Colonialism was a start-up

NBNW x Somnath Bhatt

By NorBlack NorWhite | Jul 29, 2020

In conversation with designer and artist Somnath Bhatt on his collaboration with NorBlack NorWhite. We explore language, typography, and the power of message with the come back of our favourite T-shirt.


NBNW: Let’s start with a little background about you and your work and how you culturally identify?

S: My practice at the moment is limited by geopolitical realities: my visa status and physical mobility. It’s important that anything I make be able to fit inside a 60lb suitcase, so I can easily carry it between the US and Ahmedabad. A lot of things I made in the past three years were foldable, perishable, lightweight.

Growing up in Ahmedabad was to live in a city constantly in the making and breaking. I was proximate to makers, objects, and stories that formed an exciting and messy hybrid of daily use, fantasy, craft traditions, rituals, and free market capitalism. The city had its own excellent museums, like the Calico Museum, but the streets were their own sort of exhibition space. Thousands of nameless vendors at phool bazaar and the ravivari market created and articulated a complex visual grammar to arrange and display flowers, fruits, electronics, textiles.

Until college, I had little formal training in art. I would mostly make experimental videos. I studied Graphic Design because it felt like the most versatile of all the disciplines, and design education taught me visual thinking, methodology, and systematisation that were broad enough to apply to many forms. But as useful as design education was, I also often found it boring and cruel.

Currently I am doing a fellowship in the Design department at the Walker Art Center, a contemporary art museum, where I often try to inject non-western design discourse once in a while – keeping Ahmedabad and India in mind. I also freelance on various design and art projects!

instagram, screenshot, somnath bhatt, colonialism was a start-up, collab, nbnw

Photo Courtesy Somnath Bhatt, Left to Right, Row 1: First post of the bag, Product Shot 1, T-shirt DIY | Row 2: Hussein modelling, Product Shot 2, Buying through DMs


NBNW: How did you formulate the phrase “Colonialism was a start-up”?

S: It was an homage to my peers and relatives and their obsession with tech start-ups. 

The project came out of my White Pube residency and conversations I was having at the time with my friend Tiger Dingsun. Going back in history, I thought about the colonial enterprise and the similarities between its violently entrepreneurial ideology and how start-ups act now. The first tote bag was a mock-up and posted online. Then I made an edition of twelve, and one person bought all of them. After graduating, I made fifty more and sold them to people who DM’ed me. NBNW saw Hawa Arsala carrying the bag at Complexcon and reached out to work on a T-shirt version of it… and here we are! 

instagram, screenshot, somnath bhatt, colonialism was a start-up, collab, nbnw

Photo Courtesy Somnath Bhatt, Left to Right, Row 1: NBNW discovers the bag at Complexcon, Hisham in T-shirt at SoleDXB, Somnath in Art Week Dubai | Row 2: Somnath with NBNW, Raneen, Mriga and Hussein, Hussein Modelling


NBNW: There’s a quote by Fariha Roisin in How to Cure a Ghost where she says “the greatest scam is colonisation” and she talks about how culture was stolen and sold back to us, while also making us feel inferior and it made me think about how it feeds into capitalist ideologies and the irony in Silicon Valley (the Mecca of start-ups) being saturated with South Asian immigrants- do you think this project correlates to that in anyway?

S: Colonialism was its own advanced technology, and since forms of power under patriarchal capitalism mimic each other, modern start-ups are often also founded on colonial impulses. I think my project correlates to anyone who subscribes to techno-solutionist notions uncritically – and yes, many of them can be South-Asian immigrants in Silicon Valley but it is also Baby Boomers back home too.

I would also like to mention here how in the last decade or so ‘Decolonisation’ albeit a powerful word, has gotten diluted from its original intentions. Very often when we speak of decolonising, we mean the post-colonial. I recommend reading this essay: Decolonization is not a metaphor by Eve Tuck and K.Wayne Yang. Ill-defined or vague “decolonisation” becomes its own form of a scam when used so liberally without any intention of abolishing the imperialist nation-state.


instagram, screenshot, somnath bhatt, colonialism was a start-up, collab, nbnw

Photo Courtesy Somnath Bhatt: The Phrase with Ankh


NBNW: With the resurgence of the BLM movement, there’s a lot of heavy-weight discourse on systemic racism being treated as a “trend” or marketing tactic and how it’s sanitised, simplified and packaged so that it’s easily digestible- how do you see this project sitting within this larger critique? And can you speak a little about the intent behind having that statement reproduced on totes and T-shirts?

S: My friend Marisa Nakasone once said that totes are the new Birkin. Tote bags are such fascinating objects because they’re super accessible, so tongue-in-cheek, and very serious at the same time. I liked the scale shift and almost inherent parody of having this huge, weighty message on a tote back set in Circular, this typeface that aged almost instantaneously from being new and fresh to being the default of all fake-friendly tech companies. I felt like it also spoke to two contemporary agents of colonialism, both brands and branding. So there was the shifting back and forth, the implication of both parties (the object itself and also the thing being flattened and packaged)… It all seemed appropriate and captured in the tote as a form.

instagram, screenshot, somnath bhatt, colonialism was a start-up, collab, nbnw


Photo Courtesy Somnath Bhatt, Left to Right: NBNW Test T-shirts, Small girl with the bag, Erickhart with the bag on IG


NBNW: In wearing or carrying the T-shirt or tote, have you gotten any memorable reactions out of it or were there any interesting conversations that were sparked because of it?

S: Especially in regards to the tote and t-shirt, the more I think of it the more I come to believe how language is pheromonal. The composition of five words, ‘Colonialism was a start-up.’ enabled and influenced and attracted a lot of behaviors. My friend was telling me how the bag is a meme, or a click-bait in person. However, I am glad it is like a spell, something I utter once in a while and all these actions set in motion. I am happiest when this phrase opens up room for discourse and questions rather than just ending up becoming merch.

The most memorable one was Bakriyah took the bag to West Bank – to comment on the Zionist business oriented settler project. 

The bag has made several rounds of various art fair circuits, spotted on commutes in public transports and ever so present on woke instagram. 

  somnath bhatt, colonialism was a start-up, collab, nbnw, delhi, shahpur jat

Photo Courtesy Somnath Bhatt: T-shirt fun in Delhi with MJ


NBNW: In present Covid times, has the exposed demonstration of the inherent systemic flaws of capitalism strengthened or evolved your thoughts on your initial intention of this project?

S: Well, first of all I am fortunate that I am collaborating on this project with my friends – Mriga and Amrit and not some Corporate Executive VP during a pandemic.  In times of distress and precarity friends are looking after each other. I am also very surprised that this project has had such a prolonged life.

At the same time I ask myself: 

Once we are no longer in lockdown, will there be a bigger push for remote virtual work, automation, and accelerationist tech ideology that disregard and destroy the lives of people who engage in other forms of labor? What will migritude look like? Will the limitation of movement necessitated by lockdown encourage nativists and nationalists to reify borders for their own violent purposes?

I fear we will come out of this in a very different world, a more controlled, surveilled and opaque world—a world with a very bitter taste.


Follow Somnath on Instagram at @m0henjodaro



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