It’s no secret that the internet is no longer a secret realm set apart from our day to day life. We’re using the net to create spaces for ourselves and invade spaces that have deemed us unworthy. This fortnightly column will serve as a platform where I get to introduce rad girls of colour who are embracing the digital age and using the internet as a major way to take what’s ours and tell our stories.
In the first installment of this column I decided to go to chat with the coolest ever Zarina Muhammad, a visual artist whose work centres around her life as a south Asian leaving in the diaspora and using Bollywood imagery as a base. I met Zarina when I was working on the second issue of The Coalition Zine and fell in love with how she used her physical being to convey her message, how personal her art was and yet she’s able to reach a lot of people and inspire.
Here we talk about using yourself as a subject in your art, selfie culture, making art, ignoring the white gaze/audience, and this fangled creature The Internet.
Tell me about yourself and what you do?
I’m a moving image and video artist living and working in London. My work is based in Bollywood imagery, it focuses on my experience living in the South Asian diaspora at the intersection of two/three cultures and the duality of that identity. (Shameless self promo, but my blog explains my work better than I do: http://zarina-muhammad.tumblr.com/tagged/art)
What is the motive behind your work?
I don’t really have a motive, like anything deep or ‘I HAVE to make this work for bleh bleh bleh’. There’s no reason other than I want to do it, so I will. I mean, I could consider the fact that I see nothing really like it out there, in galleries or in Art magazines. There are so few brown female artistic role models for me, so I have to fill the space myself. I guess that’s the closest I get to a motive for my work, I want to create my own representation and fill that gap that I see in the art world.
I’ve noticed that a lot of your work is digital based which I luv a lot, the way you use digital mediums to convey your work. How has the internet helped make this easier or better for you to do?
The Internet is hugely important, not just in distributing my work and finding inspiration and context for it. It means I can represent myself directly to people viewing it. It’s more empowering than having to go through a middleman like a curator or a gallery. I can call my work what I want, talk about it in the context of what I want and represent it how I see fit. I mean, I of course can’t deny that curators and galleries are essential to the art world, and they do fantastic jobs some of the time. But my work is very specific, I need an impartial space to deal with it on my own terms.
Another thing about your work is that you are in it. And there’s this whole debate that’s going on about girls on the internet and our ‘narcissism’ and ‘obsession with out physical bodies’. Do you ever think about this while making your art, is it important that you are in it?
HA, I think that debate is so stupid. Of course I’m the subject and object of my work, it’s personal by nature; it’s about an experience specific to myself and my identity as a Gujurati/Bengali/Londoner. It makes sense that I’m physically in it. Everyone, EVERYONE has a degree of obsession with their physical body. It’s all we have to signify something as notional as physical presence, if you ignore that physical body, everything becomes very existential and ‘WHY AM I HERE????’ Calling out young/teenage girls on the way they acknowledge their physical presence in the world is ridiculous. Selfie culture is empowering and it’s why, in my work, all the footage of me is shot on a webcam or on the front facing camera of my phone. It’s another example of creating your own representation. It’s not really narcissism to say, “I am here, and I am acknowledging that I have the right to portray myself as I want to be portrayed”.
There’s this influx of artists who are now v. dedicated to making art for a certain audience and this is really cool because, as artists of colour, we always want to appease white people or the mass audience and we sometimes let that get into the way of what we want to translate. What I like about your work is that you are devoted to making your art as a south Asian woman and doing what you want and care about and knowing that ‘the mass audience’ wouldn’t get it is not a bother to you. Do you think about this as an artist, trying to grow on the internet and as a person of colour?
Yeah, I feel this in a major way. My work is not going to speak to everyone, but also, why should it? One thing that’s key for viewing my work is the idea that viewership is not a free pass into inclusion. It’s not there as a spectacle, it’s not there for anyone and everyone, my intentions for the work, of course, come with limitations but I don’t really think it’s my job to think about that.
But also, there’s a sense that appealing to white people doesn’t work. In my experience, I can’t transcend my context as a brown girl, y’know? The work I made before this, on Foundation and before that, I used to paint naked white women and my choice was questioned. I was regularly asked “WHY? WHY PAINT WHITE WOMEN?? U R BROWN WOMAN??” So, for me, appeasing that white gaze hasn’t worked in making it more accessible to them. My identity as a brown girl is always questioned, even when it’s not specifically addressed. And I just can’t be dealing with it. I want to make work and place myself in a context where that identity isn’t a conversation topic. I don’t care for discussing that on terms that aren’t dictated by myself.
So yeah, in short: this question is one I’ve been asking myself, it’s on my mind a lot.
Is this also a problem when trying to break out and invade creative spaces?
Yeah, I mean at the moment it’s not really an issue. I’m working with people who are also on the same page as me, I’m in spaces where that rejection of white gaze is supported and nurtured. But when it comes down to it, I think there’s going to be a limit to how far I can go with this outlook of: It’s not here for you. At some point I have to extend out of that bubble of support and I’m going to have to assess that viewpoint so I can, I don’t know, pay rent. If you look at POC who are successful in the art world, it’s all people who aren’t really acknowledging that context. I get the feeling that to go far, I have to transcend that context, or even reject it. But with that, I have to sort of give up talking about issues like race and brown girl context. And I don’t really want to do that.
I don’t really want to admit that that might be an issue in the future, I don’t want to acknowledge that I’ll have to make that decision, but I probably will. And that’s pretty depressing.
Do you think you would be able to achieve all that you have without the internet?
No. Not at all. Everyone says this, and it’s true: it’s a hugely democratic medium. I don’t have the space in the immediate circles I move in, to connect with people like me. There are very few people at my university who can identify with what I say about living at the overlap of cultures, very few people who have actually experienced that. I can’t tell you how important it’s been as a way to create a network so I can speak to and find other people who have that experience, beyond, like, my family and a small number of friends. It’s how I ended up working with the Swetshop Boys and how I found Barby and sorryyoufeeluncomfortable.
It’s also great because now I can watch old Bollywood films online without having to traipse all the way to Wembley, to that shop next to the pani puri stall, that sells Bolly DVDs. It’s opened the doors to a huge amount of raw imagery I have to work with.
What are you working on now/what’s next on your list?
At the moment, I’m part of a collective called sorryyoufeeluncomfortable and we’ve been engaging with James Baldwin and Horace Ove’s film ‘Baldwin’s N****R’. For anyone who’s not seen it, GO, GO WATCH IT, it’s amazing. We’re coming to the end of a residency at Iniva in Shoreditch, and we’re working with Barby Asante to produce a newspaper that discusses things we think are missing in media. So that’s really exciting. Beyond that, next on my list is a new video exploring the way the brown female body (specifically the Muslim, brown, female body) is seen in space that is ultimately patriarchal/white-supremacist/orentalist/islamaphobic. When I was younger I asked my grandmother why she wore a hijab, and she told me it was because you cannot possess what you don’t desire, and you can’t desire what you don’t know or can’t see. For her, it was a way of owning and possessing her own body and her own space. That’s next on my hitlist. I want to work with that idea of possessing your own representation and space as a brown girl, and how revolutionary that is.
What are you obsessed with right now?
I LOVE THIS QUESTION. My lovely, wonderful Dad recently got me every single film Satyajit Ray ever made. I am fully hooked. They are excellent. So far I’ve been burning through them and Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and Kaghaz Ke Phool. New Cinema and Parallel cinema. I am obsessed with it. It’s a fresh break from the Bollywood I’m used to. Don’t get me wrong, I love those kitsch Bolly vibes, but there’s more to South Asian cinema than just that.
As well as that, when I was younger (like 6/7 ish) one of my cousins made me a mixtape (literally a mix tape. Old school innit) of all these songs nicked from an old radio station called Club Asia or something. I recently found it and I’ve been rediscovering all these excellent songs from the 90s and 00s when British Asian artists were blending these sounds from the Motherland and this harsh garage vibe. I am just very obsessed with that sound right now. It speaks to me more directly than just English music, or just Hindi music. It’s all about fusion. It’s about acknowledging that you have more than one place that has a claim on you, and not denying any of them because denying one is to deny an aspect of yourself.
Keep up with Zarina’s work @ http://zarina-muhammad.tumblr.com/
Words By Fabiola Ching