Haramacy: the multimedia arts festival bringing communities together
Written by Georgia Beeston
On the evening of Saturday 27th April, Londoners gathered at The Albany, South London, to experience Haramacy: a night of art, spoken word, and music. The event signalled the end of a four-day residency in which 13 artists from Middle Eastern and South Asian communities collaborated in groups, combining all of their mediums to create an explosion of creativity on the final night.
The result was something completely unique: surrounded by a highly enthusiastic crowd on a 360° stage, the artists combined visual art, performance, spoken word and music to draw on the similar experiences of growing up in different communities around London. The themes addressed stereotypes and discrimination, as each artist used their bodies, their words and visuals to express different elements of their experiences to a welcoming audience.
The multimedia arts festival was organised by Zahed Sultan, an artist and musician who, upon moving to London two years ago, was interested in using the arts to bring people from different communities together.
‘Haramacy is my first attempt in creating a space for people who come from communities with marginalised voices to come together,’ he explained.
The son of an Indian mother and Kuwaiti father, Sultan went on to describe the often single-community focus in art institutions and the media.
‘I started to realise that it’s not as inclusive in a cross-community sense,’ he explained.
Using social media and previous contacts to recruit artists for the residency, Sultan described his emphasis on encouraging the artists out of their comfort zones.
‘The process we are going through with the artists is to create a safe space first of all through the residency stage, but also to nurture this idea of discomfort.’
This idea of discomfort spurring creativity and collaboration particularly shone through with one group. Four artists, Reeta Loi, Zia Ahmed, Noor Palette, and Alaa Kassim, demonstrated how humour and wit can bring people together. Combining group work with solo sets, they were able to sway the audience between laughter and solemnity, as they explored themes of space, stereotypes, and family expectations.
Loi kicked things off. Zigzagging through the crowd, she questioned the politics of walking down the street after realising that she was often being forced to side-step out of people’s way. Even though her set was highly comical, she posed the question; ‘do you ever think about how much space you are taking up?,’ making everyone in the audience stop and contemplate their position on the road.
Zia Ahmed was up next. Combining singing with spoken word, he mocked the British-Asian stereotype by singing a cover over a cover of Stay by Rihanna, joking, ‘we don’t know our own songs yet.’ His spoken word particularly resonated with the crowd. Funny anecdotes of growing up were interlaced with ongoing issues of discrimination, immigration and gentrification in London. His words, ‘there’s only so many degrees that you can turn the other cheek before your neck snaps,’ particularly struck the crowd.
Noor Palette then made the audience roar with laughter in her description of returning home one day to find her father playing the lute on the toilet. The DJ, artist and deputy editor of Azeema magazine, playfully ended her set saying: ‘Baba, I want to love you and keep my liver’- playing on the Arabic love phrase, I’ll give my liver up for you.
Alaa Kassim finished the performance off, beckoning the audience as she sang and spoke, repeating the words, ‘the road bends, waiting for the end.’
Sultan explained that the idea behind the title Haramacy came about while he was in Paris last year. Walking down a street at night, he noticed that the “P” on the light of a pharmacy was broken, leaving it to say “harmacy.’ He began thinking of a pharmacy as a safe-space where one goes to heal themselves, and in turn of the word “haram”- prevalent in both Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures to mean “forbidden.”
‘So, the idea of Haramacy is that we are creating this space that is safe for you to come into and it treats these aliments; the socio-political-economic impediments imposed on you through, family, society, education, and environment,’ Sultan explained.
Of all the participants of the evening, no one took on this idea as fearlessly as Harnaam Kaur. Having not participated in the residency, her performance took the form of an inspiration speech about her struggle with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, a condition that causes her to grow facial hair. Born and raised in England, Kaur described her experience of first being bullied as the only Punjabi girl in an all-white school, which only increased once hitting puberty when her facial hair began to grow. The audience circled the stage closely and applauded the unbelievable strength of Kaur who said how she, aged only 16 at the time, declared: ‘enough, I’m growing it out.’ Today aged 28, she wears her beard with pride, and inspired everyone in the audience to accept and love themselves for who they are.
The rest of the night was filled with more performances and DJ sets, topped off by Sultan’s own performance. Wearing a highly decorative mask, Sultan combined beautiful visuals and performance art, all the while spinning the decks.
He described his dream of continuing Haramacy to different cities in the future. ‘That way you’re creating this travelling, constantly evolving space,’ Sultan said.
Haramacy proved to be a wonderful way of not only bringing artists from different communities together, but for expressing through art, the similar challenges that people of different backgrounds face in London. For a first edition, it was a shining example of the power of how cross-media collaboration can create something truly inspiring.