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Co-Curation, Addressing Privilege and Future Legacies, Imrana Mahmood

Imrana Mahmood is a British Creative Producer, with a passion for educational grassroots activities to enable self-empowerment through arts engagement.

The focus of Imrana's work is on the representation and nurturing of artists and projects, in order to enhance participation and accessibility. As a qualified teacher, Imrana aims to inspire young people by providing them with creative spaces for self-expression and is committed to enabling teachers to incorporate artistic elements into their lessons.

Imrana has an inclusive and collaborative approach to her practice. Having co-curated numerous exhibitions and led grassroots and community projects in mainstream arts and cultural spaces, Imrana is all too aware of the power to exclude and systemic inequity in the creative industries.

We talk to Imrana about her experiences as a curator, reflecting on nurturing creativity, rejecting stereotypes, democratizing culture, addressing tokenistic practices, mentoring and future leadership opportunities.

As a Curator and Creative Producer working in the arts, how did you develop a career in the creative industries?

Having qualified as a secondary school Science teacher, I didn’t follow a traditional route into the arts, however, I spent much of my spare time delving in creative pursuits: I enjoyed poetry, listening to qawwali music, visiting art galleries, and I founded Dar Aminah Book Club. It was only in 2015, however, when I visited The Art of Integration exhibition at Brunei Gallery, that it struck me that I had not before seen myself represented in what would be described a traditional arts space. It was during this particular visit that I met with photographer, Peter Sanders, and became more involved in the arts scene. I made the intention of bringing his exhibition to my hometown and with support from Culture Trust Luton and Revoluton Arts, I applied for funding from Arts Council England and Near Neighbours to kickstart my journey as a freelance creative producer and to deliver my first major arts project, Beyond Borders.

Since then, I have had the privilege of working with various artists and arts organisations across the UK to curate and deliver a vast spectrum of creative work including photography exhibitions, live pop-up performances, open mic nights, creative writing workshops, art symposiums, short film documentaries, and I also host The Book Club Show on a community radio station, Inspire FM. My recent freelance role involved working with Revoluton Arts to manage their Bury Park Residency and my current role is the Project Officer for Hertfordshire Cultural Education Partnership supported by Royal Opera House Bridge.

Your passion for educational grassroots activities to enable self-empowerment through arts engagement is evident throughout your work. Why is this important to you and can you tell us about some of your projects that you are particularly proud of?

Having the opportunity to work with communities at a grassroots level helped to shed light on the immense barriers people of colour face in accessing creative opportunities. I spent a lot of time in white middle-class spaces and found it confusing being labelled as being from a ‘hard to reach’ community whilst also becoming increasingly frustrated seeing arts institutions failing to recognise their own inaccessibility. As a result of this, I committed myself to providing platforms for underrepresented voices to challenge the status-quo.

Echoes of the Diaspora is an example of one of my most recent projects which provided such a platform. The focus of this project was to explore the stories of British Muslim women. This project was inspired by numerous conversations I had that Muslim women were fed up of the constant negative and problematic ways they were being portrayed in the media and arts, even to the extent that they were only ever being approached to talk about things like forced marriage and extremism (think BBC Bodyguard vibes!) - the overarching theme of the Echoes project, therefore, was: ‘if there is one story you could share with the world, what would it be?’ Based on this provocation, I facilitated creative writing workshops with an intergenerational group of Muslim women (aged between 14 and 64) and they wrote their own poems and monologues to showcase as a live performance.

I also worked with Khayaal Theatre who supported the dramaturgy as well as helping the group to develop their performance skills. It became increasingly important to me to move the narrative away from the constant pressure to be breaking stereotypes and instead focusing on what Muslim women want to say with no strings attached. Many of the women had not been involved in anything like this before and some were quite hesitant at the beginning, but we created a safe space to talk about the things that mattered to them and they felt able to share this with one another as well as a wider audience.

The representation and nurturing of artists and projects is important to you. Through your curatorial practice how do you ensure care and visibility?

There is something quite raw and cathartic in sharing your creativity with others so I feel it is vital to create a space where we can allow for vulnerability. The starting point is to co-create projects with the artists and communities you are working with. Every project I have curated has begun with a conversation, which has then had a ripple effect on the end outcome. For me the process is just as important as the product. For example, when I set up Qalam Creative Writing Collective, I had a certain vision of what I thought was needed by new writers in Luton, but through open conversations with the group I adapted workshop ideas and asked for their input into the final live showcase performance at The Hat Factory. This type of flexible working practice allows creativity to be more fluid and organic. As a producer, I find myself in a privileged position of being able to provide emerging artists with their first break in the sector and I want to do what I can to ensure they have the confidence and skills to pursue a professional career. This means allocating enough of the budget to not just pay them their worth but also to invest in their development through mentorship opportunities.

Why is accessibility important to you? Do you feel that Muslims have access to mainstream arts and cultural spaces and are included in programming?

The term accessibility implies there is an entity with the power to exclude, therefore, first and foremost, we need to acknowledge the systemic inequity in the arts as well as the gatekeeping which creates barriers to access, especially for creatives from historically-excluded communities. If we want to move away from tick-box culture and allow for genuine arts engagement, then there needs to be a top-down approach to ensure more diverse leadership within the sector. At the moment, unfortunately, there seems to be selective amnesia by some institutions about how to truly democratise culture. Many talk about cultural capital, yet they fail to capitalise on the everyday creativity in the communities that they are meant to be serving. Some are too preoccupied in maintaining the imbalance of power because it maintains the status-quo. Every few years, you may see some organisations ‘refresh’ their strategy and regurgitate the same promises on diversity an inclusion, without much accountability if they fail to deliver.

Despite this, I feel Muslims have been able to take ownership of creativity in their own way. So much of our Islamic heritage is linked to creativity - whether that be storytelling, the poetic verses of the Quran, or the beautiful architecture across the Muslim world – it is embedded in our DNA so it is only right that we disrupt and reclaim these spaces as our own. What that means in practical terms is to be vocal about your local arts and culture offer, and make suggestions on what you want to see at your theatre, or library, or community centre. Make suggestions to the venue to organise focus groups so people can share their suggestions and inputs. If this doesn’t work, then bring together like-minded individuals and work with your local mosque / mums & tots group / study circle / book club / school / etc to apply for funding and programme your own events. In simple terms, if you are not given a seat at the dinner party table, then create your own table, at your own party, and take the best seat!

As a qualified teacher, you aim to inspire young people by providing them with creative spaces for self-expression. How can art institutions and cultural spaces facilitate this?

When working with young people, I think there is a risk of falling into tokenistic practices where you deliver a short-term project but with no longer-term support. Sustainability is one of the challenges of working in the arts sector because the funding system means you end up working on a project-by-project basis. However, the most important aspect is enabling young people to have a creative vision and then to help them map out a longer-term trajectory, even if you are not able to actualise it for them.

Legacy is a word that gets banded about quite a lot in the arts, but what does this truly mean? It should not be a catch-all term to prove to grant-makers to fund your next project, it needs to be more meaningful than that. There needs to be investment in continued mentorship and development for young people, and the best examples are where institutions have consulted with young people on what they want and for them to feed into wider cultural strategies.

What do you think of the representation of Islamic arts and culture in mainstream arts institutions?

I think there are some interesting examples of Islamic arts and culture representation in mainstream arts institutions. I recall visiting the British Museum for the launch of their new Islamic gallery – I thought it was a lovely event which celebrated a whole host of arts including concerts, whirling dervishes and short plays (this does, of course, create a juxtaposition with regards to the role the British Museum played in the way its collections were shaped by colonial exploitation of people and resources).

I also think it is important to make a distinction between ‘Islamic’ and ‘Muslim’ arts and culture: for me, the former is intertwined with artforms such as traditional calligraphy or architecture linked to our heritage; the latter could be any artform created by someone who identifies as part of the Islamic faith so this can be a bit more varied in terms of what the work looks like.

More recently, it has been wonderful and inspiring to see more Muslim playwrights, directors, photographers, musicians and spoken word artists, to name but a few, who are representing their Islamic faith unapologetically through their work. This is a vital form of activism and defiance in a world which is becoming increasingly hostile to Muslims.

From your experience, how do Muslim communities in the UK feel about art and culture? How relevant and important is it?

I think Muslim communities in the UK have a natural inclination to arts and culture, although it may not always be explicit. I know many people in our communities who are amazingly creative but might not choose to describe themselves as such. For example, they may be a budding baker, an expert henna artist, a brilliant bathroom singer, a fashion guru, or even the designated family photographer, but they will view these things as a hobby rather than something to pursue in a professional capacity. I think a lot of this is due to the fact that not all of these creative outputs are regarded as a ‘proper career’ and so are deemed to be inferior to other jobs such as in STEM and yet we know these are the very skills which are essential to our social interactions as well as good mental health and wellbeing.

However, I do feel things are changing and Muslim communities are beginning to thrive in the creative industries. It is really inspiring to see the number of Muslim artists and creatives establishing themselves across many different disciplines and having the opportunity to showcase their work. Growing up I didn’t see my experiences reflected in books or plays, but the tide is turning and Muslim communities are challenging tokenistic representations as well as problematic depictions of our faith. It leaves me feeling hopeful for our generation and the next.

What is your favourite curatorial project to date and why?

I wouldn’t say that I have a favourite curatorial project, however, there are some moments I have most definitely treasured through some of the work I have done:

After the exhibition launch of Beyond Borders, where I commissioned Peter Sanders to create a new body of work highlighting the achievements of British Muslims in the UK, I recall walking around the gallery and spotting a young visible Muslim girl walking around with her family and she was holding a had a DLSR camera. I approached her to ask her thoughts on the exhibition. She told she was studying photography at school and was interested in pursuing it when she was older and how much she loved the exhibition. For me, I remember thinking that if the project managed to inspire just one young person to pursue their dream creative career then it would be worth it.

It was also during this project where I came home one day to find my daughter, who was 6 years old at the time, had displayed her drawings in the downstairs window, facing the outside so people passing by could see them. She had recently learnt about Picasso at school so had drawn some images inspired by that. When I asked her why she had the drawings in the window she said “I am an artist and this is my exhibition” and it suddenly hit me that my work was also making a difference to the lives of my children.

Another moment I cherished was part of the Echoes project. I had worked closely with a group of Year 10 Muslim girls at a local secondary school and supported them with their creative writing as well as giving them an opportunity to develop their performance skills. A few weeks after their performance, I bumped into one of the girls in the supermarket and she was with her mum. I said salaams and asked how they were, and her mum had the biggest smile on her face and she thanked me because she said her daughter had been experiencing quite a difficult time but the project boosted her confidence and she’d been feeling much more happier ever since. I obviously shared my gratitude too, because parents who support their sons and daughters to achieve their best make a world of difference. This also reminded me that, as artists and educators, we do not always see the struggles our young people are going through in their personal lives, so any positive impact we can make through our work can have a profound ripple effect in their lives.

Last but not least, I received a lot of positive feedback on one on my spoken word pieces titled ‘Stick and Stones’. I worked with filmmaker, Lydia Howe, to produce it into a film exploring experiences of racism and Islamophobia in the UK, and it meant a lot to me when people told me it had deeply resonated with them.

Can you tell us about your dream project?

Ah this is such a blue-sky question, I have no idea where to begin!

I think my dream project would be find myself in a position in a few years time where I would have written and produced my own play. Until now, I have written spoken word and a couple of short monologues but I do feel an urge to produce something more substantial and invite people to watch it at the theatre. I know I would like to write a play to shed light on the way the Prevent agenda has impacted Muslim families in Luton. I think I even already have an idea of which artists I would like to collaborate with. Most of all though, I want to deliver a project where Muslim communities feel visible, heard and supported, and for this to inspire and empower the younger generation to stand up to any injustices they may experience.

Which artists should we have on our radar and watch out for?

I love amplifying other artists.

I would say Teakster has done some amazing work around digital art inspired by our Muslim heritage. His work is a contemporary reflection of traditional artistic practices and I find it visually stunning. I have similar feelings to Farah Soobhan who specializes in pop art as a means to provoke conversations around political and humanitarian issues.

I would also watch out for emerging artists such as Abu Nur, Era and Furdewsy - I am totally inspired by their creative vision as visual artists.

Abu Nur is Khidr Collective’s youngest contributor at the age of 15 with his artwork The Great Wave (inspired by Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagwa) to highlight the plight and struggles of refugees.

Era is a multidisciplinary artist working with a range of mediums including painting, poetry, installation and illustration, with a particular focus on Surrealism. Her work is mostly autobiographical and explores the human condition.

Furdewsy has an amazing talent for event photography, capturing beautiful moments through the camera lens. She is developing her artistic practice as a photographer and has so much to offer.

What does the future of Islamic arts and culture look like to you? What are the opportunities and potential?

There is an acknowledgment in the arts sector that cultural institutions must address issues of historic inaccessibility within the arts. This means that Muslim artists and creatives have more opportunity to get support from these institutions for their professional development. At the moment, however, there is a tendency to place underrepresented artists in ongoing learning development programmes before they gain any formal recognition. I think greater strides need to be made to ensure that the inclusion of Islamic arts and culture is not just a tick-box exercise, so the next step is for Muslim creatives to be in positions of leadership to help revolutionise the sector.

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The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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