Identity 12 May 2024 6 MIN

Aravani Art Project’s Venice debut is a 100-ft-long celebration of trans voices

Vibrant and joyous, the wall mural examines gender dysphoria through a new lens

Venice’s Shakespearean beauty, with its winding canals and arresting Gothic architecture, has stunned tourists for centuries. But when artists Shanthi Muniswamy, Jyoti H Tirakanagowda, and Karnika Bai reached the floating city, they were stupefied for an entirely different reason. “We thought the entire city was flooded because there were no roads,” they reveal with a bashful laugh. “There was just water in the streets.” 
For the trio, travelling outside India for the first time in their lives, Venice has been a surreal experience. Their reason for being there felt even more unreal: as part of Aravani Art Project, they had been commissioned to paint one of their signature vibrant murals for one of the most important cultural exhibitions in the world, the Venice Biennale. 
Colours have always been central to Bengaluru-based Aravani Art Project’s work. The collective’s 35 transgender women and five cisgender women from across India, use vivid pigments to allude to their queer identities and amplify the Pride and trans flags. The group has painted murals across India—its eye-catching work is emblazoned on a sea-facing wall of Mumbai’s Soho House at Juhu Beach, as well as office spaces in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and New Delhi. The collective has also made a name for itself overseas: in 2019, its artists visited the CREA Conference in Kathmandu to paint about intersectional feminism. Their mural at Facebook’s headquarters in California proudly displays the slogan ‘Gender Free’. At international platforms like the ongoing Venice Biennale, Aravani Art Project’s use of vibrancy becomes all the more meaningful; it represents all the colour and clamour associated with the group’s Indian heritage.

Yet, the three have not always been comfortable with their identities as Indian citizens. “A few years ago, I felt like a foreigner in my own country because I was not recognised for my identity as a transwoman,” Muniswamy admits. It is precisely this sense of dissonance that she channels into the mural for this year’s biennale, the theme of which is ‘Foreigners Everywhere’.  
Conceptualised by Aravani founder Poornima Sukumar and project manager Nandini Rajaramanathan, the mural explores the feeling of cultural isolation in parallel with the challenges of gender dysphoria, which makes one feel like a “foreigner in one’s own body.” In their time after coming out as transgender, Muniswamy, Tirakanagowda, and Karnika Bai recall being shunned by society, feeling alien even to their most loved ones. “I felt so rejected that I used to pray before I’d sleep that I would wake up as a woman or just be someone that society would accept,” recalls Karnika Bai. All three artists were forced to run away from their homes due to a lack of acceptance from their families. But even after escaping, the intolerance was constant, with threats of abuse, forced marriage, and rape. Karnika once applied for a job as a receptionist only to be told that “hiring someone like you would give the company a bad name and be unsafe for those around.” Before Aravani, both Muniswamy and Tirakanagowda were forced to practise sex work to survive. 
Remarkably, despite such challenges, the collective’s work is unfailingly joyful, filled with sunny buoyancy. While many queer artists highlight the struggles of gender dysphoria in a tragic light, Aravani Art Project examines this emotion through a new lens. Titled ‘Diaspore’, their mural illustrates the small but hopeful moments that lead to acceptance of one’s identity. Completed in just eight days, it makes Aravani Art Project the first trans and cis art collective to create a mural at the Venice Biennale. 

Displayed at Arsenale on a wall that is 25ft tall and 100ft long, the mural depicts five trans women from the collective, including this trio. The first is Muniswamy, portrayed in pale yellow with blooming pink flowers. “Through her journey of transition, she is in the midst of finding peace and outgrowing her old self,” Rajaramanathan explains. Tirakanagowda comes next. Dressed in bright pink and surrounded by blue flora, she holds a birdcage from which a geometric bird flies out, representing the artist’s freedom from the doubts that held her back from embracing her gender identity. In the centre, Karnika Bai boldly strikes a pose in a patterned sari, standing as a proud inspiration to the queer community. Fourth, a contemplative Purushii, a member of the collective from Bengaluru, is illustrated in blue, standing tall as she reflects on her journey as a trans woman. Finally, Kanchana, from Aravani’s Chennai team, is content in her happy place: a garden of flowers, feeling like a part of nature itself.

“Art makes people curious about us and the culture we belong to; it shows a colourful and different representation of us.” 

Creating the mural was a challenge, Sukumar admits, because the wall they were assigned was curved and several portions had to be sketched by hand. She further explains the intricacy of the design, which was brought to life with water-based enamels: “The triangles at the very top represent the various people who were part of our collective and decided to part ways. Eight floral patterns towards the centre represent each year of our journey. The flowers and leaves in the mural are dedicated to all members of the collective who could not be here with us in Venice, and the five blue and red rectangles represent the team of five who represented us here.” 
For the trans members of the collective, art is not only a means to reclaim public spaces but also connect with the masses. “When people come and ask to take photographs with us and not just of us, there is a sense of humanity involved,” Karnika Bai states. “Art makes people curious about us and the culture we belong to; it shows a colourful and different representation of us.” “When people see us as transgender women on the streets, we are usually teased and looked down upon,” Tirakanagowda finishes, mouth stretching into a small smile. “Now, because of the work we do, people respect us as artists first, regardless of our gender. Before I joined the project, I was a sex worker and people would only see me at night. Art has come as daylight for me.” 
After getting over their initial fear of flooding, the artists found themselves fascinated by the city of Venice. “Even though I am foreign to Venice, I seldom felt it,” Karnika Bai beams. “The people here are not judgmental and we felt free. Even really late at night, walking around town and exploring places felt safe and joyous.” The group’s biggest challenge was the food. “We used to ask for chillies everywhere,” Sukumar grins. “We also took Indian ingredients with us to make daal for our friends. They loved it!” In return, she remembers, the Italian students who helped them paint brought them goodies to snack on while painting, as well as a kettle to make tea and coffee in the freezing weather. Another example of art’s power to connect people.  
Aravani Art Project’s Diaspore will be on display until November 24, 2024 at Arsenale as part of the Venice Biennale.