated the idea of ”love is love”. Within the concept of being free and learning to break the stereotypical way of loving, lies an endless ocean of freedom – it revisits the idea of having no boundaries, no strings attached and no conditions. Live free and celebrate who you are. To love whoever you want.
We spend so much time chasing an idea that we don’t know what’s in front of us. Love opens up a whole new way of looking at things. Friendship is the most sacred form of love. The love between two men or two women is sacred. Our decision to love and whom to love is an act of freedom, and it is in this freedom that we thrive and thrive. Likewise, queer friendship and love give the assurance of unconditional love, borders, sex and color. Queer friendship makes love real, it instills a deep and resonant sense of hope, that we can change the world because look how we have changed ourselves and each other.
What was the idea behind creating the meme – the location, the theme, everything?
The idea was to be able to represent the different ways of loving and being in a coherent and visual way. We are all still unlearning and relearning that “love” is not necessarily simply heteronormative and that we should have the freedom and fearlessness to celebrate all forms of “love.” Queer, trans, non-binary gender and folxs of diverse sexual and gender orientations live and experience this freedom!
The Aravani Art Project began nearly six years ago – how would you describe the journey to date?
While the visibility of transgender people increasing in popular culture and everyday life, they still face severe discrimination, stigma and systemic inequality. With a mission to try to reduce this in society, we are bringing about a change in the way society views the transgender and queer community. We defend the idea of recovering spaces in society by creating different artistic projects to raise awareness and create a voice for the community. We find magical ways to inspire the transgender community to get out into public spaces and feel confident, safe and they belong. Yet, transgender people are in a constant battle as they must struggle against oppression, abuse and discrimination from various parts of society, be it their own family and friends or society at large.
Although our work relies heavily on community arts grants, commissioned projects, and workshops that enhance the skills of community members, we are completely helpless and in disbelief at the events around us. We are at an interesting end and hope to stem new beginnings to move on with life. We’ve come a long way in terms of our journey, and it’s been a bittersweet symphony.
What has been the most important change/development since the beginning of the artistic project?
Our intention to make interventions in spaces where the transgender community, lives/survives and works, develops a sense of responsibility and self-esteem. We can implement the art and reach as many people as possible within the local communities and intertwine their journey in raising awareness, rehabilitation and inclusion, artistically. The immediate circle of people who support and care for them become organic participants, giving us the freedom to deepen conversations with curious viewers.
Our work began as an expression and an experience use art and friendship as social justice activism. We started claiming spaces as cis women, trans women/men and queer to make a point. While we reclaimed it using art as a tool, our audiences were quite diverse, participatory, and educated about everything we were doing.
In the beginning, people were very open to conversations and sometimes participated during the painting. This developed a sense of respect and awareness among local communities. Our most essential part of the project is staying in touch with the trans community on a local level. Each town/village chosen will involve artists, women and trans people from that region.
Over the years, art in public spaces has grown and also undergone a massive transformation. How and in what ways has the media helped you spread your message/awareness?
We create safe spaces for transgender community through art. We examine their spaces of innovation, the places of their history and create a space for learning by transforming this knowledge into public art. The streets are a particularly important place to do our work, as it is in these public spaces where people who identify as transgender face violence, harassment, social neglect and pressure. Our creative collective seeks to respond to these experiences by creating spaces that instead encourage exchange, discussion, openness and debate around gender identities.
How exactly does the project create “safe spaces” for alternative voices through art?
It takes a different set of practices, thought, training and time to allow community members to understand among themselves that there are so many great stories, practices, cultures, ways of life, traditions, songs… the list never ends. Of course, we take the help of experts and people who have the skills to do it in the most efficient way.
We intend to enable people from the transgender community to collaborate with artists, photographersfilmmakers and other members of society to paint large murals and engage them in various art forms to reclaim public spaces for conversations, voicing issues and beginning social participation.
As an artistic collective with a social cause at its roots, what has been your greatest achievement so far?
Every step taken to break stereotypical thinking, rework on the stigma and reclaiming any type of place is a feat for us. There have been some amazing steps along the way, we’re not so attached to accomplishments as to being on the ground and interacting with people from diverse backgrounds. But to name a few, we’ve been involved in some great grants and community projects that have allowed us to focus on branching out into various art forms and exploring the nuances of grassroots community work.
Our accomplishments also include the successes of the transgender artists who we support and help their mental and physical health. We are able to empower leaders within the team to drive projects forward and hopefully take ownership of the collective and lead it.
Also, the most difficult thing you have (had to) face as a project?
There are several challenges that are always thrown at us. Our biggest challenge right now is finding a sustainable way to ensure the project doesn’t wither away over time. But perseverance and, at the same time, having to keep up to date with an ever-changing world can sometimes be difficult. We’re pretty secure with the work we do, but we often think of other ways to manage ourselves financially.
On the other hand, the challenge of the community is that the older generation is very difficult to change. Some members of the trans community are often misused and misunderstood if they don’t receive the right guidance. Their difficulties left them very bitter and angry with society. It takes a lot of perseverance.
You also recently painted a mural at the Love Grove sewage treatment plant in Mumbai. Tell us about that?
It’s been going on since February 2021, and it’s still wonderful to paint and be part of big projects in Mumbai. Our team in Mumbai is very welcoming and we love the interactions we have had on the streets of Worli during this project. We are always eager to paint and enjoy the process of creating art in public spaces. It makes us feel alive and we are so happy that the people of Mumbai really appreciated and connected to this project.
What’s in the pipeline/future projects?
The future is as fragile as our present. In addition to working in big cities, we would also like to expand our work and workshops in small towns and two-tier towns. We are in the process of training a set of people from the transgender community to lead, teach and run these workshops in smaller cities and on two levels. Simultaneously, we will participate and initiate cross-cultural exchanges between India and other countries.
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