A group of women sit in a circle. The paintbrush in their hands tipped with the most vibrant colours, creates gentle strokes on a blank canvas. They giggle through their masks, enjoying the work and gossip. These women form the core of the Aravani Art Project, a trans women’s art collective that works on public art projects like murals.
Founded in January 2016, the art collective has painted over 50 murals across India and in San Francisco, U.S. But with the onset of the pandemic, all those projects that brought so much joy came to a sudden halt.
“We are not the kind of people who sit inside. We really like being out, having fun, and interacting with people. The isolation that was brought about by the pandemic is the worst thing that could happen to us,” says Shanthi Muniswamy, a trans woman associated with the collective.
But, this enthusiastic collective has found a solution to these problems by bringing art to people’s homes. The vibrant canvases that they have been painting are up for sale and anyone who is interested can buy them.
“Half the proceeds of each painting sold is given to the artist. A portion of the remaining half is used to buy raw materials like paints. And the rest is used by these trans women to help others from their community buy essential food items like rice, dal, sugar, oil and most importantly, medicines,” says Poornima Sukumar, the founder of the art collective.
She is one of three cis women in the collective along with nine trans women. The other two cis women are Sadhna Parsad, the art director and Aditi Patkar who looks after the operations. This includes handling the canvases, looking after the orders, packing, and ensuring that the canvases reach the recipients.
Art and life
Poornima informs that the women meet once in a week at one of their homes. On other days, they use technology to keep in touch and support each other.
“We had already been painting canvases on a small scale before the pandemic hit and the objective was not to sell them. We just wanted to keep ourselves occupied. But we realised that the proceeds from selling these canvases could help a lot of members from the trans community. Especially those who are not economically sound enough to sustain during the pandemic,” says the founder.
The paintings are a riot of vibrant colours and are titled Naavu Idhivi (We exist), Bloom, Looking At You, Heart, and Pride among others. Each of these pieces come with a personalised note with information of the painter. The group paints almost seven canvases in 10 days. They began selling their art in June and have sold over 100 pieces until now.
“When we began getting canvas orders, it felt like we were finally bouncing back despite the pandemic. Also, a lot of people think that members of my community are only fit for sex work. But the work we are doing has made them realise that there are so many positive things that we are capable of doing. This is helping us gain respect,” says Shanthi.
Poornima and Shanthi both say that they have been getting a lot of love and support from people they connect with. With zero complaints from any of their clients, they hope that through their art, they find a sense of purpose in this time while also supporting other members from the trans community.
“Aravani Art Project is a platform that has encouraged and empowered us. And, art for us is like therapy. I hope people open their hearts and minds to us. It makes me really happy to think that the colours we use bring smiles to people’s faces,” says Shanthi.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)