"Neither Here, Nor There": The Exhibition Bringing BME Artists Together
Artist Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al-Lail is changing the way Muslim women artists are represented within the art world. Founder of Variant Space—a platform in which female Muslim artists can share their work, the artist is helping to provide women from around the world with the chance to get their work shown without facing discrimination for their beliefs.
Variant Space’s new exhibition, “Neither Here, Nor There” in collaboration with We Are Here UK, a space for BME female and non-binary artists, brings together 21 female artists from diverse backgrounds who have created artworks that explore what it is to be of dual nationality and consider their feelings of displacement within society.
Directly responding to the exhibition title, the artists illustrate how their varied backgrounds and personal experiences can relate to more universal feelings of isolation, identity, as well as the benefits of belonging to different cultures.
“Home” by Erin Aniker explores this sense of not-quite-belonging. In her illustration, a woman’s face is split in half with a house in between loosely connecting each side. Of Turkish and British heritage, the artist describes her work as illustrating her sense of disconnect, of “not feeling quite ‘whole’ enough of either culture.”
Yasmin Falahat’s work on the other hand embraces the joys of being part of different traditions. Born in London but of Iranian and Turkish Cypriot descent, her series looks at the role that food has played in defining her heritage. “Growing up as mixed in Britain can be a bit confusing,” she explained. “You feel, as the title of the exhibition perfectly describes, ‘neither here, nor there’ and it was only as I got older that I actually started to appreciate how interesting it is to have these different sides to my identity and embrace them.”
In her series, Falahat creates drawings and ceramic models of pomegranates and figs to show how the fruits connected her to different traditions. “Food in general is so important in so many cultures-it serves as a form of community and connection rather than just being there to sustain you,” she explained.
“Growing up we would always have figs from our fig tree and sit and eat as soon as we picked them. With pomegranates you’re pretty much forced to stop and spend time to open them up and eat them, so it would naturally end up being something you did together.”
Jamal Al-Lail set up Variant Space in 2014 after receiving discrimination and exclusion within the art world for her beliefs. Variant Space in contrast offers a space for Muslim women to share and explore their art collectively. After posting about the collective on her Instagram, Jamal Al-Lail was astonished by the overwhelming amount of positive response.
“I knew there were so many other women around the world who are Muslim who are probably experiencing the same thing,” she explained. “I felt that Variant Space was something bigger than who I was as an artist…I thought, this is the kind of space I want, this is the type of art scene I want to be created: where people don’t worry about their differences.”
Jamal Al-Lail knows better than anyone how it feels to be discriminated against. Spending her early years in Saudi Arabia, the artist moved to the UK at the age of nine.
She described how Islamophobia has increased dramatically over the last year. Wearing a hijab, Jamal Al-Lail is often the target. “Reparations” is her own work included in the exhibition and is what the artist describes as a “timeline” of her racial attacks.
Identical faceless women in hijabs are repeated in rows of black and white. Every so often, the artists own face appears, sometimes with a big red “X” drawn across it.
Although she has faced many incidents of racial attacks, Jamal Al-Lail explained that one especially horrific incident, in which she was physically assaulted and verbally abused, prompted her to make the piece. “I’ve always had this one rhetoric in my life which is ‘raghead’…and it’s really frustrating because you are doing so much in society, but no one wants to see you than more than just that,” she explained.
“The thing is I’m not going to take [the hijab] off just in order to fit in. I don’t have to do that, it’s society that needs to change their mental approach of how they consider women of faith.”
Becoming nothing more than a faceless target to her attackers, Jamal Al-Lail’s work holds all those who attacked her, accountable for their actions.
British-Bangladeshi artist, Shazleen Khan’s graphic novel “Brother” also references the growing xenophobia in our society and how it’s coverage in the media makes a subtle impression on ourselves.
Her work considers what Khan describes as “a feeling of fractured community and the hurt of being within a community, or even an extended family, that is being ripped apart by misguided actions.”
“Brother I” is particularly poignant. Echoing the media coverage in the days after the Paris attacks in 2015, the comic describes how the whirlwind of press and subsequent discussion amongst society allowed her to judge a stranger on the tube who in Bangladesh she may consider a “’Bhai’- a brother.”
To her, the story is in her own words a “short series of self-contained comics themed around the cultural value of treating others within the community as relatives rather than strangers.”
However, for those like myself outside of the community, “Brother I” is a stark reminder of how easy it is to make snap judgements of total strangers, of which many of us are guilty.
Being neither religious, nor of dual-nationality, “Neither Here, Nor There,” is one of those exhibitions which open’s my eyes to the situation in the UK today. It is a good reminder of the ability that art has to inform us on the challenges faced by others in society.
“Neither Here, Nor There” is on at The Foundry, Oval, London until September 30th.
This piece was written by contributing art writer Georgia Beeston also known as @theartcompass on Instagram.