Machinery of Oppression – Bay Area Artist draws attention from Museums

By Sonia Dhami, a trustee at The Sikh Foundation International based in Palo Alto, California.


“Witnessing the crumbling stature of the American presidency and the resulting social disruption inflicted upon the public, particularly communities of color, I saw an entire machinery of oppression unraveling before my eyes,” says artist Rupy C. Tut, a Bay Area resident.

Sonia Dhami

Colonialism has wrecked large parts of the world. Even decades later, its effects continue to be felt. Rupy was interested in “tracing the roots of oppression to colonialism and to injustices associated with immigration.” Her work started as an “exploration of these two components in fueling the historic oppression of different communities in America.”

The presence, in the painting, of both the Republican and Democratic mascots, high up in the clouds, makes this work rise above partisanship and really address America as a nation, symbolized by the chained eagle.

She further adds “Within my own South Asian community, I closely observed how colonial oppression, in the form of patriarchal systems and values, trickled down and created unjust circumstances for specific community groups, particularly women.”

This is portrayed in the bent figures of the women bearing the pressure points of the palanquin. The oppressed sections of society, wherever they may be in the world, continuously feed the oppressor, who ironically cannot exist without the continuous sustenance that it sucks from them.

Rupy has endeavored to express, “how this machinery of oppression morphs into cycles of oppression and carries forward hundreds of years of neglect, hate, and suppression within our communities is the question that I sought to answer.” This is what she hoped the audience will reflect upon as they view the work and take in it’s various nuances.

As we look closely at the work, we see the familiar burgers and fries as well as a bowl of saag and a pile of rotis topped by a goblet of coke (?). The artist believes that, “norms of cultural tolerance within the United States have included embracing food and commodifying the traditional aesthetics of individual cultures into mainstream American culture. Such characteristics of consumer greed and appetite, combined with a dismissal of justice for the cultural communities being appropriated in the process, are represented by the enlarged figure in the painting.”

This painting also challenges the art world and the levers that control it. The lofty halls of these cultural institutions too are representative of another type of oppression. One which is not so black and white.

A landmark study published in the journal PLoS One analyzed more than 40,000 works of art detailed in 18 major U.S. museums’ online catalogs and found that 85 percent of artists featured are white, and 87 percent are men. This is a shocking statistic, which speaks volumes on the lack of artistic diversity in our cultural institutions.

Rupy’s personal experience speaks when she writes – “As an immigrant, a woman, a naturalized American citizen, and an artist, I have interacted with themes of oppression on a personal level. Postcolonial narratives of upholding the “white colonizer” as an authority even on traditional Indian art forms is prevalent within the art world. As a response, and without diluting the traditional process of my work, I have created this work of art to challenge

Eurocentric value judgments placed on traditional art forms in the art world.”

Through one piece of work, the status quo on many levels is challenged.

Art does have the power to say the unspeakable.


[Credit: Quotes from artist Rupy C. Tut on “Machinery of Oppression” are as published in the Fine Arts Magazine Fall 2020 edition by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco featuring four artists from the 762 who are part of The de Young Open, currently on view at the de Young Museum until January 3, 2021.]

[Above photo:MACHINERY OF OPPRESSION”, Rupy C. Tut, 2019, 25 X 34 in Natural pigments and shell gold on handmade hemp paper, Surinder Kaur Dhami Family Collection.]