Move over Katy Perry, it’s all about the burkinis on top in Maria Mahfooz’s Pakistani Gurls

“Two harmless Muslim gurls just tryna have fun at a beach but these systems of oppression are stopping us, and othering us”: Dive into the London-based artist’s hilarious and thought-provoking practice.

19 March 2020

On first glances, Maria Mahfooz’s work is nothing short of hilarious. When we were first introduced to her work by Muslim Sisterhood for our International Womxn’s Day mega-feature, we were immediately smitten by her bespectacled, often smiley face, superimposed against all manner of backdrops. McDonald’s, the First Dates love heard, the fruit and veg section at Waitrose, the Apple weather app forecasting the weather at Mecca (sunny and very hot of course), these are just a few of the extremely lol references peppered throughout the recent Central Saint Martin’s graduate’s work.

“I love to take audiences down a particular route via humour only to end up confronted with something so big and so sensitive in the form of a punchline,” the London-based artist tells It’s Nice That. “I often employ humour within my work, not only for the sake of accessibility, but also because sometimes more can be said within the work if the intro seems like a joke.” At the root of her work, Maria explores her identity as a visible Muslim woman of colour through autobiographical performances.

Performing as an other, her work is framed within internet culture while using herself as a direct source of reference. She contemplates how the semiotics of her identity allows her to navigate through certain spaces, in turn, interrogating themes of representation and construction of the self. Cleverly, Maria combines these intellectual issues with humour, crafting a unique space for her practice to exist in. “I use satire as a way of dealing with the dislocation I can feel,” she adds on the matter, “so the work sometimes feels more digestible but still generates reactions of uncertainty about whether to laugh or not?”

It’s a prevalent tension felt throughout Maria’s original practice which, on the surface, is laugh out loud funny, but on further contemplation, deeply stirring. “Though it’s somewhat self-obsessed in its content,” Maria reflects on one hand, ultimately, “the work aims to serve an overriding commentary on feelings of otherness.” It was a feeling typified immediately when Maria began the process of archiving a non-heteronormative body (her body) through photogrammetry in an attempt to “document the brown self in a digital context.”

Though she tried multiple times, the programme failed to recognise her hijab. It became a relevant symbol for Maria, demonstrating how otherness is inherently not recognised throughout technology. “These systems were not built with a hijab in mind, and so it failed to archive my digital self truly,” adds Maria. A crucial aspect of Maria’s identity was blocked out automatically, but rather than giving up on the medium, she took this digital exclusion as a pivotal turning point, going on to utilise digital collage as a focal medium in her work to say something about the matter.

Similar themes are explored in Maria’s film Pakistani girls, made last year in collaboration with Sara Gulamali. It’s a parody of the hit Katy Perry song California gurls but instead of the candy cane utopia in Perry’s high budget wonderland, Maria and Sara offered up something a whole lot better. Bikinis became burkinis, and in general, they transformed the song into something more halal and Muslim friendly. Lols aside, much like Maria’s other work, the intentions behind the film had a lot more serious connotations. It played on the tropes of the burkini being seen as an intimidating item of clothing, acting as a political critique in response to places like Nice, where the burkini is banned.

Funny in nature, the medium is more literal than you would expect. “We have to green screen ourselves in because in reality, we cannot occupy these spaces, and that’s the important factor to take away from this. Two harmless Muslim gurls just tryna have fun at a beach but these systems of oppression are stopping us, and othering us.” In other work, Maria further plays on this use of green screen, drawing parallels between herself and her body, to Kermit the frog and his song It’s not easy being green. In this recent work, Maria appropriates Kermit’s lyrics to that of being brown rather than green, but instead of being down about it like Kermit, she chooses not to feel sorry for herself. This wonderful artist concludes: “Rejoice in it, and love the green within.”

Unfortunately Maria’s first solo show had to be cancelled due to the current Covid-19 crisis, but you can still attend via a live stream from her bedroom in front of a green screen here.

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About the Author

Jynann Ong

Jynann joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. She went freelance in 2022.

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