Poornima Sukumar does not like tags – of being a woman, artist, traveller, activist, or entrepreneur. But she is all of these wrapped into one. Founder of the Bengaluru-based Aravani Art Project, this 33-year-old is undoubtedly one of the most prominent painters of her generation in India, not just because of the uniqueness of her art but also for the impact it is creating.
The road less travelled
After Class 10, Poornima decided that she did not want to continue with conventional academics/education and wanted to do something different instead. She went on to get a degree in painting from Chitrakala Parishad in Bengaluru.
At the time, most painters used to paint on canvases and sell at a gallery but Poornima felt that art was being elitist hat way – being only for people who can afford it. She was not interested in painting on small canvases anyway. “At Parishad too, I painted on big canvases or (huge paper stuck on) walls.”
After college, however, she felt like she had not discovered what she truly wanted to do. So, she started teaching art at some schools and later at the National Institute of Design (Ahmedabad). A year later, she left NID and realised that she was not interested in commercial art. Being the free spirit that she is, Poornima travelled for some time, and started working with NGOs and certain communities.
She says, “Then I realised that art and social work have so much in common. The only thing I knew was art, and I thought I could exchange that for many things as I travelled around.”
Working with London-based documentary filmmaker Tabs Breese in 2012 was a life-changing event for Poornima. The documentary, which took years to finish, was focussed on the transgender community.
Poornima recollects, “It was the first time I was working with this community so closely; I had never explored the transgender community before that. Once I grasped that nobody recognised this marginalised community as individuals with knowledge and creativity and talents, I wanted to change it.”
To become the change she wants to see, Poornima used the tool she knows best – art. She says, “I just wanted to create a group of people who will get to know and trust each other, and form friendships, and not with any other agenda.”
Thus began Aravani Art Project in 2016.
A movement for a community
Named after the Aravani festival, a celebration of the transgender community in Tamil Nadu, it enables transwomen to connect with their neighbourhood people. A largely marginalised community in India, they are often shunned from the mainstream society, which looks down upon them, even fearing them. There is a major disconnect between transgender individuals and the common man – one which Poornima believed art can dissolve.
The Aravani Art Project brings together artists and civilians across the gender spectrum – thereby providing a safe space for transgender women, cis-women, gender non-binary, and queer individuals to bond over art. The group would paint on walls on public spaces, each portraying a transgender person (a mix of multiple faces mixed into one face) surrounded by culturally specific motifs. In Pune, it is the Paithani saree while in Chennai, the jasmine flower blooms on the walls.
So far, the project has completed more than 20 public projects – across red light areas, ghettos, and slums in about 30 Indian cities including Pune, Mumbai, and Kolkata.
Every wall is a canvas
Poornima started painting walls in 2013. In fact, her first wall painting was an experiment at a friend's house. It was in 2014 when she painted a wall at a public place for the first time – at a neighbourhood art festival conducted in a flea market in Bangalore.
She recalls, “They had invited whoever could paint a wall, and a few of us artists got together and painted some walls on the Indiranagar 100 Feet Road, and later went on to paint more walls across the city.”
Poornima has also freelanced as a wall artist, and is now heading the for-profit business for the artists’ collective at Aravani Art Project. They have painted walls at cafes, restaurants, schools, hospitals, learning centres, and corporate offices across the country. The commissioned projects include wall paintings at Bengaluru offices of Levi’s, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and the Indian Institute of Management.
She adds that their client base is aware and supportive of the gender project and often gives them work that can hire transwomen as assistants. Additionally, the collective receives art grants from different global entities.
Artist, not ‘woman artist’
Recounting the experience of painting in a public space for the first time, Poornima says, “I enjoyed it because I am an introvert and I don't talk too much about my work. But at the wall, my work was getting attention without me having to do so. People were surprised to see a woman on the street. It was a challenge, but it gave me a lot of confidence.”
She adds that the ‘woman artist’ tag is silly.
Poornima explains, “Gender label should be avoided so that people start looking at you for what you are. It makes me cringe when people call someone a ‘woman artist’ or a ‘transwoman artist.’ They are just artists. If you want to know their gender, find it out separately.”
Art for a cause
Art is not often encouraged as a full-time career as it cannot guarantee financial stability. Perhaps that’s why Poornima says her biggest achievement is being financially independent, although her family and friends have always been supportive in her work.
And her work has brought in larger changes too. The collective’s public projects usually find support from city planners in different forms – travel and stay or supplies. Organisations like Aarogya Seva, based in India and the US, have even provided free medical check-ups to the community while a project is being executed.
The collective has also painted a library for the children of ragpickers in Bengaluru, a wall on the streets of Mumbai’s red light district with the daughters of sex-workers, and a wall in Nepal with the children orphaned by the 2015 earthquake. Their community projects include KR Market in Bengaluru, Lakshmi Mills in Coimbatore, the Thiruvanmiyur local train station in Chennai, the Toilet project in Kochi, and the Sooriya Village in Colombo.
Poornima has painted in six countries so far. In July 2016, she was invited to present the Aravani Art Project at the Global Youth Forum and was hosted by the World Bank as a panellist for the LGBTQIA+ discussion in Washington DC.
One of Poornima’s biggest works is the Wise Wall Project in Uttarakhand, for which she collaborates with Project FUEL and The Hans Foundation. The project, which started in 2017, aims to bring the wisdom of the people in Uttarakhand’s remote villages that are slowly disappearing due to migration.
Poornima explains, “We wanted to bring some attention to those villages organically. So Project FUEL collected life lessons from the remaining 12 families in one village and about 200 families in neighbouring villages, and we painted together for about 40 days in Saur village in Uttarakhand. Later we did the same in Uttarakhand’s Khati village too.”
She also works with Karnataka-based NGO BuDa Folklore to help with documentation and archiving of the disappearing tribes in the Western Ghats, focussing on their artforms, culture, food, dressing, etc. Her next project is in Africa, where she will be doing wall art on the Masai Mara tribe, which is among the most prominent tribes but have no access to basic civil rights.
In Poornima’s safe hands, change begins one wall at a time.