Fostering a Practice of Slowness with Theo Martins

SA
Theo, how has your Friday been?

T
Quite snazzy, honestly. Had attended a birthday party for a family friend and it was great to see familiar faces. Had a short convo with someone that I, hm, I wouldn’t say I disliked, but it reminded me of why I make the decisions I make now. How was yours?

SA
I once saw something by the artist Tania Bruguera that said ‘How you enable people to disagree with you is a measure of your belief in community’, and I’ve been trying to hold that whenever I engage with people who rub me the wrong way. My Friday was yesterday! And it was interesting. Hotel quarantine means I can’t leave my pod for 2 weeks. It’s feeling very Jetsons meets Lost in Translation. 

I want to talk to you about Good Posture – can you tell me a bit about your practice with it? If and how has the idea of slow production shaped the way you navigate the platform?

T
Profound quote and a profound way to look at it. I agree. Jetson meets Lost In Translation is a great visual by the way. You’re literally in the future.

Posture is my vehicle for research and a way to understand the world around me, truly. I initially launched it under the idea that it would be a traditional clothing brand but after many attempts and opportunities to fulfill that it was clear that the work here with Posture was for me more than anyone else. I was a direct reflection of the work; as I grew it grew. Those initial experiences of attempting to BE something, whether a brand, a record label, an idea tank — all of those attempts helped to clarify to me that it was beyond the shell of what those things represented. It was important to go beyond the veneer of these titles and categories and explore what it is. I came out on the other end of it with clarity that Posture was all of those things and more, but the approach was through my own lens and through my own experiences. I think knowing there are limits and knowing boundaries to what I did allows me to be absolutely efficient to that degree. By not choosing to race I’ve uncovered a vast world where anything I do is possible. That’s only come about by pausing, by looking at things very deeply and clearly. I felt very insecure about that growing up, felt insecure about taking things serious, about caring. But it’s the most valuable because it’s where presence lies.

SA
You’re touching on so much good stuff. Two things that immediately come to mind:

1) This idea of having no predetermined goal. Allowing the work to show for itself without any projected expectations other than for it to be a project that runs fluidly and is a reflection of the current world and politic. I think that’s what’s so cool about Posture, having the space to reevaluate – if it’s clear the fashion industry is unsustainable, it means not considering the crisis of climate change an end to the project but instead looking at the reality of the future and thinking about how the platform can now adapt to better serve folks as the world changes in a way that’s more long lasting and ethical.

2) The other thing that is very striking is this idea of pause that you practice with. I don’t think a lot of us really knew what it meant to stop, put things down and be still for a moment until the pandemic hit and we were forced to. Call it divine intervention? In May, after we had been put on pause for a few months, carbon emissions had dropped by 17%, so the Earth was clearly healing by the collective forced pause. Suddenly, there was this phenomenon, among creatives especially, where folks were running to other modes of productivity, almost in a spiral. Everyone was talking about ‘Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague’, there was this urgency to make make make make. A very internalized effect of neoliberal structures of productivity. So again, even when the external was forcing us to stop, it was difficult for the collective to be still internally, creatively. We’ve been talking about rest and play as integral to our practice – how have you been moving through rest and play with your creative work? 

T
Thanks so much. Thanks for sharing this space to talk honestly, deeply and thoughtfully. You know it sounds fluffy but it’s something I don’t take for granted because I’m aware of its rarity. I’m aware because I’ve offered to many with the expectation that it would be reciprocated, but it takes understanding it’s worth to know not to treat it recklessly. So thank you. Going through your points here, my brain is firing off reponses like a rocket lol. It’s so amazing to make work, allow it to BE (aka fluidity), and for it to reflect the current world. That’s amazing! It’s so simple but incredibly difficult to put into practice. You have to earn that. It’s an arrival, if you will. And it takes removing the veil from one’s eyes to see that. Because it’s always there, right in front of you. Or us, rather. I LOVE reevaluating. There’s great power in changing one’s mind. There is a power struggle in every relationship, especially interpersonal where you do one thing and your partner does another. But the idea of opting out, of changing your mind is the door you never quite think to open. But I love opening that door. Because the game comes to an end and what it is is always revealed in that moment. I hope I’m not going off track here – I’m just flowing. With Posture I love slowly arriving to the realization of what it is. Fuck what it can be, should be, etc. Let’s look at it for what it is. It’s allowed adaptability, I can serve others by being present. And as it changes, we change too. That’s okay. Who says we can’t? What’s this secret code that says we can’t change? That’s demonic. 

It reminds me of the project that was inspired by my own experiences walking and by our current pandemic, race war, etc. I walk a great deal, be it that I’m a city boy or prefer to exercise my thoughts by talking aloud and walking through a neighborhood – it’s my thing. It’s cathartic. I like routine, I like to awaken in the morning, meditate right where I lay, and slowly enter the day. That’s important to me. I don’t think rushing into anything makes the work better. And I’ve realized that over time for me it’s what works best. Because while I’m easing in the day, it’s also building up this anticipation to dive into my work with a laser-like focus. It’s like the movies you watch when a wave climbs so high and everything goes silent and you know the crash of the wave will just be massive, you know? It’s that build up. And it’s an important balance and flow for me. I’ve come to understand how I prefer to work, when I prefer to work, the type of work I prefer to do. I’ve explored all of that. It’s created a system if you will. It’s what allows the slowness and efficiency and the other things that make this thing work. If I compromise it by doing too much, or doing work that pulls me out of myself I feel it immediately. 

SA
Can you tell me about the walking club you have been thinking about? 

T
Sure. So I love to walk. I’m not the biggest fan of running lol. Walking for me is beyond just walking, it’s integral. It’s what our bodies do best. We’re not the fastest mammals, we’re great at walking. Plus it’s incredible for your mind, body and “spirit”. I say “spirit” with quotes as I mean the energy moved within your mind and body, not denoting any religious practice

From Why Walking Helps Us Think by Ferris Jabr for the New York Times

Insight comes from walking. It’s not a conscious thing to do. I love that. It’s a lot like me. I like to walk at my own pace and I have my own gait. I love it. The walking club is for any and everyone. There is literally nothing you need to join. The slogan is, “if you want to join – just start walking”. I’ve made some shoe insoles that folks can insert into any pair of their own shoes to walk. Shit, if you’re wearing shoes to work and you want to join, guess what, you can. It’s an open door to collaborate. And all that I’m doing here is collaborating. There’s an album I’m making that will accompany the Walking Club titled, Walking Music. If you need a soundtrack for your walk, guess what, you’ve got one lol.

SA
Oof yes – the idea of walking as an act of consciousness raising is super subversive, especially in a city like New York, which is characterized by it’s fast pace. I also think it is anti establishment in the way that it asks you to be with your body for how it moves, as opposed to what it could look like, pushing against wellness industries which commodify self depreciation. Do you have info for folks who would be interested in joining an upcoming walk?

T
Hahah, yup. I love it. Subversive is right. It’s opting out of the game. And it’s not even intentional but everything is informed by that thought. By this clear understanding. So I win before I even begin. Let me ask you this: how would you go about joining a walk? How would you interact with this idea? It’s so open source and part of my curiosity lies in understanding how to even wrap my head around it. It’ll show itself in the final hour I’m sure but I’m a curious cat.

SA
There’s so much agency in this!! It is truly boundaryless and is able to cross borders and work horizontally on so many levels. I’m thinking about my parents who take walks every night after dinner & early Saturday morning walks to meet friends for coffee. And all of these people could essentially come together or be part of one larger project, wow! 

T
I love that!! I think it’s something that will be informed by the people and thus another stage of it will take place. One large conversation if you will.

SA
The fleshing out of a blueprint! So excited for this & for you & for what is to come.
As we reach the end of this conversation, 1. How does your energy feel right now, can you describe in 3 words? And 2. If you were to collaborate with 5 artists on a future walking club soundtrack, who would they be?

T
Power, light, immense gratitude. 

5 artists to work with on future walking club soundtrack: Jay-Z, I love his voice, My Mother & Father, I’d want to tape a conversation of a day in their lives. Dev Hynes is a master. It’d be fun to work with him in this space, It’d be sick to have Marcos Valle soundtrack my walk and document the entire thing. Hmm, I like that idea lol. Herbie Hancock too!

Theo Martins founded Good Posture in 2014 as an outlet to channel his various interests, emphasizing his relationship between music, products, furniture and Art. The Good Posture record label, which re-launched in 2020 serves as a platform for Martins and various artists from around the world.

Martins launched Cereal & Such in 2016, initially launching as a cereal bar and now functioning as a cereal & product company, with “Cinnamon Squares” as it’s signature cereal. It’s output, like Posture, is a continuous stream of ideas, collaborations and music. 

Institutional Obscuration with Zarina Muhammad of the White Pube

SA
Hi Zarina! Thanks for making time to speak today – how are you doing?


Z
I’m doing well. It’s been a good week and I’ve just transitioned into doing White Pube full time so I’m juggling a bit but mostly well.

SA
How did that full time transition happen?


Z
Oh, I think it happened a few weeks ago. I normally have a day job, pre pandemic I was working 3 days a week 9-5. And then the pandemic hit and my hours were cut in half so I started doing a day and a half a week. Now I’m doing a half day a week because my job is in the travel industry and that doesn’t exist anymore.

SA
Oh wow, that’s a big shift. How have you and Gabriella been managing the White Pube as you continue to do other work?

Z
It’s always been just the two of us and I think we’ve always been overworked than we have the time for. Rather than using the word busy, I hate the term ‘busy,’ it feels non descriptive at this point. But we’ve always stretched ourselves more than we can accommodate and we’ve always been in a kind of frenzied state in that way. So to be honest, being full time has been nice so I can catch up with stuff.

SA
Can you speak a little more about stretching yourself a bit thin? Did you ever expect that there will ever be a ‘pay off’ for the work that you do? 

Z
It wasn’t immediately that we became stretched too thin. We started the White Pube in 2015 and we were students back then. We didn’t really take it seriously until maybe 6 or 8 months in and even then it was quite manageable. It got a bit mental in 2018, we had a bit of a year that year. The summer was a bit mental. We were included in the Dazed 100 list and we started a Patreon a few months before that and all of a sudden the number of Patreons we had just kind of skyrocketed. All of a sudden we realized we had an audience beyond London and Liverpool’s insular art scene. That’s when we felt a bit of responsibility attached to what we do. Things just started ramping up a bit. Whereas before we were writing a bit and we took it seriously, at times, but it was never more than just thinking. Now it’s become a thing where we’re writing and we have a clear purpose. We’re writing and we have things that we want to materialize or happen or push for and there’s this urgency in at least the UK’s art scene.

I don’t think we started with any hope that it would pay off, because we did start as a joke. It sounds kind of facetious because we did never think that it would pay off. I don’t know why we decided to publish every Sunday, it didn’t make sense now looking back at it, but I don’t think we would have made it this far if we didn’t have that deadline. It’s been a pace that’s kept us going, that once a week deadline. There’s something between Gab and I, this immigrant mentality and oldest daughter syndrome. I don’t think we went into this with the idea that there was going to be a pay off. In our mind it’s more of a colossal laugh. 

SA
What were you and Gab studying when you started? And what were your conversations like when you decided you were going to start The White Pube, however serious or not serious that was?

Z
We met at University. We both went to Central Saint Martins and were studying a BA in Fine Art. We were both in 2D as well which is quite funny because I don’t know if I made a single two dimensional work when I was there. And Gab used to paint in the first year and stopped in the second. But we were in the same tutor groups and so by the time October 2015 came around, we had this relationship that was quite established. There was always a group of people in the studio who just sat around and spoke about things. Saint Martins had this particular studio culture at the time where people would just go in and have a chat about work and life, it was quite conversational. I don’t know what happens in other art schools, but we got quite caught in the institutions of art. This was something that was reinforced in the teachings. 

Saint Martin is in Kings Cross which is North Central London, and it used to be quite a run down area in the sense that it wasn’t highly gentrified and developed. While we were there they just went through this process of gradual upscaling, The Guardian was there and all of a sudden Google moved in and then there were ‘nice’ coffee shops and a &otherstories and fancy clothing stores like NIKE and Cahartt and this was happening over the three years that we were there. All of a sudden now, the area around kings cross is this weird public/private space and the tutors were aware of that. They came from a more radical art school education from the 80s and 90s where you could just have these radical conversations on building an institutional life or living a life of autonomy from institutions and they tried to teach us in a way that made us question the role of institutions in our lives. Gab always says it was like learning how to tell the time, she didn’t know what they were on about until one day it clicked and she was like “I’m in an institution”. And the same for me, I was never that conscious of it and all of a sudden I was hyper conscious. We were in an institution paying something like nine grand a year, borrowing nine grand a year and more on top of that to live that we were never going to pay back through this arts education in an educational establishment that was slowly turning into a ‘University.’ In the 80s and 90s it was this radical art school and now they were teaching us how to do ‘professional development’ and impressing upon us the importance of health and safety and skilling us up to make this a vocational experience, but for what? So, I think the art school itself trained us to fight it. 

That was kind of the general setting so it made sense that in 2015, Gab and I had this experience of knowing each other’s practices. She recommended I go to this show in Chalk Farm which is a short bus ride over from the art school so I went to the show with her review in mind. On the way back I had a copy of the Evening Standard which is this free daily newspaper and there was a review of that show in the newspaper. So all of it in my head at once just clicked. The show, Gabs review, the newspapers review. I kind of realized that art writing as it currently stood didn’t really make sense with the rest of my life. Or the way I interacted with art and the other end of art was theory and this dense impenetrable shit that would never of course make any kind of bearing unless you bothered to interpret it in relation to the show which was also quite dense so you can’t. So there’s no inbetween or middle ground in that. But Gabs review was word of mouth, friend to friend and that made sense. So I came into class with a copy of the Evening Standard and we’d have a conversation about how art writing was bullshit and we should just do it ourselves. Everything clicked. 

SA
It’s so interesting how that happens. I look at my own education in an art school and it’s only when I got into the institution that I became aware of my participation within this system that says it’s doing one thing and is actually doing another. What you’re saying with Gabs review is speaking to the accessibility of understanding so much of this language. So much of this language is made inaccessible to an audience that isn’t an institution. This hyper awareness, in a sense, makes us lucky because we got that in an institution. But what happens when you’re an artist and you’re making work but you’re not exposed to these radical conversations? What happens to artists that need to sell their work and be signed to a gallery? Is this mission behind the White Pube to make these ideas more accessible for these groups of people?

Z
Early White Pube might have said that our main goal was to democratize access to these dodgy art world entities. I think now we’ve kind of moved past that because I don’t know how vigorous that academic understanding of the art world is in comparison to life and the institutions themselves. I think this year we’ve seen that academic institutions can lag behind popular discourse. At the moment, I’m not really sure where our criticism stands in terms of the stodgy monolith of the public because the public is this spectre in relation to art and institutions and artists themselves. We can’t just conjure the public out of nowhere. Often institutions will imagine or create their public which is equally fabricated or non existent. So I’m not really sure where we stand in relation to that. At the moment we are just writing for ourselves to just feel through the ways that institutions rub up against artists specifically and wider as kind of a top layer of an arts ecology that has many levels and stratas and ways of being. Institutions don’t really make much sense to you if you’re a new artist and you’ve never had a show and you’ve just been making work in your bedroom and you live in London so you also have to pay rent and somehow make a living in a 0 hours job, so how are you going to fit art making into that. How does your studio practice work? Institutions don’t come into it, just the fact that you’ve made art is a miracle in itself – that you’ve had space to think. So part of it wants to create a way to write about art and feel through the critical whatevers about art. Ways of thinking about art away from institutions because they clearly lack behind. At the moment, the ways that labor practices are tearing through the art world and the way workers rights are being stripped away wholesale, not just in the arts in the UK but across the world in some parallelled way. It’s not institutions and their language that’s leading the front of the bulge, it’s the people within them that are often exploited by them. That’s a tense question right now.

SA
I feel you. Coming back to this idea of feeling out how you’re rubbing up against these institutions, what does it mean to you as an artist, as a writer who is constantly thinking about your own exploitation, how do you look after yourself and stay grounded? And what advice can you give to artists who are becoming more hyper aware of their conditions in this institution.

Z
Both Gab and myself sit in quite a weird place in that we’ve been incredibly lucky and it’s quite a mystery to us how we’ve done as well as we have, whether that’s well at all, but, as well as we have. The idea that we got this far is entirely a mystery to me. I think it’s a great amount of luck and that luck boils down to our willingness to do this kind of thankless work, week in week out, with no conception of pay off. But also this social literacy when it comes to Instagram and Twitter. We’re quite young and we have this ability to accumulate social capital. So I don’t know how to advise people that sit outside of that or who don’t have access to these very specific things that I have access to. I’m not entirely sure how it’s worked for us.

In terms of my general keeping yourself sane advice, I have not gotten the best track record on that. Over the past five years, it was just this year that I stopped letting this all kind of drive me around the bend and said, alright fuck it I’m going to therapy. And god bless the NHS to be honest, I think it’s completely changed my life. I know there are various critiques of CBT and I know I can’t change the world around me but I can change attitudes towards myself and for some reason that just holds a lot of power right now to me at this moment. 

And maybe in a few years it will stop making sense but I’m going to ride this wave for as long as I can. That seems like the only coherent logic at the moment. I can’t control the Tate or the South Bank or the Barbican, I can’t control any of these institutional players, I can just change myself and the ways that I interact with them. Because of all these little bits of social capital that we’ve accumulated, that’s quite significant. It’s not nothing. I think a really important part of keeping myself sane was recognizing that there are two ways of thinking about things: Things that fall into your sphere of think points and then your sphere of control. Where those overlap, that’s where you need to direct your attention. I can’t do anything about coups in Bolivia so it kind of feels pointless about me worrying about it beyond, ‘oh, that’s quite bad.’Tate workers were on strike and they are facing redundancy and the institution is not giving them the full terms of their redundancy, they’re trying to find loopholes. So what can I do: I can go and speak at the protests, I can badger 60K people on Instagram about it and get them to donate to a strike fund, I can do all these things that I think whenever I feel like I’m going mad, it’s probably because it feels like it’s all a bit out of my control. But I can make tangible contributions to these things that I care about and focusing on the good shit that you can do, no matter how small.

SA
Do you think understanding the institution has helped you understand yourself?

Z
If anything, it’s made myself more illegible. Before this all started I was young, Gab and I were 21, we were fresh and baby faced with no wrinkles or grey hairs. I didn’t know much about myself or the world. By doing The White Pube, we had all these incredible experiences and interactions. It’s not all bad interactions with the institutions by any means. We’ve had these incredible opportunities and have met incredible people, and have these wonderful moments where I’m like, ‘Oh my god I’m so thankful that I do this job, god I’m so blessed.’ Not to sound like a Kardashian, but it’s not all bad. There’s been moments of character development through that, and I think the moments with the institution have obscured any kind of sense of self that I might have accumulated. Because the role of institutions isn’t to be transparent or provide you with information, they’re meant to be opaque, they’re meant to obscure all these things and work you into a higher system of categorization or work in a register slightly above your own so that you’re obscured within it. Whether you work for them or write about them. My life without them would be infinitely more satisfied and fulfilled because then I could just write about the art directly and I wouldn’t have to come up against the institution and registered charity numbers and arts council funding. All of these things get between me and the work and I often feel like my writing about institutions is a diversion or a distraction kind of. I feel like I’d be a much better critic if it weren’t of institutions. I could write about the work in a true interface. Those are the moments that I feel like I’m doing a very good job, or that I’m developing as a critic. The last review that we published was this Sunday, it was an R.I.P Germain show at Dead Yard at the Cubitt and I think any questions I had about the institution evaporated through curation. It was the curators, Languid Hands who are just good, capital G good at what they do. I feel like that was the best thing that I had written in a good few months, maybe this year. It might not be groundbreaking to anyone else but I feel like I broke new ground beneath myself, that had been rumbling away for a few years and that was when the institutions just evaporated away.

SA
How do you find satisfaction and pleasure if you are doing this type of work full time. What’s your go to to help you not feel obscured? When do you feel the most yourself?

Z
That’s a really good question, it’s so fucking philosophical in such an abstract way. Me and Gab wouldn’t be able to do this without each other. I think such a key part of how this all operates is that we are mates, fundamentally, at the base level we have this wholesome friendship. One thing I noticed during the lockdown, without travel, is that I really missed just like going out for dinner in a random European B city. We spent the last year travelling so much, we went to Norway four times and Sweden for no good reason. All these stupid little odd jobs that would pay us tiny bits of money, and we’d get our flights paid and hotel paid. We probably end up spending more on being tourists than what we made, but that felt like a moment where everything was in balance and I could deflate the pressure. Me and Gab would be plodding around Bergen, seeing the sites, going to look at a mountain, having warm apple cider next to a roaring fire in a small cafe. I really missed that this year. I think friendship grounds you, it’s nice to have another person to guide you with a hand on your back. We’re not alone in this experience and any time I do feel slightly obscured or thrown a bit to the wind, it’s always nice to have Gab next to me where I’ll go, “was that a bit weird?” and she’ll respond, “oh yeah that was weird, right?” We can be in cahoots together rather than conspiratorial solitary. Understanding you’re not alone.

SA
I love that because it’s also speaking to I guess the purity of the work that you’re doing because it comes from such nourishing, virtuous and wholesome place. What is your dynamic like working together? How have you established boundaries and transparency being two friends who now have this enormous responsibility and do you think about the ways that you interact with each other as a way that you want to see a lot of these institutions shifting? 

Z
I don’t think we think about the dynamics of our relationship too hard. It just works and we’ve never really questioned it. We were born seven days apart, we’re both Cancers, we have such cosmic alignment. Gab’s a Capricorn moon and is an Aquarius rising and I’m a Sag moon and an Aries rising. For some reason, there’s just this nice dynamic where if I feel like I lack, she has the ability to spur me and push me further. She can take ground on that lack for me. We complement each other quite well. What I’m not good at or battle, she finds easy. She’s very hard working and organized and pushes me. I’m good at procrastinating. Sometimes the admin overlaps in my mind, I’m not very good at that. She’s just like, “no, get it done,” so I’ll be like “ok fine!” Because we have this relationship of deep respect and admiration for each other. Someone recently asked us what the biggest thing we disagreed about is and honestly, we had one argument and it was because I found she did not use the conditioner. I was really baffled. That’s the only time we had an argument and it was so silly. I hope I’m not tempting fate now. We both admire and respect each other’s opinions and craft and interests. Even if we disagree with each other about an artist or artwork, it’s never that deep. We have this balance of always being in conversation and going at the same speed. 

SA
There’s like this element of camaraderie with your work that brings up this idea of incorporating a non serious working environment which is antithetical to an arts institution. It sounds more sustainable and I really appreciate knowing that that’s how you two mesh together. Can you speak to your daily routine, things that have kept you going and grounded?

Z
There are obviously things, but for me the most important one was, I started therapy last year towards Autumn and it wasn’t full CBT because the NHS won’t refer you to full CBT. So I did mini CBT and then started full CBT in the second week of the lockdown, it felt really crazy. My therapist kept saying “Don’t be too hard on yourself if this takes longer, because this is mental for me too!” It just lasted a bit longer than it had to, but it was really good, it was the right time and spaced out in the right way. The perfect time for me to work on me, specifically. Even now as we are going back into lockdown, I feel like a more healthier person because of that. 

I am a creature of routine. So I’ll wake up at 7 am every single day, no idea why. I won’t even lie in on a weekend. Part of this isn’t really true, sometimes I’ll oversleep on a Saturday and it’s fine. But when I oversleep I’ll wake up and feel hideous in the face. So I wake up early, have breakfast and make two cups of coffee. And then I’ll sit down, faff around, do a bit of work – one week is a writing week and one is an admin week. If I’m writing, I’ll only really start at about 11:30 am, will probably only get an hour in before lunch and then probably only get an hour in before it’s time to stop in the evening. If I’m doing admin, it’ll be fine, I’ll do little bits

Lockdown was hard because I couldn’t go to the gym. I don’t really have the motivation to workout in the living room or go for a run in the great outdoors, I need to go to a place and have the only reason I’m at the place to be to exercise. So that was a bit of a mental one for my routine. Every single night at half six, I have to stop working because I’m going to the gym. I’ll spend an hour at the gym and then it feels weird going back to work. Before I was sending emails till like 11 pm, no etiquette. And I was quite overworked. So now I have an end of a day and that’s more important. In the grand structure of the day, I think it’s important to have a solid beginning and a solid ending. You do the job you have to do in the amount of time that you give yourself. 

I really miss being on public transport and just the mundane everyday bits and pieces I was doing before. So the small bits of normality are helping me through.

The Practice of Self Care with Sundus Abdul Hadi

SA
Hi Sundus!

S
Hi Fariha!!!

SA
I’m so honored to be doing this with you! I was just thinking back to the first time we met, which was (I believe) on your radio show in Montreal… and you had me on as a guest and we talked about self care! So it’s kind of a full circle now. I get the sense that that’s kind of what our relationship is like, that there’s these universal themes we traverse through different mediums, and we’re in constant dialogue with one another through different platforms. I find your work around “self care” so profound and important. Can you tell me a little about how you first started to think about self care and how did it develop into what it is today?

S
I remember that day so well. Actually, I had given you the catalogue for the Take Care of Your Self exhibit, which was only a few months old at the time. Speaking now makes it all feel so full circle indeed. I actually just finished reading Like a Bird—I read it in 3 days, and was eager to finish it before we spoke. I can’t wait to speak to you more about that too. It was so beautiful in so many ways. Congratulations for this work of (he)art. 

I just received the first copies of Take Care of Your Self: The Art and Cultures of Liberation. I spent the past three years writing it, and it is rooted in that exhibit, featuring the work of 20 artists whose work intersects with the concepts of care and struggle. The book is about the transformative potential of art, and how care, community and culture are intertwined in the journey towards lasting, decolonial, liberatory change. I’d say that the starting point for all my exploration of self-care was definitely through writing and illustrating Shams, my children’s book about trauma and survival, based on a little girl made of glass, named Shams. I wrote it because I needed a book like that when I experienced my own trauma(s).

It’s funny, with self-care, and my whole body of work around the practice of it, it is always rooted in my lived experiences, in the self. Recently, I have been coming back more and more to terminology and the words we use. I have started to drop the word “self” from the phrase, because I am realizing how that is really just the starting point for care. Approaching everything from the space of moving from microcosm to macrocosm, I feel like care as a concept has so many layers…

SA
I want to unpack that with you. Could I ask you for more explanation? 

S
I would say moving from my work as a visual artist to being committed to making books – a more accessible medium – I started to think much more about the idea of community. My lived experience is unique to me, but once I started thinking about how this experience can become a source of knowledge for others, it shifted my perspective from one that is centered on myself, and more about what the collective experience is, particularly for those of us who have experienced systemic injustice rooted in colonialism. I started to see the importance of changing the narrative around some of the universal experience that we have all been trying to face and heal from. Trauma is a universal experience that is at once extremely personal yet wildly relatable. Writing and illustrating Shams was my first offering in this journey. Simplifying the very heavy concepts of trauma, loss, displacement and collective suffering through a character made of glass, and the idea of putting yourself back together again after shattering is a reminder of our potential to heal.

SA
I really feel that looking at and reading your work. It’s so holistic. Studio Ananda is trying to do a similar thing, talking about healing as art — trying to expand what that means, how that looks? I feel like the more we can unlayer it the more we can heal… and I get the sense you feel similarly, which is why you wrote Shams as well as Take Care of Your Self. I was watching an interview with Michaela Coel about I May Destroy You earlier today and she was describing the feeling of being a mirror, and how honorable that work is. How noble it is to excoriate yourself to write and think about trauma and how it lives and thrives in us. What made you want to transition from making art for the market into art that is more accessible, like books? I don’t know if that’s correct… but what was the catalyst for that transition?  

S
Well, first I want to acknowledge that we – as in me and you, and our peers, our communities – and I’d say a lot of people around the world, are experiencing a pretty significant collective consciousness towards healing intergenerational trauma like never before. It’s a decolonial force. I see it, I feel it. I think the revolutions we are witnessing around the world are drawing from that energy. I think that is partly due to the stars and the planets, as we are moving into a planetary dynastic shift, and also something algorithmic, in both an ultra connected tech sense and in a spiritual sense. 

I also want to mention that I never saw myself as making art for the market. The capitalistic aspect of being an artist was never appealing to me, in fact, I was always really critical and aware of the ills of the art industry. I’ve carved out my own space as a fiercely independent artist since the very beginning of my journey. I also found a really beautiful community along the way – other artists who were engaged in the same independent practice, often working along the lines  of care and struggle. Moving into writing was very… interesting. Although I was drawing from the same creative space, and had been writing for self-expression since I was a preteen, I had never identified as a writer. Coming into that space was not easy, but because my work has always been so transmedia, writing just felt like another way to communicate intention, knowledge, and critical thought. It’s another conduit for imagination. I’ve always been obsessed with books. Books as an object, and a medium for knowledge. They are accessible, and the written word is one of the oldest media in the world. Books become legacy, they are for the future, as much as they are about our past and present. 

SA
I totally feel that presence and commitment in your work. I’m a Capricorn stellium, lol. My Saturn is in Capricorn, it’s annoying. So I feel like I really struggle between wanting to be identified with traditional forms of power while simultaneously wanting to critique them. That’s why I wondered if there was a hurdle in coming from one world to another, but you’re right — it’s sort of almost like you adapted into another medium, and it’s breathtaking. One thing that I felt immediately when reading Take Care Of Your Self is that I rarely felt seen in such specific ways… and I mean mainly in Muslim ways, I guess? There was such a relief to read lines of the Qu’ran, or an explanation of nafs. I see so much of your own consideration of Islam in my own life, and I wonder how that plays into your work and into your own conception of self care?

S
Thank you Fariha, for engaging with my work as you have. It means so much.

A little note about industry… in the beginning of my “career”, I was trying to get “accepted” by the art industry, hoping for opportunities that simply didn’t exist for a young independent Iraqi female artist. At a certain point, I realized I need to stop seeking out validation from an industry that so vividly suffered from a lack of care. Our creative industries, as they currently exist, can be so hostile, so exclusionary, and so damn colonial. They don’t reflect my community, my beautiful, rich, diverse community. That’s why I started curating my own shows, creating our own opportunities, outside of the so-called industry. The way I saw it was, if they won’t give us space or the validation to craft our own narratives, then it’s up to us to create those spaces, and if we go at it for long enough, they start watching. By then, we won’t need their validation anymore.

I felt the same way reading Like a Bird… definitely, this feeling of being seen, and narratives that I can relate to having the full space to breathe, is so rare. It’s not marginal anymore. It’s centered. And that’s the way our experiences should always be. I even stopped using the word “marginalized” or “colonized” because I feel so disconnected from the idea that we have to be labelled as secondary, inferior or compared to whiteness. By we, I mean the deeply rooted people. I think that’s the root of being empowered… not trying to share just the little bits and pieces of what makes us ancient and wise, but all of us, all of our ancestral glory.

While writing Take Care of Your Self, my friend and fellow artist/writer Suhad Khatib reminded me that my experience was worth writing about. She encouraged this idea of the book becoming an accumulation of knowledge that I had been gathering over the years. Actually, even before I was born. I chose to write about the wisdom of my ancestors, my spiritual heritage, my culture. Stories about the matriarchs in my family, and of Iraq are a well of knowledge that I wanted to share. As for the role of Islam in my life, I’d say it always reminds me to be intentional, whether its in my daily life or in my creative practice. I’m so grateful that it came through.  

SA
Thank you so much for saying that babe. Yes! I want to talk to you about Like A Bird! I can say that it’s such a lonely experience to put out this kind of level of work for me. I felt so many things as the book was coming out… and despite genuine (positive) surprises so far, I’m still processing so much grief. So much isolation. 

I want to bring this back to what you said about ancestral glory. When you access that kind of deep place it becomes a very arduous process on the soul. I feel like that’s something I try to contend with. It’s a dark thing having to retrieve a lot of my familial secrets which are all about power and sexual abuse. So much sexual abuse. There’s been such a shift I feel like in the Muslim World about the concept of abuse, and I feel like there is such a community reckoning happening when it comes to that, as well as anti-blackness. But that work is deep work, and not everybody has the capacity for it all the time. Yet, for us, we have to keep going. I don’t personally feel like I have a choice. It would actually hurt too much if I couldn’t let these things out. I really think I’d kill myself if I couldn’t. It’s dark, but true. Recently I was praying and I started to thank God for giving me writing, for showing me how to use this tool so early on. I’m trying to look at my own despair less, and maybe reorient it to see how I feel about it upside down… what if I could feel gratitude all the time for being this vessel? Rather than being upset by the burden of it?

I want to ask you who you wrote Shams for, and what did it mean to put it out into the world?

S
Thank you for sharing that vulnerability with me. Inshallah writing will always be a tool for you to dig out of the darkness into a space where you feel held. I hear you.

I think that you and I are the only people I know that put out two pretty significant bodies of work in one year, and during a pandemic, no less. The isolation is real. I was supposed to go to Palestine for the Arabic book launch of Shams the week after the global lockdown. I was really nervous about putting Shams out into the world, and having to travel for the book launches. In a way, I’m kind of relieved that I can do all that public work in the privacy of my home. 

My creative space is full of light and shadows. Reading Like a Bird, I kept thinking about how much work you have done. Not just work as a writer and creative thinker, but as a spiritual being, as a descendent of your lineage, as a survivor of trauma. It made me think of all the young people who would read your book and how it will transform in their own hands, and how these printed words become weapons, tools, wisdom for their own path. I hope that will make it feel less isolating, because books truly have this incredible transcendental power. You may never know the people who have been impacted the most by the work, but it’s enough to have put it out into the world. 

I feel exactly the same way about Shams. I wrote and illustrated Shams for the youth. For the next generation. I wanted her story to become a tool for others who need to know, innately and intuitively, that healing and survival is within us. That dark space is not always our enemy – as you and I know, we can draw much creative energy from it – but the trick is not to let it retraumatize us, or traumatize others. There is this idea of trauma sometimes leading to a point of transformation, where we literally evolve, as beings, spiritually. I think I’ll never be free of the mental or physical anguish that I experience when I’m visited by my shadow self, but if I can keep my soul, or spirit, in the presence of God — light —- and practice gratitude, even when things are absolutely terrifying, then I’ll be OK. 

Shit, that was really deep. Too deep? Haha… that’s all my pisces moon for you, and my twelfth house cluster!!!!

SA
Hahaha, babe you know I love this shit. I’m a Cancer Moon and Cancer Stellium. My Jupiter in Cancer is in the 12th house and Venus Aquarius is in the 8th house… so I’m just so happy we can go here with each other. I absolutely feel you. 

I think as you were explaining the concept of shadow self something clicked… it was all in the phrasing “I’m visited by my shadow self…” that’s so uff, it’s so real. And it also made me realize how much autonomy we really have over ourselves but how difficult it is to maintain that level of integrity with yourself at all times. I’ve been feeling that a lot. Loss of friendships when you’re living your truth and putting up boundaries is something I’ve been dealing with a lot, and it’s a painful examination to accept that standing in your truth comes with casualties. Not everybody wants to see things objectively. Ironically, for as a society that prioritizes “science” and “fact” so much I wonder why we’re ruled by such pettiness and misplaced emotionality as a species. I’m also a North Node Aquarius in the 8th House LOL. 

Ok, I don’t want to keep taking up your time, this conversation has been so healing for me actually. One last question I wanted to ask, however, is what are the active ways you take care of yourself everyday? 

S
I’m loving this conversation. And I’ve moved back inside and I’m being able to do this while my kids are playing and it feels just right. 

I’ve always been a private person, because my partner is such a public figure. I keep my circle really really tight, and since the pandemic, it’s gotten even smaller. I’m critically aware of how much and what information we consume and share on a daily basis can impact our mental health, especially on social media. I’m really close to my family, and my world revolves around my children, who are both homeschooled and at home with us. I never sent my children to daycare, either, as a personal choice because I gratefully had the choice, so my pandemic situation hasn’t been extraordinarily different than before 2020. I do my creative work at night after they sleep. I’m very much in my own little bubble, but with Shams and Take Care of Your Self I feel like I now have antennas reaching out into spaces I’ve never visited or reached before. All this to say, the active way I take care of myself every day is by protecting this sacred space of self, home, family and motherhood, and by practicing gratitude every single day, even on the hard days. More than anything, I’m still constantly learning my own boundaries again and again. One thing I’ve done for myself recently was downgrading from an iphone to an old school nokia flip phone. That has been so liberating, and has given me back a sense of agency I was extremely worried I was going to lose completely as the world becomes more connected, and more dependent on algorithms and surveillance. I want my kids to see that we don’t need to have that constant connection to exist in our daily lives.

I don’t know what else to say I think 🙂 Not sure that’s a very strong ending from me…. 

SA
I actually love this ending, because it’s just refreshing to talk about boundaries, and the need for privacy… which I deeply relate to. I don’t really like my life as a “public figure” and don’t gain much from that in a lot of ways, but there’s a certain accessibility to art making that necessitates that I keep going. Having said that, I also have a really hard time writing about trauma sometimes… and battle with people’s assumptions of me and all that wild shit where people start treating you as if you have any power… and you’re like mate I’m barely surviving, lol. I’m still broke. I’m still getting by… so this question of “caring for oneself” is just always on my mind. My therapist asked me how I care for myself last week. I realized I just work as a way to care for myself because it’s actually where I gain the most… which is kinda fucked up. I found that the pandemic made me a workaholic but I was always feeling like I was on fire and I had to transmute that into something. So it was a big surprise (but not really) to realize the reason I was exhausted is because I’m literally exhausting myself. It’s kind of ironic for a person who writes about self care and wellness so much that I’m actually constantly trying to be well, and learning how to care for myself… like I haven’t arrived anywhere.

But, maybe I’ll ask one last last question though, has there been a quote, or anything you consumed over the last few months, that pertains to self-care, that really struck you? 

S
OMG Fariha. I feel exactly the same. After submitting the final copyedits for Take Care of Your Self, I definitely went through a classic burn out. Well, it was more like burn out after burn out. Its so ironic, isn’t it? I need to get better at taking my own advice.

The other day, I was doing a pre-interview and the person described me as an “expert” on care and trauma… and I was like, NOOOOOOO!!! First, I still struggle with my own practice of self-care, being a mama to two small children. Time is a privilege I don’t have access to like that. Secondly, I am so uncomfortable with the idea of anyone being an expert, an authority figure or influencer on anything. Even the word “author” is connected to authority, authoritarian, words I really don’t connect to, in fact, I resist these ideals. For true care to exist in our society, we need to be able to practice free and critical thought, intentionality, bringing ourselves closer to our spirits and our roots to actively decolonize our care practices, our industries, and our archaic racist systems.

The interesting thing for me coming into this conversation on care as a new writer on the topic is that I don’t have that kind of huge social media following. The publishing world has shifted into publishing books mostly by people who already have thousands or millions of followers on social media. The pressure is huge. They’re trying to guarantee their sales, I get that. So, I’m an anomaly in that sense. Social media platforms, the algorithms, and the industries that rely on them… they don’t care about us as real human people. It can be so harmful to consume, and to be consumed. I even toy with the idea of completely defecting from social media, for my own self-care, which makes books, as objects, even more of an important medium.