Editor’s Note: Through video and other forms of new media, Hiba Ali and Jennifer Chan both remix the internet as a means of critical storytelling to describe and satirize the experiences and obstacles that immigrant and other communities of color face. In this latest commission supported by the Emily H. Tremaine Foundation, the artists discuss Ali’s work, and how they have both, as artists of color working primarily online, sustained their art practices by finding community: “If it doesn’t exist, then build it,” says Ali. “Others will join you.” This commissioned conversation, curated by the Tremaine’s Journalism Fellow for Curators Rea McNamara, is part of an ongoing series looking at how aspects of digital feminisms can inform better online curatorial practices.
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“Male, Ameer Said, 15. Female, Shafiq Mohammed Salef Mohammed, 2.” In front of a studio backdrop, a young brown woman acts as a news anchor, reciting the names of children murdered by U.S. drone strikes. When I first saw this powerful segment from artist Hiba Ali’s “Postcolonial Language,” (2013) a 20-minute “newshour” reel, I was struck by their processing of theory as acknowledgement and action for injustice in the world.
What distinguishes Ali’s work from the familiar analyses of language, technology and power is its insistence on non-anglocentric ways of seeing existing systems. The new media artist, educator, DJ and experimental musician does this by rooting their performance and digital art as a practice of queer, Muslim, Black, and brown people’s liberatory politics. Through open-source workshops, reading lists, video and performance, they ask us to reconsider the role of technology and the politics of migration within our lives in connection to whomever came before.
Ali and I recently reconnected — we met six years ago while teaching sessionally at SAIC in Chicago, and stayed in touch — to discuss the motivations around absurd performance, making artwork about work, and the difficulties people of colour face with openly discussing specific privileges and oppressions.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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Jennifer Chan: We both seem to enjoy absurd performances or hyperbolic, sarcastic gestures. In your work, I observe a satirical arc from the dead-pan recitation about containers for shipment, to the caricature of an Amazon worker in “Abra” (2019). I’m wondering how working at an Amazon warehouse influenced you?
Hiba Ali: I made “to be a box” (2018) for my MFA Thesis exhibition. After I graduated, I needed money to move, so I took jobs at an Amazon warehouse facility and a temp agency. “Abra” was made some months after the move.
At the Amazon warehouse, I was pushing lots of carts, scanning and organizing boxes, tagging and putting them into carts. Sometimes we’d do “sorting”: arranging newly unloaded boxes by their alphabetical and numerical codes. When my newness wore off, they grew strict and there were times I was told to move faster. There were many old people working there, struggling to work as fast as everyone else. I remember someone throwing up in the bathroom, and going back to work like nothing happened. People were always sweating. There was a station for employees to drink a knockoff “Gatorade” to prevent dehydration and passing out.
JC: Sounds like Walmart on steroids.
HA: When I told the manager I quit, she just replied, “Oh, okay.” Amazon’s whole logistics approach is built on the structural poverty of vulnerable Black and brown people. There’s an endless supply of poor people for them to hire and abuse. And there was Peccy —
HA: Peccy, the cartoon mascot worker on Amazon posters. I’m talking to them in the “Abra” video.
JC: Wow! I realize you didn’t just make them up. That reminds me of “Have a Nice Day” plastic bags or Japanese yuru-chara mascots. I’ve always felt there was something latently oppressive about visual signs that imply “you must always be happy.”
Your recent series, “The Black Indian Ocean Reading List,” (2020) is a collection of readings about the Afro-descent communities from the Indian Ocean region. I also noticed the posts on Instagram you made about the shared linguistic, social histories of its people and diasporas. What did you hope to uncover?
HA: Pakistan was where I was born, but that’s not where my ancestors are from, and where they were born, is not where their ancestors were from. I felt called to understand the history of the Indian Ocean region, and how my people arrived there.
I realized that the most privileged members of a diaspora get represented in the mainstream, and in them, I don’t see people who look like me. Also, I don’t see mainstream representations of the connections between South Asia, the Arab world, and East Africa in the ways that my family has.
You can be privileged — in terms of ability, mobility, race, class, sexuality, gender, and access to education — and also have struggled. When white audiences are confronted with discussions of privilege and oppression from people of colour, they’re only comfortable with a theatre of suffering or extreme “joy.” To be seen as “oppressed,” you have to talk about your oppression all the time in a way that lines up with white guilt, but if you mention your specific privileges, you’re dismissed as “privileged”. To paraphrase Toni Morrison on racism as a distraction, we waste time on constantly re-explaining our humanity to white people. I want to have this conversation for my communities, especially during the BLM uprising, to discuss anti-Blackness from my position while addressing the access and struggles my family has. It’s easy for non-Black people to claim they’re anti-racist on social media, instead of examining their own role and talking to their families about how anti-Blackness, colorism and casteism pervades.
JC: In previous works, you explore the etymology of words-as-concepts in a networked economy. For example, you looked at shipping containers as a starting point to discuss the moving and containment of goods. In this project, you’re finding specific terms in Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Farsi and Swahili that are used to reproduce anti-Blackness in the Indian Ocean region. Why is the naming of intercultural discrimination, along class and national lines, important for contemporary audiences to understand?
HA: I first shared these ideas on my own Instagram, and continued for a month on southasia.art as a digital residency.
As Dr. Sylviane Anna Diouf and Dr. Omar H. Ali found, the Indian Ocean slave trade is erroneously called the “Arab slave trade.” It wasn’t solely Arab people, but also people in East Africa, Iran, and South Asia who benefited from the capturing and enslavement of people. The afterlives of caste, class and the Indian Ocean slave trade is persistent in the Indian Ocean region, South Asia, and East Africa. The modern-day kafala system in the Arab world means there won’t be a slur created for your group, but who you are becomes a slur. For example, my family is muhajir, which means “refugee/migrant from India,” and chaush, which means someone of Afro-Arab descent from Hyderabad, India. These words become slurs when said in a derogatory tone.
JC: I think that’s a valuable approach for white and non-Black allies to learn from: where does my lineage begin, what are the conflicts that lead to who we are in the present? What have you learned from exploring linguistic relationships between South Asia, Arab, and Swahili coast regions?
HA: I can speak the language, Urdu, and it has words from Arabic, Swahili and Farsi.
There’s amazing connections in how certain words are shared by all three, or even four, of the languages. Some words are loosely related, some not at all. For example, “سیارہ / sayara” in Arabic means car, in Urdu, Farsi, and Swahili, it means planet, as in Saturn. The root word for all iterations of the word, “sayara,” is a “moving body” and it has interrelated iterations in Urdu, Arabic, Swahili and Farsi. So language, like textiles, was traded back and forth between these regions. I’m just at the beginning of that research.
JC: We’ve discussed how traditional models of success aren’t realistic for many POC artists’ circumstances. The more I tried to fit my practice in an art-fair model, the more jaded I became. Sara Ahmed talks about hitting a “brick wall” every time one tries to practice inclusion in white-centered spaces. The past few years, I’ve turned to working with local or online communities to fill that need for change, whether it’s running a studio or canvassing with strangers. I’m wondering what kinds of institutions you value the most?
HA: I create work for my community: my friends, family, and peers whose work I admire, as the people closest to me give the most honest, constructive criticism. The idea of “success” solely through showing in New York City or a blue chip gallery is outmoded. Beyond that path, artists are often cultural workers, organizers, and teachers.
Museums in the West serve as “cabinets of curiosities” for artifacts pilfered from the global South during the colonial era and onward. I’m not interested in discourses of reform because these very institutions are upheld by white supremacist structures of funding, hiring and patronage.
I’ve always struggled with finding community. That’s why I started tareef, a queer Muslim reading group, created reading lists on the Black Indian Ocean, conducted research on Amazon, surveillance and labour. It is really DIY, people may come and go, but I realize I can’t wait around for someone else to start it. If it doesn’t exist, then build it, and others will join you.