Dalit Dreamlands Redraws a Map of the South Asian Diaspora

Manu Kaur Family Photo Project
Simrah Farrukh, photo from the series Yeah, you look like a Chamari: Pyara Parivaar (2023), 48 x 36 inches (all photos Mallika Chennupaty/Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

OAKLAND, Calif. — A large portrait of three femmes sits at the entrance of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. Photographed by Simrah Farrukh, they stand united with their long, dark braids draped over a green and orange chunni. Another photo showcases a grandfather posing proudly in front of portraits of Dalit anti-caste advocate and lawyer B. R. Ambedkar and 15th-century Dalit Guru Ravidas.

These striking images introduce Dalit Dreamlands, one of California’s first queer art exhibitions centering the experiences of Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan, Afro-Indian, Indo-Fijiian, Indo-Caribbean, and Muslim communities of South Asia and its multivalent diaspora, on view through this Saturday, June 8. Included alongside works by 40 artists, Farrukh’s photos are also the first in which curator Manu Kaur’s family members openly and proudly acknowledge their caste-oppressed Dalit ancestry. Kaur, an activist and curator based in Oakland, was partially inspired by Guru Ravidas’s vision of Begampura: a stateless, casteless, and classless society. 

“My family is Ravidassia, and I wanted to create my version of Begampura which also includes queer, trans, pro-Black, and pro-Indigenous identities, and highlights folks who are marginalized at so many different intersections,” Kaur told Hyperallergic in an interview, adding that they experienced deep depression in 2022 while navigating their Dalit, queer, and trans identities. It brought an added layer to their definition of Begampura, which they described as “a place with joy and happiness, but also sadness as grief and as healing.”

“It was important to have these multiple truths and to center the community,” Kaur said. 

With the support of the Emerging Curators Program by the Asian American Women Artists Association, Dalit Dreamlands begins mapping this vision of healing for South Asian minoritized and caste-oppressed communities with an acknowledgment of Dalit suffering. Artist Ajay Dhoke’s “The Pot of Belief: A Visual Tale of Caste Discrimination” (2023) captures the underbelly of a man with a clay pot strung around his neck. Taken during a 2023 performance of the play Vadsa Sindevahi written and directed by Ma. D. Ann. Shande at Prerana Theater in Chandrapur, India, the image depicts the oppressive historical practice of forcing Dalit people to wear pots around their necks to catch their saliva. Another of his photographs from the play, “Root/Foot: Symbols of Dalit Identity Erased by Cruel Mandates” (2023), demonstrates how Dalits were forced to erase their footprints with a broom attached to their waists, one of a range of dehumanizing practices designed to reinforce caste supremacy.

For artist and ecological activist Anika Nawar Ullah, the exhibition and her contribution are an opportunity to “walk the thin line between joy and pain, decay and re-genesis.” Her experimental documentary-fiction short film “Anatomies of Displacement” (2024) traces generational displacements, from her maternal Indigenous Marma lineage to her own experience moving from the Bay Area.

Ullah’s focus on commingled oppression and joy reverberates through Dhoke’s series Echoes of Revolution: Gondi Dance of Resilience (2023), framing the anklet-adorned, calloused, and strong feet of the women of the Gondi tribe, one of the largest tribal groups in India. Capturing the energy of traditional dances and rhythmic patterns, the photos are an ode to the artistic practices that defy historical discrimination.

Nazrina Rodjan, a queer artist whose work reclaims the overlooked histories of Indo-Caribbean communities and South Asian queer women, draws deeply from her family, communal relationships, and personal experiences in her painting “Kissing Brides” (2018).

“It transformed queer South Asian love into something celebratory during a time when I felt very rejected by the world for being brown and queer,” Rodjan said. Beyond self-healing, she hopes the exhibition and her body of work can provide future generations with “images of our history not based on exotification and dehumanization by the colonizer.” 

Nearing the end of the exhibition, visitors reach the final stage of healing through Malvika Raj’s acrylic painting “Amitabha” (2021), depicting Buddha with eyes half-open in a state of tranquil enlightenment in the center of concentric circles of fish, deer, and peacocks.

The awakened Buddha signifies “infinite light and infinite life for every being, including Dalit communities, Raj explained. Her work aims to subvert Hindu dominance within Madhubani painting, a historical Indian art form characterized by vibrant colors and detailed, dotted patterns, by interweaving her Dalit familial history and imagery of Buddha.

“Through their suffering, the Adivasi discovered a vision of healing, of Amitabha, and overcame their pain,” she continued. “My question was: How did they find that vision? How did they find a way to heal and move on?” 

The experience of participating in Dalit Dreamlands provided each contributing artist their own answer to this question. For Rodjan, for instance, healing meant discovering a genuine sense of belonging and ownership of her South Asian identity.

“I used to resist the ‘South Asian’ label because my experiences with it were mainly with privileged, upper-caste Indian communities. I preferred to identify as Indo-Caribbean in South Asian spaces,” she said. “But at the Dalit Dreamlands opening, for the first time, I didn’t feel like the odd one out. I felt seen, included, and genuinely connected to the space and the stories of the other artists.” 

And for Kaur, healing while curating the exhibition arose through a sense of continuity. This show, they explained, is not an end but rather a beginning.

“I realized that this exhibition doesn’t need to be a one-time thing,” they said. “Its work, and the referenced history, can be revisited and reclaimed again and again.”

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