Taking control of our narrative

by Anjuman Rahman & Fiona Berbatovci

Communication is key – and the most rebellious form of communication is art.

Colourful, beautiful, and recklessly powerful, it comes in many forms including poetry, sculpture, music, and film. Art has long been regarded a potential threat to the stability of a society because too often, the art produced has been used as a form of peaceful protest, a revolt against the injustices experienced by its audience.

Because of its attractiveness, it has the potential to draw people in and connect them during turbulent political times, and force society to look at itself, and question what is going on around them. Art may reflect the opinions and feelings of its creator, but it is capable of revealing the reality experienced by many, it is able to say what many are afraid to say, as such, it can be used as a very important tool for social advocacy.

Britain has been known to be one of the most diverse and culturally accepting countries in the world, and this is nowhere better illustrated than in London. Here, a group of friends is rarely ever made up of a single ethnicity or religion. It’s an expensive, overcrowded and fast-paced city, however, we cannot deny that it’s also one of the most multi-cultural and tolerant places in the world.

The curators, Najlaa El-Ageli and Toufik Douid, brought together a collection of artworks by fifteen artists from North Africa all of whom were inspired by the Pop Art movement. The exhibition titled Pop Art from North Africa represented every country in the region and the mediums used varied greatly, they included paintings, graphics, music, animation and street art.

When asked why they decided to showcase in London, El-Ageli cited its diversity as part of the appeal, she believes that “London is a city that always embraces different cultures” and due to the growing number of North Africans living in London and the UK, she felt a need to dispel some myths about the people from the region.

“We brought it [the exhibition] to London to put focus on the region besides just the doom and the gloom, [the idea] that there is no culture, that there is no art there, to really open up the audience’s eyes,” she told us. For her, it is essential to provide an alternative and more authentic narrative from people of the region.

Zouzou, digitally manipulated images, printed on MDF

El-Ageli explains the importance of art for the people of North Africa: “A lot of people in the region are facing major identity issues, either through religion or what’s happening after the Arab spring, there’s a lot of questions of who we are. North Africa is quite interesting, there are a lot of underlays besides being an Arab and being Muslim, there’s more to it. I think the youth are asking all of these questions and looking back as means to set some sort of identity, reaching out for it.”

Hamida Zéd was one of the artists featured as part of the exhibition. She uses analogue photography and digital collage as her main mediums, her work focuses on reworking the colonial and military photography that was produced by the French during its 132 years of colonisation in Algeria.

In her talk, The Story Behind the Image, Zéd explained how she uses her art to challenge the western orientalist gaze that perceives the indigenous population as exotic but enslaved.

With a particular focus on the Algerian women featured in the old French military photography, and also the other ‘masterpieces’ of the time which depicted them, she urges the audience to consider the wrongful and damaging appropriation of ‘Algerian’ and by extension that of all colonised people and cultures. With her art, she attempts to change the widely held views about her identity in a way which the audience can immediately relate to and understand.

The influence of western culture is apparent when observing the artworks on display, many of the artists shown present subversions of Pop Art classics while employing traditional symbols from their localities. Andy Warhol’s iconic Marilyn Monroe is seen sporting a traditional North African head scarf or Hayek as they are known in the region.

Roy Lichtenstein’s soup can have also been reimagined to contain the North African Harira, a traditional Moroccan soup. The artists have looked a lot into the heritage and the traditions of their locality whilst presenting them in a form that the audience recognises and finds accessible.

With London’s population being made up of 13.2 per cent Asian or Asian British, 10.1 per cent Black or Black British and 3.5 per cent Chinese or other ethnic groups, according to the Office for National Statistics, it’s baffling how issues such as under-representation, misrepresentation, and discrimination still exist in London.

Despite the population being as diverse as it is, finding places where individuals can be free to be themselves and express their feelings can be more challenging than finding a link for illicit drugs.

And when living a busy city life where most of the week is occupied with exhaustive work and hard labour, leisure time is a rarity for many, it is easy to forget oneself in the chaos and neglect the very human need to express yourself. It is especially difficult when you find yourself unable to be a part of the mainstream population. Those who are considered too ‘foreign’, ’different’ or ‘weird’, find it even more difficult to find a place to foster their creativity.

A concept that many fail to understand is that diversity and cohesion isn’t about clumped, pocketed communities made up of just one ethnic group, a particular race, or religion being “allowed” to exist as a separate branch of society. Diversity and cohesion aren’t about people assimilating to the native customs and traditions of a place and in the process losing their own culture.

Diversity and cohesion are about integration, it involves accepting all the differences that make people who they are without anybody having to constrain themselves in fear of being rejected.

Enjoying each other’s company without restrictions standing in the way is what we need. But unfortunately, finding a place where differences are appreciated and celebrated and most importantly, spoken of and heard, is rare.

Located in Kilburn, Rumi’s Cave aspires to be such a place. The cultural arts and events space are welcome to all and have been working to connect minds, heart, and communities. They pride themselves in operating around the influence of the famous thirteenth-century Persian poet, Jalaluddin Rumi.

Existing at a time where the media is dominating all aspects of life, often with a language that attempts to divide and demonise sections of society, many feel the need to stand and speak for themselves. One way to do so is through spoken word poetry.

Isa Noorudeen, 26, a member of the production staff at Rumi’s Cave, stresses the importance of taking control of your own narrative, particularly if your identity is constantly portrayed in a negative light.

“Art and culture is essentially our narrative on our story”, he explains, “without us claiming that narrative, other people will claim it. And that’s what the media does a lot, so art and culture is an essential part of how to keep our story ours, as opposed to letting other people talk about us. And I don’t even have to say the sort of stories people tell about us.”

Isa Noorudeen, Rumi’s Cave Production staff.

He explained the objectives of the Rumi’s Cave, comparing its purpose to that of mosques; a setting not designed for young people to hang out but a place of worship, “We’re trying to be a third space that’s serving the community, a place where anyone can turn up from any sort of denomination and just chill. So, one of the things about poetry evenings like the open mic nights is that it allows amateurs to express themselves, whatever’s on their mind to come and say it – unite people. This isn’t a ‘Muslim event’ even though Muslims organised it.

“A lot of non-Muslims come here regularly, and there’s a lot of common grounds we have, so it really brings the community together.”

The institution is dedicated to nurturing everyone, regardless of age, race or religious background. As you go in, you are instantly overcome by a familiar feeling, that of returning home after a long day outside in the cold. Embroidered cushions are scattered across the carpeted floor, the room rinsed in purple and pink lights, helping to set a serene, intimate atmosphere.

There is no theatrical stage, just a simple section at the front stripped off any fancy carpet with a large, bold canvas set behind. It is the only wall that demands attention, the rest of the room is minimally decorated, featuring only a few small framed paintings. All the while, the atmosphere draws you into its indigo haze with calming music playing in the background.

Shaking the stage that night, with his powerful, poetic words was the host himself, Rakin Niass:

What is truth?

Is it what is spoken from the mouth, or is it much deeper than that?

Is it what comes from the heart, or is that just part of it?

Is it what your parents say, or is it what the eyes see, or can that be manipulated too easily?

Is it what is said on the news, or is it darker than that?

Everyone is looking for the truth…

(Excerpt from the piece Rakin Niass performed, The Idea of Truth.)

As the manager of Rumi’s Cave, he emphasised the importance of having a safe space for the younger generation, especially now that the government has closed down so many youth centres: “We need safe spaces where we can actually talk and be able to listen to others & have others listen to our ideas to help each-other formulate our ideas.”

There is a growing need for people to have access to places where they can relax and fully express themselves, without the fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe hanging over them.

Active in the music industry for more than 20 years, and has performed globally in countries including Sudan, Nigeria, USA, Sweden, Holland and France, Rakin Niass is known to be vocal about socio-political issues through his work in spoken poetry and rap.

He believes in using the art as a tool to teach as well as learn about the world and its events, notably those who suffer from it; the voices hardly heard: “You can learn a lot as well, you can learn a lot about cultures and how different people are feeling so, it’s also a way of teaching, it’s a way of getting your story out. We need to have more narratives – different narratives as well, not just the mainstream narratives, we need to hear it from different people, especially from the ethnic minorities.”

Hanan Issa is an inspiring, Welsh spoken word artist based in Cardiff who also co-ordinates an open mic series: ‘Where I’m Coming From’. The talented poetess exercises her ‘fierce, female, Muslim voice’ to disrupt stereotyped preconceptions that many hold of Muslim females. While highlighting the importance of being provided safe art spaces, she also acknowledges a division between an ‘art space’ and ‘safe space’: “Not every art space is a safe space. It is unfortunate that freedom of expression and thought does not always romantically entwine itself with art the way we expect it to. She reflects on her own distressing moments as a performer, “I’ve been in uncomfortable situations where poets have used offensive language that is not theirs to use, I’ve had my name mangled more than once, I’ve quickly changed my mind about reading a particular piece in a particular setting.”

In a society that has conditioned us all to bottle everything in, we associate strength with silence; a mentality spoken poetry proves otherwise as not only does this art liberate the poets themselves, but the audience too. Hanan Issa’s poetry bravely deals with and reminds everyone feminism is entirely vital and necessary.

Poetess, Hanan Issa

I am a Hijabi: when I am ready and feel free enough to be.

I am an Arab: because that’s what Muslims are supposedly and I like saying words like “yanni”.

I am a Terrorist: the news and bigots tell me so.

I am a wife and a mother: different kinds of love have found and enveloped me.

I am a poet: because it helps me breathe…

Excerpt from a poem written by Hanan Issa, A Tale of Mixed: Other (please specify).

The poetess also stressed the relevance of showcasing art and expressing diverse creativity in Britain: “If we truly want to make Britain a society of multi-cultures then we need to confront difference.”

Art exposes what many people are afraid to say. Art makes sense of the mess of the world and its unrest. In whatever form it may be; Art comforts the odd, the poor and the victims. Art mocks. Art teaches. Art is communication. And communication is key. And as Hanan Issa poetically states;

“Art, in all its forms, can help us sit with the uncomfortable, the unfamiliar, and try to understand it.”

 

 

 

To explore further on the works of artists interviewed, follow their social media and websites below:

Hanan Issa: Facebook – HananIsCreative     Instagram – @hananiscreative
Rakin Niass:  Twitter – @RakinNiass 
Isa Noorudeen: isarts.com
Rumi’s Cave: rumis.org
Najlaa El-Ageli: noonartsprojects.com

Featured image by Maggie