Remembering the Life of Sweet Maria Through Art

A unique monument to the murdered trans activist reminds us of her life as well as the violence that trans people face in India

A performance by Gee Imaan Semmalar, Raju Rage and Aryakrishnan R at the Sweet Maria Monument displayed at the Kochi Muziris Biennale in December 2018. Photo courtesy Nikhil KC

How does art change the way we think about life and people? The beautiful project Sweet Maria Monument gives us one answer.

When we think of straight people we think of their emotions, their complexities, their choices – what we call normal life. And that’s because we have so much art and media about straight or cis people to help us think this way. But do we look at queer people in terms of the same varied humanity? Do we see them represented in different ways around us, leading us to think differently about queer gender identity and orientations? Or do we tell just one story about queer lives most of the time?

In recent times we have celebrated trans rights – when trans people stood for Lok Sabha elections, or when the discriminatory Trans Rights Bill lapsed. But beneath that vocal struggle for rights, there are still many other struggles, and the suddenly invisible stories of the violence that trans people continue to face. Unless we tell all these stories at the same time – the painful and the joyful, we cannot create a truly diverse landscape and fight this invisibility.

The Sweet Maria Monument is an artistic memorial, a tribute to the memory of Sweet Maria, a transgender activist who was brutally murdered on 10 May 2012 in her home in Kollam. It beautifully and lovingly draws attention to her life, showing her to us as someone who lived and loved and desired, rather than as a statistic about violence against trans people.

The Sweet Maria Monument was created by artist Aryakrishnan R, a friend of Sweet Maria’s. We spoke to Aryakrishnan about the project and its significance.

Sweet Maria at Queer Pride Keralam, Thrissur, in 2011. Photo courtesy Dibin C Augustine

Could you tell us a little about Sweet Maria, the person who has inspired this project? 

Sweet Maria was a sexuality and gender rights activist. She was also an organiser of queer pride events, an atheist, a member and resource person for Loveland Arts Society (an organisation for queer people in Kollam), a state community advisory board member for Pehchan (a national project on HIV/AIDS intervention), and a last grade servant in the Harbour Engineering Department. Maria participated in public discussions and gave interviews on television programmes about LGBTQI issues.

She was murdered on 10 May 2012, in her home in Kollam.

I first met her in 2010 at Idam, a convention for sexuality minority rights and queer film festival in Thrissur, organised by Sahayatrika. She was fierce and flamboyant, and very assertive about LGBTQI rights. Coming from a small town, with limited exposure to the global LGBTQI movement, she asserted a local trans politics. She was very argumentative, and the first thing I noticed about her was the way she would articulate the complexity of what it was like to be queer in Kerala. She questioned the supposedly progressive claims of Malayalis and their silence and double standards towards LGBTQI people. We became friends immediately.

Though officially she had a male name and would usually dress in a pant and shirt, she made it a point that we call her Sweet Maria and would often use female pronouns with pride, and dress up on occasions. I visited her several times along with my friends, at her house in Kollam, in the quarters of the Harbour Engineering Department. She had no neighbours: though the quarters had an adjoining room, other staff were not willing to live there with her because of her identity. The walls of her quarters were sometimes vandalised, painted with words of hatred and ridicule.

Even so, her house functioned almost as a drop-in centre for the queer community. People could go there, take rest, have food with her – she always had friends over. She was a good cook, and a very generous person to the community, supporting many people in crisis.

What was the idea behind the Sweet Maria Monument?

The Sweet Maria Monument is a tribute to the life and practices of Sweet Maria. It is an effort to build an archive of the traces of someone’s life, as well as question the kind of monuments we have in our contemporary times.

My question was how I could turn something like the memory of Sweet Maria, which was constantly moving and changing, and could not be contained or fixed, into a monument. That’s how I started exploring the idea of a monument which could use different forms and modes of engagement to recreate Maria’s aesthetics and politics – something that could be seen as an event and an experience, rather than as some empty tomb. This included creating safe spaces, and creative communities and practices around the monument.

When the project was first displayed during my Masters in Visual Arts at Ambedkar University, Delhi, I curated from four other practitioners, including two from the transgender community. In Clark House, Mumbai, I did another exhibition showcasing an archive aspect of the monument as Akkachi Shasthram. (Ammayi shastram – literally ‘the knowledge of aunts’, is a term in Kerala often used to refer to superstitions. I coined ‘Akkachi shasthram’ – knowledge of queersas a proposal for an archive of feelings and sensations. ‘Akkachi’, which means sister, is also used among trans women in some parts of Kerala.) I also exhibited and enacted this work in universities, alternative art spaces and at LGBTQI community events.

The last exhibition of the project was at the Kochi Biennale, where I curated a series of conversations and performances as part of the monument over a period of three months. I designed the exhibit as a living space for an LGBTQI person. The space housed a growing archive of books, objects, a bed, dressing table, a table for tea, and my paintings. The viewers were encouraged to sit, spend time, make a cup of tea, put on make-up, and engage with the books, pamphlets, and art works in the room.

I wanted to challenge the public to have real conversations and longer engagements rather than just giving it fleeting looks – which is usually the nature of exhibits like that.

Aleena Akasha Mittayi and Koonal Duggal speaking at the event ‘Disidentifications: Conversations on Everyday Caste and Queerness’, Kochi Muziris Biennale, March 2019. Photo courtesy Sweet Maria Monument

What was the role of the bed inside the exhibition space?                                                                       

The bed in the exhibit space vaguely resembles the bed in Sweet Maria’s house. Maria lived alone, and her doors were always open to both friends and strangers. The space where she lived functioned as a performance space, and her bedroom was a place where she would meet lovers, as well as have discussions with academics and activists. Living that way also made her vulnerable – she was murdered at her home.

When the monument was first displayed, it had a range of objects and images on a mattress, covered by a large red skirt. I invited the participants to come inside and sit on the bed with me, and then spoke to them about the work and Sweet Maria, but the discussions also moved on to other topics such as intimacy, visibility, cooking, space and death.

At the Biennale, the bed was put in a bedroom, where it worked as a resting space. Visitor’s bags could be stored under it. Some slept on it, some sat and took pictures, some read books on it and some held conversations. Some of these conversations were planned and publicised. 

What is the significance of the big, red flowing skirt?

One day Sweet Maria appeared in a dream and asked me, “What are you doing?” In a state of perplexity, I said, “What?” She repeated, “What are you doing about what we were doing?” I replied, “As such, nothing.” She argued, “It isn’t fair, you can’t rest like that.” And then she disclosed, as if it were a dream within a dream, something like this: “Put a bed to feed 5000, like I would do under my skirt.”

In the dream, her underskirt was floating. I could see no end or beginning. It was opaque. There were so many people but I can’t remember anyone in particular. I can’t recall whether they were under it or outside. I thought for years about what it meant, I still don’t completely know.

That underskirt found its way into my work. At Ambedkar University, it was 16 feet long, and 10 ft x 10 ft at the bottom. It was hanging from the ceiling over the mattress, and though the exhibition and the university space were public, this created intimacy and privacy for students for a brief time while they were under the skirt.

In Kochi, the skirt was not hung – instead, it was used as a performance dress. The skirt often changed its place. In one performance, it moved around Aspinwall House as a red figure with the howl of the dead, finally reaching Ocha (Voices), an artwork made by VV Vinu. Vinu’s wooden figures made of Cerbera odollam, known as the suicide tree, gave voice to those who have been marginalised in Kerala – migrant labourers, the queer community, as well as Dalit youth who had been attacked on suspicion of being the ‘Black man’ (what appears to be a viral hoax about a person rumoured to attack women and children at night). Using the skirt and performance, the Sweet Maria Monument could have a conversation with the spirits in Ocha.

Visitors at the Sweet Maria Monument. Photo courtesy Kochi Muziris Biennale

How do people interact with the library, and what kind of books are in it?

The library had about 150 books, across genres like sociology, queer theory, pamphlets, comics, philosophy, fiction, biography, autobiography, travelogues, poetry, catalogues, and so on. It also included LGBTQI zines as well as anti-LGBTQI writing. There was a section of Malayalam books, a few were in Hindi, and the rest were in English.

Though most books were on LGBTQI topics, there were also books by Ambedkar, books by Dalit feminists, etc. It is a personal collection put together over a period of time, but it was also curated to fit the monument.

People could spend time with the books – many came there to sit and read, and sometimes discuss them.

In what ways do you think the monument stands up to the history of trans violence in India?

The monument cannot replace the LGBTQI struggles and movements for justice. But it is a ‘monere’, a reminder, a space for reflection and maybe a space to slow down a bit and just be.

Each time it is being made by the interactions and events which take place around the monument. Chinju Aswathi, an intersex activist from Kerala, was invited as a speaker in a panel discussion at the monument called ‘Disidentifications: Conversations on Everyday Caste and Queerness’. Chinju couldn’t make it as they were attacked while accessing a public toilet and had to be hospitalised. This is an example of the everyday violence LGBTQI communities face – Maria’s story is not an isolated one.

Since the monument is not a permanent structure, it can accommodate change. This way new stories, solidarities and communities of sense emerges out of it.

What does the word ‘queer’ mean to you? And what makes the Sweet Maria monument queer?

To me, queer is a sort of movement, in flux, and never to reach a clear destination. It is something we strive for, but never reach. That is where it is different from sexual identity. Identities fix us in to categories. Queer, on the other hand, allows us to become, to disidentify, to disobey.

Obviously I cannot ignore sexuality minority communities – on one hand, ‘queer’ is an inclusive term for LGBTQI identities and practices, popularised by activists and the media. At the same time, it is also expanded to anyone who questions heteronormativity. It is so wide that it can sometimes be used to suppress differences in identities and practices. Do we avoid the term queer completely, because it has been institutionalised? Or do we rather think of what new meanings it can produce for us today? I think we need to think of ‘queer’ as the possibility of producing new meanings and new communities. It is a term which could mobilise differences, rather than sameness.

I also think that queer cannot be a permanent identifier, it cannot be an ‘inherent’ quality in a person, but one has to become queer by their practices of conducting life.

What do you hope that people feel when they visit the Sweet Maria Monument?

I hope people who visit the monument are moved by the work – that they feel drawn in and not isolated from the art experience. I wish that it creates dialogue and a change in the way we perceive and make sense of the world. Not that everyone will have to feel an identification with it, but that it could put forward questions about familiar ways of seeing and identifying things.

I hope it enables forming a different kind of community, and a connection to and appreciation of everyday aesthetics.

Where will you be showing the monument next?

I will be exhibiting some part of the monument at the Bangalore Queer Film Festival this year from 1st to 4th August.

 

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