Photos courtesy of Saskia Fernando Gallery

Firi Rahman grew up with parrots so he is familiar with their looks and understands their habits. On a visit to Paris, it seemed as if the parrots from Colombo had followed him there – migrants to a foreign land, making unfamiliar sounds while racing across the landscape looking for another home. The Parisian parrots adapted to their new environment but as they multiplied, they are seen as invasive and a threat to local fauna. The parrots are much like people who have been forced to flee their loved but now hostile homes for safer places in which to have a better life.

In his latest exhibition at the Saskia Fernando Gallery, Swept Away Like Leaves, Firi portrays parrots drawn in shades of grey, deliberately devoid of colour; some are in cages while others fly free in one continuous arc. The birds are enclosed in wooden bars where some of them are missing while others are without wings or limbs.

Firi’s own home in Slave Island is under threat from gentrification and big business which is taking over homes and demolishing them to build corporate eyesores on the valuable land. In a bid to preserve and document the surroundings and the lives of the few remaining residents, Firi and a group of artists founded the We Are From Here project.

Taking its name from a verse in Agha Shahid Ali’s A Country Without A Post Office, a poem that echoes the sentiments of loss and longing for a place that exists only in memory, Swept Away Like Leaves explores ideas of being and belonging. It is a commentary on experiences of refugees and migrants who exist in an ambiguous and uprooted zone of belonging and non-belonging as they try to comprehend the meaning of home.

What is it you are trying to convey through this exhibition?

I am relaying my personal stories through my work. I was a temporary migrant. It was difficult to get a visa and leaving airport was depressing. Now everybody is forced to migrate because of the situation in the country. The birds in Paris are exiled from their country. They were seen as exotic but are now invasive just as plants introduced here from other places are considered invasive. I am a descendant of Malays from Indonesia and from Indians so I can’t say where I belong or where home is. My family is all abroad and they keep telling me to come and join them but this is where my home is now and where my work is so I don’t want to leave. Everything I love is here. I am not a writer so I can’t express my feelings through words but I do it through my art.

What do the parrots represent?

I grew up with parrots. I saw parrots when I went to Paris. The cages represent home. Some birds are missing because they have left. Some of the missing birds signify the passing of loved ones. There are groups of friends leaving the country and leaving their families behind. Each bird is slowly leaving, selling properties and leaving their roots and loved ones and cutting ties with home. Their lives are in suitcases. The journey is long; the parrots are flying together but some don’t make it to their destination. They are like people who have dreams but those dreams have been broken.

How is the project in Slave Island progressing?

I am still living in Slave Island. The project stopped for a while but programmes and presentations are being done and it will be started again soon. They recently begun the highway project again so the community has broken up. Many people have rented their homes to construction workers and gone away.

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