ZARINA MUHAMMAD - BROWN GIRL “ARTWALLAH”
When I saw the video for Swet Shop Boys’ new track ‘Batalvi’ I pretty much lost my mind. It’s a perfect mashup of cultural and controversial imagery that blends so well with the badass track.
We caught up with Zarina Muhammad, the brilliant BROWNGIRL behind the video to find out more about her story and inspirations.
Tell us about your introduction to art and how you decided to take it up as a degree at St Martin’s?
I’m not actually sure how I decided to do an art degree! It’s a bit cliché and insincere for me to say: ‘I knew I wanted to be an artist since I was a kid’; there’s always going to have to be that point where you start taking it seriously and say: ‘ok, I’m an artist now, not just a kid that makes things in her bedroom’.
I’ve always been around art; my parents took me to all sorts of galleries as a kid and bought me art supplies and indulged me when I claimed to be able to paint better than Monet.
I think I wanted to understand my context in the world. That’s why I decided to go to Art school. (To be honest, I don’t think I do take it entirely seriously yet. But that’s a work in progress)
Were your family supportive in your decision to take up art as a career?
At the start?
Not really. But that didn’t come from a place where my parents didn’t want me to do what I wanted to do. It came from a protective place; they didn’t want to see me fail or disappoint myself.
They always said: Do what you want, but do what’s feasible. I’m very lucky that they’re so patient with me, because they never told me what to do, but to think about what I wanted and why.
They were happy with me having it as a hobby, but when I said: ‘This is what I want to do as a job’ they had a problem. The Art world is a bit of an ivory tower and my parents were outsiders to its quite elitist way of functioning. I think they were just worried they wouldn’t be able to help me if I needed them.
My lovely little Dadi, my Fufu and my sister have always been there to believe in me. They were the ones telling me to follow my heart, not my head.
A lot of your work draws from the Bollywood movie industry. Why do you tap into that imagery?
It’s the familiarity it has for me as a brown girl.
The imagery also has this dream-like quality to it. All the clips I work with are from song sequences, which are inherently dream sequences. They have one foot in reality and the other in a sort of fantastical dream-scape that is entirely constructed and fictional.
Bollywood isn’t an accurate representation of India or any part of South Asia, really. But it represents the idea of it. That’s what I’m interested in: the notion of a place. It’s a way for me to tackle an internal conflict where I have to somehow figure out how I treat a relationship with a culture that is distant to myself.
India portrayed in Bollywood is a neat trope for a Motherland that I’ve never called home, but still feel a connection with. We all want to feel a sense of belonging and I think for people living in the South Asian diaspora, Bollywood means more than just kitschy-old-fashioned songs and women in wet sarees.
It’s a type of informal network of cultural knowledge that speaks to a generation of Indians-not-in-India and reminds them that their Motherland is a place that they carry around with them, that exists as a part of themselves.
How did the Swet Shop Boys collaboration come about?!
Riz (Ahmed) found my work on Twitter. It was just good old-fashioned shameless self-promotion, and being in the right place at the right time. That’s probably the most important thing I’ve learnt from this whole wild ride: always blow your own trumpet, because you’re probably great and other people won’t know that unless you tell them.
What are you currently working on and what are your aspirations for the future?
At the moment I’m working with a really inspiring group of young artists and writers. We’re in the process of forming a collective called ‘sorryyoufeeluncomfortable’
and we recently put on an exhibition with Barby Asante and Teresa Cisneros at Iniva in Shoreditch. It’s got loads of promise; I think there’s a real gap between academic texts that discuss racial politics and the personal politics surrounding the context of people of colour in British society.
That’s what we’re aiming to bridge with the collective, to formalise what’s already happening (these topics are being discussed in a way that’s unacknowledged by academia), making that academic narrative real and acknowledging that these things don’t happen in a vacuum.
My aspirations for the future are humble; I just want to make art that I think is good. Whether people look at it and think ‘ooh, yeah, cool, I get it’ is irrelevant; I don’t make art for other people. So that’s all I want: to continue making stuff, putting it out there and being satisfied that it’s what I want it to be.
Follow Zarina on Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr <3
- A & S x