In Conversation With: Aqui Thami

In Conversation With: Aqui ThamiA conversation between Rabbits Road V&A Research Institute artist-in-residence Aqui Thami and VARI Residencies Co-Investigator Rachel Feldman.

“If you’re not working with the community, and you’re not sharing resources… then what are you doing?”

I had just asked Aqui what she believes the role of the artist is and whether artists bear a kind of social responsibility. It is not enough for the newest V&A Research Institute (VARI) Offsite Artist in Residence, to come to the Museum, create transformational work and return to India without a trace. For Aqui Thami, empowering marginalised communities and ‘making art to reclaim’ is a relentless concern.

A Darjeeling-based contemporary indigenous artist, Aqui is no stranger to closing the gaps between people and places. She explains to me how she was made to feel an outsider while living in mainland India for over a decade where she bore witness to ‘well disguised exclusionary practices’. An entirely self-taught artist, she built resilience and reached out to others through her multidisciplinary art practice, which encompasses poster-making, performance, zine creation and photography.

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 I am not a public space’: Aqui with one of her poster interventions in Mumbai

As VARI Offsite Artist in Residence, Aqui has come to London to enrich her own practice while helping to nurture relationships between South Kensington and East London communities, in preparation for the opening of two brand new V&A sites in Stratford in 2023. The road to V&A East might seem a long one and the distance between the eye-watering grandeur of Albertopolis and daily life in bustling East London even longer, but I know there is no one more expertly placed to eliminate that distance than Aqui.

Tiny, yet self-possessed, she fills up and warms every space she inhabits like the lashings of bright, fuschsia ink that saturate the Risograph-printed pages of one of her handmade zines. A prolific poster maker, she is here to pay homage to and continue to build on the tradition of a long line of political activists whose work is preserved in the V&A’s national collection of posters. This kind of work, which Aqui refers to as existing ‘on the edge of the normative definition of art’ is perhaps not often associated with the hallowed galleries of the V&A. If you look closely enough, you will see it there, questioning, subverting and asserting a voice in among the Canovas and the Chippendales.

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‘Embrace’: A page from Aqui’s zine commemorating the pioneering women of the Chipko environmental movement, Riso-printed at the Rabbits Road Press

For Aqui, it is not simply enough to revel in the visual culture of her forebears, exciting as that has been for her. Using the V&A collections as her sourcebook, her artist’s hand is drawing a determined line between East and West, all the way from South Kensington to the local communities that surround her studio at Create London’s White House in Dagenham. Barely one month into her residency and I am astonished by the way in which her socially engaged practice is captivating entire boroughs.

She has embraced a fellowship with independent publishing collective OOMK (One of My Kind)who run Open Access days in their community Risograph print studio, Rabbits Road Press at the Rabbits Road Institute in Old Manor Park Library. She has introduced students at the Sydney Russell School in Dagenham to the environmental and social impact of mass-manufacturing on Indian labourers by co-creating a zine showcasing their handwritten thoughts and illustrations.

This week, she launched a collaborative arts project with young women local to the Rabbits Road Press neighbourhood called ‘DIY Rabbits’. Here is her invitation:

‘Calling all makers and doers with something to say! As a part of my residency with the Victoria and Albert Museum and Rabbits Road Press I would like to invite you to share the art space at Rabbits Road Institute, delve into the world of art and activism and question how the two intersect.

I want you to join me in a month long art project where we will be working collaboratively using a DIY ethos and culture. Throughout the month in workshops, site visits, discussions and art making we will explore our collective identities in the Manor Park neighbourhood and community around Rabbits Road Press.

We will celebrate the power of community by thinking and making together. And at the end of the month through critical making, produce a shared artwork that will reflect on the things that are often left unsaid or unheard’.

The distances between boroughs and communities might seem immense but Aqui traverses them seamlessly. London is her studio and she opens it to you all.

Aqui’s residency was in collaboration with VARI and the Rabbits Road Institute and was generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Conversation originally published by the V&A Magazine.