SHAKTI: Art. Power. Social Justice
Mohini Malhotra, Senior Advisor

"shakti" by Erina Tamrakar
The power (shakti) of women when they come together to form a community, surrounding the tree of life.

Poverty is harsh, and it is harsher to women and girls. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate are women. Sixty percent of the chronically hungry are women and girls. Equality feels like a distant reach, as women have to fight for the basics: the right to drive, the right to inheritance, the right to open a bank account without a male signature, the right to own land, and to have a say in household decisions. The World Economic Forum of 2017 said that at the current pace, gender economic equality is another 170 years away.  

Yet, the thing I have become most aware of as a development economist, is that in the face of poverty, it is the women who inspire with hope, resilience, and power.  They form communities; they teach each other how to tap into power lines and get electricity so their kids can study at night, so they can stitch more clothes, prepare more food to sell at bus-stop stalls, weave more baskets, or whatever activity they pursue to increase their income; they co-mother each other’s children; they train as community health workers; they form savings and loan groups, attesting for each other’s character in lieu of collateral. 

Traveling the world gives the privilege to collect beautiful art and crafts – for me, doing so, is a tribute to the culture I’m invited into as a guest, a glimpse into what artists and writers as truth-tellers care about, and to admire craft traditions and skills passed on across generations.  Art fosters understanding or empathy with other perspectives, has the ability to create community for others who live the story or theme, or it can be about outrage and a means of social protest.  In art, as in just about every domain, the visual narratives by female artists are often not being heard or seen. I was curious to learn more about the stories that women artists from around the world wish to tell through their art, what themes matter to them, and several emerge:


Sheelasha Rajbhandari (Nepal) calls out the plight of child brides. 37 percent of girls in Nepal, 76 percent of girls in Niger, one in three girls in the developing world, and 700 million women alive today were married before the age of 18, with their aspirations and opportunities stunted.


As a child of war, Ghadeer (Jordan) pulls together collages on fragments of found newspapers and old texts. Her theme of Memories of War and Love, mixes anguish, loneliness, hope and all the complex emotions tangled in that space between war and love.  


Lipi’s sculptures of razor blades speak to violence against women in her country, Bangladesh, where every other woman is affected, and one in three women globally.

Megha Joshi’s work, red challenges religious rituals in India that deem women unclean and impure while they menstruate.

Jigna Ohja’s Inside Story breaks taboos of what’s appropriate to talk about or paint in a patriarchic culture.


Muuji (Mongolia) , diptych,  Freedom.


Saurganga (Nepal) in her work Nature, questions how or why we ascribe power and hierarchy, when nature intended for equality between men and women, sun and moon, color and shadow.


Indigenous Mexican women in Oaxaca paint the hummingbird, a carrier of messages of love and hope between the departed and the living, on hand-made paper, in a tradition spanning generations.


I started shakti, ( as a social venture a few years ago to find that sweet spot between art, women, and development.  Just as poverty treats women more harshly, the art world excludes or minimizes women’s work and stories.  Yet, the stories that women artists were sharing were the very issues that concerned us as development economists, and low-income women around the world were pulling together to find their own solutions and support, while policies failed or excluded them. The idea was to bring these fragments together. 

We curate art with stories by female artists from around the world, and auction the art to raise funds to improve women and girls’ lives.  Through shakti art auctions, Nepali artists have helped raise funds for low-income minority women in the US to attend college.  Palestinian artists have helped provide legal services to immigrant women facing gender-based violence in the US.  Indian artists have helped raise funds to provide health services for women across Africa. Artists from around the world have helped raise funds to keep Nepali girls in school to prevent them from being trafficked. 

Shakti means power. The power to make our community and our world more just and more equal. In that shared quest, we build community with IMAGO.