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Meeting the founder of India’s first community-owned feminist library

Appeared on the net on the 3rd of june 2019

Aqui Thami is busy. Apart from working on her PhD, the Mumbai-based artist and activist has just opened the doors of India’s first community-owned feminist library: Sister Library. So it’s no wonder she apologises for her delayed response with “it’s been a little too hectic”. Known for her guerrilla posters, photography, and zines tackling subjects like sexual harassment and periods, Thami, 29, isn’t afraid of using her artistic voice to address political and social issues. “For me, art is activism,” she says, adding that it is “my key to healing, my medicine, my looking glass.” The core of her practice is grounded in the act of ‘doing’, and explores experiences of marginalisation and resilience, both her own and the people she collaborates with at Dharavi Art Room. This is something she is continuing with Sister Library, where her aim is “to create a place where women can get together and organise to smash that evil thing called patriarchy.”

Since May 15, Sister Library is now a permanent – albeit small – space in the Bandra neighbourhood of Mumbai – it houses 600 works of literature by women, including zines, graphic novels, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, mostly from Thami’s own sprawling collection. Sister Library began as a travelling interactive artwork, which visited cities all over India, from Delhi to Pune, Goa to Bengaluru, and finally the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which is where I stumbled across its pink shelves and inspiring mission. While there, I perused works by Audre Lorde, Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou, Arundhati Roy and Gail Omvedt, alongside handmade zines by local women and girls. Thami has read women exclusively for the past five years, she tells Dazed: “Reading women has been fundamental to my practice, as it has filled me with strength – I wanted to share this with everyone.”

It was while travelling around India that she discovered how much potential a permanent space would have. Thami describes a sense of solidarity amongst young and old women, as well as men, who visited the library: “Older women who longed for a space like this one came with their grandchildren and showed them books that changed their lives, and young women cried at the sight of books they thought they would never really get to see in real life.”

She explains that India desperately needs a space like this in order to open up a dialogue: “Since our society is caste segregated, knowledge production and sharing has always been historically restricted, so even if there are amazing works by women they are in universities and private libraries with no or limited access.”

After raising over 700,000 rupees (the equivalent of about £7,000) through fundraisers and a crowdfunding page, Thami can now afford to pay rent for a year, but is still keeping the crowdfunder live, as her goal is to eventually build a permanent space. It wouldn’t have been possible without the help and kindness of strangers, she says. People from different cities organised Sister Library fundraisers and female artists conducted workshops to raise funds and gave their works as rewards for donating contributors.

Mumbai is India’s most densely populated city, which Thami says is why she chose it as lots of people will have access to this “life-changing space”. The Bandra neighbourhood is close to Dharavi, an area made internationally famous in the film Slumdog Millionaire. She explains: “Some women from Dharavi come to Bandra to work as domestic help and have no space where they can spend time, use the toilet, wash their face in between their shifts. This could become that place, as well as a place where women can break the boundaries of caste and class.”

“Reading women has been fundamental to my practice, as it has filled me with strength – I wanted to share this with everyone” – Aqui Thami

While being a space to understand and celebrate works of women, Thami also wants Sister Library to reclaim and redefine what a library could be, making sure that it is a welcoming, engaging space for all. “People should want to come over because it is fun, and because it ascertains their belief that another world is possible. I want it to be a place where different people meet and share experiences to create possibilities for a new way of thinking knowing and seeing,” Thami says. She explains that this doesn’t necessarily happen in spaces where people from the same class caste and regional backgrounds come together. The activities visitors can expect will include poetry readings, zine workshops, and discussions on a variety of topics like the writing of South Asian women. Her own current favourite read is Why Art? by Eleanor Davis.

“If it wasn’t for works of women I don’t know where I would be today, or if I would even be here at all,” she affirms. “I owe my life to all the female creators who were brave, honest, and vulnerable. I would be nothing without them.” Thami left the Thangmi tribe in her home city of Kurseong, in the foothills of the Himalayas, when she was just 15-years-old. She spent most of her teenage years feeling like an outsider. “I had to learn to speak in Hindi and learn the ways and norms of the mainland, as a young indigenous woman it was really really hard, and I guess that art gave me a possibility to understand the world from bottom up. As I grew up, art became a sort of a magic portal which allowed me to enter worlds that would otherwise always consider me invisible.”

Thami’s first piece of art was quite a morbid one: “I staged a funeral for myself to see what I would look like as a corpse. I was 13 and took images of myself like a corpse in full ceremonial garb and circulated it around family and friends. Of course my ma tore each and every one of them to shreds later.” She was looking to “vent” and protest the drug culture back in her home city, where many young people were dying of drug overdoses. This was before she became a zine enthusiast, and discovered how “amazing” zines could be. “Something so basic can challenge the status quo of production, distribution, and knowledge – it is totally my jam,” she says. Her own zines will be available to read in the library, as well as ones picked up at zine fests across the country. She outlines some of her favourites: The Life and Times of Butch Dykes series by the B&D Press, Grubby Synchronise Witches Press and Pitrusatta ani Narimukti, a pamphlet from the women’s movement printed in Mumbai.

Thami hopes the library will help to reshape attitudes around the role of women in Indian society: “We are so done with the same old same old”. The positive response to the library so far shows just how much people are ready and willing for change; around 60 visitors turned up on the first day, with  more expected. Ultimately though, it has been the reaction from young women that Thami says, “gave me life really”. Young women have rallied to do everything from organising fundraisers, to carrying boxes of books, and killing cockroaches. It seems apt that it’s called Sister Library. “I’m so grateful for the sisterhood.”

You can donate to Sister Library here