Culture& Interview with Alaa Alsaraji, Visual Artist

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Alaa is a London-based visual artist, designer and creative facilitator. Whilst maintaining her own creative practice through editorial work and exhibitions, she has also worked with various creative and educational organisations as a facilitator delivering creative workshops with children and adults. Throughout her various roles her work always seeks to emphasise the value of using creativity as a pedagogical process to address and explore larger issues such as identity, faith and race.
Alaa is the arts editor of Khidr Collective, a multidisciplinary artist collective creating platforms and spaces for young Muslim creatives, where she is heavily involved in the visual production of the annual Khidr Zine and online platform.

Your work is rooted in the idea of creativity as a pedagogical process. How do you use your practice to explore notions of identity and faith?

Throughout most of my work, I have always aimed to emphasise the value of using art and creativity as a pedagogical process to address and explore larger issues people from marginalised backgrounds may face. A lot of my work aims to explore themes of identity, race, faith and gender and the intersections between them. Your identity, and upbringing very much form who you are, and it’s only natural for it to be reflected in my work. Through the participatory nature of my practice as an artist and a as a facilitator, I hope to create artwork and shape spaces that allows for multiple voices to be platformed, and for viewers, to be able to identify with the experiences shared in the artwork, to feel validated, and to allow an insight into some lived realities of British Muslims.

Many of your past projects explore the misrepresentation of the Muslim community in the media. What challenges have you faced in confronting this issue with your art?

It’s a very hard balance to strike. On one hand being aware of a lot of the misrepresentation and harmful narratives that exist within British society creates this urge to disprove or ‘fight’ stereotypes within my work. On the other hand, I do not want my whole practice to be centred around a reactionary approach to narratives that have been imposed on us. My hope is to be able to produce art on my own terms and with my own communities at the centre and go beyond repeating the same narratives.

Tell us about your latest exhibition, Mapping Sanctuaries. What safe spaces for British Muslims does the show highlight and explore?

Mapping Sanctuaries is a series of digital illustrations and sound pieces that are exhibited at P21 gallery and online. The aim of the project is to examine and celebrate the spaces and places where British Muslims can feel a sense of safety, where we can feel a sense of belonging, despite living in a context of rising islamophobia, state surveillance and a rise in hate crimes. The process involved interviewing British Muslims from different backgrounds on what their personal sanctuaries look like and what value they hold. I then illustrated those and turned the interviews into short sound pieces. The illustrations cover a range of different spaces, some chose to talk about more private, domestic spaces, some about a whole street or neighbourhood and the familiar they feel when passing the shops and people. In a way the diverse responses and experiences beautifully highlight that there isn’t one Muslim community or experience.

This year has reminded us of the importance of telling the stories and histories of the underrepresented and the marginalised in society. How can the art and culture sector support with this storytelling process?

From my own experience and from a lot of the conversations I’ve had with visitors of the exhibition, as an artist form a minority background it can often feel like stories/projects about your experiences or identity can be easily dismissed by the people who act as ‘gatekeepers’ within the arts, often because they lack understanding of the context or cannot relate to it, and therefore dismiss it. Especially as a Muslim artist, there can be this pressure to almost hide your faith from your practice to be taken seriously and not dismissed as ‘another Muslim artist’. I think within the arts sector a lot goes back to who decides what is considered ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ of investing in. We need to have better representation within all levels of traditional arts institutions, and give people agency to and access to funding, support and mentorship to be able to authentically platform more voices and stories.

Along with being an artist, you are the arts editor of Khidr Collective, a multidisciplinary artist collective which creates platforms for young Muslim creatives. Can you share some highlights of the collective’s work?

Khidr Collective is a UK-based multidisciplinary arts collective, which curates and platforms the work of Muslim artists through our annual zine and online platform. A big motivation behind the collective is to offer a platform, which allows Muslim artists to bypass the traditional ‘gatekeepers’ within the arts and allow for a space where their work is understood, valued and celebrated. My highlight is the fact that we get to collaborate with artists from so many different disciplines, from poetry, non-fiction, fiction, art and photography and with our online platform, we also started working with film-makers and animators. It’s lovely to see an issue come together and have so many different artists celebrated and platformed side by side. We’re aiming to launch our next issue in January.

What has lockdown been like for you as an artist? Have you found the experience a creative one?

Personally, I found it quite difficult to be creative under lockdown and I definitely had to find ways to adjust. A big part of my practice is based on meeting people, holding conversations and building up trust over time. It felt quite strange at the beginning to have to do the interviews over Zoom, but luckily we slowly got used to the new normal. Although I do believe that it can’t fully replace face-to-face interactions, especially for a participatory art practice.

What are your plans for 2021? What are you most looking forward to doing?

A big aim of mine is to develop the Mapping Sanctuaries project further, hold more interviews and look at ways to have a more interactive exhibition further down the line. But I’m mainly looking forward to a potential end of Covid restrictions and dedicating a lot of time to spend with friends and family and traveling to find new inspiration.

Image: Mothers Living Room #1, Digital Illustration, Alaa Alsaraji, 2020