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Negine Jasmine On Breaking Barriers And Challenging the Gaze

By Tasnim Ahmed

Multidisciplinary creator Negine Jasmine is using her artistic mediums to claim space and representation for people of color. Born and raised in the town of Sedona, Arizona, Negine’s relationship with her Afghan-American identity through her formative years was in state of flux. Growing up in a town where her’s was the only Afghan and Muslim family, Negine experienced a disconnect with her roots, compounded by the aftermath of 9/11.

To reclaim her identity on her terms, Negine turned to her grandmother for guidance. Through long daily conversations with her grandmother, Negine fell in love with her heritage. Since then, Negine has committed herself to deconstructing systems of internalized racism and cultural stereotyping through her photos, videos and needlework. Equal parts critical and uplifting, Negine’s work is culturally cathartic for its viewers.

Photo by Harshvardhan Shah

1) As an Afghan-American woman born and raised in Arizona, what was your relationship to your cultural identity growing up?
I was born in Sedona, Arizona — a gorgeous little town north of Phoenix. Arizona has a stunning landscape, but — political speaking, is colossally myopic. Growing up in Sedona was, and in terms of identity, not easy. It was even whiter twenty years ago than it is now. From what we knew, we were the only Afghan and Muslim family residing in the red rock town. I didn’t have anyone tangible to connect to. We didn’t have cable either, just a VHS player that was home to two VHS tapes that were gifted to my parents: Beetlejuice and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. The first brown girl I saw on screen was Anjali from the latter film, and was the reason I was a “tom boy” and wore a headband in my short, black hair. Wild to think how big of an influence the characters on our screens have on us as kids, especially if we see traces of ourselves in them. My first interaction with someone with the same roots as I was with the Sharbat Gula, "The Afghan Girl” on the front of the National Geographic. I remember feeling confused because her and I looked nothing alike, so I couldn’t even resonate with literally, THE Afghan girl. Then 9/11 happened and I began to internalize a certain hatred towards who my parents said I was. It wasn’t until I graduated from my all-white high school that I detached myself from my white friends, talked to my grandma for hours every day, and fell in love with my heritage. I see it all as a catalyst for who I am today, and why creating representation is such an ultimate and important goal for me.

2) What attracted you to the medium of needlework?
I wanted to make my own patches. I briefly flirted with the Riot Grrrl movement when I was seventeen and attended punk concerts in Phoenix basements and venues. All the punk kids embellished their leather jackets with patches, and I thought it would be fun if I could make my own, so I asked my grandma to teach me how to embroider. My very first patch was this alien in a pink spaceship with the words “Alien Babe” hand-embroidered on the bottom. Embarrassing, but encompasses the awkwardness yet guilelessness of what it meant for me to be seventeen.

3) Where do you draw upon ideas for your needlework pieces?
Farsi and Dari poetry greatly inspire my work. I’ll read a line that will instantly strike me, then the rest just kind of comes to life from there. I draw a lot of inspiration from my Afghan roots, along with my agenda to deconstruct structural inequality, create representation, unlearn Eurocentric beauty standards, and to rewrite history that was originally written by imperialists. I aim to stitch or create stories that were left out of history books. Stories that inspire kids within our diaspora to do their own research, and to talk to their grandparents. There is so much history in the tales that our elders hold, so talk to them, and deeply listen. As I feel like the more we know about our ancestors, the easier it will be to come to terms with who we are.

4) Your “Burqa Babe” series depicts a figure clad in a burqa in different states of motion – riding a bike under the sun, taking selfies, trick-or-treating. What was the inspiration behind this project?
The Western “oppressed" narrative regarding Afghan/Muslim women exhausts me. There is an inherent idea that hijab is oppressive and Burqa Babe challenges these rhetorics, while also normalizing hijab. I don’t wear a headscarf but I do wear conservative clothing and find myself feeling more free when I’m combating the social pressure in the West to strip down. There are misconceptions about the headscarf and Burqa Babe was a simple reminder that every Muslim woman’s experience is different and that Muslim women can cross social norms without succumbing to the capitalization of women’s bodies in the West.

5) You are also a photographer and filmmaker; what led you to this path of documentation?
I want to fill in the gaps that exists in our media. I want to see more intersectional feminism, more people of color, and more complex narratives on black and brown bodies. The white gaze loves to see us oppressed on screens, they love to feel a sense of empathy in order to feed their ego, and they sure love to see us tear each other down. I want to create work that challenges the white gaze while also empowering PoC. I want to create stories that will help our communities unlearn assimilation and will inspire forgiveness. I believe that you should create the work that you wish existed in the world, and I see myself simply following that school of thought.

6) The desert is a dominant theme in your works. How this landscape impacted your work as a photographer and filmmaker?
A big reason my parents moved to Arizona was because it reminded them of Afghanistan. The desert, the mountains, and the climate is similar to Afghanistan’s — so I feel excited that I can envision their love for their country in the mountains that I grew up next to. I also just love Arizona’s desert, I always say that it is one of the most healing places. I love road trips, especially solo ones — and how some of the most amazing gems exist within the state. The Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon, The Painted Desert, Horseshoe Bend, Monument Valley — the list is never ending. Many of these sites are on Navajo Nation, which has really made me understand, respect, and value Arizona’s rich history. I draw a lot of inspiration from the colors in Arizona, and I can always count on a long road trip to stir creative energy within me. Nature is important to me, along with being able to tap into it to support my creative visions and projects. AZ’s landscape is promising and I encourage everyone to spend some time amidst the grand scenery, as you never know what secrets a 300 year old saguaro can unfold to you.

7) The creative industries are undeniably fraught with gender and racial/ethnic biases. Is this something you’ve encountered in your different fields of work?
Yes, of course. I got fired from my last job at a wedding company because I wasn’t “emotionally capable enough to be a wedding photographer”. I received this text because I cried at a wedding I was working, where the groom belittled me repeatedly and publicly. The misogynistic owner of the wedding company lost his temper at each event, yet I was the one not emotionally capable enough to do the job. It’s in the past now and I’ve had my own photography business for the last two years — but moral of the story is, talk to your brothers, cousins, and uncles. Tell them how to respect women, and how they can stand up for them, especially in the work place. Oh also, be nice to your wedding photographer.

8) For women creatives of color, it can often feel as though there isn’t enough room for all of us in this patriarchal and racialized system we operate within. What are your thoughts on this?
I believe that we need to consciously make these spaces for ourselves and for more WoC to join our sides. Too many times have I witnessed people being overly possessive with their sources or knowledge and I can’t blame them. There are so many walls systematically placed amongst us and it’s about time that we break those barriers. I believe in the magic that comes from creating communities, and the importance of carving spaces for more women to join our sides, because if we don’t unlearn this culture that congratulates constant individuality, independence, and isolation — then we will practice greed. There is enough room, and there will always be enough room, but not until we create it.

8) Do you have any up-coming projects you’re looking forward to?
Yes! I’m excited about a video series that is in the works. Relating back to your previous question, I will be creating a series of visual conversations with PoC that I deeply admire. I’m making this platform in hopes that it will inspire women and men to share their sources, their time, and their insight. A platform that communicates ideas, advice, and dialogues on how we can help one another further our careers and goals. I’m looking forward to sharing a space that

is filled with intellectual conversations complimented by glowing moving parts. I’m hopeful that it will be a helpful tool to many PoC who feel like they are having a hard time fitting into this scrupulous system.

9) What does love mean to you?
Giving the last bite of food on your plate to someone.

View more of Negine’s work here http://neginejasmine.com

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