Kiveshan Thumbiran is a young artist whose artworks reflect his concerns with issues of identity especially as it relates to Indians and their sense of belonging within a South African society. He believes that his work, which draws on Hindu culture and folklore, serves as an invitation for others to engage with the culture of a minority group, something that most people seldom get a chance to do. His ideas are also influenced by Edward Said’s writings on Orientalism and Otherness. Said has often pointed out how eastern culture has consistently been adapted for the western palate and sensitivities.


Kiveshan Thumbiran

Thumbiran was born in the township of Lenasia in Johannesburg. Although he did not study art at school, he believed that he had an affinity for it; “Despite not having much access to art, I had decided while in school, that I was somehow meant for the creative field… I was very stifled… by the environment and despite not being able to afford outside art lessons, I taught myself using art books on drawing as I could find them” (Thumbiran, email interview) After an ‘arduous and traumatising’ first year at University, Thumbiran successfully obtained a Degree in Visual Arts from the University of Johannesburg. In 2020, he completed his Masters Degree, also at the University of Johannesburg. Thumbiran has shown his works at various group exhibitions, the most recent being the Turbine Art Fair in Gauteng, and Romancing the Stone at KZNSA in 2022. His artwork featured above, Ardhanarishvara, was a runner up at the DIMES Conference Exhibition at the Javett Art Centre in 2023. He is currently a lecturer in Photography and Media Studies at Stellenbosch University.


K. Thumbiran, Eat, Pray Love to make Money, Digital print (2023)

Thumbiran works primarily with digital art, although he believes his strengths as an artist are in drawing and sculpture. Digital art, he claims is a natural progression for him to stay ahead and move with the artworld.

His grandparents taught him extensively about the Hindu religion, culture and folklore when he was very young. These teachings strongly influence his current artworks, “Using Hindu mythology and iconography as tools for image making in my work, I create imagery that defies the idea that religion in art denotes zealot-like behaviour. Using figures, scenes and stories from my religion and culture. I look at ideas of post-apartheid and post democracy (sic) South Africa as a dystopian space.” (Thumbiran) In using these images and narratives, Thumbiran questions the current status of Indians in South Africa.

In the artwork, Eat, Pray, Love to make Money, Thumbiran looks at the commodification of the Hindu religion by the western world. Specifically, in this image he points out how Yoga, a discipline closely tied to ideas of religious practise has been co-opted.

“Yoga, originally, a practice  by the Hindu God Shiva as a form of meditation,… is now packaged and sold in the West by white people who claim to have learnt the arts from “Gurus” in India. The imagery behind this work is inspired by the Hindu deities Vishnu (the preserver) and Brahma the Creator. It is said that when Vishnu materialised, from his navel came a lotus flower, and that flower contained Brahma who was tasked with the creation of the Universe. Brahma refuses to accept that Vishnu is his progenitor and attempts to say that he created himself. In the work a stereotypical image of a “Guru” gives birth to a white woman who has convinced herself of (having) spiritual power and self-creation” (Thumbiran)

Thumbiran also points out other ways in which the Hindu culture is appropriated by the west, for example the festival of Holi is turned into a colour ‘fun’ run or party, while the concept of Karma is misunderstood by many as being a means to avenge personal vendettas.

K. Thumbiran, Honorable Ravan, Digital print (2019)

In the work, Honorable Ravan, Thumbiran references the evil, many headed monster that Hindus identify from the story of the Ramayana. Using multiple images of his own face, he has depicted Ravan as a politician, wielding a briefcase and sword.

Here, Thumbiran draws parallels between Ravan and the South African government. Ravan was a king who acquired power through much sacrifice and hard work. This power led to him becoming arrogant, corrupt and evil. The current South African government also acquired power through years of pain and sacrifice only to become corrupt and greedy. Thumbiran depicts Ravan – as the government with a mass of heads glued together by greed and a lust for power.

Thumbiran uses his own image in many of his works in order to make himself a part of the narrative. He says, “While it is easy to imagine ourselves as heroes of the story, I would like to question.. if I were in the governments shoes and come from a previously disadvantaged past, would I not take what I can while the getting is good?”

K. Thumbiran, Not Even A Needles width of Land, Digital print (2019)

In the above image, Not even a Needles width of Land, Thumbiran questions the role of South African Indians in the debate about land. He believes that as a group they are caught between the oppressed and the oppressor depending on their class and status. The image shows an army – Thumbiran in various guises- equipped with ancient Indian weapons and chariots and flying the South African flag. The opposing group is the apartheid regime of South Africa, flying the old flag.

K. Thumbiran, Digital print (2019)

In this artwork, Thumbiran references a story from the Mahabharat about the Pandava and the Kaurava princes over a dispute about land. ‘The Pandavas had their land stolen from them by their cousins. They were promised that after they faced exile they would get everything back. When they came back to get what was theirs, their cousins said ‘no’, and that basically drove the country into civil war. When asked about the land- one of the Kaurava princes said ‘Land? To those Pandavas? I won’t give them enough land to stick a needle in.’ ”(Thumbiran).

The struggle for power, land and riches is obviously not a new one since these struggles existed in ancient times as well. In South Africa these struggles are compounded by issues of race, class and colonialism. Indians in South Africa are often accused of being privileged and reluctant to stand up for issues that affect black people. Thumbiran quotes the example of the protest action for ‘fees must fall”, when many Indian students felt conflicted about joining in the protests. He believes that as a minority group, Indians do not often feel a sense of belonging in South Africa, “Indian people do not expressly fit into the mould of either racial group and are often othered in the greater scope of the country. Caught between the rage of the oppressed and the desperation of the oppressor’s legacy, we turn to stone until we can find the space in which we belong.” Thumbiran feels strongly that the sense of displacement and lack of belonging felt by Indian South Africans can only be understood when we use art and dialogue to interrogate these issues.


Kiveshan Thumbiran – email interview (4/05/2023)

Appasamy, Y. Kaliyu-topia:Displacement questioned at the end of days. Mail & Guardian.

Naidu D. Interview with Kiveshan Thumbiran. Urban Asian


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