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Storytelling through Lived Experience, Sabba Khan

Sabba Khan is an artist, architectural designer and graphic novelist. Her debut graphic novel, The Roles We Play, is one of the Guardian's top 11 graphic novels of 2021 and Cosmopolitan's 20 books for South Asian Heritage Month. Her book delves into a largely unspoken and unacknowledged part of British history - the Mirpuri migration history and is essential reading in understanding contemporary diaspora culture.

Her wider practice looks at unpacking rootlessness, displacement and intergenerational trauma faced by migrant communities who sit in the aftermath of colonial legacy. She uses lived experience, memories and oral histories to expose how wider policies affect our day to day.

We talk to Sabba about using her creative talents to address social and political issues.

Can you tell us about your background and how you embarked on a career in the creative industries?

I’ve trained as an architect but have moved closer to the creative industries in recent years because I find it more immediate, more accessible, and easier to explore personal and political themes. I’m continuously trying to bridge the gap between my practices - I ask myself; how can physical spaces have the capacity to provoke the kind of questions I ask in my visual arts practice. You are a social justice advocate who uses art as a tool for social change. What inspired you to use your creative talents to address social and political issues?

I don’t overtly go out of my way to be a social justice advocate. That intimidates me a bit because there are people out there that have studied and made it their life work to create change. I like to come at it from a perspective of wanting to disrupt notions of normality and of what is considered acceptable. I do that to myself, I interrogate and question myself to the point of exhaustion, and so it feels only right to do that to things outside of myself that I observe. My starting point therefore is almost always from a personal perspective that then branches out.

Your debut graphic novel, The Roles We Play, comprises of 30 interconnected stories exploring themes of identity, belonging & memory within the East London Azad Kashmiri Muslim diaspora. Why did you want to specifically highlight the Muslim/ Mirpuri diaspora experience?

Approximately 70% of the UK’s Pakistani diaspora population trace their origins back to the region around Mangla Dam and Mirpur in Azad Kashmir. I also have a big extended family here in the UK, with cousins in Birmingham, Bradford, Leeds, Manchester. I always knew there are loads of us that speak this very specific language [its neither Urdu, nor Punjabi, its called Pothwari] and have this very specific migration history [connected to Mangla Dam], but I never saw any conversations about it outside of our own family networks. This coincided with my experience of architecture and the arts - I’d very rarely met South Asians in the arts that came from a similar heritage to my own. So the need to talk about the specificities of my cultural heritage came from the desire to feel less lonely.

The stories in The Roles We Play highlight issues of race, gender & class, why was it important for you to bring these to the forefront?

Because of the intersectional discrimination the Mirpuri diaspora has faced in the UK, [classicism within the Pakistani community and constantly changing attitudes and policies towards migrations and Muslims from wider UK] I wanted to unpick and untangle where this sense of not belonging comes from. I recall walking down the road with my mum, and every time we bumped into a friend, her accent would change to accommodate who she was talking to. Sometimes it would be Punjabi, sometimes broken Urdu, very rarely would it be the language we spoke at home. So, this sense of not quite being the ‘standard’ was a regular reminder growing up. When working on my book, I wanted to offer some possible solutions as to why we have some of the neuroses we have, I wanted to give my Mirpuri upbringing a chance to understand itself in the context of everything that has happened over the last 70 years. It naturally meant moving beyond the personal to the political.

Working with Each Other, a human rights charity, you illustrated 3 stories of young people’s experiences with mental health and challenges they faced. What was the experience like and what did you learn from the process?

With having used ‘lived experience’ as the starting point for my own work, the work with Each Other felt like a logical next step. The brief was to use interviews of young people’s experiences with mental health, and illustrate their stories, keeping their lived experience at the heart of the storytelling. I had to ‘step in’ to the stories of each of the participants, and get to the gut, to the heart of their stories. I found this particularly challenging, as I felt I had to embody their stories to then reflect back authentically and respectfully in the artwork. Some of the stories I connected with more, and some others less so, so sitting with that observing that, asking myself why I felt those differences were really illuminating for me and my practice.

A commission for the British Library to contribute to their Discovering Sacred Texts online learning resources resulted in you creating a series of images. What was the most rewarding part of the project?

This was a short project, and the client had a very specific idea in mind - they simply wanted me to illustrate the key prayer positions. A quick look on the internet, and I realised that there are no isometric diagrams of the key prayer positions, they’d change angle, or just show 1 or 2 poses. Since I love drawing isometric because of my architectural background, I took it upon myself to provide a drawing that did just that.

You contributed to Bystander, a collection of graphic narratives about geography and gender, identity and self, boundary and exclusion through the lens of the experience of the ‘other’. Your piece, titled ‘Beyond the Model Minority’ explores the other as an internalised monster and personal reflections on how that has manifest for me. Was it uncomfortable or difficult sharing those experiences and emotions?

Yes, this project actually saw lots of change and development. At the time I was going through a difficult period at work, and it really felt like a lot of the othering and monstrous self were playing out in my work life, which then would make its way onto the comic page. However, I ended up reaching a point where I was able to move beyond the specificities of my own experience, and get to a broader more universal critique of how we punish ourselves to please others, how we internalise prejudice and become the monster others think we are. I believe emotions and feelings are universal, psychotherapy shows us that though the details may be unique and individual, our coping mechanisms, the way we make sense of things is often very similar to each other. I think this helps me feel less lonely and weird about my own state of mind.

Through your work you also draw on issues around feminism and the global #MeToo Movement. Can you tell us more about the work you have done in this area?

The main project here was a 5 page contribution to the anthology “Drawing Power”. My work here looks at something very delicate and highly sensitive: sexual abuse within family structures. The focus was not on the event itself, but more on the reaction of the family, and the taboo nature of these incidents - behaviours around GroupThink [where people behave without critical thought so as not to upset the balance of the group] and the long term effect that has on the victim. Bricks and architectural devices of walls, enclosures, ruins were used to represent the break down of trust and safety within family. It was a very harrowing piece of work to do, and when I look back at it, I’m not quite sure where I found the strength to be so gentle and delicate with such visceral, charged experiences.

The Covid pandemic definitely had an impact on people’s wellbeing. You created a series of multilingual works alongside local female led community groups in Balsall Health, England to address wellbeing. How did you find the process working with local communities?

The 6 postcards for Balsall Heath’s ageing and vulnerable communities were a real pleasure to work on. At the time my nani amma was sick in hospital. It was the height of Covid, and she was on her own, and not allowed any visitors in to accompany her. Her English isn’t great, and she has always relied on people around her to help with phone calls and such like. So, it was a real hit to the family, to suddenly find her unable to manage and completely isolated. It was within that context that I draw my 6 South Asian elderly figures. I wanted to draw them dreamy, cute, resting, having a good time, taking care of themselves, empowered, because I couldn’t imagine anything less for my own nani.

Your submission to RIBA's Rethink: 2025 – Design for life after Covid-19 Eco Archi Comic was shortlisted and received a special commendation. Judge Asif Khan made the point clearly: ‘It was one of only two longlisted proposals that mentioned BAME issues around Covid-19 and it was the only one that attempted to do anything about it.’ Why is it important for you to address the BAME experience in COVID and how did you feel receiving such feedback?

I was actually really surprised that we were only one of two proposals that attempted to respond to the racialised urban problem of our cities. In 2021, for the first time a coroner listed air pollution as the cause of death for a 6 year old girl in Lewisham - our cities are racialised and it is a problem. It made me recognise that if you yourself don’t speak up, then don’t expect anyone else to. This was my way of speaking up. At the time, the link to high levels of air pollution in East and South East London, and the higher rates of respiratory problems [including Covid] just could NOT be ignored. This project has led on to a number of other projects, and so it has served as a useful reminder for me to work on things I am passionate about.

Haramacy Festival 2020 was a one-night festival of multi arts performances, talks and live music. The residency brings together Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian artists for five days with the aim of engaging artists in a cross-cultural collaboration that explores challenges and shared experiences of coming from marginalised communities in London. How were you involved in shaping the identity of the project?

I had visited the inaugural night of the festival the year before, so was really excited when I was invited to contribute the following year. We, however, turned out to be the Covid year, so after postponing the festival for the first half of the year, the organisers arranged to make art videos instead as we all came to terms with long term Covid. We were arranged in three groups. The group I was in was an all female ensemble. We decided to reflect on our experiences during Covid. I started the writing process which then was added to by other group members. My world during Covid became very interior, [as I’m sure it did for so many others] and I couldn’t help but realise how similar to my own mother I have become. My writing spoke about this dichotomy - wanting to be different, but realising oh how very similar we actually are. We collaborated effortlessly, sharing old family photos, clothes, culturally symbolic artefacts, and the 5 minute video is a reflection of that. The filming of our final video was really great, it was a steep learning curve, but it was exciting to see how we all came together to make it happen.

What are your thoughts on the representation and visibility of Musims and Islamic art in the creative sector?

I think we need to encourage and promote all kinds of art from all kinds of people. The more voices we have the less the need to ‘represent’. I believe ‘representation’ comes from a sense of scarcity - that only a select few can stand in for a group of people. The very concept of representation is flawed, as no one can possibly do justice to the complexities and nuances groups of people offer. It also sets up competition and a sense of one-upmanship which I personally find ugly and very intimidating. I try not to operate from that space.

Which artists inspire you?

I struggle to define this as it blurs and shifts with time,

I love the work of the now deceased street artist Hyruo - she passed away during Covid and that felt close to the bone because how connected to her work I felt.

I love the work of Otobong Nkanaga - she explores similar scales, looking at geopolitics and the intimacy of bodies at the same time.

I love the work of Mario Fayolle - her sequences are lucid and playful and often end up saying very philosophical questioning things without initially setting out to.

I love the work of Louise Bourgeois and her preoccupation with her mother - it makes me feel less alone in my own preoccupation.

I love the prints of Zarina Hashmi - also an artist who passed on in recent years - her maps and delicate use of line felt such an intimate portrayal of landscapes.

I love Wabi Sabi, and believe my own artwork is perfectly imperfect.

How can storytelling through graphic novels support the development of art and culture in the future?

Graphic novels are a genre that are still yet to be understood by the UK publishing, literature and arts industry. They can be consumed within a few hours, but are painstaking and take years to create, much like a film. They look like a book though, with pages and numbers and a spine, but the experience of reading a graphic novel sits at the intersection of literature, film, animation and art. It’s beautiful, and I think it really has the power to take people on a journey. I hope my book can provide that offering.

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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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