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On Community, Healing & Artistic Activism: In Conversation with Sarah Naqvi

Words & Images by: Naomi Joshi


Sarah Naqvi is an Indian, multidisciplinary artist, who works primarily with textiles. Born in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, but raised in a suburb of Mumbai called Mira Road, Sarah tackles issues within her art practice that are relevant to her own history, identity and community. Interested in tactility and how versatile materials can be, the materials Sarah uses often consist of textiles and crafts, used as productive tools for narrating the stories she strives to tell. Sarah's art functions as a bridge between art and activism, although this bridge is becoming diluted and transforming into one in the same. Her artistic practice is quite universal, even though it's heavily influenced by her hometown(s) and previous studies. After junior college, Sarah studied at NID (National Institute of Design) in Ahmedabad. At this creative institute, she familiarized herself with crafts and textiles, although she had already been introduced to such practices in her household growing up, where the women have a basic understanding of stitching and repair work. In the first two years of college, Sarah approached textile practices through a more professional framework, with proper, rigorous training. Overtime, the academic work diversified and became more market production based, which allowed Sarah to reassess the kind of artistic work she was passionate about. She felt particularly inspired by one course in which she was prompted to challenge the boundaries that society places upon people. This in some ways built a foundation where she came to realize the many issues and experiences she was unable to confront as a child, especially ones relating to the social dynamics surrounding the female body, sexuality and her family - they could be tackled through languages and means accessible to her, in her medium of choice. Consequently, Sarah began incorporating these themes into her work, allowing her to begin voicing her own opinions and processing her own struggles. We can gauge in her earlier work that during this time, she focused on unlearning, re-visiting and sharing her personal understanding of these rather complex concepts within her practice. She was long convinced that these topics should be confronted and discussed within the structural dynamics of a family space for it to be able to reflect on its impact upon larger societal systems. Although the beginning of her artistic journey was driven by self-reflective, introspective thinking processes, her current practice moves beyond the personal, and tells a larger story. No Borders visited Sarah in January of this year, at De Ateliers in Amsterdam, where she is currently completing her art residency.

Can you explain your process of becoming an artist?

I believe that every child is inherently an artist. It’s the privilege you have, to let that artist live. I was very lucky because I could continue making art: drawing, painting and everything else. I see it as survival, and for me, my practice survived because of certain cards that were dealt in my favour. While my family did not have the opportunity to opt for a field that is as unstable as art, the exposure I was able to get in Mumbai, really informed my future choices.

How does art allow you to express yourself?

It allows you to express what you have on your mind. Or what conflicts you might have within yourself. I've found that in my process, only once I am able to cater to my chaos, can I start giving rather than taking. To truly mobilise and move from idea to action, creating and processing can be a deeply transformative experience. That being said, I’ve found myself making it through extreme lows of my life, surviving from pain. But to understand why I found myself there, using and abusing my gift, in a time when all my body needed was care, is in all honesty a bigger take away than any art that was made from that period. My artistic journey began in realizing that my artistic expression comes second, only after what I must use any space to say. Primary to my practice is the evaluation of need and resource.

Have you been able to build communities and empower them through your work and creativity? And if so, in what ways?

I can't really say because my definition of community keeps on fluctuating. For example, the community that I’m a part of by birth, has often isolated me, shamed and ridiculed me. And yet, I find belonging in the small joys shared with them. I do however, find solace in shared knowledge, in shared history and the hope that it binds us into a more tolerant future. Over here [in Amsterdam], the need to find a community felt strongest when the protests broke out in December last year (anti CAA and NRC). That marked a massive shift in every aspect of my life. Through the darkness of those times, I found family in the people protesting besides me. Loss and fear brought us a mere option, to either grieve the death of a secular future in our homes, or to take charge and fight with all our might. And with these monumental and horrific developments back home, came equally unprecedented changes in the way I approached art and reason. To amplify, resist and sustain the momentum of the movement became core to the work I made, the mutual understanding of struggle brought the public sphere into a completely different light. lt made it almost intimate in the ways we expressed sorrow, rage and vulnerability. So, when it comes to community in practice, just making something that includes everyone's voice, even something as simple as a banner, which communicates the need to be heard, is empowering for the community.

The most rewarding however, is the kind of love I feel when some young girl comes and talks to me about something I’ve created, that's the only validation I need. Because many things may seem like a big deal but they're simply on the surface, never enough to sustain or help you grow. It’s like your voice but through someone else. It’s about those similar, relatable experiences that you've been through, but not everyone is given the platform to voice theirs and so yours becomes theirs and together you become an echo that lingers beyond the capacity of a single body and voice.

Where does your inspiration come from?

I'm very emotional. It's just that people have grown so immune and become desensitized due to the frequency and nature of things that happen. Somehow I've just never gotten used to it. And I act in accordance to my emotions, the act of making is very synced to the way I feel.

Are there artists that spoke to you / have influenced your style along the years? Is there an Indian and/or Muslim influence within your practice?

In the beginning, I was really inspired by the art of Frida Kahlo, Jamini Roy, Bhupen Khakkar and Hussein. But over time, I also unlearned this idea of having idols. It became much more about the people I've shared personal accounts with, ones I’ve encountered along the way that left their mark. Like at a protest, people have really inspired me and they might have nothing to do with art. Craft of course has influenced my practice, in ways that I sometimes don't even recognise. I used to always work on pieces that took a really long time to make, because the subjects in relation to the time that I was taking to create were instrumental for me. If I'm making a narrative that is difficult to gauge as a concept, I need time to reflect. So, every time I’m stitching something that's really intricate, I get to take that time to understand and absorb things, especially when working on intangible subjects, like loss. The way I saw craftsmen working on their pieces, that labor of love, this affection for what they make, that’s what helped me appreciate the process more than the result. Kalamkari, and embroidery, have influenced my work. It's not always about the technique, it often is what it symbolises. For embroidery the act of repetition and repair gives me a lot of space to think as it becomes muscle memory. Whenever someone asks me who I'm inspired or influenced by, I find it very difficult to answer. It’s just those around me, those who give and show genuine care, care as an all-encompassing thing.

Youve expressed that you do both visual art and textile art. I'm interested in whether there's a conscious choice in the kind of medium you decide to use or maybe it's dependent on the message that you're trying to get across / the topic you're exploring.

Textile is this universal language, and it also runs in the family. That’s where it started, but now it's also become my second voice. I've also found much joy in singing, so as my practice grows, so does the integration of all of these elements in it. I make these narrative sketches, satirical pieces, often out of improv. With both the textiles I make, and singing as a practice, I have a chance to give up control and readjust to what comes with my own limitations, it’s a very humbling medium. The idea of repair and mending has subconsciously been a foundation stone to how I’ve always worked, moving from fixing simple tears in clothing, to now navigating means to repair and restore the withering fabric of our secular society and democracy. The sentimental value one assigns to their belongings, can lead us onto a path of conscious consumption, and careful contribution to the resistance. In my work, I think a lot about what materials are durable. I think that’s why I’ve gravitated towards textile.

Do you have an artist community here? Has de Ateliers provided one for you?

Since I joined, which was about a year ago, this space for me has become an exercise in defying eurocentric methods of making, the isolating of an artist in the studio is not one that appeals to me. I have found such intimacy in being able to work with so many beautiful, inspiring practitioners here. And in retrospect, I am more glad than ever to have worked with artists collectively since the pandemic broke out. There are about 10 artists in each cycle, with varying practices and backgrounds. Ateliers most definitely is a home away from home now.

Before the pandemic, protest meet-ups also happened in my studio here, we would do screenings, make posters and slogans. I feel comfortable here, but not in the way I feel at home. The first time I felt Brown was here. You're told that you’re Brown. But here, you’re reminded of your Brownness constantly, in different ways, some subtle, some overt.

Can you tell me about the exhibitions or series you've done in the past? What kind of artworks were being presented? Do you have a favorite?

There are some works that I felt needed to be seen more because of their content, rather than just the art itself. A couple of years ago, I started working along the lines of communal violence and what has led us there. It had a lot to do with the mob lynchings and the violence minorities we’ve been seeing since the right wing came into power. It was, and still is, so insidious; things kept happening, and life moved on. People grew more and more desensitised, to points where no uproar was heard, but a faint cry that faded with time, till the next act of brutality. There was a switch that happened, with the discriminatory bills that triggered it. But all those lives lost back then, we didn’t do enough for them. We didn't say enough. There’s so many happening, you don't even have time to grieve.

I started working on this small solo show which was called Bashaoor, which means guided by conscience. That project reflected the concept of loss: what loss is for someone on the outside, looking inside. From an outsider's perspective, you see loss through the objects that are left behind, the remnants. For example, after a riot, what are the things that are left behind? It’s the rubble, the broken teacups, the lost nameplates, artifacts that lead us to fragments of a lost home. A lost love, a shattered dream. That’s how we see it, without the grotesque, barbaric imagery of destruction and apathy. Images I would see in the news, paid no heed to the ones on the receiving end of violence and abuse, images captured the brutality with a complete disregard for humanity. I began by creating a shrine, in objects lost and found. Objects, linking us to lives lived and relationships shared. A teacup a father drinks chai from every morning, a diary one keeps ‘hisaab’ in, a lock that secures a night’s peace. It became a shrine of memories, lost but never forgotten.

The work for Bashaoor was shown at both Clark House in Bombay, and then at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. It was very interesting because in Bombay people knew of the context better, but in Berlin it was a relatively concerned audience. I think we’re much more aware of what’s happening in the West than they are of what’s happening in the global south. So this conversation is necessary, to highlight both the atrocities, and the disparity in talking about human rights violations in the West in comparison to the rest of the world. It was great to have been given that space to be heard. The intention behind my work, at that time, was about challenging and questioning how life is valued in India and whose, vs. in the West. In India, loss of life becomes statistics and with the caste system still prevalent, caste and religion based violence keeps increasing daily. Most of the people who lose their lives to communal violence, are always from more difficult backgrounds, disadvantaged, both economically and socially.

Have you been able to heal through your artistic practice?

I get really invested in the process of making, it’s meditative for me. I’ve definitely been able to heal through my work. In my little cliché pieces that I first started out with, I found so much joy and they all acted as catharsis. This is the innocence of making. I’ve never wanted my art to become about what others expect of me. It should be about what you actually want. When you stop caring about what others think and do something for yourself, art becomes such a beautiful way to communicate.

Is there an overall and/or underlying message that you want your art to provoke?

That has changed drastically throughout my life. When I was working on subjects pertaining to the body, the aim was to de-stigmatize and move away from the taboos that were subjected onto me and others like me. It was very important for me to continue, even if met with resistance. Presence for me, is political. Moving beyond the myth of a happy Muslim woman, who is comfortable with her fluid sexuality, came the realisation of this being in flesh. I was told I didn't exist, and what does not exist is not spoken of. I began by looking into this categorization of me, as a Muslim, a queer person of colour, and someone whose labels constantly evolve. What did I have to say? It was always there, an othering of self from within, if not without. That you are an ‘other’ in itself opens up so many questions. From whom are we an ‘other’, by what standards are we defined into belonging, so on and so forth. I think, this question of art and its message is one that is transformative, just like a person, changing with the seasons, it is subjective and dynamic to each one.

Did you have a Muslim community growing up?

After the riots in Bombay, many families moved to the outskirts, suburbs and settled where they felt safe. Mira Road was one of them, so a very big Muslim population lives in that area. I was raised in a Muslim neighbourhood, but growing up in Mumbai is never an experience limited to religion. There are, of course, those instances where you are reminded of your identity and its place, but overall your relations with your surroundings and neighbours are not black and white. So, I had two very starkly different experiences: one was at home, and the other was at the convent school I went to which was predominantly Catholic. They actually don't give admission to Muslim kids unless you have contacts, and Papa was teaching at St. Xavier's college, so we had a Jesuit contact, otherwise my sister and I wouldn’t have been able to go to that school. There were maybe two Muslims in my entire year, and in the entire school maybe five.

Did you feel ostracized within your school environment?

Oh god, I lied so much. When I was in seventh standard, I wouldn't really say I'm a Muslim, in hopes that people thought I was one of them, because Sarah is also a biblical name. Even my sister has lots of stories. After 9/11, or the terrorist attacks in the local trains, or the ones in the Taj (we were still in primary school), children would say the darnedest things, and with kids, you know, it’s not their fault, it’s just what they hear at home. The predominant understanding of Islam is so small, so hateful, and completely controlled by politics and Western propaganda. Our narratives have been controlled by others for so long, that the hate is now internalised.

How was Islam discussed and practiced at home?

We were raised Muslim, some times reluctantly, some times not. My mother always tried to encourage us to read the Quran. She doesn’t wear a hijab but we were taught of its beauty and compassion. She wears a dupatta on her head, and our understanding of the head covering was always very healthy. We were taught that it’s a choice. The message is to be modest. Papa is an atheist, so we had a very interesting dynamic at home. But there are, of course, many things that applied to us, regardless of what our family believed, based on where we lived, who we interacted with, what the societal view was. An etiquette was to be followed, ways in which you are to behave, sit, dress and eat. I did argue and get into fights with my parents very early on - Papa would call me ‘rebel without a pause’, you know, like James Dean, rebel without a cause? He changed it to rebel without a pause [laughs]. But it’s interesting, my best friend Safiya, we grew up together, our understandings of religion are so alike and our experiences so different.

In what ways do Islam and feminism intersect?

After I started doing self-reflective work, reclaiming the narrative that was imposed onto us became integral to my process. Making myself comfortable with what I was born into, and acknowledging my roots. I started reading a lot about Islamic feminists, because my ideas of feminism were so white washed by the Western feminists I had read. Looking around and seeking inspiration from the women who shaped the paths that allowed for me to stand where I do. Fatima Sheikh, Arawelo, Sayyida Al Hurra, and so many more who’ve stood before, names I didn't familiarise myself with until much much later in my life. I started reading Fatima Mernissi when I came across her work in 2017. I began by asking my mother what her views were, about our religion, self, and where she found solace and freedom. She enlightens me everyday, she says she learns from me too. That’s how it should be, I think.

We need to integrate Islamic stories into our daily conversations and thus make it more accessible. These are stories that should be shared and so often we don't recognize the feat conquered by so many women, their histories erased, distorted, by the hands of gatekeepers, mostly men in power. The center of many religious cosmos, all Abrahamic religions have been male figures. And there is so much more we need to hear to empower within us a collective change than to follow a singular narrative that binds us to a past that has been controlled by custodians with vested interests. There's one book called The Forgotten Queens of Islam, which is also by Fatema Mernissi, that I referred to in the making of my most recent work with Sophie Soobramanien and Hibo Elmi called How does one say queenin Islam.

How has your family been feeling lately, relative to whats been happening with the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act)?

Every time my Mama calls me, she says ‘please find a way to get us out’. She’s said this to me all my life and as a child I used to take it lightly because you don't see things with that lens. You don't even fully understand what it means. And now it's a reality, we know that it is our privilege to even dream of leaving and moving to a safer place. Shaheen Bagh is where my grandmother and my aunt live, but as inspired and moved we were for the courage that it brought during dark days, the fear still lingers. And it seeps into any wound, any crack. As communities, we heal, but with every election, every instance where a powerful politician abuses their power, the tremors are felt and the wounds are exposed again. During one of the protests, my sister and my cousin were both hurt really badly. Nothing is far from home anymore, the resistance is now in us. So I understand now when my mom tells me: ‘figure things out, you’re our hope right now’.

How is it for you being here? It must be so hard being far away from home at this time.

All of this happening as I began to settle into a new environment, took a massive toll on my mental health. I was already feeling very alone, winter break had just begun and everyone had gone home. I had so much rage in me, all I wanted was to be home and be held by my mother. But then with some organising, and meeting with the diaspora here in the Netherlands, the protests began. Finding that space to amplify and create amidst this adversity, gave us all a reason and a purpose to sustain our dissent. We’d all sit down and try to understand, what are the ways in which we could contribute and really help in creating a momentum: what is our position here? Acknowledge the privilege we come from, to be able to protest and not be met with violence and brutality. The positions we occupy, to provide visibility to the movement required that we be a collective and not individual identities. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, but at the same time, I didn't have this much hope before. I think lost hope has been born again for many.

Since you were raised in India, would you say that your target audience is mostly the Indian public? Or is your aim to have your work cross borders? When you're displaying your work in other places, do you feel the need to inform the public differently?

Yes, because the context is always: from India, I was born and raised in India. But the stories, they travel, that’s their beauty. Stories are not limited to land, they spread across man made borders. It’s very important that they do, because our perspectives also need to be shared. For me, my biggest goal is to be able to work in India with subjects that challenge our understanding of systems, without any fear. That is the India I strive for. But I never want it to be insular in any way, I want it to move, to be fluid, otherwise it is futile.

A lot of your work surrounds the female body/form. What brought you to this topic?

There's an entire economy revolving around the body. It benefits off of our insecurities, and we're fed those insecurities all the time. I had an eating disorder for about 3 years, and that was a lot to handle obviously. I also didn't have time to get help. I spent a lot of time hiding it and acting like everything was okay, so there was a lot of horrible, emotional turmoil, in which I was psychologically degrading my body. The space that I had to vent was this medium of making and sharing. That being said, I still don't see it as the best way to cope with a mental health issue. It can be something that assists you in your journey to recovery, but not really the sole healing medium. I think what was really assuring, even though it’s very sad, is that so many people understand and face it. When you put things into the public sphere, that vulnerability attracts more intimacy and care - you find similar stories, which can be really helpful in healing.

You never have to be alone in your journey. I always tried to be strong, I wanted people to see me as strong, but in letting that image go, I found more peace than I did in maintaining the charade. After so many years, I was able to assert myself, I felt like I was granting myself agency. Truthfully, I’m still a work in progress today and will be for as long as I am. Understanding the different tools that are in place to aid me, and learning how to combat destructive toxic cultures, was an eye opener for me.

Do you want to share anything you're doing at the moment or anything you have planned for the future?

Sophie, Hibo and I are currently showing our film at the Bangkok Biennale, and it's a beautiful collaboration that came from radical forms of care and softness. The film, titled How does one say queenin Islam invokes formative childhood memories in a surreal surrender of self to unrecognised forces of time and space. I begin with decisive women who have moulded my own surroundings and memories but, more broadly, I am concerned with how women have acquired agency and control tactically, by working against social hierarchies and, personally, I revisit those times when, during my childhood, women mould, change, even police, society. I imagine the archetypical ‘auntie next door’ whose business is everyone else’s, and the role she plays in the lives around her which is amplified through a larger context. Although her power is marginal, multiplied it becomes very real.

The film unravels imaginary, familiar, yet unplaceable terrains, that are marked by symbols of friendship and care that subvert the rigid structures of the patriarchy. In the wanderings of her dream, a young girl encounters those women who have fought for and formed her. Her language and mother tongue, synonymous with safety, drift her to sleep, as two different generations sing lullabies of remembrance. Throughout this film, I place importance on women whom I recognise as reckoning forces; women who have changed the course of how and whom attains knowledge and who will continue to do so. Women who can fight in battles, who rule nations, and who can shape futures. They all come alive in imagination, walking on the quilt of today’s resistance. Mothers, grandmothers, daughters sitting, their hands raised against oppression.

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