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Aleesha Nandhra, Dark Masks

Work / World Mental Health Day 2018

Rabbits Road Press gives us a lesson in zine-making for wellbeing

I meet illustrator Aleesha Nandhra and Sofia Niazi from zine OOMK (One of My Kind) at Rabbits Road Press. Housed inside the front room of Manor Park Library, the press offers, well, a one of its kind open access Riso-press for the local community and crafty Londoners, alike. The initiative was set up by the staff at OOMK, a collaborative publishing practice led by Sofia Niazi, Rose Nordin and Heiba Lamara. Working together since 2014, the trio make, publish and distribute printed works arising from self initiated projects. Their zine, OOMK is a visual delight, handcrafted and printed biannually, its content pivots upon the “imagination, creativity and spirituality of women.”

The OOMK team started Rabbits Road Press a couple of years ago, because they wanted to “reproduce all of the good things about art school that a lot of people won’t be able to access because they don’t think their practice is worth it or they don’t understand the art school system,” that, and as they note: art school is really expensive.

“We thought the best thing [about art school] was that you’re around a lot of creative people and facilities you don’t get access to normally,” Sofia tells It’s Nice That. “So we made a regular space that had a number of printing machines with easy access — we were getting disillusioned and frustrated by running workshops that felt really tokenistic because there was no follow through with them, no continuity as they were one-offs. They didn’t allow people to develop a continual art practice. For us it was looking at the state of art education, and people like ourselves but in a younger generation.” So, Rabbits Road Press was born.

In the high ceilinged room, on a cold Monday afternoon, we shared the space with local artists utilisng the library’s affordable studio spaces Sofia and I set up around a communal table with illustrator Aleesha to cut, paste and Risograph print her mental-health focused zine, Dark Masks. This is the conversation the ensued over folding and putting together Alesha’s (literally) hot-off-the-press zine pages as a team.

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Aleesha Nandhra, Dark Masks

It’s Nice That: Aleesha, can you tell us a bit about your zine’s name, Dark Masks and how the concept for this work came about?

Aleesha Nandhra: I came up with the title after I made it, because I was trying not to be too specific, but looking for a kind of metaphor for mental illness. Essentially, my family and I have been going through quite a tough year, because my grandma is very ill with psychotic depression and it’s been really hard for all of us to deal with it. I am just getting to the point where I needed to get some of that negativity out there, because I was starting to get really anxious myself. I don’t know why it came to me as a series of masks. I think it was through looking at mental illness as a kind of — well, I was looking at her but it was her but it was almost like a different face. You could see that cloud — whatever it is, the paranoia of what she was thinking — take over her own face, so that’s where the masks came from, and that’s how the title happened.

INT: How did you develop the series of images that make up the zine? Was it a really linear storytelling process? A gradual building of narrative?

AN: I think it was quite linear. I knew I wanted it to convey some kind of narrative, not just be single images. I started making it over the summer holidays at my grandparents house in Birmingham on and off between visiting my grandmother at hospital. It was quite intense, I was really in the situation writing out the story, and it came together over a few days. For me it was an outlet, a way of visualising and verbalising what everyone was going through.

INT: A kind of productive processing?

AN: Yes. Personally I’m definitely ‘a bottler’ and I didn’t feel I could talk to anyone about what’s happening. I realised I needed to get it out somehow or I would make myself really ill, too. I kind of go on autopilot when I’m drawing, so I tried to take myself out of the situation and write it from a perspective other people could relate to and understand. It was almost like an outer body experience whilst drawing.

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Aleesha Nandhra, Dark Masks

INT: Did you see it from the perspective of ‘this might help other people feel less alone or understand my situation?’ Or has that been a pleasant second stage of the project.

AN: A pleasant second stage. I think making it is one thing, but putting it out there is even more scary. I find it really anxiety-provoking making personal work and then publishing it. It’s really raw. There’s a vulnerability to putting something like this out there. Usually my work is very light. But this year I wanted to be brave and talk about things. Like ‘hey this is me talking about my feelings’, but in a really productive way.

INT: Has the crafty DIY element to it helped you as opposed to just designing something on a computer?

AN: Definitely. It’s something tangible that someone can pick up, flick through it and read. You can sit down, have a cup of tea, and ruminate on it. Everyone’s so used to scrolling. It’s more personal. You can physically hold it. There’s an intimacy. Especially with something zine-sized.

INT: That makes sense — it’s an intimate experience between the zine and the readers — the pages over time getting dog-eared and shared. Sofia, is this something important to Rabbits Road Press, that people get this really crafty, hands-on, tactile experience whilst making and printing their work?

Sofia Niazi: We really recognise here how creative and craft practices can be so beneficial for general well-being — which is still mental health. It’s also a means for trying to address things before they get really serious. Having a space where you can meet people and talk and disengage. I think people sometimes suffer with mental health, and it gets tied to their identity. Making a space where the only identity you bring is to want to do something creative, it gives you an exploration space, a creative space, an alone time, for thinking and this is something we are really aware of in our retweeting culture. We wanted people to have a space; to take some time to create.

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Aleesha Nandhra, Dark Masks

INT: It’s a slow process, the illustrations, the pages in the right place, the stencils, the printing, the folding party.

SN: It’s about slowing down and enjoying that process. There’s a time before you share stuff which is really meditative and important and personal.

AN: Nowadays everything is so immediate. I think people have forgotten what delayed gratification is. It’s so easy to access images of anything anytime because there’s so much out there. But a space like this you can come and think and fold it how pages work, it’s a slowing down. A real connection to yourself. It’s different to creating individual pieces specifically to share on Instagram. There’s a working out how pages fit, and the tactility of folding them. This is a proper finished product, you really have to think — do I want to it to be put out there. A lot of the time people make something and immediately put it out there. Spending time with something gives you more space to think am I happy, do I want this to my name.

INT: Is making a zine a process you’d recommend to people? Do you think storytelling is beneficial to everyone?

AN: Definitely, I found it so beneficial. You’re having a creative outlet for what you’re feeling, with no outside pressure. No focus on the ‘end goal’, it’s so liberating after to have got your feelings out there, even if it’s tricky at the time.

INT: Is it really nice when you put it out there or when you share it with someone?

AN: It is a conversation starter, for sure.

SN: Whatever your thing is, just put your energies and distress somewhere healthy. Not a lot of people have access to things like therapy. Help yourself as much as you can, you should. Storytelling and narrative is so nice.

AN: Even though this zine is really personal, I want readers to take from it what they can. It is general. It is about mental health. I think it’s really good about zines that people are making something about something they care about — there’s always gonna be someone else that gets it.

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Aleesha Nandhra, Dark Masks