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Thava Pillay : Curating Culture


Thava Pillay is an academic, lecturer, artist and a nomadic spirit. She is one of the most travelled and culturally versed intellectuals I have met. Born in Greenwood Park, Durban in the late sixties, during the apartheid era, she was one of four siblings. Her father was a teacher and her mother a housewife. As a young girl she aspired toward the arts, but was aware that her parents could not fund studies within this discipline. Previously disadvantaged communities viewed the arts as frivolous and difficult to sustain a living from. Thava explains within the historic context of her blog, that the Indian resilience and work ethic was due to the cruel system of indentured labour, the grueling physical demands placed on men, women and even children in those early days. When emancipation was achieved generations later, higher education, professions and jobs were sought in fields that would result in secure wages that could sustain families and extended families. Entrepreneurs and businessman that entered the country as ‘Passenger Indians’ rarely entered the arts field, due to limited opportunities at universities, being predominantly white. Thava attests religious and cultural conservatism as another reason why the arts was considered an unappealing pursuit for most Indians.


As a young woman she compromised and opted for a diploma in Fashion Design at the then ML Sultan Technikon, now referred to as the Durban Institute of Technology. The fashion design course promised a working career whilst providing comprehensive art classes in drawing and design. Although her diploma afforded her a lectureship to teach aspects of art, design and art history at private institutes, Thava’s passion for the arts was not satiated. She furthered her studies in art history which emanated in a Masters degree from the University of South Africa. Her extensive research regarding Indian artists and the diaspora prompted trips to India and delving deep into Indian South African identity and history. Thava compares her search for South African Indian artists to ‘hunting for treasure’, she soon realized that only a minute portion of artists were given a side note in the countrys’ collective history. The more concerning gaps and pitfalls she experienced gathering her data, the more she was convinced that a platform was needed to showcase existing artists, both past and present, before they disappear into the multicultural minority mist.


Thava’s blog, aptly entitled ‘Curating Culture’ features the work of Indian South African academics and artists, those who are highly esteemed and those who produce art as a personal expression of identity, place and belief. Her ideology is that of inclusivity and acknowledgment of artistic activity and the sacredness of the personal narrative through visual art. ‘Curating Culture’ now acts as a much- needed repository for our small, yet valuable collection of art produced by South African Indian artists. Thava’s efforts has afforded my current study on contemporary Indian South African identity, critical touch points with artists and their work. Her research has leveraged me to construct a more cohesive and collective understanding of my Indian culture and heritage. In appreciation for our academic scaffolding, I intend to pay it forward by initiating a Chatsworth [1] school's outreach program, which will provide information to specifically high school students. This information will include tertiary opportunities within art and design institutes, as well as job potential within the various fields, including entrepreneurial and online work. This initiative will hopefully encourage more Indian youth to enter and participate within the creative fields in South Africa. The current COVID induced economic slump and job scarcity must be addressed by both public and private entities if we are to survive. As a lecturer and art practitioner I feel positive that the arts have the potential to provide specialized pockets of self-employment for individuals, as well as invigorate nation building.


Thava Pillay, together with previous academics, who have focused on the preservation of the fragmented and politicized history of Indian South Africans, have taken on the tentative and meticulous task of ‘curating’ our culture and documenting snippets of our history. I'm humbled and grateful.


Curating Culture features the work of Dr. Sharlene Khan, Dr. Avitha Sooful, Amita Makan, Shenaaz Mohamed, Andrew Nair, Vedant Nanackchand, Usha Seejarim, Lalitha Jawahirilal, Reshma Chhiba, Ranjith Kally, Nabeeha Mohammed, Alka Dass, Sarojani Naidoo, Hiten Bawa, Faiza Galdhari, Kiren Thatiah, Zainab Reddy and Lutchman and Ramsamy Pillay.


[1] Chatsworth is an Indian township, located in Durban, South Africa. The legislature of the ‘Group areas act’ during the apartheid era, restricted people of Indian descent to this geographic location.

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