The Power and Purpose of Astrology with Emmalea Russo

Hi Emmalea! How are you? 

I’m okay. How are you? 

I’m good! There’s been a gap since we’ve last talked but I feel like I stay connected to you through everything you’re offering—like your classes and newsletter. Can we talk a little about Arthouse Astrology first? Can you tell me what led you to create this astrology portal?

Yes. Our connection feels related to us both being poets who are interested in making astrology a dynamic part of daily life, yes? I started these Arthouse Astrology classes almost immediately after quarantine as a way to connect with people and consider this new reality we found ourselves in through a cosmic lens. It was important to me that the classes were not only financially accessible, but also that they exist in an environment that felt connective, real, fun — the deinstitutionalization of knowledge, as bell hooks has said. Cosmic Edges was the first class (and I thought it would be the only one), but we’ve done five. I wanted to open up a discussion around how astrology, like art, is about ways of seeing and being. And in quarantine (or even when we feel quarantined) we lose certain kinds of light/sight while gaining others. We looked at hidden or sequestered or more dimly lit regions of the sky.

I started the Arthouse Astrology newsletter/blog a few years ago as a way to think out loud re: astrology, art, pop culture, film — to think critically and electrically about it — beyond astrology as a psychological roadmap. I’m a writer first, which is inseparable from my astrology practice. The planet/god Mercury rules astrology and also writing, poetry, travel, communication. Fascinatingly, these are all ways of moving between worlds, staying curious, playful, translighting light. Staying nimble. “Cosmic rigor” is a phrase from Artaud’s writing on theatre, but I love it for astrology, too.

I agree we are similar in many ways! I think I once mentioned this to you, but years ago I read charts as a way to make money. This was in 2013/14/15 and I wasn’t really making any money off of writing. It was depressing, and I was stubborn so I didn’t want to get another job. So I found that it was reasonable to make money (albeit not a lot) through “beautifully written charts” by me. I think, in a way, I was also doing it as an offering because I love this idea of making astrology more accessible, and not this mystical abstract thing as it once. It informs so much of my writing as well, so I think we’re both coming at in different but similar ways. One of the reasons Arthouse Astrology is such an important thing to me is because it allows people that very foundational understanding of astrology, but in a really poetic way. Reading you always shows me how much you enjoy writing/reading—you quote Hélène Cixous, Marguerite Duras and June Jordan to name a few—it’s so wonderful. What made you create “Cosmic Edges”?

“Beautifully written charts” is lovely. Astrology is the “word of the stars.” So, how we deliver or brainstorm the cosmos is a major part of the art — the word, or Mercury — moving and divining. Reading and writing is how I process reality. As you say, I cite writers and thinkers like Cixous, Duras, June Jordan — lots of poetry, current happenings, and film alongside planets and transits — informing each other. Astrology charts are written, read, and interacted. So, living. I like to see them first as visual information, too. We live in a culture of images, for better or worse, and I like the idea of learning to read astrology charts and themes alongside of/in conversation with the images that we’re met with constantly in daily life via instagram, google, whatever. We’re flooded by images! It’s essential to be able to decipher them, think critically about them, practice. 

Astrology is, as I mentioned, a Mercury-ruled situation. And Mercury is a psychopomp — an androgynous messenger god who escorts souls between the heavens and underworld. This means Mercury, in its purest essence, is non-judging, playful, and a professional amateur. Curious, curious, curious. Mercury’s allegiance is to information. This is why astrology is not a religion/belief system or a science. There’s nothing to “prove,” which is easy to forget, because we like “proof.” I think we’re living in a time where it’s easier to be a fan or a detractor rather than a critical thinker or reader. Internet culture means it’s easier to “like” or “not like” rather than pausing, thinking, making connections. We lose Mercury.

Cosmic Edges (I thought maybe 20 people would sign up; 120 people did!) was also a way to enter astrology from its “edges” — to find unexpected ways into the cosmos via poets like Cynthia Cruz and Louise Gluck, Prince’s music, qualities of light at different points of the sky, and planets as entities with their own agendas and interests. 

In her work, bell hooks talks about how love is antithetical to dominance culture, and sadly, we live in exactly that. This translates, of course, to how we see astrology, ourselves, each other. I tend to really emphasize the importance of forming relationships with the planets, with the/your sky. This makes room for love and subverts the whole dominance-submission predicament. As you probably know, the tendency can be (even if we don’t realize it) to want to dominate the stars (what can these planets do for us, how can we use them to our advantage?) or feel frightened that they’ll dominate us (fuck, what are they going to do?) How can we form relationships with these planets? Call them directly? Make dialogue? Relate based on love? 

I taught a 7-week Venus retrograde class called Venus Daze, as you know. It was so fun — a space for devotedly looking at/thinking about Venus’s maneuvers while connecting her with our own lives, revolution, politics, art, etc. We talked about phoning the planets direct: 1-800-VENUS. Someone in the class even made a postcard that said 1-800-VENUS over a photo of Venus as the evening star. When I got it in the mail, I got teary! How we regard the planets can be a school for how we treat each other. How can we be more human(e) in these really device-drenched, techy times?

Gah! You said so much I want to touch on, but firstly: “word of the stars.” Wow. I had no idea. I guess this segues into my next question, what have you seen that has been gained by this experience for yourself or even the folks that have participated so far? As you said, you’re pastiching disparate ideas, but bringing them together in such artful ways while making them accessible—for me, that’s such a beautiful act of service. With Studio Ānanda, that’s been the goal, to make healing information accessible and fun to anybody who wants to know more. All this information has been stolen or appropriated by whiteness or capitalism, so giving it back to the people is definitely a mission of mine. Everyone should have access to these things! So, I want to hear first about what kind of immediate impact you’ve seen though Cosmic Edges. You obviously see the value of people knowing more about their charts and learning about astrology and it excites me to know that so many folks (120!) just want to know and learn more.

On the last day of our Venus Daze workshop, someone asked me if making these classes has changed me. The short answer is: yes. I’ve learned so much about holding digital space and creating artful, slow, interesting classes instead of “content.” Or, just creating for the sake of having something to sell. I see these workshops and writings as part of my artistic practice. So, in one way, they’re part of a very long and large unfolding process. In another way, they’re about connection — which is the true nature of love, of Venus. 

Two things come to mind. First: the ethics and nuances of where and how we direct our attention. These spaces (zoom, social media, etc.) are not neutral. They really prize guru-ization. Instagram, as a capitalist tool, is built for audiences, not community. In these classes, which are always experimental, I really strive for community. Example: I center the chat feature. The conversations have become quite epic — hilarious, wild, smart, dynamic — with something like 7,000 words on average per class. People supporting each other, affirming, going deep. How can we prioritize connection over audience or “engagement” and not be transactional, not turn everything into capital, especially when we live in an attention economy?  

Second, everything is more generative and aerated when we don’t center our own astrologies. This means that while we all have certain qualities, fates, and sky atmospheres, we’re also all connected — part of one cosmic situation. So, I like to focus first on the seeing, the discerning, the play — at least in the workshops, rather than our own individual charts. Obviously, 1-1 sessions are a different animal. And I love them! I love divining and chatting about individual astrology. However, I am really devoted to astrology as a slow art. I think this transactionality is everywhere in this white supremacist captialist patriarchy we live in. Divination is not transactional. 

This ancient information, that in practice should be accessible to all, rarely is. It’s so powerful to hear about anti-capitalist reclamation of healing modalities such as astrology, because I think what you’re saying (and what I believe as well) is that astrology is an incredible tool for healing. Of course it’s all interpretative, but I think there’s something immensely powerful in surrendering to divination methods. The more I’ve done that, the more I’ve helped my anxiety or fears. I’m not kidding, I think understanding myself astrologically has made me love myself more, and therefore lend that care to others as well. We’re obviously in the middle of a pandemic and global revolution for Black liberation—how do you think folks can use astrology to benefit themselves and the work for these times?

I like how you say that the more you’ve surrendered to divination modalities, the less fear you have. That’s totally beautiful. And it’s why I got into this whole astrology thing in the first place. Less about “curing” and quick fixes and way more about sensing, seeing, learning. I remember the first time I really studied my chart and learned about where my Venus is located and what it’s going through in my sky, I felt seen in a way I had never felt in therapy or university. I love therapy and school, so that’s not a dig. I actually get chills when I talk about it, even now — feeling witnessed/mirrored by the sky in that way. But astrology is another way into the self, and therefore the world. And it’s not necessarily about fixing, which we aren’t used to in these times. We like solutions, formulas. Astrology teaches about cycles of time — historically and also via different planetary speeds (the moon moves quite differently than Mercury, for instance). 

Re: your very important question about using astrology to benefit people during this global pandemic and movement for Black liberation — I think, again, it’s about seeing. When we can find different points of entry into our situations, we start to think about justice, love, and equity in new ways. We need new ways. The system, as they say, is not failing. It’s working quite well. And that’s frightening. Capitalism, which is inherently tied to systemic racism and all kinds of oppression, is tricky — because it has a way of recuperating even subversion and transgression back into the machine, making them trendy. Think of the wellness industrial complex. Healing modalities have been co-opted and made consumptive instead of accessible or revolutionary. 

When we work with astrology, art, etc. in ways that are engaged in critical discourse and not about groupthink or greed or “getting stuff” out of each other or the planets, we start to subvert our own systems. We begin to look at each other and ourselves as citizens. These times have a way of depoliticizing….everything. Astrology is not apolitical. Ditto wellness. How we care for each other and ourselves, what we choose to center or relegate to the edges is deeply political. What happens if we see ourselves as citizens who are responsible to each other instead of merely individuals on a path? Somewhere along the way, healing modalities started being about self-care at the expense of community care. 

Precisely. I think what’s so cool is that in order for us to truly be anti-Capitalist, we are realizing that we have to address and face ourselves. That there can’t just be supplementary pleasures that fill those gaping holes anymore. I’ve realized in 2020—almost more and more as the year goes by—s that I need to completely align with myself, politically, spiritually and physically (as in how I embody those two things in my human form) so that means if I’m saying I’m anti-Capitalist, I’m not trying to surreptitiously hoard money or you know placate my shopping addiction. Studio Ānanada and everything we are trying to achieve, is creating an alternative language for cultural exchange, on multiple levels. 

I think a lot of folks often say you can’t be perfect like an adage, but I’m sorry this is so diabolical, but recently I’ve been wondering what would it mean to try to attain perfect spiritual standards? Of course those are subjective, but I’m curious about the possibility. What astrology offers is just another way to familiarize ourselves with our truths so that we can attain spiritual highs/heights. What are ways you’d direct folks who want to know more astrology who want to go deeper?

This makes me think of that Barbara Kruger piece: “I shop therefore I am.” Shopping brain applies to everything, right? The way we interact with each other, the world, art, astrology. Being against capitalism while in a capitalist system is a real mindfuck. Mark Fisher writes about how the danger of capitalism is its pervasiveness, the fact that there appears to be “no other alternative.” I like how you say “diabolical.” Shopping for happiness is diabolical, and often we don’t even know we’re doing it. Freaky. 

In “Love as the Practice of Freedom,” bell hooks writes: “Acknowledging the truth of our reality, both individual and collective is a necessary stage for personal and political growth.” I see astrology as a way to acknowledge “the truth of our reality.” Of course, like anything, it can be an escape hatch. It’s all about how we engage. I wrote about astrology as a love practice here

I was listening to a James Hillman lecture a while back and he was, I think paraphrasing someone, but he said something like: “By the time you’ve figured out what part of yourself the homeless person represents, you’ve already walked by the homeless person.” That beautifully and disturbingly sums it up. To really see each other’s predicaments and beauties, there has to be some kind of unhooking from the attention economy, from selfie mode, from shopping for truth. Humor helps, too.

What future astrology excites you, if any?

I’m psyched by the fact that so many people are into the stars, tuning into astrology in dynamic ways — queering it, radicalizing it, going to the root and history of it, applying it to these times. I feel most excited by critical discourse — creating space for really asking questions, making mistakes, fucking up, coming together, laughing. Astrology as art, astrology as a way to be more human(e)! I’m excited about the houses — an often misunderstood or glazed-over part of astrology. I’m doing a special series called Strange Mansions for newsletter subscribers in October. 

Specifically: the Saturn-Jupiter conjunction on December 21st. Vibe change.

Any last thoughts you’d like to share?

I adore you! I love this work you’re doing. Thank you. 

My website:

My newsletter: (the main way to stay in touch, get this work daily is to subscribe, as I’m taking a long break from classes!)


Classes to download:

Personalized astrology write-ups:

Instagram: @arthouse.astrology

And if you want to create a soundtrack to the 10 planets, what would they be?

AH! I love this question. I actually create playlists for Arthouse classes because music sets such a mood, creates a container. We’re all pretty into them.

Here’s one for VENUS DAZE 

Here’s one for the (MOON)WRITING WORKSHOP 

My list for Studio Ananda/Soundtrack to the Planets

Sun: Celebrity Skin by Hole / I Want to See You by Alice Coltrane

Moon: Swim Good by Frank Ocean

Mercury: All My Little Worlds by The Magnetic Fields / Wreath by Perfume Genius

Venus: The First Wave Birth of Venus by Suzanne Ciani 

Mars: Little Red Corvette by Prince

Jupiter: No Sleep Till Brooklyn by the Beastie Boys

Saturn: The Disintegration Loops by William Basinsky (all four albums!)

Uranus: Technologic by Daft Punk

Neptune: Dreams by Fleetwood Mac / Heroin by The Velvet Underground

Pluto: When the Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash / Love Song for a Vampire by Annie Lennox

On the Visual Appropriation and Erasure of Lower Caste Histories with Khushboo Gulati

Hi Khushboo!! I’m so grateful to be speaking with you. How is your spirit feeling this evening?

Hello! My spirit has been ruminating this evening ~ been sitting with my thoughts, letting myself flow and create! How is your spirit? And also excited to be here and in dialogue with you! 

So glad to hear that you’ve been able to have what sounds like a fluid and restful day. I think this retrograde combined with the new moon energy has been pretty heavy for me personally, I’m looking forward to spending the next few days in rest and quiet contemplation. Can you speak a little about your practice with me – if you can even generalize. You are someone who is so multidisciplinary, multi skilled + multitalented – so maybe, how do you define the art that you create if you were to narrow it down?

I hear you! These last few days have felt chaotic energetically so I have been resting more and my dreams have been very amplified! 

Yes! Thank you for seeing me! My creations engage with my journeys of flesh and spirit, time(less-ness), flower splendor, the elements, challenging values and narratives of oppression, rewriting internal and external narratives, transformation, detangling pain, my dreams, and igniting wonder. My art practice is a reflection of my healing practice. My practice is rooted in embodiment and sensorial activation and is reflective of my own process of self-excavation and evolutions into my deepest selves. My process is shaped by ritual, elemental reverence, stillness and movement, collaborations with qtbipoc community, liberatory politics, and my intuition! Is this narrowed down enough haha?

So so so beautiful. One thing about your art practice that really drew me in is how tangibly sacred your process is. And how willing you are to offer that with the world. I also really love this notion of sensorial activation. I’ve only recently come back to my body, I’m still calling bits of myself back, and your work is so palpable while also speaking to inner healing. 

Your tattoo work is especially something that struck me – when did you get into tattooing and how did you begin to foster the process of channeling inner vibrations through the tattoos? What does that look like when you are giving someone else a tattoo?

Thank you for your affirmations! I appreciate hearing that ~ Sensorial activations in my work came from my own healing work. It brings me closer to my spirit and invites a deeper connection to my body. My art has been a sanctuary to create new worlds that reflect my visions, desires, and pleasures and invite different ways of feeling, being, and seeing from what is taught to us or socialized. The process of calling ourselves back into our bodies and spirits is definitely a nonlinear and expansive ongoing process that takes new form as we grow, unlearn and relearn and revel in the unique and magical songs of the self! My tattoo work has definitely been an expression of sensorial activation, as a somatic healing practice that bridges and expands mind, body, heart, and spirit! I started learning how to tattoo in 2016 from my friend Sookie, the night I graduated from college, which was a really symbolic moment of moving away from this academic logical world to this sensorial, intuitive, and creative world. I was dreaming a lot about tattooing myself months before this night but was not consciously acting on these visions. I feel like I have been connected to this practice in various forms (and in training) since I was a kid. I was always the kid drawing on other people in class with my inky ballpoint pen, drawn to adornment, was raised in a household that was visually stimulating with Indian wall hangings and embroideries my mom decorated the house with that I was subconsciously studying. I started to do mehndi/henna for myself and my community and felt really connected to that energy exchange and ritual. When I close my eyes I see patterns, fractals and intricate images constantly. I also feel that having a dance practice growing up shaped my understanding of the rhythms of the body and how it moves, which informs how I tattoo. Decorating the body with sacred adornment has been so powerful for me as a queer non-binary person in defining myself on my own terms and celebrating the vibrances that I feel within! I also feel that what I have learned from organizing has informed my practice of tattooing as a political act of honoring and celebrating the layers, stories, and histories that belong to the communities I tattoo! I transitioned to learning how to use the machine last year with the help of community, Mirza and Jaime. Honoring my teachers in this work is so important to me! I am self taught and community taught!

My tattoo practice is rooted in amplifying the autonomy of and connection to our bodies, hearts, and spirits, inviting transformation and deeper self-awareness. Each session is a sensorial ceremony to mark the flesh with symbols soaked in intentions and prayer, acting as a powerful tool to reclaim the body, challenge fear, projections, expectations and the socializations of our bodies. My client and I will talk about their meanings and what it brings up for them over email. I never share my flash sheets online to protect my work and because they are also so deeply personal and reflections of my spiritual journeys and lessons. When the client arrives at my studio, we usually check in about how we are both doing and I go through what the tattoo process will look like. I ask their body boundaries, communicate with them how I will be working on their body/where I will be placing pressure, reminding them we can move with this process in ways that support them and their comfortability with breaks and breaths. 

Once the image is placed, I ask that we take 3 deep cavernous grounding breaths and to set an intention with this tattoo. I ask what they would like to affirm, invite, celebrate, or release with this piece and I set an intention as well. After that process to invite presence we begin the process. Tattooing different parts of the body can bring up a lot of emotion and energy, so I want to make sure to hold space for this and encourage the client to listen to the messages of what is coming up! There is never any rush with my sessions, I do not like to work with that energy because it disrupts my process and channeling. Because I am a Gemini, I love to ask questions and I will usually talk with my client (to whatever extent they want to share) about their journeys, how they flow through this world, what they creating and dreaming about, what they want to transform, their ancestral histories, their favorite time of day, etc! 

Wow Khushboo, I am so moved by how deeply intentional and thoughtful your process around and within tattooing is. The reverence you have for this palpable energetic exchange, the ways that you’re making room for lineages and hundreds of years of histories – it’s such a holistic approach to embodiment and meaning making.

I know for me, I’ve had to really slow down when considering who I will approach for my next tattoo because I do want to be in a space where my body is honored and my spirit is seen. It’s so comforting and exhilarating to know that you’re really digging deep and combining gentleness and interrogation into your tattoo work. 

I want to talk to you about a recent trend that I’ve been observing that is the tattooing of markings that resemble that worn traditionally by Dalit, Adivasi and other ‘lower caste’ communities. I only have recently begun learning about the ancestral histories behind these types of markings and it’s concerning that there is this rising trend where both South Asians and non South Asians are pulling from communities that have been historically discriminated against without context. What have you been thinking about this?

The energy exchange of tattooing is so vulnerable and intimate, it makes sense to want to work with an artist that moves with community care and trauma-informed approaches. For me, this work is not just transactional or commercial, it is so process oriented and invites so many worlds of flesh and spirit. Tattoo artists must consider who is coming into their space, what they are bringing, and how to honor their clients as well as themselves. This has also meant making visual vocabularies that are outside Brahmanical and white imaginations. Tattooing, in my approach, is a form of care work of holding space, deep listening to the body, energy, and the client, and supporting the client in activating their agency through this process. 

Upper caste people have been appropriating and taking from caste oppressed communities since the inception of the caste system—from their literal labor, their cultural practices, to their humanity. This dynamic of upper caste people appropriating tattoos that come from oppressed caste communities is a very colonial dynamic and peak casteism. The ease through which upper caste people appropriate comes from caste privilege and this domination mentality/psyche of entitlement, lack of self-awareness, disconnection from the self and their positionality, and not knowing the vast histories of oppressed caste communities. This dynamic is also coupled with capitalism and patriarchy, where upper caste people reduce tattoo histories and vocabularies from oppressed caste people down to just aesthetics. This dynamic is extremely harmful and violent, and perpetuates caste supremacy. It destroys the sacred! I was reading from Akademi magazine that “Savarna history is a history of erasure.” Appropriation feeds anti-indigenous ideologies and is another form of colonization of oppressed caste communities. By appropriating these visual languages, upper caste people are erasing the contributions, intellectual+creative labor, imaginations, and agency of the original practitioners and wearers of these tattoos. Upper caste people can adorn themselves with these appropriated symbols without consequences and receive praise and adoration, while oppressed caste bodies are hurt, policed, controlled, and dehumanized. This appropriation is extremely disrespectful and harmful in a time of Hindu fascism, rampant caste violence, and ongoing labor exploitation of oppressed caste communities, when oppressed caste communities have shaped everything without receiving credit or dignity. They have created the visual expressions and cultures of South Asia and we have to honor them and their artistries. 

Upper caste tattoo artists and non-South Asian artists have a responsibility to practice integrity by honoring and respecting the boundaries and practices of oppressed caste communities. Tattoo artists must incorporate deep research into their practices and integrate anti-caste work into our practices. To be transparent, I am caste privileged, making it an even greater responsibility to challenge this casteist appropriation and actively listen to and support Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi liberation movements. 

Something I have noticed is that a lot of upper caste people in the diaspora will look to aesthetics as an entry point into understanding their identities, but will not think about the artisans and makers behind these crafts, textiles, embroideries, etc. It is in this process that the meanings, intentions, and histories of oppressed caste people get commodified and decontextualized. The irony is that I will see upper caste tattoo artists and people talk about appropriation of their ~culture~ by white people but will not even mention how they are replicating the same dynamic through casteism. Another layer to this is that many upper caste people’s perception of their culture has been shaped by Brahmanism and North Indian Hindu upper caste hegemony, which is inherently violent and problematic. Additionally, while simultaneously taking from Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi visual practices, upper caste people and non-South Asians are romanticizing Southasianness and Hindu imageries with tattoos. This is deeply dangerous as well because of how Hinduism is also appropriated from oppressed caste people and has caste supremacy and brahmanical patriarchy written into its scriptures. The construction of Hindusim as a peaceful, romanticized religion comes from upper caste Hindu elites utiltizing European historiography of India as this mystical peaceful land. Hinduism has been used as a tool for nationalism, fascism, and upholding upper caste ideals. Brahmanism/Hinduism & caste supremacy is a construction by upper caste elites to create systems that subordinate, exploit, and control oppressed caste communities and represent Indian society as a monolith. It was framed as a holy and sacred structure to justify its existence and to maintain its power so deep, deep in the psyche of South Asia and South Asian diasporas. The gravity of this appropriation of tattoo languages by upper caste people is manipulative, immense and wrong by how much trauma and damage casteism has caused and continues to create. These acts are a form of spiritual and political warfare. Nothing is separate from history. Tattoos are political, the body is political, it is the site of imagination and possibilities. It is a reflection of the social, political, emotional, spiritual, psychological and historical ecosystems, circumstances, and journeys they come from. One cannot detach tattoos from history and dynamics of power. 

This is such an in depth interrogation of the violence that exists within so much of South Asian caste culture. Even within the system of yoga, there’s so much space made to critique the west’s appropriation of the practice, and yet so many South Asians are unwilling to address how the practice itself has its roots in violence against lower caste communities. 

Now especially as we are experiencing the peak of Hindu fascism, it’s so interesting how platforms like Instagram get used to proliferate these images of South Asianness funnelled through ~experimental village-esque~ tattoos. It’s so crucial for us to really think about how we are playing into the mass spiritual, institutional and physical erasure of lower caste and historically marginalized South Asian communities. We absolutely need to start interrogating the ways we perform our identities – even more so if we feel like we don’t have a connection to caste dynamics, because that is usually how and why we become so complacent with the romanticization of ‘South Asianness!’ I want to delve so much deeper but I want to be mindful of your time, to end – do you have any resources that you might want to share for folks who are interested in learning more about the caste histories and visual languages of tattooing? And what advice would you give for those who maybe already have markings on their bodies that they weren’t super intentional about? 

Yes caste is everywhere and engrained in every facet of life, making it even more important to constantly be interrogating everything we have learned about South Asia and South Asianness. I want to give thanks to the Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi and Muslim activists, scholars, artists, paradigm shifters that I have learned all this information from.

I remember when I was first researching tattoo history in India it was hard to find comprehensive information and now I realize this is because of Brahmanism. I have been learning from Dalit feminists, that this is the savarna washing of history with casteism denying and erasing oppressed communities and their histories and the resources to wholly document their vastness. When I did find articles there was barely mention of caste dynamics and written in condescending or voyeuristic tones. My learning has come from caste oppressed activists, artists, and culture workers on instagrams and thru online articles. B.R. Ambedkar, brilliant Dalit visionary and leader talked about building a counter culture to Hinduism & caste supremacy. This means making sure our tattoo practice feeds a culture that is working towards liberation of oppressed caste communities. Our tattoo practice must nourish a counter culture that honors and encourages healing, transformation, harmony, inner work, accountability, action, communication, research, pleasure, joy and authenticity. 

As I have learned from Ambedkar and other Dalit activists, true allyship means to abolish caste and divest from Hinduism. There is nothing to salvage or reform about institutionalized injustice! 

For deeper learning, there are so many resources online you can find through the Equality Labs page—they have a list of book recs. I would recommend reading The Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar, Debrahmanising History by Braj Ranjan Mani, books by Kancha Ililah, articles by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, to name a few. Follow the pages of Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi artists+ activists. Some wonderful pages to follow– @artedkar, @bakeryprasad, @partyofficehq, @coolie.women, @sharminultra, @gracebanu, @ranaayuub, Huma Dar, Yalini Dream, @ManishaMashaal, @kirubamunusamy, @artwhoring, @akademimag and sooo many more. 

Upper caste people must challenge casteism in their families and caste network! As Dalit feminists have stated, the burden should not fall on Dalit people to fight Brahmanical patriarchy and caste apartheid—this is an upper caste creation and upper caste problem. Upper caste people must listen and surrender to Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi leadership, liberation and communities. Organize with folks committed to caste liberation, find an Ambedkarite organization! Upper caste people must engage in deep inner work by taking responsibility for the harm our ancestors have caused and were complicit in. This is healing the conscious, subconscious, and conscious where casteism resides. This is healing and taking responsibility for your bloodline, of reprogramming, dismantling, and interrupting toxic and violent belief systems and behaviors. Because caste is so embedded in our relationships and psyches, it is critical to heal how we build with one another. 

Creating a connection to the self outside of caste supremacy requires us to be creative and open our hearts. We must remember that we have the capacity to grow into other forms of knowing and connection, especially knowings that center liberation. We must remember that we can shapeshift and transform. We can create new worlds, traditions and rituals that affirm life. We have to build relationships outside of assigned illusions of caste supremacy and invite a deeper more radical loving. To the folks who have markings on their bodies that were not very intentional, I would say let this be a learning moment to move with deeper intention, self-interrogation, and research. Let this be a reminder to interrupt casteism and caste apartheid everywhere. May this be a reminder to commit to a lifelong journey of undoing the violent legacies of Brahmanism. May this be a reminder to bring forth the worlds envisioned by caste oppressed communities. May this be a wake up call to fight for the dignity, humanity, autonomy, justice and healing for oppressed caste communities. May this be a reminder of the reparations upper caste people owe oppressed caste people. May this invite you to rewrite history so that the same cycles of history and hatred are not repeated.

Khushboo is a multi-disciplinary artist and designer born and raised on Tongva Land (Los Angeles). Their creations engage with the journeys of their flesh/spirit, time/less-ness, ritual, flower splendor, the elements, challenging values of oppression, embodiment, rewriting internal & external narratives, detangling pain, dreams, and igniting wonder. They channel through painting, tattooing, graphic design, sensation activation + curation, textiles, installations, and dance, creating lush worlds around saturated loving, healing and existing… new ways of flowing, being, seeing, connecting. Their work is guided by shifting paradigms, transformation, metaphysical spiritual exploration, intuition, creating autonomous affirming spaces that center justice, liberation, love.

Their practice has been an ever flowing journey of constant learning, flowering since 2010. They are interested in reflecting the deep connections between the personal, political, and spiritual. Their work has been and is shaped + informed by decolonization and debrahmanization, anti-capitalist anti-racist organizing, abolition, ending caste apartheid & Islamophobia, Black liberation, queer and trans liberation work, disability justice frameworks, & healing+spiritual justice work~


The Art of Organizing with Anjali of Diaspoura

Anjali! I’m so happy to be here with you this morning/evening. Can you tell me how you’ve been feeling this week? 

Yes, me too!! I’m doing good at the moment! Feeling good with a couple of projects this week involving working with nice and real people. It can be so weird and lonely working solo on projects for extended periods and last week I was really feeling that! Especially working w ppl who share identities & values feels comfy and exciting at the moment 🙂

So good to know you are feeling safe and cozy in the spaces you’re working in right now. If you were to use your five senses to describe your spirit, what would it sound, look, smell, taste, feel like?

That is a great question. Wellll… sounds like cicadas and crickets chirping at the moment. I’ve been hardcore living a country life lately. Looks like when you’re riding in a car and you’re staring at moving trees and it all just looks gradient green and blue, blurry but meditative. It smells like really sweet and spicy lovely fragrant pussy. Tastes like very gingery masala chai. Brewing a cup every morning has brought me spirit for so long. I just found some fresh lemongrass I’ve been chopping into it lately. Mhm. And feels like velour. I’m wearing a velour turtleneck.

I’m hearing spicy, smooth, settled yet stimulated. I love learning of the intricate details that make up how artists I love feel. It reminds me of how I first stumbled upon your work – the first time I ever engaged with your work was through Sonia Prabhu, who is our amazing designer at Studio Ānanda, they were sharing the music video for Glisten. This was before I knew anything about Diaspoura or anything about you, sweet Anjali – but something about that track and the visuals were so hypnotic to me and it became a song I meditated to, worked to, cried to, danced to. Then I met you in person one day in the Playground Annex and you were telling me about a Spotify walk out you were organizing and I was so struck by the duality of your art making – how you are very much walking the walk. 

How does art making inspire your organizing, and how does organizing inspire your art making?

Wow, thank you so much for this joyful affirmation and acknowledgement of the efforts that I’ve tried so hard to merge into an artform or whatever. An interdisciplinary course of sorts. The projects I’ve released have been put out very intentionally and it feels so good to have that translate over to folks watching and listening. Grassroots organizing was the way I came into songwriting and publishing. I was the youngest of our organizing cohort, and my co-organizers were truly some badass queer mentors… They and the youth I worked with helped me believe in myself while dreaming for a radically different society. My first performances were during our after school program or fundraisers for it. 

There are a lot of break-through revelations I had in that moment, and continue to have, which I don’t find a ton of representation for in the art and music world. Traumaporn (the project Glisten was on) was a concept I conjured out of that desire. Community banning together and leaving toxic systems in the dust. Breaking format in the art world, and creating projects that could bring my loved ones closer to me and each other. Organizing has harvested the lessons I bring to my art, and my art has nourished me to sustain the effort of organizing. I’m imagining a spiral outwards and hoping it will keep going.. Cycling into each other. It’s definitely much easier to look back at it than to be in it. Am i making sense??

Wow – yes. So much of this work is so process oriented and moves at varying paces, stepping back only really ever happens once the process comes to an end to a degree.

It’s so beautiful learning about how grassroots communities have nourished and fostered you from such an early age. How do you avoid burn out when you do this work? Around the time that the whole world seemed like it was organizing this year, there was so much collective anxiety where folks were feeling exhausted by the amount of work that needed to be done, a lot in the community going above and beyond and not necessarily taking care of themselves in the process. But to create new worlds, we need rest, we need rejuvenation and moments of stillness and quiet. How do you incorporate that into your practice?

Absolutely, I hear you. Burnout is it’s own war to end. I truly think it matters where we’re putting the energy we devote, and moving with intention can radically shift the amount of drainage and suffering we feel with this heavy, seemingly enormous, work. It is so important to notice how much being in right relationship with (1) each other, (2) the land, and (3) ourselves can make it easier for us. Spreading hope, living our dreams, and modeling authenticity, integrity, and wholeness is a part of this work just as much as action-planning, demonstrating, fundraising, and educating. I think an analysis of the work we’re doing, moving away from charity models and indulging in trauma porn (wink wink), embodying our values with the things we already find pleasure in doing for others (and being anti-capitalist about it, not commodifying the movement) – that can be a very healing and rewarding journey that doesn’t involve getting burnt out and shutting down to forget about reality.

Eee yessss. Slowing down to really meditate on what we are called to instead of blindly jumping into anything and everything without intentionality. You touched on intentionality earlier and I truly do believe that with organizing, if it isn’t mindful and thoughtful, that’s when burn out appears. 

As we come to an end, I want to extend such a huuuuuuuuge heart of gratitude, Anjali – for all the ways you’re helping me, personally, understand myself and the world around me more. 

We usually end our interviews by asking, what are 3 – 4 things helping you stay grounded lately.

Thank you, Prinita!! On that note, it is so enjoyable to witness your journey and practice – building beautiful loving community through Studio Ananda and beyond. I am excited for you and our friendship! I’m counting that as something keeping me grounded. Some other things… Innervisions by Stevie Wonder has really grounded me this week. What a liberating album. The 3 cats I get to see in my COVID-pod and their wildly different personalities are definitely grounding. Cats have such clear boundaries and offer some real mentorship for confidence-boosting!! And long-distance running has been grounding me as a personal routine, although it feels like I’m flying off the ground when I get into it. Feeling my breath get hard and being able to sustain it is so rewarding! <333

Anjali Naik is the singer, songwriter, electronic producer, and new media artist behind Diaspoura. Raised in a highway hotel in rural South Carolina, Diaspoura brings forth a fresh perspective at the intersections of the poor, Brown, and gay South, while collaborating with other independent talents locally and beyond borders. Follow Anjali here. 

Quarantine Queries and the Complexities of South Asianness

Hi Fabliha!

Hey! I just finished up dinner. 

What was for dinner?

Fish head curry and rice- typical of me as a Bangladeshi but fish is delicious. Can anyone really blame me for wanting to have seafood everyday? 

MM I’m drooling. Do you cook a lot?

Before quarantine, the only “dish” I could make was instant ramen with some chopped veggies (I know it’s considered a “struggle meal”, the concept itself inherently being classist and elitist, but to be completely honest, I find myself craving it sometimes! Instant ramen is delicious when it’s done right!) but now that I’ve been home all day, I found myself wanting to learn how to cook. My mother and I have spent so much time together in the kitchen recently and it’s one of my most beautiful memories I have from this past year. Together, we made shingaras from scratch and so many other delicious Bangladeshi dishes. I never wanted to learn how to make Bengali food because of how stressful it was. So many steps and spices, it all seemed so intimidating. But there’s such a beautiful ritual that comes with it. Cooking now is such a joyful act of nourishing oneself — physically and mentally.  

This is so lovely to hear. You write a lot about your relationship or your dynamic with your mother, so to know that you’ve spent the last few months connecting through food, a shared act of care is so moving. What was it like initially being in quarantine with family, and how do you feel about it now? I just moved back to Sydney but I was in Brooklyn till September – I moved back home with my parents for two months and there were so many moments of joy and frustration that I’m still moving through. How are you feeling about it all at this present moment?

I feel like I’ve been preparing all my life for quarantine. Throughout my life, I didn’t have many friends. I was always considered a loner and made my first friend group when I was 18. I remembered spending all of my summers throughout my youth indoors, scrolling away on Tumblr, binge watching angsty coming of age films, and watching my peers in envy as they relished themselves in adventurous girlhood which I desperately craved. So from middle school to early college, the majority of my life was always spent indoors. When quarantine first began, I watched my friends struggle and felt suffocated. But to me, it all felt so familiar. I adapted quickly because it was all I’ve ever known. 

When it comes to my parents, my relationship with them became strengthened but also strained. I believe it’s because this past year, I have transformed into the person I’ve always wanted to be. I wondered why I was able to drastically change, but I think it’s because I have allowed myself to be confident as I am away from the public eye. I am no longer subjected to the public’s perception or conditioning. But that also comes with extreme anxiety, as the person I’ve dreamt of being, is not the daughter my parents have always hoped for. In my time in quarantine, I came to terms with my gender, my dreams, and what I want from the world — all of which are things my parents are most fearful of. 

When quarantine first happened, my desires for the world, my gender identity, and so much more had started to piece together — all of which are things my parents fear the most. At first this realization had made me become distant from them as a way to survive and protect myself. However, months later, the sadness, frustration and the grudge I held against them dissolved. For the very first time in my life, the difference in our opinions of how I should live my life made me look at my mother and father as humans, not my parents. Like me, they too have desires. When desires are not met, it is extremely painful and bitter. All of which I am dealing with as well. I have been able to recognize that we’re not so different after all, a realization that is beautiful but gut-wrenching all at the same time.  

In this present moment, I’m still processing how much I’ve changed this past year.. A part of me, like my parents, is a bit fearful of how much I transformed. However, I feel so incredibly invigorated as well.

The confidence you move with, be it through your writing or the way you’re able to organize various community initiatives, is so inspiring – Fabliha. I remember coming across your work years ago, even before I moved to New York and thinking, wow, it’s cool to see this mirror being held up through Fabliha’s work and presence online. And now to see your evolution, it really gives me so much hope and comfort knowing that other queer South Asian folks have blueprints they can hold on to. 

It’s always so jarring how the anxiety we feel as we become more fully ourselves is one that arises as a protection mechanism – protecting our parents from, as you said, what they are fearful of. But in the background of understanding and coming into yourself, you’re not only nourishing your own journey but also the journey of others – and here I’m thinking particularly of your work with the South Asian Queer Trans Collective (SAQTC). Can you tell me a little about this organization and how it has evolved? And what does your family think about your organizing work?

Thank you so much! It means so much coming from you. I mainly use social media to just speak into the void, so sometimes I forget that real people actually view what I post online and that they’re not pixels or Sims living in my phone!

As for SAQTC, the creation of the collective begins with the journey of coming out. I came out when I was 18 to my closest friends and basically the whole world online. I am still currently not out to my parents so the Internet became a way for me to express myself and find community. 

To celebrate this identity that I finally came to terms with, I decided to start getting out of my comfort zone and go to South Asian queer artsy events in New York City. For me, this was a huge step and was a way to not only find community but also hopefully find more of myself. But instead, I was met with extreme judgement. This experience was also around the time that my mother became sick and my family had become the poorest we have ever been and we were being flooded with medical bills. I had just taken a gap year from college as I had to step up to take care of my mother. As a result, I became the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life and my skin was filled with large pores and acne. My physical appearance was a reflection of the stress and turmoil my life was overwhelmed with. 

However, I never knew that this would act as a barrier from love from the community I yearned for the most. Time and time again, at every event I would go to in hopes of making friends and finding comfort, I would find myself isolated from other South Asian queers. I vividly remember them looking at me up and down, judgement lingering in their eyes as they stared at my acne, stomach, and stains on my sweater, their lips pursed in disgust. I had realized that their respect and kindness was only reserved for those that fit into their agenda or aesthetic. When I came out, I had imagined that I would be celebrated and have queer folks accept me with open arms. But purely based on how I looked, I was rejected, yet again. 

Months later, I had started to become closer with another Bengali girl that I had met in a summer program in high school. We had become each other’s first queer Bengali friend and it transformed our lives forever. I finally found someone that had understood me and for the first time, I wasn’t alone. Our friendship made me yearn for more, but I was unsure how to, as going to community events was no longer an option for me.

Since then, I have heard numerous stories from people that have faced the same judgement and isolation that I experienced and I realized this was a recurring pattern. The rejections and my first queer friendship inspired me to organize the South Asian Queer + Trans Collective , a space where everyone could feel like they belonged. Through SAQTC  I wish to spread tenderness, unconditional love and warmth, something that my closest queer friends have taught me. As for my parents, they have no clue what I do! Whenever I have a virtual meeting or am hosting an event, I just tell them I’m hanging out with friends — which isn’t exactly a lie!

Wow ok. So much of what you’ve just shared is heartbreaking and exhilarating because of how resonant it is — and, I am so sorry you had to deal with such vile behaviour. It’s so strange how intergenerational the gatekeeping goes within the South Asian community. In the same way that we are surveilled by aunties, we are surveilled by our peers who we assume are on our side and moving towards collective liberation.

I’m so glad to hear you have a close group of friends who have been able to sustain and nourish you. I guess with the case of South Asia, we have so many layers of oppression to deal with. Which of course does not make any of the current behaviour exempt – but we’re talking about folks in the community who have been raised in families marked by caste, class, gender and racial trauma. What do you think it’s going to take for our South Asian peers to drop the gatekeeping, to become cognizant of the repeating patterns within our social circles? 

I think about collective liberation all the time and wonder if the revolution will ever truly happen in our lifetime. It’s so easy for us to talk and have discussions about our steps towards liberation, but it’s another to practice the steps to make it happen. It’s so painful to look inward and escape the gatekeeping or systems placed onto us when it has been engraved deep into our spirit since birth. I don’t feel anger towards those that have projected their conditioning onto me, because I honestly feel like they can’t help it. It’s what we’ve been taught and the systems we live in continue to uphold it. What does it mean to break it? What does liberation even look like for all? Am I like the people that have hurt me too? I ask myself this everyday. 

I can’t help but feel so fucking frustrated. I think as a marginalized community living in the West, the Western society has placed us in a box and subdued our identities. The reality is, our communities have historically savagely murdered and enslaved each other. Even right in this moment. So while knowing all of these things, what does community truly mean when there’s so much pain and loss involved? What does healing even look like living in the diaspora while I am in community with other South Asian identities whose family members are the reason for my pain? I’m still grappling with all of these things. I think what it will take for our South Asian peers to drop the gatekeeping and move forward is to acknowledge where their behavior stems from and take accountability for the histories they were involved in. 

This makes so much sense. How are we expected to move forward together when we can’t look back with responsibility at all the chaos caused by our own communities against each other? I think even lumping ‘South Asian’ into a whole can be so flattening at times when there isn’t room for nuanced explanation. It’s so sticky because we are humans searching for meaning, searching for community and belonging and I think for me personally, my journey through spirituality has really been a reckoning with understanding our ancestry for all of it’s good and bad – and seeing how we can learn from the failures and successes with the next generation. These are some really huge realizations to be having and facing daily, what are a couple of things you’ve been turning to, whether it be a book, a meal, a ritual, that have helped you stay grounded amidst moving through these reckonings?

So true! Our South Asian identity is so complex and painful. I’ve had these realizations this past year, which I guess happens when you’re home all day and no longer have distractions from your deepest thoughts. To be frank, the journey of these realizations had resulted in a lot of messy feelings — mostly anger. But I have come to understand that anger is one of the most pivotal and powerful factors in healing. Anger has such a vital role towards individual and even collective healing. It’s frightening but exhilarating as well.  

To ground myself from this inner reckoning, I’ve been turning to journaling and writing. I’ve been journaling since I was 13 years old. I think this became a habit of mine out of loneliness but I stopped journaling last year when I started to make a close group of friends. This year in quarantine, I started writing again and remembered why I loved it so much. It allows me to purge and cleanse my spirit. The ritual in writing my thoughts away is so satisfying because I know that I could write whatever I want without the public’s perception. I could be as messy, unfiltered, embarrassing and pathetic I want. It’s such a cathartic feeling that I will never get over. It helps me express my anger and sadness without ever having to wonder if it’s too much for people to handle, which is something I always fear. Being unhinged in private is such a grounding experience for me. 

I have also been playing around with clay art! There’s something so magical about forming something with your very own hands. It’s wonderful to make something that was originally a blob of clay transform into something magnificent! I usually watch a movie in the background and make a wonky creation. Tonight, I’m making a dalmatian print clay pot while watching Perks of Being a Wallflower for the millionth time 🙂 

Fabliha Anbar (she/them) is a 21-year-old writer and community organizer based in New York City. They are the youth coordinator for Arts & Democracy where their main focus is cultivating a safe environment for immigrant youth to creatively express themselves through art and culture. Fabliha is also the founder of the South Asian Queer + Trans Collective, a grassroots collective for the South Asian and Indo- Caribbean lgbtq+ diaspora. They have been featured in multiple publications such as Teen Vogue, Vice, NBC News, Rookie, and more. Fabliha utilizes the many facets of their identity in their writing and believes storytelling is a powerful tool to heal souls.

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