ShivaaniSelvarajShivaani Selvaraj

Shivaani Selvaraj is an organizer, educator, and artist, currently living in Philadelphia. The belief that movements begin with the telling of untold stories has been the foundation of her work for over a decade. She curates performances and screenings by people of color artists, produces multi-media projects, documents human rights violations in the United States, and organizes individuals and organizations to engage in a battle of images to end poverty. Shivaani organized events and exhibits in the early days of the Asian Arts Initiative and brought with her innovation, flair, and laughter.
Photo Credit: Shanti Thakur (still taken from Shanti Thakur's Seven Hours to Burn)

What is your connection to the Asian Arts Initiative?

Philly has been home. I think it's kept me because I've really been able to find a home and a voice here. And the Asian Arts Initiative I think was part of that at a certain point. But also other things as well. I got involved first, actually, in work around poverty issues. And I think even before AAI I was involved with artists and journalists and media-makers who were part of articulating the fact that we're the richest country in the world and that we have the most-well not the most-but there is significant poverty here. And many people do not understand that: here as well as across the world. And so there were at least a couple of formative experiences that I had with them. One was coordinating a national conference called Break the Media Blackout, actually, when I was still in college. And that was very formative-even the work that I do now kind of stems from that time period. Then when I graduated from college, working at AAI was my first job. So I remember being really scared, "oh, my first real job."

What was great about my experience here was the range of people that I got to have the pleasure to bring and showcase at the Asian Arts Initiative. Just in a number of different ways: the diversity in terms of where in Asia they come from, their artistic medium, and the ways that they express themselves-you know, the full range. And AAI was committed to showing a lot of that. And I would say that this is a very transformative and political thing to get to tell your story. I think where pieces did get to articulate oppression and articulate the complicated dynamics within our communities-because there's no other place to articulate that-I think that those were particularly important to me. There were a number of different artists doing that and I especially remember them fondly because of the courage that those artists really brought to saying things that are taboo in their communities.

How did you get involved with community arts work?

A couple of years ago, I co-founded an organization called Media Mobilizing Project, which is now actually becoming a nonprofit. And it's actually using media and new communications technology as a way to help groups that are fighting poverty and doing worker rights organizing help them strengthen their campaigns. I mean-in a lot of ways, this theme of artistic expression and use of media is consistent throughout my life because we're really using people telling their stories as a way to break the isolation of different communities. And I think my work is more politicized in a lot of ways than when I was here at AAI because it's more structured around fighting for specific gains. But I'm also trying to use (or we are trying to use) media as a way to help people also think beyond their single issues and beyond their communities and build more of a bridge amongst different communities. And then move from fragmented struggles within a city to more of a movement for the city, if that makes sense. So really, a lot of the work I do is getting together taxi workers, hotel workers, neighborhood associations that are fighting gentrification- all these different groups into the same room. And they're from all kinds of racial backgrounds, but they all have this economic struggle in common. And it's a very unique space to have that kind of grouping because they never come together actually. And so they are naming their oppression in a new way now.

Why do you believe that art is important?

I think that it's just true that you can express things through art in a way that you can't just through talking about it . . . there are just different forms of expression that touch you and move you in ways that are much more powerful and just get straight to the heart of the matter. And so that's the significance of art. And in being able to also build community and-depending on how artistic projects are carried out-the process can be a transformative experience where people get to work with each other and get to know each other in deep and profound ways. And all of that builds community and voices something that was unsaid before. To be honest I have a love/hate feeling about art and artists and I don't know if other people have talked about that, but one thing that I actually love about the early years of Asian Arts Initiative is that it was really important for us to have this idea in the organization that everybody can express themselves. And you don't have to be Artists with a capital A. That really everybody can be creative. And this idea of the "Artist" is not necessarily an important one.

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