“Being an artist of color gives you some amount of mobility to talk about issues pertaining to being a person of color, and I feel a certain amount of responsibility to be able to conceptualize and reiterate and create a visual language that the other can also understand.”
Nabeela Vega is a Bangladeshi-American Muslim artist, who also happens to be a woman, which is a bit of an anomaly, both in contemporary America and conservative Bangladesh, where both our roots lie. I am, of course, immediately drawn to her because of this. We first met at the SUPERNOVA Performance Art Festival, which took place in Rosslyn, Virginia, and after an 11-hour bus ride from Boston, at nine o’clock on the dot on a Friday morning, she is ready to perform her piece, Visiting Thahab, an examination of the Muslim woman in contemporary space in the post-9/11 diaspora.
There is no questioning her tenacity; on a dreary June day in the midst of pouring rain, Nabeela performs continuously for eight hours. Nabeela’s character Thahab alternates between wandering the streets of Rosslyn, at times keeping to herself, sitting peacefully in a mirage of her own creation and at other times, engaging with passerby, taking photographs with them with her disposable camera and tweeting her shenanigans throughout the festival at @ThahabVisit. This juxtaposition is purposefully created in order to give Thahab a rounded character.
“But it also boxes you in,” Nabeela continues. “People think ‘Oh, you’re Muslim and an artist, so you have to make Muslim art, right?’ You can’t go anywhere outside of that but that doesn’t necessarily encompass my practice. I realize this, but Thahab is what I’m obsessed with right now, and I need to just courage it out. I want to work on this for at least a few more years as a visual language to use and as a vehicle to talk about issues that I think are pertinent. I want to create an alternative conversation from what is usually portrayed in mass media, and undo certain stereotypes surrounding Muslim women in modern America.”
Arriving in America from Bangladesh mere days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Nabeela conveys her experiences, and those of others, through her most noteworthy medium, Thahab. With a solo-exhibition at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) in Boston, a Springborn Fellowship and a feature in the Washington Post in tow, Nabeela is already changing minds, and hearts. The following interview with the artist has been edited for length.
How did Thahab come to be?
The creation of Thahab was very organic. It just happened because I was exploring ways of talking about ritualistic aspects of Muslim culture. I had been making a lot of abstract, ethereal videos but lacked a personification of my work, and I found the gold lamé fabric and it gave me a certain amount of mobility because it was not sexualized, it wasn’t gendered. I mean, it is gendered because there is the idea of the Hijab, but what I also didn’t realize was that people don’t always necessarily think of the fabric as a Burqa or a Hijab — usually they think Thahab is just a ghost in lamé.
I used the character of Thahab to understand my own position in the community and to kind of push and pull that tension between actually existing in a world that doesn’t understand you existence.
Was the juxtaposition between the more comical adventure series of Thahab and the delicate stills and videos of Thahab intentional?
I definitely wanted to create a juxtaposition, and I’ve gotten some criticism stating that the serious work is more authentic. The meditative visuals talk about what my intention is rather than the humorous work, but I feel that they both need to exist simultaneously because humor is an effective tool of the idea of dissent, and there is no denying the fact that there is a political slant to the work.
I wouldn’t be able to make the character as fluid without the humor as well, regardless of whether it’s as visually polished or not. The roughness of the humor makes it more real.
Do you fear that your work may become stereotyped as typical of a Muslim South-Asian woman?
I’m facing that problem right now. How do I negotiate this work with the rest of my identity? Everyone is a multiplicity of whatever they’re interested in. The dismissal I face is that people assume that because I am this person that they see outwardly is the reason why I’m doing this work. I feel like the adventure series of Thahab, which is more lighthearted and pertaining to her social integration is moving beyond this dismissal.
What was the catalyst that compelled you to pursue art as a career?
The humanities have always been something really important in my family. There have been a lot of people who were writers and artist and musicians, but it’s always been secondary. The expectation when I was growing up was that I was going to be a renaissance woman, but only to the extent that I would, say for example, find a good husband. That was the traditional idea. But since I was five, I’ve always wanted to be an artist, childish, I guess, but there are always the three occupations South Asian children are expected to undertake, like being a business person or a lawyer or a doctor.
In the tenth grade I was like “I’m really passionate about art; it’s the only thing I can focus on and this is the only way that I can talk about what I really want to talk about.” It’s just a feeling. It’s so cheesy, but honestly, it really ate at me, this trying to be something I’m not, and I got into a lot of drugs and dropped out of high school and I did my GED, and at the last minute I thought, “I’m going to school and it’s going to be SFMA,” and I got in, and that was it.
Have there been any obstacles you’ve encountered as a South Asian artist?
The “Draft Interview Performing Her History” encompasses a lot of the struggles we went through as a family. [In it, Nabeela’s mother is interviewed regarding her experiences in post-9/11 America, and Thahab is recorded returning back to the hotel room (number 11) in which Nabeela and her family stayed in upon their arrival to America from Bangladesh.] Definitely — there have been obstacles. My current environment is very “Blue” blooded. Boston is considered the Blue city — a lot of liberal teaching, a lot of liberal universities. But there’s still a lot of racism, and regardless of whether Boston is super liberal socially, they’re still not aware of POC communities.
With my work specifically, I was faced with criticism initially because no one knew where I was coming from, what I was doing. It’s not easy to find someone in the art community to talk to about these kinds of things, and regardless of whether you’re in the arts or not, there’s an expectation to find a mentor who will help you through, understand what your shortcomings are, and advise you on how you can improve certain aspects of it. I haven’t found that. I’ve had to do everything on my own. My best education has been to just ignore my curriculum and believe in the fact that this is the kind of thing that I should be doing.
When I present any of my videos or other work in class, it does not get sufficient criticism, negative or positive. People are just uncomfortable to talk about it, which to some degree personifies why I need to do it. I think that they feel like they’re not informed enough to criticize it and they don’t want to offend. But I’m okay with being offended. It’s kind of blinding, because if you’re not getting any negative or positive criticism, you don’t know if you should or shouldn’t continue doing this.
People tend to dismiss my work and think, “Oh, this is about Muslim whatever, and she’s just another Muslim expressing her identity.” But to an extent, it also makes people think about things they don’t usually think about. The most I can ask of them is just that: to think about this new idea, or, at least, meditate on it.
What would you consider your favorite work of art to date?
I hate all my art! Are you kidding? (Laughs) I guess the most effective piece has been the existence of Thahab, and the most effective image of her had been of her sitting quietly on a rock in the middle of the water. Perhaps it’s iconic so that it lends itself to be branded, or lends itself to be understood easily. It’s very easy to read.
Are there any artists in particular who have inspired you?
I really try not to, but Shirin Neshat got me into a lot of what I do. She’s an Iranian artist and she does mostly video work, though much of it is performative too. Her work is a little similar to my earlier stuff. The thing that got her most prominence was these photographs of Iranian women in Hijab with poems written in Arabic on their faces. The rest of her work is very ethereal and tries to move beyond the conventional image that you would expect.
What are your plans from here on out?
I think I need to slow down a bit; just let myself be.
Tasnim Ahmed is a 23-year-old writer and designer living in Washington, D.C. Her website is blog.tvgirlfriend.com.