Artist Aqui Thami's Sister Library is a community-owned space bringing together books by, of and for women
Artist Aqui Thami envisions the Sister Library as a safe space celebrating the voices of women, housing writings only by women, to bring about social change.
Aqui Thami, a 29-year-old artist from Darjeeling, aims to bring about social change through her art that involves community building
Thami's latest project is the Sister Library in Mumbai, where her personal collection of books, zines, and other writings authored by women aims to bring the female narrative of the world to the fore
The library opened on 15 May, and is purely crowdfunded and run by a community of volunteers
The walls are bubblegum pink. The shelves are stacked with books of various shapes and sizes — all of which tell different stories with a common denominator — women. By, of, and most importantly for women, the Sister Library, which opened its doors on 15 May in Mumbai's Bandra, aims to be a community owned space, amplifying women's voices through literature written by them.
Hailing from Darjeeling, Aqui Thami is a 29-year-old artist and activist spearheading the project, which took off a year ago as a travelling library of 100 books, touring several cities across the country.
“Art is activism,” she says, echoing the socio-political thrust behind her work through the years. Thami’s projects include Bombay Underground with Himanshu S, an artists' collective focusing on the zine culture, and Dharavi Art Room, an experimental safe space to read and make art, creating a community archive in one of Asia’s largest slums, Dharavi.
With Sister Library, a one-of-a-kind venture in India, Thami wishes to make a difference in society through art and literature, yet again. “The only thing that can bring about change is art. When we feel deeply and share vulnerably and honestly, that is when any change is possible,” the artist says.
About five years ago, Thami noticed a gap in her personal collection of books, and recognised the reality it was symptomatic of. As little as 20 per cent of her shelves were occupied by female authors — a number heavily skewed and telling of the patriarchal set up that aids a male-dominated narrative of the world.
“I made a very conscious decision to read women exclusively,” she says, following which a desire to take the stories beyond her bookshelves encouraged her to set up the Sister Library. It's Thami's personal collection that fills the library, housing books like Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge’s Intersectionality, Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Sheila Jeffreys’ Unpacking Queer Politics and Uzma Aslam Khan’s The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali, among several others. However, everyone is invited to contribute to the collection and help the repertoire grow.
“[I was inspired by] the longing for a space like this — where one is surrounded by works of women in such a huge number and the possibilities of change it can ignite," she says, nursing the hope of seeing women writers find greater acceptance across societies as thinkers and "makers of the world," and "not just accessories and objects".
She doesn’t envision change as a noisy and spectacular revolution. For her, a quiet sojourn in the pages of feminist philosophy and critical theory has been enough to reveal the ways of the world. Thami's idea of change entails living life on one's own terms, and being unapologetically happy doing so.
“That is a huge revelation for me,” she says with a laugh. And it is this revelation that she wishes to propagate through her art and library, which currently accommodates only a limited number of subscribers.
“A major part of gaining feminist consciousness is also about creating spaces for consciousness raising, so this is what I could do,” the artist says.
With her relentless efforts, Thami has successfully tapped into the needs of a community yearning to explore such avenues. The number of people signing up to volunteer for the Sister Library — fundraising, labelling books, helping out with logistics — is a testament to the urgent requirement for such platforms. So far, the library has been fuelled by crowdfunding campaigns and donations, aiming to stay afloat for at least a year.
“I’ve never had money to pay anyone, it is just because women want this space so they can come together. The sisterhood has been amazing," she admits.
Besides being an installation art that drives social change by making female voices more audible, Thami describes the initiative as a safe space for the "marginalised" in need of "healing". Clearly, the idea of 'community' is an indispensable aspect of her work. The emphasis lies on a collective healing, as opposed to an individual and solitary one.
“As people who are marginalised, we have to take care of each other," she explains. "Because if I focus on my individual healing, I go out and I get hurt again. So I can’t heal alone and expect to be fine."
The activist decided to establish a permanent space in Mumbai (while continuing to tour, with a focus on small towns), as the thought of a safe haven for minorities to call their own appealed to her greatly. Ultimately, the Sister Library is a platform nurtured by a community, bringing female voices to the centre of the human narrative.
“It becomes a space where people from all walks of life are welcome to celebrate women,” she says, urging women, children, and absolutely anyone in search of support and comfort to seek out her library, which is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 11 am to 7 pm.
Thami's enviable collection of books, zines, and publications open a window into her mind that is always on the lookout for newer stories to tell.
"Sister Library offers an experience of being surrounded by the works and visions of thousands of female creators and thinkers. A space that incites different emotional reactions from different people. It is also a work which is constantly evolving and changing just like my thoughts about a certain subject are,” the artist says, in hopes of building a more inclusive world, stretching beyond her pink walls of comfort and stories.
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