Aravani Art Project is using India’s public walls to reclaim space for trans people
Through art, the trans and cis women-led collective is fostering conversation and queer community, dismantling “long-held beliefs about gender” in the process.
- Liz Gorny
- 11 May 2022
A New Angle is an editorial series that aims to give a platform to creative industry changemakers who make it their mission to disrupt the status quo. In each edition, we’ll chat to a person or team doing important work in the sector, making it a fairer place, championing vital causes, supporting underrepresented groups and tackling pertinent issues facing creatives everywhere.
This week, we’re speaking to Aravani Art Project, a trans and cis women-led art collective in Bangalore, Karnataka. Through public and community-based art projects, the group looks to increase visibility of the queer community and “gently reshape” the politics surrounding gender identity. It is also a project founded in reclaiming space. Advocating for connecting, safe spaces full of belonging for transgender and gender non-conforming folk, the Aravani Art Project create much of their artworks on the streets, a space in which the LGBTQIA+ community has historically faced violence. Over the past few years, the collective has launched projects across the likes of Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai, more recently creating a colossal new mural for this year’s India Art Fair.
It’s Nice That: What are you hoping to change through the Aravani Art Project and why does it need changing?
Aravani Art Project: Our intention is to create artistic interventions in different kinds of spaces where people from the transgender community live/survive and work; to develop a sense of responsibility and self worth. By implementing art, we are able to reach out to as many people as possible within the local communities and intertwine their journey into creating awareness, rehabilitation and inclusion. The immediate circle of people who support them and care for them become participants organically, giving us the liberty to go deeper into the conversations with the curious onlookers.
We enable people from the community to participate and encourage each other, to voice out issues on stories of love, mythology, heart breaks, discrimination, violence and braving their rights over one’s body and presence. We do this by using art as a medium of storytelling, a means of reclaiming spaces and a way to persistently resist stereotyping and stigma. By collaborating through work and developing a true sense of friendship with various individuals and people from marginalised communities, we are able to sustain and create some gentle impact.
The visibility of the transgender figure has begun to disrupt long-held beliefs about gender. By making art together, we are seeking to gently reshape these politics of inclusion and exclusion that surround gender identities. The struggle for acceptance and understanding of the identities of transgender individuals exists in each society, race, and class. This includes, among many other categories, those people who identify as a transgender woman, a transgender man, gender variant, gender non-conforming, gender non-binary, gender fluid, gender queer and more.
INT: What have you built, and how does it tackle these issues?
AAP: Our work started as an expression and experiment using art and friendship as social justice activism. We started reclaiming spaces as cis women, trans women/men and queer people to make a point. While we reclaimed it using art as a tool, our audiences were quite diverse, participative and enquired about everything we were doing.
To begin with, people were very open to conversations and sometimes participated in the course of the painting. This developed a sense of respect and awareness between the local people and the individuals from the transgender community. Our most essential part of the project is to stay in touch with the trans community locally. Every chosen country/city/ town, will involve the artists, queer people and trans people from that region.
The streets are a particularly important place to do our work, as it is in these public spaces that the bodies of transgender-identifying people attract violence, harassment, social negligence and pressure. Our creative collective seeks to respond to these experiences by creating spaces that instead encourage exchange, discussion, openness and debate surrounding gender identities and gender roles, often challenging the irrelevance of gender itself.
NT: What other organisations are out there like Aravani Art Project, and what sets yours apart?
AAP: There are some good grassroot-level non-governmental organisations and artistic collectives. As far as we know (and we would love to know if there are other trans-cis collaborative collectives), we are one of a kind. We are living, breathing examples of an intersectional feministic art collective from India.
Our work and our artists are mostly from lower economic backgrounds. With the options of sex work and begging to make a living, our role in the collective is to offer or be a choice for these women who would like to use the opportunity and grow as an artist and as a person. In the process, if they want to continue or come out of begging or sex work, it becomes solely their choice and responsibility.
INT: What are the major challenges you’re facing?
AAP: There are several challenges always thrown at us. At every wall, we have challenges with regard to the production or the people. Our biggest challenge right now is finding a suitable sustainable way of making sure the project does not wither in time. We really want to be able to paint murals all over the world to showcase such a different and vibrant side of our culture.
Our second challenge is finding walls! People might assume that finding the trust within the community to do the project is tough, but the toughest is finding a wall to paint on. They are ok if strangers are urinating and throwing garbage, but are averse to doing artwork. It is so bizarre because, more often than not, they do not have a valid reason.
The challenge from the community is that the older generation are very hard to change. The system that is followed by the transgender individual in India can be very stringent and one has to abide by the rules. Their hardships have left them very bitter and angry with society. It requires a lot of perseverance and sometimes one cannot please everyone and accepting that is difficult too.
INT: What can the creative industry do to support your mission?
AAP: The creative industry should make gender no bar for residencies. In the name of doing art under the ‘gender’ topic, make sure you collaborate or talk to the right person before making art about them. Make sure it is a collaboration.
INT: Talk us through some of your most recent initiatives, such as your recent work at India Art Fair. Can you tell us more about it?
AAP: We have been very fortunate to get some good projects through just before and after the pandemic. We painted in Mumbai and Chennai before the first lockdown; soon after the first lockdown, we painted a mural on Kasturba road, in Bangalore for the Museum of Art and Photography Bangalore. We also painted the Swami Vivekanand road metro station as an ode to the frontline Covid warriors. We painted the streets of Worli and recently completed an entire flyover project in Worli, Mumbai. Highlights of our recent work include collaborations with Azim Premji University, G5A foundation and producing a theatrical piece. Our aim is also to be a part of mural festivals across the world. Wall art should become a medium for the bold and the beautiful.
Our collaboration with India Art Fair is something we have been excited about and looking forward to. From making art in the streets to being represented in a reputed art show like India Art fair, we choose to remain and challenge these spaces of acceptance and privilege. Our piece will talk about celebrating intersectionality, sisterhood, friendships and more, not just as a topic but as a practice, and proudly announce that the Future is Femme.
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating in Film from The University of Bristol, she worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, INDIE magazine and design studio Evermade.