How great ideas can emerge from discomfort and self-analysis
At Nicer Tuesdays June, photographer Stephen Tayo, illustrator Wednesday Holmes, Azeema creative director Jameela Elfaki and artist Hassan Hajjaj shared how their own education and early experiences define their practice today.
Our monthly talks event continued online this month, with our four speakers dialling in to Zoom to share their important creative work. If there was one theme this month it was self-reflection, and all our creatives had personal anecdotes to share about the defining moments and realisations that led them to their unique practice. From Hassan Hajjaj celebrating Moroccan Souk graphics to Wednesday Holmes realising their foundation tutor didn’t know what they were talking about, it was enlightening and inspiring to hear all of their stories.
A portrait is a collaboration
Photographer Stephen Tayo spoke about his beginnings as a philosophy student in Lagos, and how this education was formative and remains ever-present in his creative approach. Philosophy, he says, “is generally a love for wisdom… it’s about everything that connects knowledge, how it is achievable, how it can be approached and seen. This has been a journey for me as a photographer.” In his discipline, Stephen commented how there is always conversations about “what can be called an iconic image,” and in this way, philosophy “helped me validate my work by myself”. His studies of ethics also feed into his collaboration with subjects throughout his work. When making a documentary, Stephen says he’s always considering: “how do I protect the dignity of the subject of the photo? How do I protect the value of the person, not just do what I want? It’s always a collaboration, two people working together, not forcing my own way [of thinking] on the people I’m shooting.”
Stephen shared his series Ibeji, meaning Twins, and its investigation into how two people who look and often dress alike can be at odds in terms of individual taste and desires. "Being seen as the same person," he says, “could be damaging to [their] psychology,” and doesn’t mean they want to do the same thing – “that’s the strength of the story for me”. He also shared an exclusive look at a new project about ballet in Lagos. “It’s unusual for me as a Lagosian to see someone who’s passionate about something seen to be a foreign thing,” he explained. His project hopes to explore whether it is truly foreign, why it’s seen as a foreign activity, and the history of ballet in the city.
Know yourself, tell your story, then help others share theirs
London-based illustrator Wednesday Holmes spoke about their work as a queer artist and writer as being “art for survival” – part personal healing, but mostly community support. Wednesday felt “quite silenced in the world,” growing up, and was actually discouraged from creating art about being queer at foundation level education, “so when I left I did the opposite”. Their artworks aim to educate, inform, make people laugh and feel better, specifically queer people.
Wednesday shared a selection of artworks from their joyous portfolio, showing how it is used to encourage community action, politically motivate, facilitate protest and reach out to young people. From projects from Voices for London and the African Rainbow Family to ads posted on the New York subway, their work has reached countless marginalised people with messages of empowerment and aid.
“I found out really quickly that in unlearning things the world tells you about yourself, you can share that to promote other people’s healing.” Wednesday showed artworks they’ve made to “be there for other people” in that way, and educate others from in and outside the communities they focus on. “I find that myths about being non-binary can really get in the way of non-binary people’s lives,” they say, “so this is a way I’ve used art to get rid of my frustrations and communicate to people in the hope they won’t go on to perpetuate those myths.” Having realised there are admittedly “limits to my experience – my art is me,” the illustrator more recently set out to make their work more holistic by seeking out stories from friends, peers and other activists, and asking to illustrate their story, for example Leni Morris from Stonewall.
Tell your own story and others may find themselves within it
Next up was Jameela Elfaki founder and editor-in-chief of Azeema – a magazine, platform and agency celebrating MENA women. The half Sudanese and half English photographer and creative director explained how the project came about as her final major project at university, where her work focused on the visibility of women of colour, and exploring heritage through visual arts. It was a result of “feelings of frustration,” she describes, and there being a “lack of representation for women like myself with dual heritage, disconnected from the motherland and background. [Azeema] brought all that together.”
The first edition, Jameela says, was “borne out of discomfort with my own identity and served as an outlet to explore this,” but the unexpected result resonated far beyond her expectations, as she was flooded with messages from people who shared her feelings, and relished a platform to celebrate their culture. Jameela shared insights from the makings of the magazine and its expanded offering, and the team that puts it together, including snapshots behind the scenes. While people might think from its glossy image that it’s a big operation with “lots of money” and production teams and sets, in actual fact, she says “it’s us sitting in our flats… everything we do is a crazy experience”
The agency, she explained, was a natural progression for the title “because we realised it’s not just important as a platform, but there was space to make a difference in the commercial, fashion and media sectors too,” where Azeema’s message could be pushed further, with broader impact. Its first project was a film and photo series for Nike (no big deal) and “the best thing we’ve worked on so far… it’s the first time Nike has done something like this, so it was really special to be a part of.” Jameela also quipped that it’s likely the first time there’s been henna workshops and middle eastern tunes played in the Nike store.
Embrace all your influences – the results are unique
Last, we met Moroccan-British artist Hassan Hajjaj, who dialled in from his kitchen in Camden. In conversation with It’s Nice That editor Matt Alagiah, Hassan spoke about his beginnings. “When I started doing photography I was doing it for myself,” he explained. “I had lots of artist around me who had learned the craft, so I didn’t feel worthy.” Feeling a need to experiment to find out if it was “a one-off or a long-term thing,” Hassan described how he allowed himself to “see what was inside me,” saying how it was uncomfortable at the beginning, and that it took years to admit to himself he was truly an artist – a realisation that only cemented when he filled in his occupation as ‘artist’ on a passport application.
Working between Marrakech and London can be “chaotic”, Hassan said of his practice, but he has developed a “rhythm, and I follow my instincts; it works itself out”. This duality is vital to his unique aesthetic. “My work is from both places,” he said. “Without one I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.” Of his distinctive portraits and patterns, Hassan says he sees a journey in every piece – the fabric bought in Brick Lane and made in Marrakech, for example, and the influences from both places that pop up in a texture, pattern or style. He puts his multimedia practice down to a lack of artistic training. “Having not studied art, I had no barriers. Some people train in a craft and stick to it. I came from a different route, I took risks. I’ve been getting away with a lot.”
Of defining his art, Hassan says he started out in the early 90s taking graphics from Arabic products in the Souk and putting them on canvas. “It was to show my friends in London who were into graphic design and graffiti,” remembering a desire to show how Moroccan aesthetics could be cool. Then these graphics became frames for portraits, and acted as a shoehorn to get his photography into art galleries, which was somewhat difficult in the 90s – “so this was a way in,” he said.
At the core of his work now, he explains, is the portrait. “I start with the person and work out the frame from there.” On his bold use of colour, Hassan said he remembers being mocked by his friends for his brightly coloured clothes when he first moved to London – “like I came from a technicolour country to a film noir country”. On a shoot later on in his career, he remembers pausing to decide whether to put green with brown, having read somewhere that it didn’t go, but then though “forget that”, favouring a visual clash – and the rest is history. “I’m from Morocco,” Hassan says. “We’re definitely not afraid of colour."
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