The topic of cultural appropriation and how it correlates with the digital age has been a prominent one on the Internet, but it’s hard to see anyone try to relay this conversation beyond a text post on tumblr. Sanaa Hamid is the brilliant mastermind behind “Cultural Appropriation: A Conversation,” a photography project that broke down and dissected what people actually think categorizes as cultural appropriation by reaching out to people, photographing them, and asking them about cultural appropriation and what it means to them. This project took the internet by storm, making some people uneasy and some people cheer. I got the fascinating chance to pick her brain, not only about the project, but also about her body of work, self-portraits, and creating spaces for herself as a woman of colour.
As if we were meeting for the first time, could you tell us how you would describe yourself and/or what you do?
I’m terrible at describing myself! But basically I’m a visual artist/photographer. I look at issues of identity within the diaspora, specifically in a South Asian and Islamic context, constantly trying to break away from stereotypes and hopefully annoy a few people on the way. I’m interested in the idea of self-representation, and enabling ourselves to become visible and bold in order to create some kind of re-evaluation of what it means to be a South Asian woman, particularly within the contemporary Western space. Beyond that, I take too many selfies (which I don’t apologise for), watch too many Bollywood films, and obsess over all the cool brown girls from the internet. I literally call myself an Ambassador for Brown Girls…I need a badge that says that.
How did your love for photography start? Was a lot of your work centred on multiculturalism and identity like it is now?
Honestly, photography was the only thing I genuinely enjoyed and wasn’t outrageously average at! I got kinda serious about it when I was around 17/18, but back then I was more interested in trying too hard to be a fashion photographer, (glad that dream ended abruptly). It was really in my second year at University that I started to pick apart my own identity and used photography as a means to explore and articulate that. I always explain it like this: if i could write well, I would write about it. If i was eloquent enough, I would speak. But photography is just my way of demonstrating what I want to say. I studied in a space where the majority of the students and staff were white, and the effect that had on my practice and me was definitive to my practice. The more I was met with confusion or interrogated during crit sessions, the more I wanted to make the work that was important to me.
Your most popular work, “Cultural Appropriation: A Conversation” was, and still is, one of the most important works that I have seen this year and a lot of the time, like when I see it on tumblr, I hardly ever see any comments, just the photographs and what the people in the photos said. I think that’s interesting because the work speaks really loudly, even though it might say different things to people or spark different reactions to people. What was the process like, in getting this work together? How did it come to fruition?
It’s a bit funny how this piece of work changed the game for me. It was literally just a little uni project because I was getting pissed off by the amount of white girls in bindis I’d see – but the scale of people who could take something away from it was mad…I didn’t expect it at all. And creatively, I’ve matured a lot more and can see the flaws and points that haven’t been addressed in the work, but I’m glad I did it when I did. I still get long emails to this day with people responding to the work, so it just shows the importance of having a platform to put work out there. That’s kinda why the internet is so key in my practice, it’s the small audience I gained from this series that has grown into what I have now, so I’m eternally grateful. It really showed me how effectively photography could be used to initiate conversation, and now professors from Universities email me to say they’re using it as part of their curriculum! It’s half absolutely terrifying and makes me pick apart what I haven’t done within the work, and half super exciting.
“Ethnographic Selfies” is your most recent work and with it, you cross into the age old conversation of the digital age and selfies, a conversation that we at Polyester really like having. And this is not new territory to you, as you use self-portraits in various different ways. But with “Ethnographic Selfies” it’s more than just, you know, the “are girls too into themselves?” convo, you bring up dehumanization and colonialism. Could you elaborate more on what this project is about and what you wanted to achieve?
I think before looking at “Ethnographic Selfies,” it’s probably worth explaining the animation piece called “Colonialism Sucks”, which was the starting point of the archival material I used later on for the gifs. On the surface, it’s a short moving image piece using images from the Royal Engineers Museum and subverting the colonial male gaze. So for “Ethnographic Studies”, I am kind of inserting myself into that space. I am reclaiming that accessibility of image making. Now, you can take a picture on anything, your phone, your computer, it’s not a privilege. In those days, photography was male dominated space and a privilege. So now, I’m kind of reclaiming photography as well as my own agency as an artist, as a woman of colour, and engaging with the figures that are in the pictures. I was thinking really hard, like how do I respond to that in not such a serious way? Because it’s definitely serious, the violence of colonialism. But my work is often… I try and make it a bit tongue in cheek, and like, take the piss. The male gaze and use of photography as a weapon of war was dehumanizing. It was cold. So my response was to take the piss out of them a little bit, to address the issue by mocking them. The gaze is central to the work, and my nonchalant return of the gaze was kinda like my way of putting those archival images to rest, with one final response.
And in terms of the way selfies are discussed recently, you’re right when you say it’s not just the whole “are girls too into themselves” discussion. It’s more about self-ethnography and the ability to represent ourselves exactly how we god damn please, oh the horror! Women taking control of their own images?! No wonder so many white men love to write articles about the narcissist generation. The transition of ephemera such as archival photographs into the space of the internet was important in this work too – I’m dismissing the images as precious artefacts to be protected and more using them as evidence of the military as oppressive and removing the notion of heroism and honour and patriotism, which is often used to brush the realities of what happened under the rug.
Another really crucial project that I saw this year was, “Your Body Is Not A Battle Ground”, and this was centered around South Asian Women today and what it means to be a South Asian woman today, in terms of identity, education and femininity. I like that you don’t do your work with the intent of trying to get Westerners to accept you or your identity, (especially in a creative space like this), but rather you present what you do and who you are in a brash and honest manner that’s not meant to be accepted but taken seriously and that’s what I got from “Your Body Is Not A Battle Ground.” What was creating this project like and what did it mean for you to make it?
Yeah you’re right! To be honest, I make my work for other brown girls. I don’t feel like it’s necessary to always have to educate, it’s too exhausting. “My Body Is Not Your Battleground” was a massive project for me, and really pushed me as a creator as well as emotionally. I was outside of my comfort zone. The first half was a lot more natural, and really only began because I was getting so fed up. Fed up because I knew of so many cool creative passionate brown girls but never saw them represented anywhere. It was that simple. I was like, I’m just gonna start taking portraits of them and see what happens! And then I made a Kickstarter campaign to go to Pakistan and I didn’t think people would pledge money and thought it was completely unrealistic, but incredibly I was pledged the whole amount and next month I was meeting amazing women in Pakistan and photographing them! My brain was in overdrive for the two weeks I spent in Pakistan, because the sheer magnitude of the opportunity I was given was constantly on my mind. It was a really defining project for me, and changed me in numerous ways.
Is there a particular message or point that you always make sure to send across, no matter what project you are doing?
That we are NOT victims. We are never victims.
Is there any advice, notes, or anything really that you can tell young people of colour trying to make their way into creative spaces or find a space for themselves?
Create the spaces yourselves!! I’ve realised there is no point in trying desperately to get into spaces which were never created to include you. It’s their loss. Moulding your own creative spaces where you can increase your productivity by not having to explain yourself or contexualise your own work to people who don’t understand/care about the experiences of POC is so much more worthwhile. Only now, after university, I can see how the institution really defined me and my practice, and how I was constantly having to battle and explain WHY it is always about race and WHY it is important to me. And TAKE SELFIES! X
Check out all of her work on SANAAHAMID.COM
Words by Fabiola Ching