Hala Nasr and Nour Salman, who recently co-launched an online art and literary journal, Riwayya, write about the need to encourage the (un/re)learning of heritage and the dynamism of homeland through artistic expression.
There is a sense of continuity beyond the artist’s lifetime when reading a classic or viewing contemporary art in whichever form it is presented. Storytelling, whether through visual, oral and written mediums, has, after all, existed since the perceivable beginning of time. Art is thus a reflection of a historical moment just as much as it is a reflection of self.
Oftentimes, however, the ‘classics’ fall short of entertaining the whole story. Certain stories and subjects are restricted to an obsessively Othered stage. The media plays a role in this ‘Othering’ by producing and reproducing stereotypes – the belly dancing, the olive trees, the bindi – that hinder any form of genuine inclusion of marginalised groups. In fact, the Othering serves to expand the (mis)information and artistic gap between producers, readers, viewers and audiences. We have seen the manner in which artists from marginalised backgrounds tend to linger on the periphery of the ‘art scene,’ included only in reductionist, Othered spaces. The exoticisation that comes with that form of inclusion is cheap in the art world and, as the co-founders of Riwayya, we reject that imposed positioning.
We believe that just because something was deemed invisible by the dominant meta-narrative does not mean it ceases to exist. Riwayya was created as a direct reaction to these specific forms of inclusion and exclusion. However, in our minds, it is not a reactionary exercise. Reclamation and resistance to hegemonic co-option is never simply a reaction to a colonisation and commodification of art. It is just as simply a continuation of what has already been for centuries upon centuries. Riwayya is a tribute to what was, what is and what is to come.
In fact, we see Riwayya as a space of collision – precisely because of the emptiness of buzzwords like ‘harmony’ and ‘peace’. Buying into these euphemisms allows for a toxic circular type of art to ferment. The fetishised caricatures and the romanticised imagery of homeland (for example, the olive trees and the Nile River) become our go-to signifiers, which we at Riwayya think does little justice to the complexities and diversities of lived experiences in our communities.
Our first release really reflects an effort to create a space where marginalised voices command the space, as well as attempting to truly exhibit the high quality and commitment to art that exists in our diverse and vibrant communities.
These tributes and stories are what need to be shared. Growing up, stories were how we could connect to the homeland. Hala recalls her father, a first generation immigrant to Aotearoa (New Zealand), passing on emblems of homeland, identity and belonging through nightly bedtime stories during her childhood. Nostalgia and memory play a vital role in our lives and, despite some romanticisation of the past, storytelling aids us with a form of re/decentering. This re/decentering allows us to not lose touch with our past, our identities, ourselves. And, if you think about it, diaspora kids, immigrants, refugees, colonised and indigenous children are likely to embody art in such a powerfully unique, and at times perhaps chaotically, contradictory way.
Through Riwayya, we acknowledge how powerful these positionalities are and hope to counteract the media’s wholesomely one-dimensional and overwhelmingly Eurocentric presentation of art by sharing the vibrant stories that have shaped our ever-evolving identities.
Ultimately, Riwayya is about transcending reductions and confronting disenchantments.
By Hala Nasr and Nour Salman
Hala is an Aotearoa-born Egyptian graduate in Development Studies, specialising in Gender and Sexuality and works for Shakti, a non-profit community organisation specialised in areas of women’s development, empowerment and domestic/family violence. She is a co-founder of Riwayya, an online art and literary journal showcasing the diverse written and visual works by artists from all around the world. She tweets here (@livinrevolution).
Nour is a Palestinian-Australian graduate in International Relations and International Communication, and is a freelance Media & Cultural Studies Researcher. She is a co-founder of Riwayya, an online art and literary journal showcasing the diverse written and visual works by artists from all around the world. She tweets here (@banadoras_box).