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Issue 005 Winter 2023 Profiles

Osheen Siva’s Hopeful, Gooey Futurism

By Rohini Kejriwal

Osheen Siva photographed by Rohini Kerjiwal.

A self-taught illustrator and muralist from Thiruvannamalai, India, Osheen Siva imagines a brave new world of decolonized dreamscapes
and narratives of queer power.

Inspired by sci-fi, pop culture, Afrofuturism, and her Tamil Dalit heritage, Siva creates surreal illustrations that envision an inclusive and progressive society—a utopian future universe in which “gooey, mutated alien things in outer space, underwater, and the unknown bask in their unique feminine energy,” as she puts it.

The rich hues of reds, blues, and greens; thick, black brush-pen strokes; and otherworldly, futuristic mutants first made an appearance in the sketchbook pages she posted online in 2015 and 2016. Something was definitely brewing. But it was only after quitting her job as a graphic designer in New Delhi that she could fully embrace illustration as a practice, leaning on online art communities such as DeviantArt, Tumblr, and early Instagram to get her work out. “I always doodled at the back of my exam sheets and notebooks in school but never thought you could make a career out of it,” she told me when I visited her blue house in Goa, where she is currently based. I was imagining someone wholly different when a smiling Siva invited me in, offered me a glass-filter coffee, and showed me the wall inside her home that she was painting that afternoon.

In March 2020, just weeks before India went into lockdown, Siva moved to Goa. Not knowing anybody around, she turned inwards and started deepening her illustration practice, channeling her yearnings of escapism and restlessness into art that exists at the intersection of femininity, sexuality, gender, speculative fiction, and the representation of marginalized communities.

One of the most instant connections that can be seen as an Indian viewer of her work is Siva’s inspiration from her hometown of Vellore, Tamil Nadu, particularly in the choice of pastels and strong reds and blues predominant in her work. While she has spent time abroad, much of her work is inspired by the temples, the act of shringar, or adornment, of women warriors and goddesses, her grandmother’s jewels, and mythological reinterpretations of her Tamilian culture and heritage.

Osheen Siva, Providers & Protectors (2019), mural, courtesy of the artist.

Nearly every work is underlined with Tamilfuturism, be it in the depiction of brown skin or of flowers in the hair, which Siva informs is linked to her explorations around her own identity as a Tamil Dalit woman. “I have a volatile, confusing identity with my religion, family, and heritage, because my family is staunchly religious and I’m not,” she notes, adding that self-expression is at the core of her work. As a child, Siva was forced to visit temples and disliked the experience, but today she has turned such experiences into those of pleasure and visual curiosity to draw inspiration from the colors and symbolism. This visual lens allows her to navigate the dichotomies that exist within her roots, she says, adding, “That’s also why I like creating creatures and mutants that have a plurality to them.”

One of the strongest nods to this dichotomy is her 2018 series Space Heads, in which Siva created futuristic heads inspired by South Indian motifs, mythologies, and popular Tamilian temple architecture. If one looks closely, one can spot a Tamil woman with traditional jewelry in her hair and an expressive head of the demon king Ravana guised within her psychedelic retro spin and colors.

Osheen Siva, Space Heads (2018), courtesy of the artist.

Throughout her work, Siva strongly advocates for the role of art in amplifying voices that use visuals as a medium of education. “I belong to a Tamil Dalit community, and BIPOC issues are rarely seen in sci-fi. My art is a way to introduce visuals and highlight issues that the global South are familiar with. It’s about reclaiming our collective history and imagining a more hopeful future,” she explains.

One of the most important aspects of Siva’s work and its particular relevance today is her take on Tamilfuturism and its sister movement Afrofuturism, “the reimagining of a future filled with arts, science, and technology seen through a Black lens,” as Jamie Broadnax put it.1 As someone who knew little about Afrofuturism, the more I read, the more parallels I drew to Siva’s art. Tamilfuturism, too, envisions a more just world through a Tamil Dalit lens. Siva’s approach to Tamilfuturism, which, like Afrofuturism, is rooted in the experiences of oppressed people due to geopolitical reasons, aims to reclaim and celebrate her Tamil Dalit ancestry and culture. Inspired by her own queer identity and expression, her interpretation offers a visual language for her community to relate to and to make them feel seen.

Few people know this, but Siva also runs an Instagram page called @tamil.veedu (which translates to Tamil house), a visual archive of Tamil experiences, from Dalit feminist authors such as P. Sivakami, who advocated for anti-caste representation, and women such as Annai Meenambal Shivaraj, the first Scheduled Caste woman president of the All India Scheduled Castes Federation started by Dr. Ambedkar in 1942. The page also highlights Tamil comics, typography, and architecture.

“I’m obsessed with hand-painted signs in South India. It’s a feeling of home,” she notes. “In my own practice too, I love exploring Tamil typography. I’m bad at spellings, so my father checks them and it feels like a father-daughter collaboration.” In 2019, Siva furthered her curiosity about Tamil typography in her series MUGAM as daily explorations of everyday emotions told through the lens of Tamil type. She also explored a series of beef chili typographic posters inspired by the food stalls in South India.

Siva at home in Goa. Photo by Rohini Kejriwal.

Interestingly, such bold lines and otherworldly, surreal vibes were not always Siva’s style. Her early sketches and brush pen experiments from 2016 and 2017 did have extra eyes and the same fluid quality as her current work, but the characters felt more familiar and earthly, such as the Cosmo Manithan series she made in 2018. Arriving at her current style was a slow, reflective process involving much introspection and going inwards.

Siva is often asked whether the works are self-portraits. “They aren’t, but I feel like everything I do has a little bit of me as physical attributes or personality traits,” she says. “At a personal level, I like experimenting with strong makeup and painting my clothes. I see fashion and makeup as extensions of one’s personality, so it’s fun to become the canvas yourself.” As her practice deepened and she found her comfort zone visually, she started exploring new mediums such as murals and fine art. “My style and the overall context is the same across mediums. I love murals because you get to learn on the go and it’s really meditative,” says Siva, whose murals are rooted in different sociocultural realities.

Osheen Siva, Unity (2019), mural, courtesy of the artist.

The mural Protectors and Providers (2020), for instance, drew inspiration from Chennai’s local fisherfolk communities, where women play a dual role as providers and protectors of households and society. In this piece, she incorporated local traditions such as Kolam patterns as tattoos and olive ridley turtle–inspired earrings worn by the protagonist. The image of the mural was later made into a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Closer to home, Unity (2019) shows young women wearing galaxy-containing bindis as their armor as the caretakers of our future. The presence of the cosmos is a leitmotif in the dreamworlds Siva builds, where many-eyed mutated women defy the conventions of gender and sexuality and exist authentically.

“I see dreams as a portal into the unconscious mind,” says Siva, who has been drawing her vivid dreams since 2019 as Strange Dreams, Vols. 1 & 2. The digital illustrations began as an experiment within the constraints of a four-panel wordless strip, and Siva used this short comic format as a series to portray her personal experiences of her dreams and nightmares caused by social anxiety, sleep paralysis, and her struggles with everyday routines.

“In the dream state, there is space for different organisms and communities to coexist,” she says. “That’s why I add a bit of the galaxy to all my artworks, because it signifies that we’re all in this together. . . . We’re small aspects of the bigger cosmos and universe.” One can see the glimpses of the galaxy in the illustration Pandemic Penn (2019), for instance, in which a lady floats in outer space with stars on her outfit.

Osheen Siva, Strange Dreams Vol.2 (2020), courtesy of the artist.

Siva emphasizes that the larger idea of her work is solidarity, community, and unity. Her debut solo show Inflorescence at Method Kala Ghoda, Mumbai, in August 2021 was a pure reflection of this. Inflorescence is the process of flowering in which a group or cluster of flowers stem from one stem. Siva used this as a metaphor to show how we all come from the same human and alien roots but support and flourish together. “I attempted to weave the fabrics of the past and present, of heritage and futurity through the exhibition,” she says. “I’m in an echo chamber online, so seeing the reactions of the general public was super interesting. It was funny to see interior designers coming with their clients and saying, ‘This painting doesn’t match my couch.’ I still don’t know too much about the art world and collectors, but I’m learning.”

While she still sees herself as an independent artist and continues to struggle with the typical woes of a freelance illustrator (read: wi-fi problems and cold emails that nobody ever replies to), the show was a way for the artist to understand her own values and beliefs, and to question what she wished to do next as an artist: “The curator Sahil [Arora] gave me full reins to explore, so I painted the gallery walls so it felt like one was truly stepping into my world. It also showed me how much scope is there for inclusion, diversity, and community in the art and design context. There’s so much texture to the Indian voice, but we’re still aping the West!”

There is much truth in Siva’s words. In contemporary Indian art, there are too many artists who look the other way when it comes to embracing their roots. In the sea of Indian artists, there are often either generics, who look the other way rather than embracing their Indian-ness, or traditionalists, who are still stuck painting flowers and village life.

The scene is rife with possibility to reimagine the narrative, and a closer look at Siva’s choice of collaborators reflects a synergy with others with similar mindsets who are also looking to flip this archaic narrative and infuse it with a new, fresher look and energy. Like her illustrations with queer organizations such as Gaysi Family—which provides a platform and safe spaces for the Desi LGBTQI+ community—and her editorial illustration for Zora, a Medium publication by and for women of color, to accompany a piece on the evolution of LGBT literature in India.

Another excellent alignment of her art with a cause was her 2022 illustration for Dalit Art Archive, which records histories on the intersections of caste and art, to amplify the work they’ve been doing. “We wanted to create a piece that’s immediately identifiable as belonging to the Dalit community. So we added visual elements from Dalit iconography and heritage like the thayyam mask, parai drum, and the Dalit Panthers,” she says.

Works by Osheen Siva photographed by Rohini Kerjiwal.

Siva’s work has attracted a lot of commissions from all quarters: from gigs with brands such as Vans, Gucci, and Converse to publications such as Lenny Letter and The New Yorker. One of my personal favorites is her poster for The New Yorker’s Mother’s Day edition in 2019, inspired by the Indian goddess Kali, an embodiment of shakti, or feminine energy. While some may find it blasphemous, I loved the tongue-in-cheek way in which Siva replaces the ancient elements in Kali’s hands with modern objects such as a smartphone and baby bottle to show how mothers juggle their work and home life.

Siva has also made illustrations for Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India (2020), from South Indian indie publishing house Blaft Publications, worked on comics used as tools by mental health counselors in government clinics to talk about taboo subjects such as sexual consent and mental health, and experimented with zines such as How to Deal, which talks about taking care of oneself in stressful and anxious situations.

But Siva’s big dream at the moment is to work on a full-length graphic novel and an animated piece. “I recently watched Memory: the Origins of Alien [2019], which deep-dives into the creative process of making the iconic film Alien through conversations with Dan O’Bannon, Ridley Scott, and H. R. Giger [who designed the alien itself]. It’s inspirational for me knowing these incredible people got together and made something so cool. Where’s my dream writer to work on my graphic novel with?” she jokes.

Dreams from the Futures, Chennai, Singapore, 2022, courtesy St-Art Indian Foundation and Singapore Tourism Board.

Yet one of the most extensive collaborations Siva worked on in 2022 was an interactive installation Dreams from the Futures, with designer Tina Fung of Singapore-based design studio Space Objekt. The two artist-designers blended traditional Tamilian and Singaporean cultural motifs and visual symbology to imagine new, inclusive futures of coexistence. The installation merged Peranakan motifs such as traditional tile patterns with classic Indian mudras (gestures) to examine a layered idea of coexistence. The juxtaposition of the traditional and futuristic cosmic elements helped build the narrative of linking the past and future and helped both artists understand the other’s culture better. “It’s made me curious about new media for creating more immersive experiences with my art,” Siva says.

Reflecting on how people perceive her work, Siva says: “People tend to love the work immediately because the facade is so colorful and bright. But in a Trojan horse kind of way, I project these bigger ideas of gender and sexuality into the work. I want it to have meaning even if people don’t get it. Visuals aren’t just about aesthetics; it has to stand for something! As an artist, I hope my work offers a different lens to see the world, to evoke a sense of wonder.”


1. Jamie Broadnax, “What the Heck Is Afrofuturism?,” HuffPost, February 16, 2018,