Feminism, in its modern incarnation, is a loaded word to say the very least- just ask artivist, dreamer, and feminist, Aqui Thami. Blending personal creative expression with community-building initiatives, Aqui’s art and unique breed of activism are the driving force behind the Dharavi Art Room, an initiative that aims to empower women and children in Mumbai’s Dharavi through the medium of art, Bombay Underground, an independent publishing outfit for social change, and the much-beloved Sister Library, the focus of Gucci and MiXTE Magazine’s mini docu-series, The Indian Artivist. A community-owned, community-run, feminist library, the Sister Library is a safe space for the celebration of women and womanhood.
“I don’t think of art and activism as different categories, art is activism, and cannot be something that is not political, that does not inspire change,” Aqui says, “activism doesn’t always mean shouting on the streets. For me, it’s been majorly about healing, and making spaces for healing and for community, and reshaping and rethinking communities. It’s about doing things together.”
Born of the Thangmi people of the Himalayas, Aqui’s personal brand of artivism stems from her cultural roots and her childhood experiences of growing up with activist parents. “Being an indigenous person in the world today- just existing is an act of defiance,” Aqui says.
With the Western media’s nuclear, suburban ideals becoming a defining template of a ‘normal’ family, a young Aqui yearned for a life that was less extraordinary.
“I wanted to go on holidays with my parents, which- because I was in a very different social reality- I never had that kind of life.” Aqui explains, “We would always have too many people in our house, people making posters, planning marches and rallies and occupations, it was a house which was always full of thinkers, poets and artists, and theatre practitioners- It was the best thing because I was always brought a lot of books and nice things to look at and read- but at the same time, it was an intense childhood.”
Growing up in a close-knit community of artists, performers, and thinkers, Aqui explains that art and activism were central to her upbringing, as to most with an indigenous worldview. From state-sanctioned violence to military occupation, brute force and armed violence, the matriarchal figures of Aqui’s early years resisted and thrived, extending their message of love and compassion to anyone that would hear it, and moulding the young artivist’s perception for years to come.
Migrating at a young age, Aqui had to learn the ways and norms of life on the mainland the hard way, struggling to adapt to a foreign language in a culture that was not her own, with no tangible support system beside her art, and her books.
°THE SISTER LIBRARY
Working with Bombay Underground on a number of interventions around the city about 6 years ago, Aqui found herself overwhelmed by an underlying, unspoken sense of apprehension toward female authors amongst peers.
“Nobody was taking works of women seriously,” she says, “I was tired of the responses that people had when I asked them to read books that were written by women, it was demotivating to me, as a maker,”
A vehicle for change in and of herself, Aqui began exclusively reading female-authored novels and zines, amassing a sizeable collection of self-curated feminist literature. As her collection grew, Aqui was overcome with the desire to share her passion and founded the Reading Women Book Club with a few like-minded individuals. As this pet-project grew, taking on the form of successful art exhibitions inspired by the books read at the club, Aqui felt a desperate need for an initiative of this kind and was motivated to build a travelling library of feminist literature.
“I see myself as a practising feminist.” Aqui says, “Feminism is a social movement for the liberation of women from patriarchal structures, and these structures are very many, religion, caste, capitalism, there are so many different patriarchal structures that we participate in, and to me, feminism is the process of liberating oneself from oneself, and the community, from these structures.”
The recipient of a grant given to emerging artists as part of the Inlaks Shivdasani Fine Art Award for the year 2018, Aqui used her prize money to travel across the nation with her books in tow, curating special collections for each city she visited, based on her personal experiences with violence and discrimination in the areas.
The travelling Sister Library was met with warm welcomes across the nation, with women across various socioeconomic backgrounds coming together to build a community, with foundations set in the loving embrace of a collective sisterhood. From reading sessions to open mics, and from film screenings and discussions, the Sister Library boasted more than just a collection of books, becoming a symbol of unity for women across the nation. Soon enough, Aqui’s inboxes were flooded with enquiries from others who wanted to be involved with the initiative, who hadn’t been able to visit the library in their cities, and who longed for the opportunity to do so.
With the demand for a permanent space growing by the day, Aqui dreamed of an enduring, physical Sister Library, a safe space for people of all genders, races, socio-economic backgrounds and cultures to come together in celebration of womanhood. Crowdfunding a campaign, Aqui managed to accumulate enough monies for a year’s worth of rent, and the Mumbai-based Sister Library was finally a reality. However, uncertainty still lingered upon the horizon.
A symbol of endurance through discrimination and prejudice, the subtleties and politics of the space soon encroached upon its very survival. Working in community-building initiatives for a majority of her life, Aqui faced multiple instances of being evicted or harassed, due to her background and her narratives of fearless self-expression and inclusivity.
“A lot of the people who visit these spaces are people who look like they are not from economically well-off families. They don’t come with their gaaris, they are dark-skinned, wearing clothes that normal people wear- not big brand names,” Aqui explains, “When housing societies see people like this coming in, we are asked to immediately move, citing the security of the neighbourhood, and the welfare of the residents,”
The inherent fear of the term ‘Feminist’ in modern times brings with it negative connotations of a culture of difficult, loud-mouthed women who live their lives against the grain- A common point of disagreement between the Library and the residents of the area within which it functions, who remain convinced the space would be used for the purposes of raves and illicit substance abuse, amongst other things. A space meant for the enrichment of both communities and society as a whole, the Sister Library also faced backlash from those who took offence to the title of ‘Sister’, claiming the space was exclusionary of other genders and orientations.
This pitting of one social cause against another has been one of the defining factors of modern-day activism, with armchair activists on both sides disregarding the desperate need for polite and intellectual discourse, in exchange for half-baked rhetoric and hate-speech, an unfortunate reality that is exemplified by the global trend of internet cancel-culture, with victims becoming ostracised and alienated from the discourse.
While her efforts towards the liberation and celebration of women have made her the target of a number of smear campaigns and personal attacks, the Sister Library has taken on the form of a place of pilgrimage for so many, who travel from around the world to visit the hallowed ground.
When asked about the biggest challenge she believes Indian women face, Aqui paints a picture of women on local train platforms, clutching their purses to their breast of fear they will be mugged, and of women wearing scarves over their faces to avoid identification, or having their picture taken without consent. She tells of instances where, after working in the slums of Dharavi for days on end, she would be denied entry into establishments where meetings were to be held, for the state of her clothes, or for the air of otherness her dark skin would betray. She speaks of the inherent prejudice of bathrooms around cities, and how travelling women must chart a route, keeping in mind access to sanitary facilities, some of which may turn them away for their language, their appearance, their perceived socio-economic background, or for the colour of their skin.
“These added rituals that you practice every day so that you will be safe- it takes so much energy to be doing these things, just so that you don’t get harassed or followed, so you don’t have your picture taken- this has to stop, women should not have to do these mental gymnastics every single time we leave the house.” She says.
In a world where the written word rules supreme, and the pen is man’s most powerful tool, initiatives the likes of Sister Library have never been more important. A space where women authors can be read without the barriers of sexist and patriarchal discourse and narratives, the Sister Library’s future is at stake. To support the initiative, TheVibe urges you to donate in whatever small way you can, and help spread the Library’s message of unapologetic pride and universal sisterhood.
All images used in this article are courtesy of Aqui Thami and the Sister Library and belong rightfully to their original owners.
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