In the heart of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, surrounded by Beira Lake and directly south of the Central Business District, lies the ominous-sounding neighbourhood of Slave Island. It gained its name by serving as a prison, mostly for African slaves that were brought in under British rule during the colonial era. But in the decades since the country decolonised in 1948, Slave Island has become more associated with drugs and prostitution.
To artist Firi Rahman, Slave Island is home. He recalled stories his grandmother told him of gang wars, laundry communities that once worked in the now-polluted lake, and a cinema being torched by a mob in the 80s. However, he admitted that he doesn’t know much else about the area’s history even though he grew up there.
“There are dungeons that are now renovated into different beautiful buildings. That was where they kept the slaves. There were also old places where [slaves] used to bathe, like tiny little blocks of water. It’s not there anymore,” he told VICE. “I used to go there, not knowing the history about it.”
In 2015, Firi and fellow artist Vicky Shahjahan began thinking about a project for Slave Island that would benefit the community. They came up with the We Are From Here project, which has them painting mural portraits of Slave Island residents, with the hope that they would encourage people to ask about the subjects, and engage with the community more.
“We have these drawings right next to where [the subject] has their business or right next to their home. So when you see the artwork, and you ask 'who is that person?’ you could be introduced to that person right away,” Firi said. “That breaks the barrier.”
They also decided to draw the murals in Slave Island’s alleys and organise walking tours for anyone who wants to learn more about their neighbourhood. Last year, they held more than 50 walking tours for groups of six to 40 people.
“We draw [the murals] in the alleys because Slave Island is full of small little alleys that connect to different areas and roads. [People] think these alleys are where drug dealings and prostitution are found,” Firi said. “It’s not true at all.”
In a country that is majority Sinhalese-Buddhist, Slave Island is known for its mix of Sinhalese, Malay, and Tamil cultures. The diversity is reflected in the artists at the helm of the We Are From Here project. Firi himself is Muslim and half Malay-half Moor, while Vicky shares both Hindu Tamil and Muslim parentage. Their third partner Parilojithan Ram is Hindu Tamil.
But these days, for Firi, the project is no longer only about changing the perception people have of his community. He said it’s about archiving its heritage and keeping it from being forgotten. That’s because over the last few years, the neighbourhood has been facing a different problem altogether — gentrification.
“The government [thinks] this place is a valuable spot where they can have more commercial buildings. So they’re trying to get land from people — forcefully,” Firi said. “People had to move from their traditional homes, somewhere far away, where they don’t want to go.”
Slave Island is situated south of Colombo’s business district and also has a train station that bridges places like the Pettah area and Colombo 07, a constituent of the city that is home to celebrities and politicians. Slave Island is also very close to Port City, a Chinese-led property development project built on reclaimed land. That has made it prime real estate that the government wants to invest in.
“I heard there are so many people who would love to move here but it is impossible to get a house here,” Firi said. “It is too expensive now. There are so many evictions now. People are trying to hold on to their deeds.”
Looking at every direction in Slave Island, it is not uncommon to see old low-rise buildings with newer high-rise ones being built just behind it.
Firi said entire communities are being uprooted in Slave Island, while colonial-era buildings are completely destroyed. He fears that he might not be living in Slave Island in five years because his house could be completely gone by then.
“I’m trying to make an archive so that people can know this area better,” Firi said. “My murals will be completely demolished, I’m sure about it. My work will not be there permanently or save this place. But we just want to talk about [this place].”
So far, the artists have ten murals between them. Firi said that they’re planning for the second phase, which will include even more artists, some of whom will hopefully be women. He attributed the lack of female artists to Sri Lanka’s conservative society. But Vicky is no stranger to the minority, identifying also as androgynous.
“I’m fighting a different challenge here, it’s not easy being androgynous as well. But it’s how I deal with it. With courage. I’m ready to face whatever you’re throwing at me. I needed to prove that I’m capable of this, as an artist,” she said.
Vicky started as a henna artist, which is traditionally associated with women. Muslims and Hindus celebrate a lot of festivals with henna.
“It began here, people started accepting me for who I was. Not many women would be comfortable to come and give their hands to me. But now they see me as a woman, they don’t find me strange. There is a feminine energy they connect with.”
Vicky said she faces discrimination outside of Slave Island but feels safe in her neighbourhood. In Slave Island, people don’t know her for her gender, but for her art.
“Here, Vicky can just walk in the street, late in the night. People check to see if she’s okay,” Firi said. “It’s because they are used to it,” Vicky added.
Firi and Vicky hope to expand their artistic expression, using the more traditional henna to attract female artists.
“There was a time when they didn’t see art as a valuable profession. But now that they see students [and] journalists coming to us, people are realising what we can achieve through [art],” Vicky said. “It’s more than just scribbles. It’s a message.”