Using art to assert their neighbourhood’s identity

Residents of a neglected Malay-Muslim locality are telling their stories through wall portraits

January 18, 2020 08:27 pm | Updated 08:29 pm IST - Colombo

Firi Rahman.

Firi Rahman.

Back in his school days, Firi Rahman, 29, used to feel embarrassed to bring his friends home. Having heard people refer to his neighbourhood as a “slum” or “a den of drug dealers”, he wasn’t sure how his friends would react. “Those of us who belonged to this area felt stigmatised,” recalls the artist, a fifth-generation resident of Slave Island in Colombo. Growing up, it bothered him that the locality, a busy commercial and trading hub in the capital, had to live with an image that hardly reflected the place and its people.

Located near some of Colombo’s most famous tourist spots — the Beira lake, Gangaramaya [Buddhist] Temple, or more recently, the Colombo City Centre — Slave Island is often considered an avoidable “suburb”, one that is associated with its narrow alleyways, congested streets and parking hassles.

Lack of awareness

Not just tourists, even locals don’t know enough about the locality, in Mr. Rahman’s view. “It’s not like we’re tucked away in some corner, this is very much at the heart of the city but still mostly invisible to those in the Colombo bubble... we are like everyone else,” he says. It was this “bubble” that pushed him to think of using his art, in his own neighbourhood, to tell its story and break the stigma that troubled him.

Teaming up with artist Vicky Shahjahan, a fellow resident, he began drawing portraits of those living in the neighbourhood on the walls lining its alleys. Parilojithan Ramanathan, an artist from Batticaloa, joined them. A place, they all agreed, is its people. They decided to call their project ‘We are from here’.

Slave Island, known as one of the oldest settlements of Malay Muslims in Sri Lanka, draws its name from the time Dutch colonists brought down slaves to Sri Lanka. The name bothers some, but not Mr. Rahman. “It is a reminder of our troubled history here. It is something we shouldn’t forget.”

A history of harmony

Today, Slave Island has a distinct, busy vibe, taking in centuries of history, cultural diversity and commercial activity and is home to several hundred families from the working class and trading community, across ethnicities. Well before “coexistence” became a buzz word in Sri Lanka, following cycles of ethnic tensions and consequent violence, Slave Island had been practising just that, although without a fancy name. “Many of our families have a mixed-ethnic lineage, you get a church, mosque, Buddhist temple and Hindu kovil here barely a few yards from each other,” says Mr. Rahman, who is comfortably tri-lingual.

Taking visitors, students and tourists on “art walks” through the neighbourhood, Mr. Rahman talks about the wall portraits — the people in them and their stories. In the bright images dominated by tones of yellow and orange, you meet residents, including a local entrepreneur, a rugby star and a dancer. The artists worked with each of their ‘subjects’, talking to them for hours, recording their stories — of growing up, of their work, beer parties and friendships. “We do a rough sketch on the ipad and show it to the person and proceed with the wall art only if they approve,” says Mr. Rahman.

The portraits stand out against backgrounds ranging from bare, brick walls to newly painted colourful ones. There are no muted yellow lights shining from above, or neat black lines framing them like in a gallery. The portraits share space with a line of faded clothes, tiny plants peeping out of the grooves in the walls and electric meters waiting to be read. A Tamil film song of Ilaiyaraja blares out from a nearby home, as does an evening prayer from the neighbourhood mosque. A woman shreds a coconut at a stall, a group of small boys are playing football and two cats are chasing each other.

The walk takes you along many alleys, across busy junctions and old shop-houses that are now facing growing pressure from developers. High-rise apartments are rapidly displacing heritage structures. Hundreds of residents have already been forced to part with their old homes and land. They obtained alternative housing only after a struggle.

“Our neighbourhood is changing every day, in front of our eyes. Through these portraits and the stories of people in them, we hope to document what is left of our area before it is bulldozed by development,” says the artist, who has so far worked with his personal funds. Wary of external funding, particularly from NGOs, he says: “We won’t have control over what they do with our work. It won’t be about our neighbourhood anymore. It won’t be our stories then.”

The author is The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent.

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