feminist art

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

rama ghanem: this month's featured culturalist

I interviewed my sister, Rama, about her most recent projected titled "Girls in Conversation" a photo-journal about what it means to be a woman of color living far away from home, and the feeling of loss that comes with it, amplified by heirlooms left behind. 

Hi Rama! Tell us a little bit about you

I’m a mixed media artist based in London, where I study, and Dubai, where I grew up. I make work about a lot of things - but mostly about feminism and Arab women, Western Pop Culture, transnational identity, and sometimes about my own lived experiences. I often work with various media including photography, time-based work, installation and net art. 

And tell us a little bit about your project

This project was a series of unstructured interviews with women of colour who come from a diaspora background, with questions around their home(s), identity, material items passed down to them as heirlooms, what they might pass down themselves, memory, and creative output. Photographs were taken during and after the interview process.

To what extent does being part of a diaspora group influence how you see the world and in turn your art?

It absolutely influences how I see the world because diaspora is more than physical displacement. There’s a mental disorientation that comes with that shift in environment. Diasporic individuals experience what is called a double consciousness, a term used to describe that fragmented sense of who you are. Sometimes your identity can become a matter of choice and other times (due to inequality) some of us have no choice but to conform to one thing or another. What I find compelling about looking into those layers of identity is seeing what unifies individuals from different diaspora backgrounds, but also the dissimilarities between them. It's interesting to think about how our condition changes in relation to the spaces we occupy and move through, in that sense also, the diaspora are very fluid and alive.  What was beautiful about each of those interviews was the vast difference in cultural experience but also how each of them expressed an attachment and sentimentality to their belongings, which I imagine is particular to people who are familiar with loss.

 It was quite a personal and intimate project. there’s an unstated trust there, when you’re taking pictures of somebody. There’s a vulnerability on my end as the photographer too, because it is my gaze that is imposed on somebody else, and so in a way it becomes about who I am as well. I stopped taking things at face value and recognized that everything is delicately connected to everything else in like for example how the things that belong to you shape your sense of belonging to something else. 

Why photography?

It wasn’t always my choice of medium in much of my previous work but when it came to looking inward and probing around this idea of holding something dear, photographs that you could touch made a lot of sense. I think I’ve actually always had a fascination with freezing a moment in time. As someone who came from a displaced family old photographs were my window into what life could have been like for me if I had grown up closer to my roots. It can be such a potent medium, but I don’t think it’s the aesthetic potential of it that pulled me. Though we’re bombarded with so many images every day, and that oversaturation of beautifully curated content from social media and advertising etc makes it difficult to create something really eye catching because we have almost seen it all. I decided to follow a different approach and to look past the composite aesthetic and try to just give you the person behind it. I don’t think it’s about the images really.

What’s next for you?

I think I’m going to venture further into photography or film. I’m not the type of person who plans my projects in advance, it is always the case for me that I reflect on my daily experiences and am able to express an idea inspired by that experience when it happens.

You can follow Rama's work on instagram here @itsactuallyrama

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