by Megan Daly
WAYS OF BELONGING brings together four young female artists from Birmingham. Working with the medium of photography, the women use portraiture, pattern and place to examine identity and diversity in the city they call home. Radical Art Review caught up with three of them following their recent group exhibition at the Midlands Art Centre.
Farwa Moledina's project 'Interwoven' explores the significance of pattern and fabric in representing culture and tradition. The subjects of her portraits from Muslim, Sikh and African backgrounds pose in front of a backdrop pattern made from traditional English symbolism, and wear their traditional headdress, celebrating the beauty and complexity of dual identity.
Sat behind a flock of swan pedalos and the odd waddling goose, Midlands Art Centre is a cultural hub in Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham. Boasting free gallery spaces, a cinema, two theatres, a number of studios, a café and a bar, MAC has a footfall of over 1.2 million people, making it an essential provider of arts to the public of Birmingham.
Between January and March of this year, the walls of the MAC's ground floor gallery displayed photographs of smashed Union Jack teapots, intricately patterned wallpaper, and portraits of young women in the city's boxing rings and gyms.
The exhibition, Ways of Belonging, combined four projects by Midlands-based artists Farwa Moledina, Anisa Fazal, FreehandFanatic, and Sabiheh Awanzai Mahmoud.
Firstly, I just wanted to congratulate you all on the powerful and personal work on display in the MAC. You have had a high level of visibility in the city - could you tell us about the kind of responses you received from the public?
Anisa: The response has been great. People have been so impressed with how empowering these women are, and I feel proud that these women are from Birmingham. When you witness people doing amazing things in the city you live in, your home, you feel a sense of pride and want to celebrate their achievements. What's interesting is that the MAC is a community centre with thousands of visitors passing through, and many visitors unintentionally walk past the gallery space before being drawn to the work. I love how the space engages people who don't usually interact with art.
Farwa: It's wonderful to see so many young people of colour interested in art and I hope that they continue to think and create and feel supported. I've had some young women of colour talk to me about their art, the issues they face and want to tackle through their practice.
I tried to make my work at the MAC inclusive and representative, not just about Muslim women in the way that I usually work, and I think that it has been really effective. It's brought different members of the community together. I hope that it has been inspiring to young women of colour to know that we can make a space for ourselves.
Sabiheh: Many people approached me who said that the work resonated with them and spoke of their struggle; reckonings with their own identities. People seemed to be either mocking or defending the [ideas within] the work. On one occasion, an elderly white couple could be heard discussing how 'anti-British' the work was. During a Q&A session, a young woman who related to the work said she felt the work was a 'slap back'. I very much expected these telling reactions.
Anisa, Your work explores ways of directly representing Muslim women in their own spaces. How did you allow the women agency in shaping their narrative, while also guiding the project into a cohesive series? How have the women who are the subject of your work responded to the exhibition?
Anisa: When I first began the project, I knew that location was a very important part of the narrative. I wanted to photograph these women in spaces that represented them - right here in Birmingham.
When meeting and speaking with each of the women, I asked if they had a location they would like to be photographed in. This was important as I needed to be authentic to their representation. With some of the women, we discussed different location options together and collaborated in making the final decision. With others, I had already visualised the compositions I wanted to create after seeing the space prior to the photoshoots (such as Mav in the Women's Boxing Club). However, some of the women I photographed were in places I hadn't considered until connecting with the space myself. Sometimes it was after connecting with the women in conversation that I felt I needed to document them in the space we were, right there and then.
All the women were very supportive and excited to be part of the project - they understood why it was important. There aren't enough platforms that celebrate Muslim women and show the diversity of Muslim women. Being Muslim means something different to every person. We have these labels that define a part of us, but they mean something different to us all.
Farwa, you similarly work with portraiture, but in a set-up curated by yourself. Could you tell us about your subjects – your relationship to them, and their relationship to the work?
Farwa: This project was about belonging in Birmingham and England, so it didn't feel right for me to photograph subjects from just one cultural background. I therefore tried to make it as inclusive as possible by photographing people from Muslim, African and Sikh backgrounds. The subjects all live, work and study in the UK and all have affiliations to Birmingham. I didn't want to limit the work to just people I know, and so two out of the three photographs are of people I was not familiar with prior to the project.
I felt like with each photograph we took, the lack of familiarity dissolved a little. I got to know them quite well over the duration of the project, and it was a privilege to learn of their stories and lived experiences.
Farwa and Sabiheh, I’m interested in how both of you employ colour and pattern in your work to construct narrative and signal cultural and national association. Could you tell us about the significance of these aesthetics in your images?
Farwa: The individuals are photographed against what appears to be traditionally patterned English wallpaper, but is in fact a composition of dominant British symbols - double decker buses, robins, telephone boxes etc. The subjects wear their traditional headdress with a fabric printed from the same pattern, representing an acquisition of local culture whilst maintaining ones' roots. This conjunction creates space for a conversation on multicultural identity, as the subjects embody the union of cultures and the inheritance of traditions.
Sabiheh: The colour in the images almost become the subject, signalling culture, but at the same time creating a disassociation with nationality in the way they are employed. This is evident in the breaking of those colours in the teapot image.
The colours of the national flag have always been marketed as signifiers to an intactness, a 'union'; when in fact an antithesis exists. There is a promotion of segregation, fulfilling the same purpose as gang colours: of who is and who is not part of that 'unification'. But above all, how an iconic symbol of Empire and colonialism cannot and should not be a proud marker for a diverse Britain and the diaspora.
The work seeks to challenge the authoritarian and dominant ideas around national identity.
Sabiheh, you use self-portraiture as a way of consolidating and working through your personal relationship with national identity. What interests me personally about self-portraiture is the performance that takes place between the artist and the camera: setting the scene, putting the timer on the camera, testing composition. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this aspect of your project. What did making the work bring you, and what impact does publicly showing that work have?
Sabiheh: Facing the camera lens, releasing the shutter, positioning and waiting for the self-timer immediately takes one to the first essential process of defining of the self. Ultimately the work, at least on a personal level, was self-therapy from the past to the present. It was made to help Brown and Black individuals, but also to intentionally confront the white gaze; to become an eyesore and cure amnesia.
Creating work that is considered an eyesore is a deliberate antithesis to the concept of beauty, at least by western, modern standards. It's a radical gesture in finding a way to define oneself. At the heart of xenophobia in present society is the disavowal of the levels of violence in colonialism and modern day neo-colonialist projects. When speaking of 'curing an amnesia', the work speaks to the failure in addressing these prevailing injustices. The work seeks to challenge the authoritarian and dominant ideas around national identity.
Gaze plays an important role in all of three of your projects, though it is utilised in different ways. Anisa, in your panel discussion you emphasised the importance of eye-contact and eye-level to create a meaningful connection but also a subtle confrontation.
Anisa: The most crucial element for me was eye contact. I wanted the women to look directly into the camera in order to invite the audience to connect and engage on an individual level. I also love photographing using a shallow depth of field - focusing on the eyes - as I feel that's what draws us into an image. When the whole image is in focus, you don't know where to start looking. By focusing on the eyes, it forces the audience to engage with the women directly, to really see them.
Farwa, could you tell us about your choice of having two of your subjects looking away from the camera?
Farwa: Gaze plays an important role in my work generally, like in my series Not Your Fantasy. The challenging expressions of the women in my work have a demanding and unavoidable presence. I wanted to include this element of my practice within Interwoven; however I also wanted to show the intricacies of the headdresses. Each fold within them is significant and I wanted this to be apparent. I therefore chose to have one subject looking at the lens, to still allow for a conversation about gaze, but to also have the other two subjects photographed in profile. This was inspired by Victorian portraits which were often photographed in profile, as it resonated with the traditionally English wallpaper aspect of the work.
Sabiheh, in your work, there is no direct eye contact between the subject and viewer. Still, there exists this idea of gaze – the scrutiny towards women wearing a burqa is turned back on the viewer, challenging the audience's notions of British identity. At the same time, the pomegranate is given sentience in the series, as it looks at itself in the mirror.
Sabiheh: As mentioned before, the subversive nature of the work intends to confront the white gaze. However, towards the end of completing the work, with an impending deadline, I began to question how the work's binary reduction of juxtaposing dualities began to pander to that very gaze; to somehow be accepted. I felt pleased to be able to exhibit a critique of the concept of belonging and British identity, but I still felt uncomfortable.
The use of the pomegranate and its seeds throughout the work is reference to the soul. The empty hollowed out vessel of the pomegranate, looking at itself in the mirror. Our belonging has felt under constant scrutiny, hence the reflection of a full and ripened pomegranate in the mirror. The suspended pomegranate represents how threatened identities can be strengthened with no need to latch on, making space for the new.
Sabiheh Awanzai Mahmoud
Anisa, as well as documenting and sharing the diversity of Muslim women, what’s impressive about this project is how you’ve given these women a platform for their own work, such as Boarders Without Borders. Can you select a few that our readers can check out?
Anisa: I feel so honoured to have photographed these women and it makes me feel so excited to be part of a city that has so much talent, especially from Muslim women who are owning their own narratives. They are all women who are making positive changes in the world, and they also happen to be Muslim. Saima is the captain of the 'Boatel' (a floating hotel) which is a narrowboat on the canal in the centre of Birmingham. The boating world is very white and male dominated at the moment, and Saima wants to change that! She wants a diverse audience to share these experiences and wants the canals to be more reflective of the communities in Birmingham.
And to finish things off, what's on the horizon for you all in the future?
Farwa: I'm in the process of applying to some artist opportunities and open calls at the moment, and continuing to work with galleries across Birmingham. It's still in the works, but watch this space!
Anisa: I plan to continue working on Beyond Beliefs, expanding it as a long term project and hopefully create a book.
I am also working on a new group project about the relationship between social class and the art world which will hopefully be exhibiting early next year.
Sabiheh: In terms of future art work, I'm creating an abstract film on chronic illness, wellness as a capitalistic construct, agency and art labour. I'm also writing a piece for mangal media on 'decoloniality only as aesthetic', plus a written piece called 'Sights of burial: talibisation and western fauxtrage' for the magazine Afghan Punk.
Ways of Belonging exhibited in Midlands Art Centre, Birmingham, from January 19th until March 17th 2019, and was curated by Josephine Reichert, DIrector of ORT Gallery.
you can find out more about the exhibition here: https://macbirmingham.co.uk/exhibition/ways-of-belonging
To contact the artists, or see more of their work, you can reach them at:
Instagram - @anisafazal
Instagram - @farwamoledina
Sabiheh Awanzai Mahmoud
Instagram - @sabiheh_
For Ways of Belonging, artist FreeHandFanatic showed work from her photographic series #SorryNotSorry alongside the series Becuz she can, creating intricate hand drawn pattern through repeat motifs adapting western and eastern imagery. Exploring connectivity and unity through love, she explores chaos and order through pattern-making using symbolism, specifically focusing on the experiences of Muslim women.
You can see her work at: https://www.freehandfanatic.com