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Decolonising & Democratising Culture, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan

Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan is a writer, spoken-word poet and educator. Her work interrogates narratives around race, gender, Islamophobia, feminism, state violence and colonialism. She studied History at Cambridge and Postcolonial Studies at SOAS. We talked to Suhaiymah about decolonizing collecting institutions, democratizing art and how art can be used as a catalyst to facilitate change.

When were you first exposed to spoken word? How did you find a connection to the artform and how would you describe your style?

I used to watch slam and spoken-word poetry on Youtube for years when I was a teenager, but arguably “spoken word” has a rich inheritance in cultures across the world, particularly oral cultures like that of my grandparents, and even throughout Islamic history we know poetry was often a spoken device, especially at the time of the Sahaba who would use poetry to rebut attacks against the Prophet ﷺ or to convey the beauty of Islam and more. So, in that sense I would say exposure to the power and form of what we refer to as “spoken word” was present in my world prior to me specifically watching spoken word poetry online. I also wonder about the distinction between “spoken word” and “written” poetry…

Anyhow, I think what most struck me – and still strikes me – about the verbal recitation, or reading, or performance of words is the way that it makes those words connect with people. I would argue there is something exceptionally human about the endeavour of speaking and listening to one another’s words. I also feel that the power of words, and of recitation and listening are something manifest in Islam’s own history and revelation. So, in that sense I’d ask almost how you can’t connect to the spoken word? It feels so much a part of how we relate to one another as human – through stories and speech, and spoken-word poetry just amplifies the craft of such exchanges.

In terms of my own style, I suppose I would say that my poetry is generally quite free verse but it tends to always be rhythmic which I think spoken word is best suited to. My poetry is pretty direct in terms of address as I am interested in making people ask questions, re-consider narratives they’ve consumed and assumptions they hold onto. In that sense I don’t shy away from being quite literal and I am deeply invested in revealing the connection of personal and political.

What does belonging in Britain as a Muslim artist mean to you? How have people responded to your work in mainstream art spaces?

That’s an interesting question because my first reaction is that I don’t really care about ‘belonging’ in Britain. I think there’s often so much pressure on racialised artists to focus on wanting to belong or prove their relation to the nation-state they’re situated in, but in honesty my relation to Britain is much provocative. I am interested in using my vantage point as a Muslim artist to expose the myths Britain has created about itself. So, for example, rather than use my poetry to reject or disprove claims of Muslim Otherness to Britishness, I am interested in using my poetry to ask why it is so important for ‘Britishness’ to be constructed against Muslimness in the first place – what this diverts our attention from, and who it scapegoats, as well as the colonial history it depends on.

In that sense I see my role as a Muslim artist situated in Britain as one of consciousness-raising and disrupting ideological narratives through questions, ridicule, protest, etc. Because such narratives accompany and justify brutal material realities such as border violence, surveillance and war. So, to resist the latter includes resisting the former. And I believe such resistance is incumbent upon me as a Muslim in Britain as being Muslim means submitting to Allah – thus being a Muslim artist surely means using the skills Allah has granted me/you/us to fulfil our responsibilities to worship Allah which includes fulfilling our duties to one another such as standing against injustice.

To be honest I don’t know if mainstream art spaces really engage with my art. I think poets who are categorized as “spoken word” poets tend to already be excluded from more institutionalized poetry settings and I think the fact my writing is so political means that more “traditional” institutions can box it away as less artistic and more polemical. Obviously, such categorizations are deeply political and racialised. But in general, I find my work is taken up by those trying to resist and push against institutions – whether that’s students and teachers in Universities, people who ask me to come read my work at their conferences, protests or community events; or inherently political spaces. On the other hand I feel the theatre world has been most open to my work and many have encouraged and commissioned me to write my work for the stage which I am adapting to as it feels less direct than speaking your own poetry in some ways; but on the other hand the forms of storytelling you can do with theatre seem to hold a lot of potential.

You graduated from Cambridge University with a BA in History and subsequently completed an MA at London's School of Oriental and African Studies in Postcolonial Studies. What were your experiences of studying like and how did that lead to writing A Fly Girls Guide to University with fellow activists Lola Olufemi, Odelia Younge and Waithera Sebatindira?

The idea for our book came from Odelia, who also edited it. That book was really a culmination and archive of lots of our experiences as women of colour – the other authors specifically being Black women. We wanted to document the ways that the white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy embedded in western academia impact on students, but also how we resist.

In my own experience Cambridge was basically the place where I was most quickly able to understand what we mean when we call oppression systemic. As an academic institution built materially and ideologically from the riches and the narratives of colonialism, racial hierarchy and enslavement, it was easy for me to see that having a few faces of colour in the space was not enough to undo the foundational premises of the University which exclude and maintain hierarchies. Coming from a state-funded school I was also aware of how disproportionate the numbers of privately-educated students were. It was a fast-track lesson in the way the myth of meritocracy and language of reform are used to cover deep investments in oppressive systems.

Studying History in particular I became very aware of how the “past” I was reading about was not a fact, but an interpretation – or many different interpretations. And that all interpretations occur within the context of the one who interprets. This made me very interested in knowledge production itself. What do we class as knowledge? How come an Oxbridge educated Historian gets to be a more authoritative voice about the experiences of Pakistani female migrants to England, than a Pakistani migrant herself? This was just one example of the kind of questions I began to ask which were both personal, but deeply political and linked to trying to understand power and knowledge themselves.

I decided to study Postcolonial Studies for this reason. I was convinced that colonialism still shapes our world and wanted to be in an academic environment that was perceived to be more politically radical than reformist. However, I soon recognised that even political radicalism has been co-opted by capitalism so that in fact many Universities use it as a marketing technique to attract students who’ll pay them thousands of pounds a year to study at their institutions.

Ultimately, our book, A FLY Girl’s Guide grappled with all these things but was also a book about all the ways re resisted and created space with one another to care for one another, to educate one another and to build the knowledge and confidence to divest from the myth of academia and instead become whistleblowers to it.

Postcolonial Banter uses the written form excellently to tell stories. How would you describe Postcolonial Banter to someone who doesn’t know the work?

Thank you. I would describe my debut poetry collection as an attempt to disrupt. I suppose it is many things. In some ways a political and social commentary, in other ways a reflection on my own place and role in the political contexts I find myself in. At the same time, I wanted it to be educative and deliberately included sections throughout the book where I elaborate on some of the themes or questions raised in a poem to direct readers to the way that the words we use are connected to material realities.

I suppose the book is also different things to different people. For some it will be a provocation that picks at long-held assumptions and makes them uncomfortable, for others it will be a validation and a means of seeing their own feelings articulated in someone else’s words.

Ultimately, it is a collection of poems that grapple with what it means not only to write and perform as a visibly Muslim woman in the west today, but what it means to be one – how I can be on my own terms, how I can submit to God in conditions which urge me to submit to capital and racial hierarchy, and how I can exist as more than simply in relation to all the oppressions that make my identity “interesting” …

Your work addresses issues that impact Muslim communities in the UK. British Muslims had the highest COVID-19 mortality rates by faith group. Has this impacted your creativity and have you felt a need to address this?

I have spent the last 18 months (since the beginning of this pandemic) writing a book about Islamophobia – Tangled in Terror: Uprooting Islamophobia – which comes out with Pluto Press in 2022 iA. But writing that book during this time has, as you imply, been difficult. It is hard enough to write at a time of such widespread grief and anxiety. But through COVID we have also seen all systemic injustices amplified and revealed – whether through the neglect and murder of disabled people, the way people in prisons and detention centers have been deemed deserving of fatality, or the global north’s greed in patenting vaccines against the interests of the global majority. And as you say, this time has of course also highlighted how Islamophobia is so much more than just a matter of microaggressions and “hate crimes”. The systematic racism against Muslim people leads to our untimely death and traps us in either physical traps of prison and detention, or psychological traps of surveillance, and material traps of poverty. I have found it tough to write creatively in this time, but I have felt moved enough to write a book which I hope brings the rage and joy of my poetry, to the specific analysis of Islamophobia, in hopes of moving us towards action.

How can Islamic art be used as a catalyst to facilitate change? What are the possibilities for Muslim artists raising issues of social justice in the future?

I think there’s a few questions to unpack here aren’t there. What makes art Islamic? And what sort of change do we wish to facilitate? Is art Islamic simply because an artist is Muslim? Or does Islamic art have to be art that is intending to please Allah (and how can anyone know the difference)? In either case I raise these questions simply to point out that all change we intend to make perhaps rests on our intentions to begin with – and that all change (obviously) is facilitated by Allah’s permission. In that sense I believe that art can definitely be a catalyst for change. That could look like art that is visible and loud and protests governments and corporations; but it could also look like art that transforms hearts, that has a profound impact on one person, that makes them think more deeply, or that melts a hard heart. So I think change at many levels is possible to facilitate through art as long as we are intentional about it, and about the change we want to make. I think issues of social justice are of great importance to Muslims (since justice is incumbent upon us and the world is so unjust!) as a result I think the possibilities are endless. Even a quick glance at Islamic history can remind us how art and artistry can be used to show defiance, power, wisdom and to fight back.

How would you describe the visibility of female Muslim artists? Do you think more needs to be done to raise the profile of art by Muslim women?

I think Muslim women are made visible as when it suits the powers that be. Arguably this remains true for Muslim women who are artists. I’ve noticed that there can be a strange fetishization of my work as if it is inherently worth platforming simply because it is presumed I am breaking a “stereotype” which I ardently am not, I am simply doing what I care to do.

But as a result of such reductivism and selective platforming of Muslim women I think our art is rarely seen as art first and foremost, or celebrated for its inherent value. Instead it is read as somehow unusual and distinct and thus worthy of celebrating because of Islamophobic narratives it is read through, rather than for the work itself.

On the other hand I don’t believe that Islamic institutions or Muslim communities in the west place much emphasis on female artists either. To some degree I feel artistry in general is de-valued, despite its huge historical significance and value. So yes I do believe art by Muslim women deserves more space and time to be valued in of itself,.

Do collecting institutions with Islamic art collections need to be decolonized?

I think all art collections need decolonizing. But is it so simple? Is it simply a matter of “giving back the art”, because whom would much of today’s “Islamic art” be “given back” to? Corrupt power-hungry governments of nation-states that repress political dissenters? Would giving such art collections “back” help us address the colonial relationships maintained through governance and trade agreements? And on the other hand, if the art collections remained in place, is it enough to simply be more honest about where such collections were gained from and how they were taken? Can the Islamic-ness of Islamic art be translated through a secular lens and secular artistic language that institutions use? What of the artists? Where is their voice? And even beyond the Islamic art collections themselves, what of the Muslims employed at the museum? Are they paid fairly or does the labour division replicate colonial divisions of labour? There’s so many directions we can ask questions in so although my short answer is yes, my long answer is … but what would that mean? And the real question is, what is the role of art, and what is the role of institutions in the world we want to live in?

How can we democratize art?

I believe art is already democratised in the sense that people everywhere create art everyday. However, there is very little that is actually labelled as art, valued as art and thus deemed art. But then again, do we need our art to be recognised to be valuable? To who? People enjoy much that is not labelled as artwork every day in accessible ways. So, although museums and collections of some types of art are kept out of the purview of most ordinary people, we see more and more people use social media to share art, for example; people listen to music, watch videos, retweet paintings and sculptures and poems.

However, I do think that access to the time and resources to make art needs democratising. And that is part of ending capitalism more entirely. Under capitalist conditions the majority of us do not have the time, space or tools/equipment to make art, to view art, to enjoy art. This keeps art within the confines of those who can afford to participate, and leaves the art of working-class people and people of colour deemed inferior, low-art (like spoken-word poetry and graffiti) as opposed to high-art (like page poetry and oil painting). Many of us would love to try out pottery or painting or writing but we do not have the resources to spare and since creativity is not viewed as essential to our living (although it is), the opportunity to make art is withheld from most of us. To democratise art then, we need to revolt, basically.

Which artists inspire you?

I have always been inspired by the art of political revolutionaries, so the poems of political fugitives like Assata Shakur; or obviously the likes of Audre Lorde. Those who use writing to speak truths in times when political dissent is difficult, like many post-partition Pakistani poets and other poets and artists across the world today. But I also like to think about those that wouldn’t be considered artists or inspirations as my inspiration. For example, my grandmother, whose witticisms and manners of speaking are inherently poetic; or the poetry of children who I run workshops with who inspire me to make art that is truthful and unafraid and that imagines a future which is full of justice and joy.

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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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