By Nidhi Sunil
As a digital & mixed media artist and organiser at Papi Juice, Mohammed Fayaz aka Mobaby is using his illustrations to consolidate a visual narrative for the queer, trans and POC community in New York. For anyone acquainted with the culture, Mobaby is immediately reminiscent of the doe-eyed sensuality of the women immortalized in Mughal miniature paintings. It is a beauty that demands to be noticed. And yet, the conversation skews towards how invisible he felt within the gay community and how any attention he received invariably veered towards fetishization.
Mohammed is a Queens native whose familial ancestry originates in Aurangabad and Hyderabad respectively. He speaks English and Urdu and identifies entirely as a NewYorker, a testament to the melting pot that is New York City.
What was it like growing up as a Muslim-American boy in Queens, New York?
Really wild... especially through 9/11. Dad drove a taxi for three to four years, and my mother spoke English at just about college level. They’d already had my brother and sister before they came here, and they had me nine months after they immigrated.
I think of my childhood as split in two — pre-9/11 and post-9/11. The attacks took place a month before I turned 11, which is already a pretty defining point in your life because you’re on the cusp of becoming a teenager. We lived in Queens, in Jamaica, part of that first wave of immigrants who came out here in the ’70s. The immigration quotas opened up at that time so my aunty, a psychiatrist, immigrated and married a doctor. She got married, divorced, married again and divorced a second time. After her second divorce, she was living in a huge mansion in Jamaica Estates and decided to embrace the Indian joint family.
She arranged visas for her extended family and had everyone living under her roof. My family and I lived in one room, the garage was converted into another room, the attic into a room for my cousin… it was really great for us kids. The women in my family persevered towards educating themselves while the men tended to be high-school dropouts, messing around on the streets before eventually joining the workforce. All the marriages in my family have resulted in the husband joining the wife’s extended family, which is completely at odds with traditional Indian family structure.
What was it like to be a queer POC?
Manhattan can be diverse racially, but everyone has the same preference — super-muscular and hyper-masculine. Even if someone shows up in a little bit of make-up and eyeshadow, it’s worn in a particular way. People who come to New York feel like they have to act New York; but I’m like, just be yourself... that’s what New York is really about.
The truth is, I felt invisible there. No one would look at me twice. I started going out in the East Village at 19 with a fake ID, where the ‘bears’ (large, hairy men) would hang out; it was very different from the scene in Chelsea. I shaved my head to get noticed but still felt pretty unseen. If someone was talking to me it was because they thought I was Arab or because I was hairy and they were into that. I remember feeling like I’d waited my whole life to come out and being disappointed in what was out there for someone like me in the gay community.
I had this friend, José, who felt very much the same way. He started taking an extreme look on purpose, to stand out, and everyone would go crazy when he was dancing in the club... but I always felt like the reality of that had to be very lonely.
How was Papi Juice founded?
In 2013, around the same time that I was going through all of this, Oscar [Nuñez] and Adam [Rhodes] ran into each other and were going through the same thing I was. They hung out together at a local bar pretty regularly and decided on a whim to ask the manager to give them space so they could throw a party. Pepper, the manager, put them on the schedule for the same Saturday. Oscar had only DJed one party before this but they scrambled to put it together, invited all their friends — and that was that.
To be fair, there have been parties happening for queer folks of colour for a long time in New York — like iBomba / GHE20G0TH1K. By the end of summer 2014 we were packing 250 people into one night. Now we’re at Elsewhere and the most we’ve seen is 2000 people, in and out.
How often do you throw these parties, and are they free?
They used to be monthly and free. Then we started charging five dollars after the first year so we could book DJs. Now it’s 10 to 20 dollars depending on the line-up and how big it is. We throw the party every other month, and on the off months, we travel and play at other people’s parties.
When did your journey at Papi Juice begin?
I ran into Oscar after a Beyoncé concert; I was at the bar, and he invited me to their second-ever party. I went with my best friend, Christian from Queens, and I just remember walking in and being like OMG! Who were all these people? They all knew each other, they all hung out together and I felt like fresh meat.
I met so many people that night that I’m seeing later tonight. At some point, Oscar asked me to make their posters. I think they realized they needed a stronger visual identity and I was always illustrating people of colour. I made 30 dollars... It was my first paid job as an artist.
I took a cab back to Queens feeling so cute! I’d never been paid before to make something. Our photographer Cristobal had a similar serendipitous entrance into the community. The party started to grow really big and before we knew it, the four of us were working together on Papi Juice full time.
What was your background coming into Papi Juice?
I went to college at CUNY Baruch which is a business school. My parents, of course, wanted me to become a doctor. But I said no. I went in studying finance, almost failed my first semester and chose sociology in my second semester. That was probably the first time I started to feel politically active. I told my parents I wanted to be a social worker, which somewhat relieved their anxiety because they saw it as something resembling a job, even though it was the furthest thing from being a doctor.
At some point, I decided to drop out of college because I was never really there and felt like I was paying for something that wasn’t teaching me anything relevant. I continued to illustrate on the side and ended up in digital and social media marketing at Warby Parker. And now, I run a really tight ship on the Papi Juice creatives. There’s so much visual content on social media, I really had to reflect on what would make someone scrolling through Instagram stop and consider a post.
When did Papi Juice start to identify as a collective?
Around two or three years ago, we started to realize that there were a lot of talented people in the community we’d built around us. It wasn’t just about having a party anymore. We started doing panels and workshops and museum activations. In April we did a workshop on Curating Intentional Spaces at the MoMA PS1.
We’re imparting to the community the education we’ve picked up on the job - how to talk to venues, how to secure bar deals, how to project confidence. Sometimes making a connection is as simple as talking to the bartender on a Wednesday night and asking to speak to the manager.
Six years into working on Papi Juice, we’re decidedly advocates of an abundance mentality. Everybody wins. There’s a seat at the table for everyone. We built our own table so just pull up a chair and bring your own plate.
What was it like, coming out to your family?
In our community sex is not something you discuss with your parents, whether you’re straight or gay. Around puberty, I realized the people I found attractive were men. Freshman year of high school, this one girl in my circle of friends told everyone she was bi, which allowed me to vocalize my own orientation for the first time.
But at this point, I really believed something was wrong with me and that I would still grow up, get married, have a wife and kids and never act on my homosexuality. My religion made me feel like my only option was to ignore the things that made me different. That it was something that would go away if ignored.
I also never felt safe enough to come out as openly gay. I had a Guyanese girlfriend for a few months who also ended up being queer. But I finally learned to lean on myself and tell people about my sexuality near my last week in high school.
Could you explain the nuances of identifying as queer as opposed to gay?
It was really powerful for me to hear the word queer for the first time. It was the first time I had a language to articulate why I hated going to Chelsea or taking the 6 train to college where all these white people would look at me wondering what I was doing there, or when a white woman got weird because I was standing near her. It took me six months to apply the words queer and POC to myself after I’d heard it for the first time.
Queerness is about existing outside of the mainstream. I realize now that I have been attracted to girls but would put any feelings that came up as a “gay man having a girl-crush” and shove it aside. If I now see someone non-binary on the street, or even just a woman I might realize that I’m very attracted to them, even though I’ve been told that being gay means I can’t be. I’ve never explored it, but I would like to. We’ll find out.