All photos courtesy of Amalini De Sayrah and the We Are From Here project.
All photos courtesy of Amalini De Sayrah and the We Are From Here project.

Reclaiming space through art

How a group from Colombo resists gentrification through art, archiving and activism.

Amalini De Sayrah researches and writes on human rights issues, and is based in Colombo.

A row of shop fronts on Malay Street sit abandoned and quiet. Some bear a flimsy notice of relocation and a contact number tied to the door handles. Others, their facades torn down, gape like empty faces at the busy street. It is the first week of March 2020, and the demolition is fresh. Turning the next corner: a newly-laid road, towers rising to the sky and the noise of machines fill the air. Some of the towers are parts of a luxury-lifestyle development project. The others – already completed – are tall blocks of small apartments allocated to the citizens whose homes were razed to make that project possible.
Firi Rahman, Vicky Shahjahan and Parilojithan Ramanathan, the founders of the We Are From Here project, head into a newly-constructed high-rise building allocated to the locals of Colombo's Slave Island, their footsteps echoing in the long empty corridors. The project, conceived to combat the stereotypical renditions of Slave Island and the oversimplification of lived-experiences of its community, aims to write the true stories and histories of their community through art and archiving. The elevator takes too long, so the three bound up the stairs to a terrace on the third floor, where a resident has set up a small shop that sells tea, baabath and pasthol.
High-rise apartments allocated for the evicted residents.
High-rise apartments allocated for the evicted residents.
A 'world-class' city
As the shop owner prepares tea, the three take in the view from the terrace. The view consists of the glass and concrete facades of several lifestyle and luxury properties, including multi-purpose spaces for malls, residences, and corporate office space. Next to these, there remains some bare land on Glennie Street, the rubble of colourful houses torn to the ground in 2010 now cleared away by heavy machinery. Many residents evicted from these houses in 2013 were allocated apartments in high-rise buildings, such as the one the three are visiting now. Others were relocated to Dematagoda, around six kilometres from Slave Island.
The Slave Island Redevelopment Project and the Urban Regeneration Project in Colombo were part of then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa's post-war 'Mahinda Chinthana' manifesto that included the transformation of Colombo into a 'world-class city' through rapid 'beautification'. The Project gained momentum when the implementing body, the Urban Development Authority (UDA), was brought under the purview of the Ministry of Defence – and therefore, under Rajapaksa's brother, Gotabaya, the current president. The military, acting through the UDA, oversaw the widespread eviction of urban poor and working-class communities that laid the foundation for these projects. The razing of the homes then followed to free up what was termed 'under-utilised' land for upscale development projects.

We know so many who have been denied jobs, marriage proposals and even gym memberships because people have an idea about Slave Island that isn't true.

The eviction and relocation processes followed by the UDA were not fully transparent and riddled with misinformation and misinterpretations. What the UDA defined as 'shanties' were houses with two floors or more, painstakingly improved over the years, painted and furnished to the residents' taste, with small green plants taking over the front steps, and birds visiting the balconies that overlooked each other. The high-rise apartments to which they were relocated are a far cry from the luxury apartment complexes being built on the debris of their homes. The alien environment of the high-rise has resulted in the disruption of livelihood and community, in addition to problems with utilities and the lack of space. As one apartment was allocated for one house, as opposed to one apartment per family, extended families that shared a home comfortably now find themselves packed into a small living area. Some of these apartments were not ready for nearly four to six years after the eviction, forcing families to live in rented properties for that period.
There is a common misconception that the apartments were simply 'given' free of charge to residents evicted as part of new development projects around Colombo. In reality, residents were asked to pay the UDA up to LKR 1 million (USD 5,063) for an apartment, in instalments spanning over 20 to 30 years. However, the residents evicted from Slave Island initiated a legal battle, filing fundamental-rights petitions in the Supreme Court. The Court's eventual decision saw that they would receive their new apartments for free and would be granted rent payment for the period of construction.
The juxtaposition between the old and the new.
The juxtaposition between the old and the new.
Battling stereotypes
The tea is ready, and the three sit down to chat on the terrace, where the whirr of heavy construction machinery is a constant in the background, and there is always a crane operator within one's field of vision. "We know so many who have been denied jobs, marriage proposals and even gym memberships because people have an idea about Slave Island that isn't true," says Firi. Growing up, Firi listened to people assume things about him and his family solely because of where he lived. Slave Island, or Kompannaveediya, has a 'reputation', he says, "in school, they will call you a rasthiyadu kaaraya who lives in a mudukkuwa; (ruffians who live in slums), if you say you're from Slave Island." He still hears these stereotypes to this day.

The purpose of the murals were twofold – for the residents to take control of the narrative about their homes, and for visitors to meaningfully interact with residents as they explored this narrative.

Moreover, he recalls the many occasions on which upper-class Colombo residents, or representatives of corporate giants, have essentially 'talked down' to the people of his neighbourhood. Residents are seen belonging to an uneducated community and needing to be 'helped' through ill-informed lectures, or superficial corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects. These short-term programmes leave no lasting impact on the community. "They don't see people from Slave Island as being 'people', who might have something to offer," he reflects. Vicky, who grew up a lane away from Firi, was asked; 'how did you survive?' by her classmates, implying that she was unsafe in her own home.
Lojithan, on the other hand, brings a key perspective to the We Are From Here project; not having grown up in Slave Island, he sometimes catches details that Firi and Vicky might miss. They recall a particular instance when Lojithan noticed how the local Buddhist temple would reduce the volume on the gatha playing from its speakers when the mosque nearby began the azaan, and vice versa. "Having lived in Batticaloa, I didn't know about Slave Island and all the stereotypes surrounding it. I learned about the place through the people we spoke to for our murals, so I know the place as it truly is," Lojithan says.
Exhibiting Slave Island
Slave Island is a puzzle of diverse histories and trades. Industries and services on which the city of Colombo relies for some of its key activities are made possible by the residents of Slave Island. Hotels, hospitals and several households around the city rely on the dhobis, a community of laundry workers who wash and dry the linen and bedding of these properties. The famed street food at Galle Face, a public promenade facing the Indian Ocean, originates in Slave Island; vendors pull their carts filled with homemade snacks two kilometres to the promenade every afternoon, and back home in the dark of the night.
In the last decade, Slave Island has also been treated as a site for art and street photography. Several curators and galleries have held events in the neighbourhood, but Firi and Vicky often felt these events used the community as a backdrop, not as a focal point. Predominantly upper-class Colombo attendees to these events would walk around the neighbourhood, taking photos of residents without their consent and without ever interacting with them. Firi also recalls how many people visited Slave Island on photo walks. "These allowed people who were hesitant about this area to explore sites such as the Castle Hotel, that they might not have ever come to otherwise," he says. The Castle Hotel was popular among Slave Island's working-class population, especially for its bar, and has since been demolished, an office built in its place. However, Firi adds that few of these visitors stopped to actually speak and get to know the people and area they were photographing.
Firi and Vicky's own documentation of Slave Island began in the art mediums they know best. Soon, they had neighbours bringing them cut-outs from newspapers that had featured their work. The people were both proud and surprised that someone from the area could not only create artwork of their home but gain recognition too. "It was so interesting for us – people would look at the picture I had drawn, then they'd recognise the person in it, and want to show it to them too," Firi says, "it made me realise how much they appreciated being drawn by someone they knew."
Recently demolished houses.
Recently demolished houses.
Resistance on the walls
The project's first piece of work comprised a series of murals in unsuspecting corners along the streets of Slave Island. Their purpose was twofold – for the residents to take control of the narrative about their homes, and for visitors to meaningfully interact with residents as they explored this narrative. The art then is physically situated in the place that it is coming from, so that those living around it, whose faces are captured in it, can see the murals on a daily basis.

The eviction and relocation processes followed by the UDA were not fully transparent and riddled with misinformation and misinterpretations.

The first mural was that of a gentleman fondly known as Milan Uncle. His manioc-chip stall is a fixture in the evenings, with residents coming by to pick up paper bags filled with wafer-thin crisps, or chunky wedges, all covered in chilli salt. Fluent in Sinhala, Tamil, English and his mother-tongue Malay, Milan laments the cultural changes in Slave Island alongside the physical ones. The gradual disappearance of Malay from the next generation worries him as much as the development erasing their community from sight. His face adorns the wall close to his stall, and this proximity looks to facilitate conversations about the project. In that way, the project fulfils a secondary purpose of drawing customers to small businesses in Slave Island.
Down the slight curve of Vellons Passage that runs alongside the restaurant once named 'Burgers King', is a portrait of Bhagya. A glance upward from these small lanes brings into view the Nelum Kuluna, or Lotus Tower. Now a fixture on the city's skyline, it has a knack for appearing in strange juxtapositions such as this, towering over the small homes whose residents say have also been surveyed for demolition. Bhagya identifies as androgynous and has lived in Slave Island all her life. Vicky, who also identifies as androgynous, is featured in a mural too, close to another mural that she herself drew on a small lane in Slave Island. She recalls how she and Bhagya are often confronted with questions about their safety, living in Slave Island 'with their gender', but how they both experience a very different reality. "Outside of this area, we are afraid to walk alone at night. But in these streets, everyone knows everyone else, and there is a sense of safety, so we have no fear here."
Murals of local residents are painted on the streets of Slave Island.
Murals of local residents are painted on the streets of Slave Island.
Taking control of the narrative
The three founders of We Are From Here are now undertaking a documentation and archiving process that extends beyond the murals they have painted on the Slave Island walls. With the ongoing rapid development in the area, they face the very real possibility that those walls might not be standing a few years from now. A few days after this conversation, in March 2020, bulldozers from the UDA tore down a stretch of houses in Slave Island. According to what the group has heard, a small apartment block nearby is also set for demolition. "The UDA has been measuring our houses, surveying the land over the last few months", says Vicky. The officers spray the house with a number to indicate it has been surveyed, count the number of families in it, have the residents fill a form with all their information, and ask to check electricity bills. "We anticipate that very soon, we will also be told that we have to leave."
The team has been painstakingly recording these instances of demolition, including a spate close to Firi's home before the first COVID-19 curfew was put in place. He says that the one-month eviction notice given is inadequate for most residents. "They are sometimes not given the key to the new apartment, so don't have time to properly move their belongings," he says, recalling the amount of belongings left behind at the vacated homes. Most of these cannot be traced back to their owners, but the team are photographing them all, for a larger archiving purpose. "Most of the older people have lived here for generations, or since they were little children," Lojithan says, "their whole lives, businesses and relationships are based here." To be asked to leave on such short notice, then, is extremely difficult for the residents, even more so because many are unfamiliar with the area to which they are being relocated.

Now a fixture on the city's skyline, the Lotus Tower has a knack for appearing in strange juxtapositions.

Firi, Vicky and Lojithan have plans for the We Are From Here project that would ideally culminate in both digital and physical repositories of the knowledge, history and culture deeply embedded in the residents of Slave Island. Physical, so that it can remain with the people that it is about, whether in the form of a mural or a book. Digital, to tell stories beyond what is known and assumed about Slave Island by outsiders. They carry out the work of documentation like it was second nature to them, but the future plans for a more sustainable archive hinge on the funds they can raise.
From the height of the terrace, the sound of a train can be heard, a busy commuter line pulling into the Slave Island railway station. Firi notes that several small houses that lined the railway track have recently been demolished, for the ever-expanding development project that runs parallel to it. All the new towers dwarf the Masjidul Jamiah mosque on Java Lane, a 150-year-old place of worship. Prayers begin to ring out from the mosque, and from several others in the vicinity, overlapping with the hymns sounding out from the Infant Jesus Church, a symphony of sound, and a reminder of this diverse and complex area, as the sky darkens.
As a tractor parks itself in the bare space facing this high-rise, Firi points out that it is likely a luxury condominium will be built there soon. He laughs, noting that the  luxury apartments will directly face the apartments given to the evicted citizens – "two high-rises, two entirely different groups of residents, worlds apart."
A relocation notice in Sinhala, Tamil and English.
A relocation notice in Sinhala, Tamil and English.
Race against time
Just weeks after this conversation, an islandwide curfew to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic was put in place. This pushed the team to reschedule the plans they had for the project, so much of which is reliant on face-to-face meetings and long conversations.
Through a series titled 'Until Tomorrow', they captured the unfolding situation in Slave Island through video and audio recordings. The videos also featured in the 'Held Apart, Together' series curated by Colomboscope, a contemporary arts festival and multidisciplinary creative platform based in the city. Calls from families struggling to cross provinces to reunite. Friends texting each other for help as one stands in the long queue for the supermarket that day. Voice notes from people concerned that their relatives are unable to access supplies. A bustling street economy reduced to a few mask sellers, bread sellers and closed shops. A woman writes letters to a government official on the subject of delayed compensation. Lights, flags and interactions across communities in the neighbourhood for Ramazan and Vesak celebrations. The community watches the Lotus Tower turn red in honour of the country's health workers, as their daily lives remain in limbo.

Fluent in Sinhala, Tamil, English and his mother-tongue Malay, Milan laments the cultural changes in Slave Island alongside the physical ones.

During the second wave of the pandemic in the country, restrictions on movement are specifically imposed on what are identified as high-risk areas. However, curfew and isolation in Slave Island do not look the same as they do for the upper-class parts of Colombo that encircle it. Military officials, armed and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), patrol the small streets, where barricades have been set up at intervals. Military buses are parked nearby, ready to whisk people off to quarantine, but primarily to intimidate. Delivery men are allowed up to the barricades, and elderly folks who do not know how to order online are left depending on the generosity of their neighbours for food.
Firi, Lojithan and Vicky watch as the race for development and misguided perceptions slowly chip away at the soul of the Slave Island that forms such an integral part of their identities. They know deeply the faces, the voices and lives that give the neighbourhood its value, something that eludes real estate developers and government administrators. It only gives more purpose to the work they have planned, and more resolve to put on record a place that all others seek to erase.
"We anticipate that very soon, we will also be told that we have to leave."
"We anticipate that very soon, we will also be told that we have to leave."
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