feminism

featured culturalist: libyan poet and author farrah fray 

part of the 4-part interview series for issue #5: "reclaiming empowerment"

Portrait of Farrah courtesy of the artist 

Portrait of Farrah courtesy of the artist 

Like many of the women in the arts that inspire me, I met Farrah online. Farrah is a Libyan author, poet and artist based in London. She recently published a poetry collection titled "The Scent of My Skin" that explores culture, displacement, feminism and what it means have grown up in Libya and London. Farrah is also an editor for Banat Collective and a contributor to Khabar Keslan, below is our interview with her: 

Hi Farrah! Tell us a little bit about yourself (the facts and the quirks!)

Hi! Well I’m a Libyan author and creative based in London. I’m 23 and I also study translation; a quirk, hmm- I really like cliches! In the sense of taking a cliche and rendering it to its absolute extreme to make a point about things; I’m a sucker for t shirts with “LOVE 4 EVER” and that kinda thing.

As an artist, writer, and poet, how does your heritage/identity influence your work?

Being Libyan influences my work so much! Even if what I’m writing isn’t quintessentially Libyan or about Libya, somehow it becomes about Libya and being a Libyan diaspora. My thoughts, feelings, and experiences are informed by my background and journey; your identity follows you wherever you go, so it’s definitely really present in my work.

Source: www.farrahfray.com

Source: www.farrahfray.com

In this issue, "reclaiming empowerment" is our inspiration. What does empowerment mean to you?

I guess empowerment means feeling brave enough to take on the things that scare you the most. I mean, for so long I didn’t even think that I should be writing about Libyan women, or displacement, or feminism; but reading other peoples’ work and journeys makes you feel empowered; it makes you feel like, yes, I can write about these things. The kind of fear I’m referring to isn’t just fear of criticism or censorship, but I suppose also the fear of breaking the glass ceiling, and doing the things you should; that kind of fear is often taught from a young age, and I think empowerment is about reclaiming your position in that power dynamic. Oppression often works because of fear so empowerment for me means overcoming both fear and oppression.

What are your sentiments about the current art scene in the Middle East? In your opinion, what are its strengths and what are its challenges?

The current arts scene in the Middle East is thriving, I’m besotted by it all really. I think the strengths include that it’s not just one genre of art that’s emerging, but that they’re all taking up this space, you see anything from installations to zines to short films. Another strength is that art in the Middle East, much like a lot of contemporary art doesn’t really rely on industry gatekeepers for validation, there’s so many wonderful platforms created by people who want their voices heard and don’t necessarily have a professional background in art. I think a big challenge for Middle Eastern art will be overcoming stereotypes from the West; as more and more of our art reaches western art circles, which is a great thing; I feel like it’s definitely a challenge with certain issues to be like; yes, these things do affect us and are part of our daily struggles, but don’t stereotype us as just one thing; or define us by that one experience. I also think over generalization is a big challenge; even within countries you get different subcultures and communities, creating art; and to generalize all art coming from different regions as “Middle Eastern” can be quite reductive.

"June and July" poem by Farrah Fray courtesy of the writer

"June and July" poem by Farrah Fray courtesy of the writer

In your opinion, how can we better empower artists and the creative sector in the region?

I think we can empower artists by continuing to create these platforms for meaningful discussion, but also holding different events and talks where you get to really see the people you’re influencing. I think so often it can feel like you’re in a black hole as a creative, so it’s definitely important to have those types of spaces!

What advice would you give aspiring artists in the region?

I’d say definitely give it your all; and remember that there are so many other people creating art, too. Whenever you feel apprehensive about creating something is to ask yourself “if not me, then who?” because no one else can do exactly what you want to do in precisely the way you want to do it. It might be the same concept but there’s no way it would be an identical reiteration; so do it. Your voice is unique and important.

What are your future plans?

I’ve got a lot of exciting things coming up this year, but I suppose generally, the plan is to be more versatile with my work and combine it with other disciplines such as translation, which I’m currently studying. Think installations and subtitles! I really want to show that poetry can be showcased in many different ways, and I’m really looking forward to sharing it with everyone.

"Rooftop" by visual artist Ahmed Drebika www.drebika.ca

"Rooftop" by visual artist Ahmed Drebika www.drebika.ca

For more about Farah and to follow her work you can find her on farrahfray.com or on instagram @farrahfray

featured culturalist: hind joucka founder of 'artmejo'

part of the 4-part interview series for issue #5: "reclaiming empowerment"

"Fertility" by Yazan Setabouha courtesy of artmejo

"Fertility" by Yazan Setabouha courtesy of artmejo

Hind Joucka is the founder of Jordan's first online platform for the arts 'artmejo'. I met Hind on a sunny morning in Dubai during Art Season where she had just attended the launch of MoMA's latest publication "Modern Art in the Arab World" - which features her grandfather's work on the cover - and we immediately hit it off! Hind's fierce passion for the arts is contagious and her pioneering energy is undeniable. Hind's late grandfather, Syrian artist Mahmoud Hammad, is known for pioneering Modern Art in the region and I truly believe that the apple does not fall far from the tree. 

As a woman and as a pioneer for the creative scene in Jordan it only made sense to feature Hind as part of the series. Below is our interview: 

Hi Hind! Tell us a bit about yourself. (The facts and the quirks!)

I am an art journalist based in Jordan, founder of the online gallery ‘artmejo’, a platform for artists and art enthusiasts to connect and explore new talents in the region, and co-founder of ‘Art at the Park’, a cultural fair that brings together art, music, literature and dance. I also give art tours around Amman with Airbnb and work as an Online Marketing manager for The Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts. In between juggling work, I like to pick up a new hobby every once in a while that I know I’ll eventually get bored of and quit after a month or two!

How did you begin your journey with artmejo?

artmejo was created back in 2014 as a university project when I was studying Journalism at Kingston University, London. I came up with the idea of an online platform specifically focused on the art scene in Jordan, that aims to bring together all art events and activities happening in the country under one umbrella. Galleries’ online presence wasn’t as widespread as it is today, which meant that if you were interested in attending art exhibitions, you had to be on the gallery’s mailing list. What we’re trying to do is to make all these events and activities, which are already free and open to the public, more accessible to everyone. Around two years ago I decided to quit my full-time and my half-time jobs and focus all my time and energy on artmejo. Today, artmejo’s services have slowly grown to cater for areas which were otherwise missing in the art scene here in Amman. We provide various services to galleries, artists and clients by linking them with one another, selling artworks and curating spaces. I’m proud of all the small feats that have come along the way, but the project I’m the most proud of is the Marriott Amman Hotel lobby curation project. I learned a lot from that experience and I got to work with three of the country’s top galleries to create a homogenous collection of artworks by artists from all over the region.

"Mountain" by Adnan Samman courtesy of artmejo

"Mountain" by Adnan Samman courtesy of artmejo

In this issue of follow the halo, “reclaiming empowerment” is our inspiration. What does empowerment mean to you?

Empowerment is synonymous to expression. It is being strong and confident enough to express yourself and your opinions despite social and political stricture. It is letting your inhibitions run wild and free no matter what medium you choose to do it through. No one grants us empowerment - it is within us, we create our paths and we decide what’s wrong or right. It goes beyond gender, race and class.

"Almost night" by Ghadeer Abu Bukha courtesy of Artmejo

"Almost night" by Ghadeer Abu Bukha courtesy of Artmejo

As a curator, art buyer, and journalist, how do your roots/heritage influence your view of the art world and love for the arts?

I come from a family of artists starting from my grandparents, down to my parents and brothers. My grandfather Mahmoud Hammad and my grandmother Dora Fakhoury were part of the modern art movement in Syria and the Middle East, my father is an architect and artist and my mother is currently working on a catalogue raisonne for my late grandfather. I’ve been attending exhibitions since I was 8 years old and I’m convinced that the more we open ourselves to all types of art, the better we get to understand an artist’s work, their unique style, technique and any overlying or underlying motifs within a piece of work. Of course, growing up surrounded by a specific style of art inadvertently influences your taste but I’m fascinated by anything created through a person’s imagination and skill.

What are your sentiments on the current growing art scene in the Middle East? In your opinion what are its strengths and what are its challenges?

It’s honestly such an exciting time for art in the region and in the world in general. The whole world is now connected online, making it easier for artists to showcase their works and for people to open up to new styles. Artists from different cultures and backgrounds are creating movements of self expression and pushing boundaries, and the online revolution is allowing them to spread beyond physical borders. The challenges? Our region is unfortunately riddled with political and religious unrest, which in turn is building a gap between Eastern and Western art scenes. Surroundings feed into an artwork’s subject matter more often than not, and so we see a lot of works from this region being influenced by conflict. Wars have birthed influential art throughout the years, such as Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout’s ‘Odyssey of a People’, so I think this aspect of it shouldn’t be viewed as a challenge, but more of a reality that we’re living.

"Single Man" by artist Kholoud Abu Hijleh courtesy of Artmejo

"Single Man" by artist Kholoud Abu Hijleh courtesy of Artmejo

In your opinion, how can audiences better empower artists and the creative sector in the region?

We have to value the artist and the artwork they create equally. Ask any upcoming artist about the word they hate the most and they will tell you it’s ‘exposure’, because this is the word often used as an excuse when a job or a project doesn’t have enough budget to pay the artist. It’s frustrating because this ‘alternative’ to getting paid isn’t used in other careers. Obviously exposure is very important and some work is sometimes worth doing for free, but it shouldn’t be the new normal to ask an artist to put time and effort into an artwork without providing them with tangible return. This is how we can empower the artists of now; present them with opportunities that allow them to sustain themselves and continue working within their passion as a feasible career path.

What advice might you give young aspiring artists from the region?

What I’m about to say might be contradictory to my previous answer, but my top advice is for them to collaborate! Merging creativity and talent with like-minded or completely opposite-minded people is wonderful and everyone learns something new through it. As I said before, we’re living in the time of amazing technology that allows us to reach out to people from across the world with a click of a button. Get in touch with other artists that you admire no matter where they are and explore ways where you can collaborate on a project together. Chances are, they’ll get flattered and will be excited to brainstorm ideas!

What are your plans for the future?

I am currently working with Jordanian artist Sama Shahrouri on artmejo’s online magazine. This will be an informative publication for creatives to express their views on art in the region, and will delve into art exhibitions, events and conversations happening in the art world on both a local and international scale. I hope we’ll be able to keep coming up with new ideas and projects that further enrich the art scene in Jordan and in neighbouring countries, encourage up and coming artists and link them with one another.

artmejo was recently commissioned by Edraak.org, an initiative of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah's foundation, to bring local artists together for a collaborative project. artmejo is also a platform for art collectors, artists and art loves alike. For more about Hind's work and artmejo you can follow them on instagram @artmejo or www.artmejo.com 

To learn more about artmejo you can find them on www.artmejo.com or @artmejo on instagram. 

featured culturalist: founder of banat collective sara bin safwan

part of the 4-part interview series for issue #5: "reclaiming empowerment" 

From "A Woman Called Freedom" photo-series by artist Sarra'a Abdulaziz. Source: Banat Collective. 

From "A Woman Called Freedom" photo-series by artist Sarra'a Abdulaziz. Source: Banat Collective. 

Sara is the founder and creator of Banat Collective, a creative community made in response to the lack of artist spaces and discussions about womanhood in the Middle East. Banat Collective is one of the few platforms that tackle female representation in the region's art scene making their work especially pertinent to today's cultural landscape. Below is our interview with Sara: 

Hi Sara! Tell us a bit about yourself. (The facts and the quirks!)

I’m Sara Bin Safwan, Founder & Curator of Banat Collective, from Abu Dhabi. I am half-honduran and half-emirati. I have a bachelor's degree in Culture, Criticism and Curation from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. I’m currently living in Abu Dhabi and work as an Assistant Curator for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

In this issue of follow the halo, “reclaiming empowerment” is our inspiration. What does empowerment mean to you?

Empowerment, for me, means to take ownership and a sense of agency over the things you do. I believe that it is the right of any human to have the ability to have and share their own opinions (within reason) and be themselves without the fear of being judged, hated or scrutinized. With Banat Collective, empowerment is a key factor of how we run - we offer a space where ideas and thoughts can be shared and heard and giving a platform for these things are important for growing our society to a more accepting place.

As a curator how do your roots/heritage influence your work?

With my job as a curator, I like to share ideas and ask questions that are geared towards my interests of social, gender and political issues. My whole life I have been asking myself questions about my own identity and background which has impacted my research and growth as a person a lot. Being of mixed-race, mixed-religious backgrounds, growing up became confusing. So whenever I make art or come across art that are trying to answer the same questions as I do in my personal life, I become really fascinated because it helps me understand my own personal history as well as understand that many other people are asking the same things.

Image from "Lollipop" film (2018) by Hanaa AlFassi. Source: Banat Collective 

Image from "Lollipop" film (2018) by Hanaa AlFassi. Source: Banat Collective 

It is apparent in Banat Collective’s features that you prioritize the voices of young emerging artists and creatives. How do you choose your features?

I think it’s important to lend a platform to artists who may or may not have found their ground as a creative. Our features don’t really go through a heavy process that decide on how we ‘choose’ an artist however, we tend to go with artists who have a strong ideas that are communicated well through their work. Being that my background and current work is focused on contemporary art, I do lean towards showing that however we also look for writers, poets, graphic designers, textile designers, musicians and curators. The most important thing for when I look through someone’s work is that it speaks to me and makes me want to find out more about their work.

What are your sentiments on the current growing art scene in the Middle East? In your opinion what are its strengths and what are its challenges?

Art from the Middle East and North Africa is thriving and developing in so many ways. Especially in the Gulf, there is a lot of funding being made towards to the arts which is becoming increasingly beneficial to the growth of the arts landscape. However, there is a lack of critical evaluation of arts (and everything else for that matter) which makes everything monotonous. I hope that the media, schools and larger institutions become more critical of how they talk about and showcase art.

In your opinion, how can audiences better empower artists and the creative sector in the region?

Repeating what I said above - I think it’s important to be critical and have the ability to ask the right questions when you are looking at or  thinking about art. Art can be fun and visually appealing but I think in order for an artist to grow and develop their practice as well as develop the conversations that are happening around art - audiences should be more critical and engage in what they are looking at.

Where do you see the creative sector in the Middle East going, considering its growing influence on social media platforms?

I love the current online arts movement that is happening. I think that it’s a place where there is a truthful representation of what’s going on the Middle East because it’s coming from the perspective of an individual and not the media or a politician. There is a growing sense of community, collectivity and connectivity between people sharing their ideas and work. I think if we can implement what we do online into the real world then that's already a huge step towards the right direction.

What advice might you give young aspiring artists from the region?

Keeping sharing, producing work and collaborate with other people. And do not wait for someone to come and find you. We’re most likely going to be looking at your work if you directly message us and engage with us.

What are your plans for Banat Collective in the future?

To keep collaborating and sharing art from the region. We’re hoping to bring more writing content for the website. Additionally working on connecting creatives in the real world through our panels and meet ups.

You can learn more about Banat Collective and their work on banatcollective.com or on their instagram @banatcollective 

Banat Collective recently released a visual book in collaboration with 31 female artists. You can shop the book on their website. 

Banat Collective recently released a visual book in collaboration with 31 female artists. You can shop the book on their website. 

featured cultuarlist: lizzy vartanian collier

part of the 4-part interview series for issue #5: "reclaiming empowerment" 

By artist Shaikha Al Ketbi courtesy of curator Lizzy Vartanian Collier

By artist Shaikha Al Ketbi courtesy of curator Lizzy Vartanian Collier

Lizzy is a writer, curator, art historian and founder of London's well-known art blog Gallery Girl London. Although we initially met online, I know her work mostly through her recently curated exhibition Perpetual Movement which was part of AWAN (Arab Women's Art Now) a festival dedicated to supporting Arab women's art in London. Lizzy is a writer for Canvas, The Guardian, Harpers Bazaar Arabia, REORIENT magazine and other publications covering arts in the region. 

I reached out to Lizzy as one of the women I wanted to interview for our 4-part interview series for issue #5 of follow the halo: "Reclaiming Empowerment". I felt that her experience and knowledge of the arts in the region would be a great point of discussion on empowerment, and what it means to support the arts in the Global South. Below we discuss Lizzy's work, arts in the region, and what empowerment means to her. 

Hi Lizzy! Tell us a bit about yourself. 

My name is Lizzy Vartanian Collier. I am a writer, curator and editor. I have been blogging about art at my blog Gallery Girl since I was 18 (nearly seven years now!), but only really had the confidence to tell people about my writing and pitch to other publications in the last year or so. My ‘main’ (9-to-5) job is in publishing, which has given me the opportunity to understand how books are commissioned, produced, marketed and sold. I have always been interested in art, which makes sense since my parents met at a gallery opening. My brother and I used to spend our childhood weekends drawing at the Tate Modern and the National Gallery in London, where our appreciation for all things visual was cemented.

Besides art I love to dance, especially ballet and ballroom, in fact, I love waltzing so much, that when I am sad I just listen to Strauss and I am instantly happy. I read and write four alphabets, and speak bits and pieces of five languages, but I’m not really fluent in any beside English (typical Brit!). I am also very creative myself and I love to draw and make clothes… maybe one day I will share them with the world too, but for now, I am concentrating on supporting and spreading the word about the arts I love that has been created by others.

As a curator, art historian and writer, how do your roots/heritage influence your work?

As I have gotten older I have felt my heritage in the Near and Middle East really pull on all of the work that I do. I am half English, but my mother is Armenian from Beirut, my grandmother was from Aleppo and my family has been in the Middle East for over a century. I didn’t visit Beirut until my 20’s for various reasons, mostly because I think that my mother was afraid to go back – after leaving at the age of 15 due to the civil war – and to see that her beloved home might be changed and unrecognisable from what she knew as a child. Having not been to Lebanon in person until adulthood and my natural pull towards the arts led me to discover the region through culture. I think our inherited identities impact on and influence everything we do, and my mother’s strong Beiruti mannerisms and identity has had a big impact on my work.

By artist Thana Farooq courtesy of curator Lizzy Vartanian Collier

By artist Thana Farooq courtesy of curator Lizzy Vartanian Collier

Can you share a specific work you feel was influenced by your identity? 

Perpetual Movement, the exhibition that I recently curated during Arab Women Artists Now Festival 2018 in London, was almost a direct analysis of my own experience of growing up in diaspora, where memories of ‘home’ had been passed down from my mother. The artists I worked with all touched on similar themes of memory and migration. I don’t necessarily deliberately put myself into my work, but I am after all the person on this earth that I know best, so my own ideas and experiences unconsciously seem to make their way into many of my projects. Moreover, when you are geographically very far away from a place where your past is deeply rooted, the emotional pull is especially strong, as this location is less tangible, so you naturally find ways to explore it by other methods.

It is apparent in your writing that you focus on exhibitions that highlight the global South. Why is that?

It isn’t a conscious thing, but I am genuinely interested in parts of the world that I wasn’t necessarily very exposed to growing up in the UK. I always find it fascinating viewing visual culture from parts of the world I know nothing about. And, while in some ways it is a great shame that many exhibitions I go to have been produced by artists from parts of the world I know nothing about, in some ways I think it is extremely beautiful to gain your first impressions of a place through painting, photography, sculpture or installation.

When I was studying for my first degree in Art History, we learn about any art that didn’t originate in Western Europe or North America, which seemed ridiculous to me. I was interning for a blue-chip commercial gallery in London at the time that was exhibiting a lot of Chinese art and had galleries in Brazil and China as well as the UK. It was at that moment that I realised not only was art from outside the West important in terms of its visual qualities, but also in terms of real monetary value. I became the one girl on my History of Art course to always veer away from better-known Western artists and periods. In fact, I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on a Chinese artist. I then decided to tap into my routes and focus on the Greater Middle East for my masters degree and have kept my focus away from the West ever since.

By photographer Yumna Al Arashi courtesy of curator Lizzy Vartinian Collier 

By photographer Yumna Al Arashi courtesy of curator Lizzy Vartinian Collier 

In this issue of follow the halo, “reclaiming empowerment” is our inspiration. What does empowerment mean to you?

Empowerment means taking control for yourself, but also highlighting, supporting and presenting the talents and individualities of others and ideas you admire and believe in.

What are your sentiments on the current growing art scene in the Middle East? In your opinion what are its strengths and what are its challenges?

I think that the growth of museums, galleries, art fairs and biennials in the region should be applauded. I am at somewhat of a distance from everything that is going on, but from what I read and see online, everything looks brilliant and really exciting. What I love so much are the collectives and young publications like Banat, Jaffat el-Aqlam, Khabar Keslan, Jdeed and Halo, that are really going out of their way to highlight the talents of young creatives, it feels like there is a real community. They are so supportive and I can’t really think of an equivalent network here in the UK and I am really envious!

In terms of challenges, perhaps the region needs to connect more with those outside of it. To me, as someone who is naturally very tapped into what’s going on in the Middle East, I am pretty much always up to speed with what is going on, but I often find people within the European art world are a little clueless about events in the region. It would be beyond wonderful if the creative community in the Middle East engaged more with those outside of it and vice versa – through conversation different cultures and traditions could learn so much about each other.

In your opinion, how can audiences better empower artists and the creative sector in the region?

I think audiences can better empower artists by taking the time to visit exhibitions and telling others about the work of creatives they admire. We are so lucky that we can share our inspirations within seconds via social media; so if you see something you admire, share it! Artists benefit most when their work is seen, and the more people see it, the better.

What advice might you give young aspiring artists from the region?

To not be shy! Go and speak to people, reach out to those you admire, and ask lots and lots of questions. People often ask me how I got to write for so and so publication, and it is because I sent the editors emails, pitched ideas and generally annoyed them until they had no choice but to reply to my messages. Nobody came to me. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, and even if nobody replies (it happens to all of us), at least you know you tried. It really doesn’t hurt to make the first move. I am naturally quite shy and quiet, but as soon as I got over the awkwardness of physically talking to people I didn’t know, I managed to make really great connections who support me and who I can ask for help if I need guidance. Confidence can get you so far. If you don’t tell people about what you’re doing or show them your work it could really hinder you. A conversation is free, so I would encourage everyone to connect with like-minded artists, creatives, writers, curators whenever they have the opportunity.

By artist Nadia Gohar courtesy of curator Lizzy Vartanian Collier

By artist Nadia Gohar courtesy of curator Lizzy Vartanian Collier

What are your plans for the future?

In the very immediate future I am taking a reduced version of my recent London show Perpetual Movement to be displayed during Armenia’s very first art fair (11-14th May). While this is very exciting, it is also very nerve-racking and I am hoping it will all run smoothly. After that, I want to take some time out to recuperate from doing three jobs at once for the past six months, I am moving into a new flat and I am about to turn 25 (!) so, for the summer, I plan to rest and equip myself with better curatorial skills. From this exhibition I realised that there is so much more to learn and I want to be more prepared for the next time. I also plan to continue connecting with artists on a more relaxed basis before heading to Lebanon and the UAE in the autumn. I have ideas for shows and things I want to research but nothing is set in stone as of yet, watch this space!

To follow Lizzy's work and learn more you can find her on gallerygirl.co or on instagram @gallerygirllnd

daily inspiration: the pleasure principles 

source: topic.com shot by Yumna Al Arashi

source: topic.com shot by Yumna Al Arashi

It's not the first time I feature the work of Yumna Al Arashi on my blog - for as long as I can recall Yumna's work as been inspirational to me. As an Arab and as woman and as an aspiring documentarian her work touches me. Her latest project, "The Pleasure Principles", which she shot for topic.com, resonated with me on an other-worldly level. I thought it deserved a post of its own. 

Although I have been aware of the project for over a month, Yumna's latest newsletter motivated me to write about it. I love that she shared her thought process behind the project, in the delicate, poignant way she does everything. The Pleasure Principles is a photo-essay that challenges the notion that the Middle East is devoid of sexuality and sensuality, and more specifically, that Islam is a religion that denounces sexual pleasure. I would love to go on about the project myself, but Yumna explains the concept more concinvingly than I ever could, so here is an excerpt from her newsletter: 

"About a year ago, I attended a conference in London where I spoke about the work I create. A man there told me that making erotic art was a Western made concept - that I wasn’t respecting my culture and history because of my interests in human sensuality. 

I immediately remembered a text translated by Sir Richard Burton, The Perfumed Garden. His introduction threw praises at the Arabs for their ability to please the senses and enjoy the delights of humanity; everything from incense, music, fabric and sexual desires. He specifically stated that without the influence of culture from the East, the West would be stuck in the dark ages... Soon after that conference, I found my way back to that book, but with a desire to find more like it. My treasure was overwhelming. 

Source: topic.com (additional note: the model here is my sister, Rama Ghanem) 

Source: topic.com (additional note: the model here is my sister, Rama Ghanem) 

My ancestors were perverts.

Edward Said was famous for coining the term “orientalism,” the infamous ways in which we as non-white people, have been rendered in imagery, tales, and stereotypes. Orientalism has ultimately led to an unbudging view of who we are to the white man. This includes our sexualities. For long, the majority of artwork about my ancestors was made by white men, and still is. We have been fetishised and demonized, from images of harems as sex concubines for men, to Disney’s Aladdin, and even now, Sex with Refugees. Arab movements towards conservatism have left many of us who do wish to speak for our own bodies too scared to do so, or censored completely. I want to take ownership of our sensuality and the imagery that is created around it.

There are many heroes out there who are doing the work of reopening our worlds, and speaking on behalf of our sexualities for ourselves. Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, Shereen El Feki, and Hayv Karahman, are but a few in our contemporary world bringing sensual topics into the modern spheres of art and literature. They truly see the importance of reclaiming our sexualities and our sexual representations for ourselves. 

source: Yumna's Newsletter

source: Yumna's Newsletter

This body of work hopes to breathe new life into these texts, to resurface them for those who may have forgotten the importance of sexuality and erotica in our culture. My goal is to remind myself and others that our culture and religion praises the importance of sexuality, in all of its forms. Many may not know that Islam holds sex as a sacred act, that which brings one closer to God. It insists that sex is a vital part of a relationship, not just to procreate, but also for pleasure - so much so that, a woman may legally leave her husband if he does not sexually please her." 

Everything you've just read makes my heart beat so fast. I spent a good part of my life wondering why, as Arabs, we couldn't express our sexuality openly, and why our God didn't like the beautiful intimacy of human sexuality. I won't get into the geopolitical and historical complexity of the region - which Yumna touches on briefly in her writing above - but I am very much aware of its effect on how we see ourselves sexually. It is work like this that makes me feel less "othered" by my own culture. The Pleasure Principles make me proud of my heritage and sensuality while taking ownership of it. This is how one reclaims their own sense of empowerment. 

Above all, I think Yumna's concluding thoughts that motivated me to share all the above with you. She finishes by saying: 

"I've been thinking and talking a lot about privilege these days. Mainly about my own, and my duty to take full advantage of every privilege I have. So many Muslim women approach me regularly asking how I can do what I do without fear of consequence from my family or community. The reality is that my family is my support system. They have always been my biggest cheerleaders, especially my father. 

In much of the Muslim world, most things can't happen in a woman's life without the approval of her father - even small things like going to school to study. Since day one, my father has had my back and supported all of my artistic endeavors, and continues to feed me inspiration and knowledge. He not only accepts what I do, but he is an active part of it. That is one of the greatest privileges of my entire existence, and because of it, I can continue to allow so many other women to be inspired to do more. All because my father's choice to not raise me with restriction solely based on my gender.

Because I know my privilege, I try my best to make full use of it during my time on this planet. It also has made me realize that there is such an important role we as women take in raising our sons to be supportive men, either as fathers or in the communities that they will exist. Please remember this. And please always remind yourself of your privilege, and that your greatest contributions to society will exist solely due to your awareness of your privilege, whatever it may be. 

Be good, you all. Think for yourself. Don't let the machine think for you. Learn about the importance of securing your data and your free will. And for god's sake, get the fuck off the internet. Make your own food, be good to the people you love, don't drink too much, use your hands for more than just scrolling, and speak your mind." 

I think getting the fuck off the internet is my favourite part of the whole newsletter, and the advice of raising our sons to be supportive, active individuals to be great contributors to society. As women that is how we empower ourselves and one another, and how we empower future generations. I cannot get enough of women like Yumna, who continue to produce cultural work that breaks boundaries and influence women like myself to be who we want to be. Hats off to Yumna and all the other female creators out there who inspire me and my peers. 

The future is fiercely female. 

xx 

Darah (for follow the halo issue #5 - reclaiming empowerment). 

shahad nazer: this month's featured artist

comissioned by follow the halo

comissioned by follow the halo

In this month's issue of follow the halo, we explore the theme "reclaiming empowerment". What does empowerment mean? And what does it mean for the Middle East? The word "empowered" has become a kind of buzzword, and gets thrown around a lot lately, from brands and governments alike. These buzzwords can become problematic especially when they assume that there is some state of "empowerment" and one "has" and another "hasn't". This issue, we decided to reclaim empowerment, and ask women from the region - specifically those in the arts and culture - what empowerment means to them. We also commissioned a work by Saudi-Egyptian artist and writer Shahad Nazer, titled "Deal with it", as the cover of our issue. 

In her own words, Shahad explains the piece and what empowerment means to her: 

"The piece I made titled "Deal with it" is a collage artwork using photoshop. I chose this title to represent Middle Eastern women and how powerful they are and that men and society should deal with it - in a humorous way yet but it's a strong message. Being born in Saudi Arabia has its ups and downs. Women were limited to what they could and couldn't do and I found my freedom in art and writing. They were my form of escape. Mostly I try to translate my thoughts and feelings into my art, especially with anything that has to do with women rights and women empowerment. I just want to show people that women are strong, brave, and shouldn't be underestimated. 

I think my work is mostly inspired by the issues and limits here, not just in my country but on planet earth, and I think I have a huge imagination and I like to test my creativity and how far I can go with it. I think anyone can use photoshop, anyone can do collage art, but can anyone be creative with it? Nope. That's what makes me different in my opinion. And also I've translated a lot of my dreams into artworks, including my novel that I'm currently working on that talks about Astral Projection, something I personally experienced." 

Shahad is 22 years of age and currently lives in Saudi Arabia. She is a huge bookworm, lover of animals, plants, mythical creatures and of course food. 

To follow Shahad's work on instagram @shahad.nazer 

featured culturalist: dalia elhassan

Dalia is a poet and friend that I admire and respect simultaneously. She has been recently shortlisted for the African Poetry Prize 2018 and a recipient of the Hajja Razia Sharif Sheikh Prize for Non-fiction. She is fiercely talented and passionate particularly towards issues of social justice which she often addresses in her writing. She's our Featured Culturalist for this month's issue of follow the halo. Below is our interview with her

Tell us a bit about yourself

My name is Dalia Elhassan and I’m a poet and writer based in NYC. I was born in Sudan and spent my childhood growing up in various pockets of Miami, FL I’m primarily interested in the function of language and how it can serve as a way to account for my experiences and the way I move through the world with all my various identities. Mostly, I’m interested in celebrating the experiences, the spaces and the places that made me who I am. I’m also a part-time (sometimes full-time) Beyoncé enthusiast.

How did you get into writing poetry? 

I really owe a lot of my introduction to writing (and eventually poetry) to my mother. Growing up the daughter of two Sudanese immigrants in the US, my parents were insistent on us having as much access to education as possible with whatever resources were available. I have really warm, vivid memories of taking long bus rides with my mama to public libraries and checking out anywhere from 14-27 books every week and going home to read as many of them as we could together. As a child, I buried myself in language. The only way I knew to understand the world was through words. My love for reading extended into my love for writing.

I wrote my first poem when I was eleven or twelve years old and because I was so young, I can’t often remember how or why I fell in love with poetry. All I knew was, at the time, I stumbled upon something that made me feel alive and affirmed and sustained a voice in me. I grew obsessed with Def Jam Poetry and would re-watch so many of the performances for hours on end just so I could hear the kind of metaphors they used and try to emulate that in my own writing.

What would you say influences or inspires the themes in your writing?

There’s this John Berger quote I stumbled upon recently that goes, “Never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one,” and in so many ways, this feels true about the way I conceptualise my work, what its influenced by, and the themes present not just in the writing, but in me. I’m not interested in having my story told for me. I’m not interested or invested in the idea of a single one-size fits all narrative that gets applied to women of Color, to Black women, writers or creatives who are creating work (and complicating) the idea of ‘home’ or the diaspora they belong to.

Before this past year, I didn’t write a single poem for three or four years. As hard as I tried, I felt blanketed in this silence that, to this day, I haven’t quite worked out a name for. In those years of silence, there were two poets whose work I returned to ritually: Warsan Shire and Safia Elhillo. Their writing inspired and permitted me to write about what was familiar, recognisable, difficult, and vulnerable to me, and I drew so much power from that.

So, how does your heritage play a role in who you are as a as a writer?

It is everything. I don’t think there’s a way to understand me, as a person or a poet, without really taking a look at the places and spaces that have made me, without understanding the connection I have to my culture and my people. As an adult now, I am extremely proud to be a Sudaniya and really nurture this inexplicable connection I feel to all things Sudani. But it wasn’t till I was a little older that I realized how much I really struggled with these complex feelings of fragmentation and distance growing up. I didn’t have the words or the language to address the kind of shame that wound up in my childhood body. That shame came and formed from a place where I learned and believed a fiction about myself as an individual and a fiction about my people collectively; that we were either one thing or another (the binary & cliche Are We Arab? Or Are We African? debate). It was hard being young and Sudanese in non-Sudanese contexts and constantly feeling like I had to explain or justify what I was. The language I know now, the one I write in, is one I use to affirm and celebrate my identity and I’m grateful for the gift that is poetry because it gives me the room to reflect on the world/reflect the world I exist in with so much pride.

What's next for you?

I want to continue to grow as a writer and improve on my craft. Writing, growing into a poet, it feels like something that chose me long before I chose it. I’ve always carried this quiet, long felt belief that I was destined for greatness not because of anything superficial, but because I am a result of the resilience, hope, and faith of my mother, her mother, my father, and the people that came before me, who had to be so I could be. I want to keep turning inward and honor the me that exists because of them, honor the depth and resilience of the people that made me, and honor the newfound language I have to express all this.

Dalia currently resides in New York City and attends The New School. For more about her and her work you can follow her on Instagram/Twitter @daliaelhassan

Tarane Parniani: this month's featured artist

commissioned for follow the halo

commissioned for follow the halo

This artwork is by Iranian illustrator Tarane Parniani titled "Under The Moonlight". Tarane created a 100% digital painting using photoshop for the newsletter. Tarane is inspired by moonlight, since its often associated with feminine energy. 

Tarane considers herself a feminist artist. In her own words she says: "I consider myself a feminist artist not because I draw women but because of the message I am trying to send. Even if it's not the main focus of the piece, I try to keep a wide range of body types and people of color in my works. The positive feedback I get from women, that seeing small "flaws" like stretch marks or a tummy in my art has made them more accepting of themselves. It means a lot to me you know?" 

Tarane says that she wants women to "find themselves" in her work because she often doesn't find representations of women like herself (curvy, Iranian). As for culture, she notes:  "I used to be super obsessed with Western culture as a lot of people my age were back then. But then, growing up, studying art, and especially with this wave of reclaiming one's own culture which is quite huge in Iran, I've begun to reclaim it myself." 

When I asked her to elaborate on how culture influencers her work, she added: 

"Fact is, my culture is not something I can separate myself from, its part of me. My background and lifestyle growing up in Tehran and in the current age - with the contrasts and paradoxes it has - for myself and for the women around me, with all the struggles it might have on a daily basis, its all part of me and honestly I love it Tehran. It's my home. And Iran is home to a lot of diversity in culture and background, there are a lot of different types of people I see every day." 

Tarane says she is inspired by other cultures too, particularly Japanese art. She says she would love to visit Japan more frequently and get a more in-depth view of Japanese culture. 

Tarane is currently based in Tehran. You can follow her work on Instagram at @t.arane

daily inspiration: azeema mag

Sometimes when I am running low on inspiration (or motivation) to share the stories I am dedicating my time to tell, I search for something that can push me. I look for women or projects that do the same - working towards creating a movement for something. The inspiration I found today was from the founder of Azeema Mag, Jameela El Faki. Jameela is self-publishing Azeema, and says that her main purpose is to inspire "strength, togetherness and self-acceptance" and wanting to "empower not offend". 

Empower not offend. That's the inspiration I needed today. You can follow Azeema mag on Instagram @azeemamag or azeemamag.com

Photographs sourced from banatcollective.com

daily inspiration: "becoming ugly" 

source: jezebel.com

source: jezebel.com

Although I no longer use Facebook as I once did years ago, sometimes it has its perks. For example, I woke up today to a notification from the app letting me know of a memory I made last year today - namely, an article I shared titled "Becoming Ugly". The titled sounded familiar, and I was intrigued - what embarrassing thing have I shared a year ago today? 

Luckily, it wasn't embarrassing. On the contrary, it was something I consider to be worth remembering. As per my status, I added a year ago today: "a compelling read on how women who don't play by the rules make us uncomfortable." Although the article is over a year old, I believe it to be forever relevant. 

So, without further ado, here's the piece. Let me know your thoughts.

I do things "just because"

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My mantra this year has been "just because". I think for women especially, we're often expected to justify why we do anything. As a woman you're expected to justify every want, desire, thought, ambition, behavior, action, choice and so on. From the most trivial to the most significant choices, we are constantly expected to provide explanations. Whether its a choice of clothing or the right to have children, we are constantly expected to provide answers, as though our value or self-worth can only be taken seriously if we provide coherent (and often conforming) backstories. And, honestly, I can't be sicker of it.

As this year comes to an end I realise that my most prized accomplishment was doing whatever the hell I wanted to do without answering to anyone. It's interesting because rarely are women asked the justify the things that are deserving of justification. At work meetings, I am often interrupted in the middle of justifying an action plan - but god forbid I forget to justify why I travel solo. 

I find it not only ridiculous but also ostensibly hilarious that men get away with life without justification. Men go all their lives not having to justify where they are going; not having to justify the way they dress or even life choices. A recent example comes to mind: a morning Arab talk show spent an entire hour on air discussing why and how Arab women wear make-up. Why a show would spend an hour dissecting the intentions and justifications for why women wear makeup sounds ridiculous to me. No self-respecting show would ever dedicate an entire hour of airtime discussing why Arab men choose to spend thousands of dollars on gym fees and valuable time getting buffed up. If anything, it seems more insane to me that men can be vain and have no one question it, but when women - many of whom are covered and have no intention of sharing that vanity with anyone - choose to wear make-up, its called into question. In my opinion, it's none of anyone's business what I choose to do and not do with my face, with my body, with my life or with my work. 

This year, solo travel was my solace and my internal revolution. It has been the "just because", the thing I do specifically because I'm expected to justify it. And yet I answered to no one. At first, solo travel was a battle for me. Firstly, it was a battle with myself, fighting the fear of being alone and what would family think. Then it was a battle explaining where I am going and why. It makes me angry just to think that I once cared what others though. But now there's nothing more liberating than flying all the way to the other side of this earth (that's why I love traveling around South America) with my middle finger figuratively blazing. I get no better rush than the rush of getting on a flight and leave people on the ground wondering. Solo travel is, in my opinion, a revolutionary act in and of itself. 

This year I've ditched the justification bullshit in all aspects of my life. I do things for me and me alone. I do things "just because" and because I want to. If there's anything I've accomplished this year its that I've come to peace with justification - and that the only person I need to prove anything to is myself. Everyone else can just second guess. And I don't really care because it has nothing to do with me. 

I really encourage any woman reading this to track back in her life and notice all the moments society expected justifications. If there are any resolutions you should begin within 2018 its to do whatever you want "just because". No matter what you resolve to do in the new year, do it without having to justify it to anyone. Have a happy 2018 from me, and I hope you do all the things "just because". 

Darah