The feeling that finds itself deep in your bones when you connect with a piece of art has been one I’ve chased all my life. The way it moulds its light over the vast expanse of my worries and for a moment, I’m somewhere else. For a long time, in school and on the internet, where I consumed most of my poetry, paintings, and TV shows – there was a uniquely western-centric view of art. The fearful plights and sweeping joys of life were viewed through a lens that I could understand on an emotional level, but left a slight disconnect.
The past decade of Conservative rule has left many marginalised groups devastated. As each piece of news has come in, I found it more and more difficult to feel hope and motivation to create change. To forge a better world. In late 2019, I had never felt so lost about my place in society. This was when my friend and I, both studying humanities degrees, decided to take matters into our own hands. We started a podcast, Audacious Aunties, exploring art outside the Western world and the white male perspective.
“This decision, in no small way, took the pieces of my beaten down soul and slowly pieced them back together.”
This decision, in no small way, took the pieces of my beaten down soul and slowly pieced them back together. In the three seasons we’ve now recorded, Audacious Aunties have researched and spoken about upwards of 25 artists. Artists who straddle themes of identity, resistance, cultural belonging and in its simplest term: life. The stories of these artists have, at a time of great political tension, taught me about how to channel and process my trauma and frustrations.
The first artist who resonated with me was Amrita Sher Gil. I have walked a wavering road with the colour brown, resenting it, accepting it and eventually loving it. As a young girl, it had been a constant reminder of something that made me different. Something I was almost afraid of. Then, I stumbled across Amrita, a Hungarian-Indian woman who, in her later years, had created explosively coloured paintings depicting rural Indian life, using brown. Brown, once the colour of miserable days and dirt had been transformed into a vibrant feast of tones.
To find an artist who could turn a blank canvas into an ode to brown was everything. When Amrita lifted her paintbrush, the colours mahogany, pecan, and walnut all danced, the tones like a medley of life. In her real life, Amrita, had travelled the world, loved men and women, and been unafraid to stay true to herself. Needless to say, a far cry from the usual Western narrative of the oppressed exotic woman.
Outside of identity, so many of these artists showcase tales of resistance. Oodgeroo Noonuccal was an Australian Aboriginal poet in the 1960s whose work advocated for the rights of Aboriginal people. In her poem ‘A Song of Hope’, her words are eternal and universal for so many struggles:
‘Look up, my people,
The dawn is breaking,
The world is waking
To a new bright day…
‘To our fathers’ fathers
The pain, the sorrow;
To our children’s children
The glad tomorrow.’
Her life was one of continued activism and resistance, but throughout she managed to maintain hope that one day, we could wake up in a world and feel content. In 1987, she returned her MBE awarded by the Australian government and announced her name change (originally named Kath Walker).
In recent years, it feels so easy to be caught up in a tide of performative art for the sake of recognition. The world is so heavy, Noonuccal has inspired me to take more time to sit and reflect on what I am putting out into the world and why. And more than that, what is important. I know my activism can manifest in so many ways. Just like Noonuccal, we can write our way into history or find a way to give back to our communities, or simply find the power in being ourselves.
“Stepping outside the confines of the curriculum, modern day society, and the singular narrative of what art means has instilled my sense of self.”
Both myself and Manvir (my Audacious Aunties co-host) care deeply about representing the wealth of human experience across the world. Sometimes, we’ll choose an artist or movement based on personal connection. In season two, I spoke about Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a socialist and poet from Pakistan. My parents told me how they used to read him when they were my age, and use his work as inspiration to work towards a brighter future. As I read his poem, ‘Do not ask my love’, I had never felt so connected with the desperation of my parents and their parents before them:
‘The world knows sorrows other than those of love,
Pleasures beyond those of romance:
The dread dark spell of countless centuries
Woven with silk and satin and gold braocade,
Bodies sold everywhere, in streets and markets,
Besmeared with dirt, bathed in blood,
Crawling from infested ovens,
My gaze returns to these: what can I do?’
In the latest season of Audacious Aunties, we have been looking at art movements across the world. The Huruffiya Movement was an aesthetic Islamic art movement in the twentieth century that spanned the Middle East and North Africa. At the core of this movement was one message: reclaiming identity. Each region, from Morocco, Syria, to Sudan, found their own way to incorporate national pride, as they lay in the ashes of colonialism. This movement did not rely on Western art or approval, but embraced their rich history and culture.
A pioneer of this movement, Madhia Umar, found a sense of religious belonging through her paintings, which are stunning in their versatility. Islam has a long history of incredible women, and once more, this movement reminded me that there is a bigger narrative than the one we are peddled in mainstream media.
I still have a long way to go to truly understand the limitless depth of human experience. But, stepping outside the confines of the curriculum, modern day society, and the singular narrative of what art means has instilled my sense of self. I don’t know if I have found my way back home, or even what that means. But somehow, despite the times, I feel less alone. Listeners who have told us they have learnt something new or found themselves represented in these artists stories have made every moment worth it. Although I haven’t been able to leave my house, somehow, this podcast has allowed me to travel to places and times I didn’t even know existed.
Asyia is passionate about diversifying the media and uplifting underrepresented voices. @asyiaiftikhar
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