Documenting Diaspora: Making the Unseen Seen, Şehribanu Turan

Şehribanu Turan is a UK based artist and independent researcher. She has completed her

BA in Persian Language & Literature at Istanbul University and MA in Muslim Cultures at the

Aga Khan University in the UK. She currently works in the field of arts and culture and has

experience in engaging with various community organisations in the UK.




Şehribanu considers her projects as an exploration into the urban aesthetics in the diasporic

communities and documenting the “unseen” of the cultural heritage. She practices

photography to communicate her take on the reality of identities by re-establishing the visual norms and enquire the idea of aesthetic in self-representation.


We talk to Şehribanu about her artistic approach to creating a visual language, shedding light on overlooked everyday life scenes of Muslim diasporic communities in Britain, and her aspirations for the future.



Tell us about your education and background. You studied Persian Language/Literature at Istanbul University. How has this influenced your creativity?


Throughout my studies in Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, as well as my experiences in Istanbul and Iran, I developed a deep curiosity in the relationship between history and language. I am especially fascinated by the role and impact of art and culture in our lives, beliefs, and rituals, and the connections between art and culture in contemporary and historical societies.


These formative experiences alongside my studies shaped my curiosity and desire to learn further about Muslim Culture and also motivated me to engage with the challenges faced by societies both in critical and creative ways. I am interested in all forms of art and the role it plays in carrying the history of Muslim societies, their cultures, and the daily life practices throughout history to the present day.



You are an accomplished MA graduate in Muslim Cultures, why did you choose to specialize in this area?


My formative experiences led me to pursue an MA in Muslim Cultures, which helped me develop insight and a deeper understanding of the interaction between different cultures and civilisations. Ever since I could remember Islam was my identity but I wanted to challenge my understanding of it. I decided to step aside from my identity, isolate myself from my personal experiences and have a scholarly look at it. In order to gain a more practical understanding of my faith, I intended to benefit from the way it is theorised, and also challenge the way in which it is viewed from a western lens.



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


A lot has been said elsewhere about how Muslim culture is represented by others, but how we represent ourselves is open to discussion as well – we share some of the blame for how Muslims are represented, in ways that do not reflect our daily realities, and which negatively affects our visibility as a result. For example, Instagram influencer image, going to posh cafes and being absorbed in a western consumerist, capitalist culture and lifestyle. We must strengthen our personal relationship with the imaginations of our communities, challenge the sense of aesthetics that is under the influence of what is foreign and hostile to our culture. In my work, by reinterpreting scenes that are not considered part of that aesthetic by us(?), I create new aesthetic perceptions and contribute to a perspective from the ordinary and natural state of everyday Muslim life. In order to be able to discuss representation in the global world, we must put effort into thinking about how we represent ourselves, and distinguish between true and false self-representation.

You are interested in engaging with communities and have experience working with local communities both within the UK and the Middle East. How has this relationship with local people shaped your creativity?


Photography for me is a means of communication through which I can resonate with my surroundings as well as document culture. It’s a form of communication with the environment. In London, as I wander in neighbourhoods with a considerable Muslim population, suddenly it seems that the streets I walk in, the shops, and people who don’t speak the same language suddenly start speaking to me in a familiar language and narrating me memories of my own home. In those moments, I have no aesthetic considerations with the photographs I take – it’s just a matter of focusing on that intense feeling of familiarity present at that serendipitous moment. As it occurs, I capture the moment in all its natural state.



In your work you explore the diaspora experience, can you tell us more?


I see my work exploring the diaspora experience as about more than just culture. Diasporic neighbourhoods offer stories, identities, politics, language, and most importantly, a wealth of histories. When people leave their homeland, they take two kinds of suitcases. One is the physical, and the other is where they fit all their experiences, their emotional world, and their identity. For diaspora communities, everything that is visual, auditory, or related to taste, acts as a catalyst that brings our connection to the homeland to life.



For someone foreign to this land, my documentation of these neighbourhoods serves as an antidote to the feeling of being lost in London’s artificial, social media-friendly aesthetic, that’s almost completely foreign to lived experience and those neighbourhoods. While the people around me were eager to visit colourful, trendy places that mostly reflect western culture, I was very happy to visit the neighbourhoods where there are grocery stores named Bismillah, Wallah, InshaAllah and butchers where the stickers that say ‘’HALAL’’ plastered appears as the most prominent aspect of their shops. I am visibly Muslim and these places too! I challenge the aesthetics and socio-cultural dynamics of London and the broader UK by re-establishing the visual norms that is embedded deep in our subconscious.



I try to document shops and neighbourhoods as they are in their original form – they are one of the few remaining examples of raw diasporic culture being kept alive, resisting succumbing to capitalist competition. So, in a way, with my photographic approach, I am also attempting to preserve the cultural heritage in diaspora and I try to give voice to the migrants, the unrepresented inhabitants of their city, anonymous bearers of the culture, faith and identity.


What different mediums do you work in?


Photography is my primary medium - I started photography as a hobby at a very young age and I developed my skills and an artistic style by experimenting with both digital and analogue photography. This practice, which was a hobby for me at first, has turned into a way of expression, a means to serve my mission, and sometimes a form of therapy. I think that there are no sharp rules in the art of photography or that the quality of the photo does not depend on the camera used. As I often say, photography has ceased to be a hobby and has become a vital part of me. Taking pictures is no different for me than walking or drinking water. Most of the time, the first thing I do when I open my eyes in the morning is to capture the sunlight that fills my room from where I lie down.



What are your aspirations as an artist?


I want to capture the feeling of being transported to different locations and experiencing different cultures. While wandering around these neighbourhoods I am beyond the UK, I suddenly find myself in Istanbul, a restaurant in Iraq, a sweetshop in Syria (although I have never been to), or a bakery in the streets of Tehran in which I have spent a lot of time. I believe each individual has a significant role to play in terms of contributing to so-called representation. Personally, it is very fulfilling and inspiring to take on the role of being the curator of my own virtual art gallery by supporting and showcasing the unseens in the Muslim arts and culture.



The digital world is now more prevalent than ever and the content on the digital world plays a shaping influence in our lives. Hence, I believe each individual has a significant role to play in terms of contributing to so-called representation. Personally, it is very fulfilling and inspiring to take on the role of being the curator of my own virtual art gallery a.k.a social media by supporting and showcasing the unseens in the Muslim arts and culture. As Muslim creatives, we must strengthen our personal relationship with the imaginations of our communities, challenge the sense of aesthetics that is under the influence of what is foreign and hostile to our culture. Contribute new ways of visualising and documenting the Muslim community, unveil the beauty and show the aesthetic of the cafes and sweet shops of the diaspora neighbourhoods that are under the radar of mainstream trends and make the unseen, seen.



For more information follow Şehribanu Turan on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sehribanuturan

And instagram https://www.instagram.com/birseftalibinseftali/


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.