Sindu Sivayogam is a freelance urban planner and visual artist based in Mississauga. She received her MSc in City Design and Social Science from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and prior to that, received her BES in Planning with a specialization in Urban Design from the University of Waterloo.
As an urban planner, she has worked on projects domestically as well as internationally in regions like Syria and South Africa. As a visual artist (Instagram: @murukku), Sindu has produced a multitude of drawings, paintings and graphic art, largely tied to her experiences as a Tamil woman, and has worked with organizations including Tamil Guardian and the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research. CTPA had the opportunity to talk with Sindu about her evolving urban planning and art career.
How did you choose a career in urban planning?
Early in highschool I considered myself an environmentalist, largely interested in the effects of climate change and how to combat it. I wanted to find a way to affect the way people lived their lives towards a goal of sustainability but I was unable to find a career or job I was interested in that could help me towards this end. By chance, during one of my Grade 12 technical drawing classes, a past student came to visit our teacher and she explained that she was an urban planning student at the University of Waterloo. She talked about the field and how it involved planning cities and neighborhoods in a way that prevented urban sprawl and protected the environment. I didn’t know anything about urban planning at the time, but the way she explained the field lit a spark in me. At the time, the perceived pathway towards becoming a “professional” in my family was limited to becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer. It took a bit of work to convince my parents that urban planning was indeed a profession I could have a future in.
I’ve now worked as an urban planner for 10 years. In this time I have been a part of impactful work locally and internationally, but have also struggled with the limitations of the industry in addressing social inequities including those that urban planning has created itself. Despite this I enjoy that the work forces me to think critically about how to address these issues, in particular within marginalized and vulnerable communities across many areas including community development, housing, transportation and the environment.
Why did you transition to freelance urban planning?
I had been working for a planning consulting firm for five years which provided me many exciting opportunities to learn, completing projects mostly in Canada. I was also afforded chances to work on international projects, including in Africa and South America, that were challenging and helped me gain a deeper perspective on the impacts of planning decisions in contexts outside of Canada. I wanted to explore this further within this firm but realized that with balancing my local work there wasn’t enough space for me to work on other projects. It became clear that I needed to create my own opportunities and that I was unwilling to wait for others to create them for me.
I eventually started looking into ways to work in Eelam, a long-delayed hope of mine to live, contribute and experience where my family is from for the first time. I ended up applying and being awarded a placement in the LankaCorps Fellowship from The Asia Foundation. Through the fellowship, I worked as a Senior Program Officer (Spatial Planning, Data Mapping and Visualisation) with the Asia Foundation based in Colombo, while also travelling and working in all nine provinces. It felt like a bit of a gamble to leave my stable job and move halfway across the world, but in the end it all worked out. I ended up staying for one and a half years, and for the first time it felt like I was making decisions for myself.
When I came back to Canada, I wasn’t interested in returning to a normal “nine to five” job. I began doing some freelance work and got a taste for it, before heading to London for my graduate studies. After completing my master degree, I decided to focus on cultivating a small business as a freelancer, partly because I enjoyed being in control of what I do.
Could you talk about how you got started in visual art?
We have these inherent talents as children, but growing up in a Tamil household, they tend to get stamped out of us by the time we get to school. As a young kid, I had a talent for drawing but I never really cultivated it. By the time I started working, art was no longer a part of my life like it once was, since I was focused on succeeding at my job.
When I lived in Colombo, the people that I lived with were so incredibly talented; they were singers, artists, and writers. We turned into an artists collective of sorts, and they would encourage me to draw more and express myself creatively. Their artistic mood was infectious, capturing me as well, and this mood became the theme of my experiences with these wonderful artists and friends.
At that time, I was becoming involved with friends who were working in the activism space in Sri Lanka. Often I wanted to speak out openly with others about the ongoing injustices happening in the country, but was limited in my ability to do so safely. I found that creating art was my escape and a place I could express myself freely. Even after I would speak with close friends, there was still an emotional residue. I found making art helped me process emotions and remove this residue. I began to share some of these pieces on my private Instagram including more political art, featuring commentaries and calls to action, reflecting the emotions I was feeling at the time.
After I left Colombo, I felt more comfortable making my Instagram public: that’s when things started to change. I posted a drawing called “Loss of a Mother Tongue” about my own experiences with not speaking Tamil well enough and Tamil language erasure. The engagement on it was overwhelming where I received many personal DMs. I realized people connected to what I was creating and saw themselves in it; it kept happening again and again. It’s a wonderful feeling to know you’re not alone. I found that if I put my art out there that was true to me or my experiences, there would be people out there that would connect with it.
How does your identity shape your art?
My relationship to my identity as a Tamil woman is always evolving and changing, but I think my experiences as a Tamil woman fuels my art quite a bit. My drawing “Ms Migrant” of a Tamil superheroine was based on a sketch I drew after a friend and I received verbal abuse from some men one night in Colombo. I have another one called “In Protest” which I drew after reading an article in the newspaper, about students in Jaffna protesting injustice. The article showed these young women with fists in the air, and that filled me with strength.
Art is a way for me to either let go of emotions or process them. Sometimes, if I can’t afford to be sad in a particular moment, I paint it out of me so I can move forward. Other times I use it to help me understand an experience I’ve had.
I just had a piece come out with the University of Connecticut about what Tamilness means to me as part of their Ninaivu: Tamil Memory Archive. Personally, it’s hard to find specific words to describe an experience or my identity, and I find visual art, such as this piece, does a better job.
I also create artwork for organizations like 47 Roots, Adayaalam and Tamil Guardian. I try to be of service as much as I can. Working with these organizations, whose work I respect, is a way I can give back to our community even in some small way.
Could you talk about some of your experiences with freelancing urban planning and freelance artistry?
I decided to officially start my freelance urban planning and visual art business in 2020. I was unofficially selling art and doing freelance planning work before then, but officially set up my sole proprietorship in January of last year. Navigating a small business is hard: you are your own HR, marketing and accounting department. You have to tell yourself to take breaks and tell yourself to keep working. I did however have the benefit of working in the formal urban planning space for quite some time, which afforded me a network in which I could reach out to for potential opportunities.
One of my first projects was with UN Habitat in Syria, prior to the pandemic. I was able to travel and work with an incredible and motivated team. The destruction and displacement faced by those in Syria made me reflect on the decades-long impact of war back home. Myself and the team connected immediately on the shared understanding of these impacts and the importance of successfully completing our work. I am grateful that as an independent urban planner I was able to be a part of this work on my own terms.
When it came to art, I didn’t realize how much it could be a part of my business, until it supported me during the start of the pandemic when planning work briefly dropped off. When the pandemic began, I closed my online art store. When I reopened it, there was a significant number of people who supported me and bought prints. The increased demand allowed me to see how I could incorporate art into my business to support myself.
One of the greatest gifts of all of this is that I have options. I’m allowed to say no and I can choose to focus on the projects I’m excited about whether urban planning or art. It’s still an ongoing process, but I understand that if I want to build something for myself that it’s not going to happen overnight, and I have to continue to put in the work and open up my network.
Do you have any advice to those interested in adjusting their career path?
Listen to your gut and be brave with the choices you make. Easier said than done, I know. It took me a long time to push myself to the point I am at now. I think it’s totally fine to get the job which makes you that money; do what you need to survive. If you feel that there’s an opportunity for something better or different that you want to go for and you feel the inclination, just try. It’s never too late to try.
Developing a network is also very important. Whether it’s freelance urban planning or art or anything else, it’s important to be in communication with others. You want to always be on someone’s radar so that when an opportunity comes along they think of you first. One thing I miss amidst this pandemic, is the opportunity to network and make connections in person, but that will hopefully be permitted again in time.
Work on putting yourself out there. I was afraid to join spaces and step out of my comfort zone out of fear of judgment and being rejected, within Tamil spaces especially. As I got older I developed a better sense of myself, and felt more comfortable in these spaces and striking up conversations without those fears. I’m so glad this change happened. I have now cultivated a community of Tamil people and women in particular who I support and support me personally and professionally. This network of support and trust feels like a warm blanket around me especially in times of self-doubt.
Interviewed and written by Fredrick Martyn