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Aqui Thami: On Feminism, Art & Dissent

Aqui Thami is an artist, scholar, founder of Sister Library and present-day revolutionary. As a migrant Indigenous woman living in Bombay, part of mainland India, Aqui transverses blood-torn borders to actively create and nurture spaces of feminist community. Esthesia Magazine spoke to Aqui about art and revolution, but also of the minutiae of political being as the only real being. We met Aqui on a Zoom call and saw her between a shelf of books and deep-coloured pieces of art, already propagating a re-imagining of our spaces, and foreshadowing topics into our conversation. On practising as an artist, she says, “My practice is centred around a D.I.Y ethic and I majorly work around public intervention and collaboration built with people interacting around that piece. Conversely, I also make a lot of spaces. My art is deeply community-based.”

On Art and Healing

The power of expression not only rests in its creation but also in an outpouring felt through its exhalation. The nature of healing that art provides is multitudinous. As we discuss this, Aqui talks vividly about her experiences and the potent connection between healing and art, “Art was a place for me to go and seek healing and find a space for myself in which I am most comfortable in. Having migrated early and being immersed in the mainland with a very different culture and having to understand different languages and experience the nation-state and all the harrowing patriarchal structures of general life, art was a way for me to express my torment. This was compounded by the fact of me being a first-generation person from my tribe to do a PhD. Only through art, I would allow myself to freely express myself. The process of making and the process of doing also enabled me to shift my pain and move into a different terrain of growth. It is always an interesting time when I’m trying to locate why I’m feeling this way and where the hurt is coming from. I try to take this feeling and emotion and work with it while also trying to turn it into something. But also, it helps to not do it in isolation and invite other people who may have similar experiences. This includes knowing that all my feelings are not felt in isolation.”

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Mahila Mandali is a women’s circle organised by Sister Library, every full moon evening to create a space of connection and healing

On her collaboration with NorBlack NorWhite

A crucial project by Aqui, which was was later adopted by NorBlack NorWhite, in the early days of 2018 and the #MeToo era — included splashes of hot pink, white shirts, posters and cotton bags with the statement, ‘A woman was harassed here’ in bold ink-stroke letters. When we asked Aqui about why the specificity of the colour hot pink was important to her, she quipped, “Hot pink demands your attention. A lot of times works of women, specifically for Indigenous women, are expected to be neat, polite and really soft-spoken, not loud by any measure. So I wanted to play with really loud colours and see how that would correspond and play out. But I also wanted to present something that was very sanitised, very academic in medical settings; rape and harassment, often filtered in black and white, now subverted in this popping hot pink. An experience that does not correspond with that colour.”

An article by Vogue India furthers the conversation about this partnership, “With a shared purpose of wanting to create a socially conscious environment that liberates the women of India, they came up with a series of T-shirts and tote bags that carry the message from the posters imprinted on them.”  Aqui also told Vogue, “This collaboration allows my work to be in spaces where the posters cannot be, addressing the same issue at its heart and dismantling it.” Additionally, Mriga Kapadiya, one of the founders of NorBlack NorWhite also talked to Vogue about the impact of this partnership with Aqui, “In supporting her, we want to raise the women that speak up and choose to change their narratives from hushed whispers to hot-pink, impossible-to-ignore truths.” The use of discomfort to convey the realities of social being, as women, as marginalised women is crucial. Aqui talks in-depth about this excavation, “One of my aims also was to create some form of discomfort and a discomforting feeling. Being subjected to a lot of harassment, till today I would often think it was my fault, because of the conditioning, but slowly, I realised your body is thought of as a public body. And there is a constant collective forgetting of these episodes. A single day doesn’t go by without thinking I might not be harassed today. I put up these posters in spaces where I was harassed and I wanted to take my power back along with bringing bystanders attention to it. It was an act that marked the space and body as a place of harassment. Consequently, male bodies are dealt with in public spaces very very differently.”

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Sister Library: A Feminist Community

Sister Library was created by Aqui in 2019 as a place where feminist art and literature by women gathered to push transformative change. The library is a place of growth, knowledge, comfort and essentially, sisterhood. It is a community-owned space with walls of bright pink and books by femme and women thinkers who by expanding their own world continue to help us expand ours. Aqui explains why she created this space, “Sister Library is a space to celebrate women and celebrate women like me who are Indigenous and marginalised.” Aqui also positions our national political climate towards minorities and Indigenous people and correlates it with the role of artists. Here, she states, “The idea of India is very dictated by Hinduism and there is no respect for artists and all opportunities are non-opportunities. We also need to situate this area with the macro-discourse of how race and the market operate to oppress our freedoms and rights.” On Sister Radio, a podcast hosted by Aqui, she converses about the state, art, Indigenous culture and caste abolition; investigates and peels away at our submerged notions of society with a powerful intricacy and thoughtfulness among conversation between various Indigenous, Black, Adivasi scholars, activists, contemporary artists and film-makers. Both Sister Library and Radio, are radical reclamations. They provide the fluidity to dream and re-imagine our structures and help us be in conversation with an intersectional feminist community and create the push for resistance that we desperately need.

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On her personal history

On Aqui’s roots, childhood in Darjeeling, and growing up as a migrant, she says, “I was weird as a kid. I started reading Russian literature at an early age and my parents had to work very very hard to put us through school. My mum had a small shop by the road where I had to go sit and give her a break because she had to buy things for the shop and come back to refill it. By shop, I also don’t mean a big fancy shop. It was literally on a set of stairs, using plastic bottles for storage. One hour after school I would be reading and at 4 o’clock I would go and sit at the shop. Childhood was a difficult space. There was vapid drug abuse and state sanctions taking place. A lot of my cousins succumbed to this and I saw them die. My parents were also activists and they were so busy not only building a life for us but also for fighting the broader fight. My house used to be like a space for other activists to meet and I remember my dad also writing poems into the wee hours of the night. There was a sense of conflict, celebration and togetherness at that time and in that space. Decolonizing and indigenising my world view, simultaneously, having survived genocidal violence, is also extremely crucial to me.”

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On Dissent, Cinema, and Literature

On dissent and revolution, Aqui talks intensely about the interconnectedness of our fabricated national ideals, “There are two kinds of dissent in India. One is the manufactured kind that you see celebrities all over the news indulging in and then you see them upholding ‘democracy’ and people are protesting. The government instantly listens to them and it is solved — this is the setting of a discourse that India wants to project onto the world and what the world wants India to be projected as. The second kind of dissent is dissent and resistance which has been happening since forever. There are tens of thousands of people killed and not even a single voice raised against the particular authorities. We also have to understand dissent from a much bigger lens, we have to see the geopolitical relationships of India with the world and what are the discourses around revolution and how does that position itself with the market.”

We asked Aqui about some of her favourite books and films. She mentions Angela Davis’s seminal text Women, Race and Class as her staple. She also mentions Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson which follows the author’s assertion of a resurgence in Indigenous culture. Aqui talks about why this book is incredibly close to her as an Indigenous woman herself living in India, “This one is important to me because it talks about women and plantation slavery and how my people and my aunts, uncles and grandmothers were also enslaved at the tea garden. We see this being celebrated in Bollywood films with tea garden women working in the background and us not questioning the type of slavery they are under. Comparing this to the experience of black women in America under cotton farm slavery and how it is extremely scorned upon there, here there isn’t a single bit of awareness. The only time I see myself reflected in the larger mainstream advertisements is when it is a celebration of slavery.”

Inspiring pieces of cinema Aqui mentions are Tracey Deer’s Beans, which explores the 1990s Oka Crisis, entailing Indigenous Mohawk people fighting for the rights of their land against the Quebec government, and the lovely animated short I like girls by Diane Obomsawin exploring a lesbian coming-of-age. Aqui gleefully talks about her deep love for animals and how this brings her joy, “I love animals and spending time with animals. I like to go out and spend time and take care of all the dogs and cats in my neighbourhood.”

You can donate and support Sister Library directly here

You can view and contact Sister Library and their resources here and buy Aqui’s art here.

You can listen to Sister Radio here.

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