Thenmozhi is a socially engaged artist whose work in print, photography, film, and music has been exhibited around the world.
Her work explores Dalit identity across multiple geographies times and places. Her work also weaves feminist futurist visions for South Asian and caste oppressed.
I make work rooted in radical Dalit feminist futures that explore a world where our people thrive. As our communities are facing the dire threats of climate change, state violence, white supremacy, anti-blackness, Islamophobia, and caste apartheid, one of the primary battlegrounds is the imaginary; most people cannot begin to fight for freedom because they cannot even imagine themselves to be free.
That is why socially engaged art is so crucial in the fight for freedom. The battle for our people is the battle of the imaginary. When artists are at the table of change we use imagination to build empathy towards an issue and towards each other. This empathy is the engine of our resistance. It is what oppression seeks to shut down completely.
As a socially engaged artist, my work is about addressing the fact that in our communities one of the first wounds we experienced from systematic oppression happened in the realm of the imaginary. The psychological wounds of racism, classism, casteism, and cis-hetero-patriarchy work by telling our people that they are less than human. That our possibilities are limited. And that our strategies can only go so far.
This to me is akin to being a bird that learns of its wings in a cage. Socially engaged art is the reminder that our wings were meant for the sky, that we are unlimited in our potential for change, and that the power to be fully determined in our communities is our own. PERIOD. That is why a core question in my artistic practice remains: Can we dream beyond our oppression?
Socially engaged arts practice—both through its processes and its products—pushes and creates space for the artist and their collaborator(s) to examine this question deeply. When thinking about the impact of a creative practice we must consider both process and product as stages for engaging an issue, because it is in the process that the imagination is ignited and pushed to go beyond oppression and in the product where imagination can continue to create hope. Hope is one of the most precious things that socially engaged artists can help to grow.
Art is our greatest weapon. We must use it to imagine beyond ourselves and our socialization. Now more than ever we need art that can be our heartbeat, a north star, a map to the way out of this mess. It is a call for freedom in a moment of pain. It is radical dreaming.
My goal is to not retreat in this time of darkness, but instead to hold the light for their communities. And this is critical. This moment in history demands that we surrender to its call: we must create, dream, and imagine freedom—for all of us.