Not My Air/Heir - To the Art of Breathing in Decolonized Bodies

Trailing fissures caused by colonisation, discussing how artists consciously decolonise, making room for us to take a breath of fresh air.

Aarushi Zarthoshtimanesh, Writer

Photo by Aarushi Zarthoshtimanesh


‘When you find a diamond that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you discover an island that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you get an idea before anyone else, you take out a patent on it, it is yours. So, with me: I own the stars, because nobody else before me ever thought of owning them.’


In these lines author Antoine de Saint-Exupery, through this character of a snobbish, capital–obsessed, self-entitled businessman, manages to flesh out this simple yet warped idea of ownership. Often, what we see as free, untamed and unlabelled, ends up belonging to the highest bidder, or the man who proclaims, ‘I saw it first!’. In this case even if ‘it’ is that infinity we call stars.


Colonization has never stopped at what is simply physically exported or traded, it bears the carcasses of cultures ruptured, including the gradual corrosion of societal norms, languages, ritual practices, and much more.

“Those little golden things that make lazy people daydream.”

The businessman from The Little Prince, here illustrated.


When studying history, we were taught that colonization was defined by a nation or country choosing to plunder another nation’s natural and human resources. But, the axiology that the colonizer nation brings with them is never discussed enough. Colonization has never stopped at what is simply physically exported or traded, it bears the carcasses of cultures ruptured, including the gradual corrosion of societal norms, languages, ritual practices, and much more. It took me more than ten long years to familiarize myself with art icons in India like Frances Souza, Jehangir Sabavala, Jamini Roy, Vivan Sundaram and M.F Hussain, to name a few, their legacies stolen from being printed in my school textbooks. Which goes to show that colonized education systems, minds and even frames of references are still recuperating from the constitutional and fundamental shift that colonialism had on almost every nation across the world.


That percipience paves a path to cut open and flesh out decolonization. We must grasp that we need systemic movements, not just moments of change. As India still lays bare, we are piecing together the constructed divisions and patching up the gaping fractures in the fabric of our societies.


One of the posters for Tate Britain’s 2015 exhibit, Artists and Empire.

Painting – Bakshiram by Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda.


All the while the erased bodies, silenced tongues and censored minds must find new ways to bring out the shame and anger that brews inside them, because the oppressor accepts only discussion watered down by rational thought in the face of their violence.

In November 2015, Tate Britain held an art exhibition titled, Artist and Empire, that claimed to have bridged gaps in the collective amnesia regarding art and the Indian empire. A shameful number of artists from the Indian subcontinent, whose works transformed artmaking even then and marked an indelible space in the pages of art history, were not even mentioned. Those who were, from the six rooms of the exhibit, were assigned and crammed into one token room. While the other five rooms downplayed the atrocities of war and held decorated paintings of bazaars and turbaned men by British artists who lived in India. That which is looted, which has been aggressively uprooted from its place of ideation and belonging, is still not marked as ‘high-brow’ for these elite art spaces.


All the while the erased bodies, silenced tongues and censored minds must find new ways to bring out the shame and anger that brews inside them, because the oppressor accepts only discussion watered down by rational thought in the face of their violence.


Artist Shilpa Gupta standing with her work – For, in your tongue, I do not fit.


Shilpa Gupta is an Indian artist who transforms these notions of language and silence and the power they wield. Titled - For, in your tongue, I cannot fit: 100 Jailed Poets, is a sound installation that is bodied by spokes with paper, a bed for the printed ink poems, pierced through. Evoking language and law, it includes a hundred hanging microphones with poems read out by a hundred different poets across eons and nationalities. These are the ones who were silenced because their words were politicized, and voices deemed unpalatable and disposable. Allowing us as viewers to walk between these weaponized land mines of poetry, each one is breathed back to life by poets narrating it in their own mother tongues. Urdu, Hindi, English, Arabic and myriad other languages reverberating with a commonality of being suppressed, creates an overwhelming ambience.


The air thickens with injustice and the words of supposed sedition ring with the sound of actual freedom.


The reverberations of freedom and decolonisation of body politics today, can be felt even through Indian artist Reena Saini Kallat and her work that manages to hit a nerve and then provide a certain visual embalming to heal these open wounds of the present.


Within her project ‘Deep rivers run quiet’, Kallat revisits the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. She carries it within a personal familial history and connection, exposing the growing incongruity of borders and divisions. It reminds us the power of bordered and divisive political and social ideologies redefining these lines.


Reena Saini Kallat, Deep Rivers Run Quiet, 2020. Gouache, charcoal, Lumochrome blue lead on Arches paper and deckled edge handmade paper. 380 × 109cm (150×43")


Bodies belonging outside the historical frames of acknowledgement (racialized and gendered) are always embedded within the notion of being a ‘trespasser’ or ‘invader’ in spaces built to exclude them.

As art historian Nandini Thilak puts it best, the work is, ‘dissolved into placid yet pregnant portraits of water surfaces rocked by deep currents’. Her work is impregnated with symbolism of separations, lines and borders their presence and ephemerality and temporality. But, through that this work manages to blur the lines, question the truth and whether what is drawn out is truly permanent and indelible, or just upheld by our mental divisions.


‘Writing about art has traditionally been concerned with that which is interior to the frame,’ (Phelan and Reckitt). But in contrast, bodies belonging outside the historical frames of acknowledgement (racialized and gendered) are always embedded within the notion of being a trespasser’ or ‘invader in spaces built to exclude them. Thus, an arranged marriage of the homogenized outsider- considered to be gendered and racialised bodies castigated; and the normative insider- the white male extolled as the universal norm, results in a combustion of the ugly truth. Language and its ability to bring together words through conjunctions cannot simply abet the differences between certain bodies that are on the one hand hyper-monitored and in the same breath obscured from academic, social, political or legislative spaces.


With artists like Reena Saini Kallat, Shilpa Gupta, and others like photographer Tejal Shah making room for trans identities through her ‘Hijra Fantasy’ series, espousing these spaces to both question and dissolve them, we can only taste the pinch of salt from the surface of a mountain of flavourful possibility of inclusion. Decolonisation is a body that can breathe through discussions and the gradual disintegration of class, disability, sexuality-based biases and violence, in addition to race and gender. Colonized bodies are hacked and spliced open to decay. We must now resuscitate the bodily processes of artmaking via deep decolonized breaths.


So, go on, breathe.


Galat – Aarushi Zarthoshtimanesh

Stitching on dissolvable fabric, repeating the word ‘galat’, meaning ‘wrong’ in Hindi and Urdu. (2020)

A piece to begin breathing in the right direction.


Aarushi Zarthoshtimanesh is a student, artist, poet and mango-lover. Her work is strongly rooted in her identity and seeks to work with and against the language that houses it. Exploring the subjects of art, representation, societal disparities and questioning hegemonies and second-hand norms we live with, are a few of her favorite things.


To see more of her self-indulgent selfies or to watch her series titled ‘poetry behind curtains’, follow her on instagram - @ashtags19

Art account - @aarushizart_1

And to read more of her writing, do visit her blog!