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Unapologetic: Portraiture Disrupting Political Narratives, Azraa Motala

Azraa Motala is a British artist and graduate of the MA Fine Art program at the Chelsea College of Arts. In 2017, she graduated from the University of Central Lancashire with a first class BA honours degree in Fine Art. Azraa is inherently interested in the way in which women from the diaspora have been represented in both the past and the present day. Parts of the diasporic image not only centres around remembered or imagined pasts and places but also projected futures. Through large scale oil paintings, she seeks to re-appropriate the image of the Eastern woman as it was depicted in orientalist paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries; essentially adopting the same medium to portray opposing imagery. Working through a dominant autobiographical stance which reviews on the establishment of classed, gendered, sexualised and ‘raced’ individualities, including a plethora of personal recollections and modes of representation. Azraa was a finalist for the UK Young Artist of the Year Award in partnership with Saatchi Gallery and has exhibited work nationally in solo and group exhibitions.

I beg you to define me, Azraa Motala


We talked all things identity, disrupting the political narrative surrounding the Muslim South Asian woman and the visibility of Muslim women in art institutions.

Why autobiographical painting and why is your identity intrinsic to your practice?

My paintings often relate to myself as a young British-Asian Muslim woman within the contemporary Western space. Untangling culturally inherited expectations, and the overlapping aspects of my identity; providing an intimate narrative on the many cultural blankets making up the social stratum. My work explores the many overlapping themes that make up our individual modes of representation; touching upon class, culture, gender, sexuality, belonging and the histories bound to us through clothing and the way we place ourselves in both our private and public realms. Utilising both photography and painting to self represent in a society where the bodies of South Asian and Muslim women are often considered pawns in political discourse. Essentially empowering and uplifting women of colour through work which touches upon the mutual struggles of many second and third generation immigrants.

Mahak, Azraa Motala


Your work disrupts the political narrative surrounding the Muslim South Asian woman, why was this an intention of yours?

Being a woman of colour is inherently political, especially when our identities have been stigmatised as a result of attitudes towards immigration and religion. Further fuelled by the media and cultural gatekeepers often promoting a narrative of “otherness”. Recent projects have challenged this rhetoric, allowing a space for self authored representation in a society that often lacks this authentic representation.

Can you tell us about Unapologetic a series of work recently commissioned as part of British Textile Biennial festival. What did you hope to convey through this?

Unapologetic allowed me to provide greater nuance to stories and visions of a larger group of women that would otherwise be left unheard. The project involved sharing the stories of a group of young British South Asian women from Lancashire. Women like me, who fight for space to express their own identity within the pre-determined spaces that society allows and are rarely afforded a platform to share their voice and power.

The overall exhibition however is also about engaging a much broader audience, asking them to really see this group of women as they wish to be seen – writ large on buildings built by the wealth of industrialisation & colonisation, across the cotton towns of Lancashire and within a programme of work inspired by the industry that brought their ancestors to Lancashire and which has shaped the generations of communities living here ever since.

Hannah, Azraa Motala


Do you think Muslim female artists have fair representation in the arts, or does more need to be done to increase visibility?

Muslim and women of colour artists are sorely underrepresented in the arts in both production and consumption. Platforms like Bayt Al Fann are tackling this issue head on by creating spaces and highlighting the work of minority and Muslim artists, creatives and communities internationally – something we need more of.

Unapologetic at Blackburn Museum, Azraa Motala


What has been the most memorable reaction to your work?

It would have to be seeing the young women involved in Unapologetic respond to the portraits and banners of themselves.

Where do you draw inspiration from to create your work?

To create work, I draw inspiration from a convergence of innate and external influences. Exploring themes of identity, belonging, culture and heritage whilst also responding to the way women have been represented in the past and present day. I’m inspired by the things I see and the books I read, by paintings and people and textiles, places and music and film.

Sana, Azraa Motala


Can you talk us through your process from ideation to visualization?

Ideas come often and in abundance, which means I have the difficult task of deciding what I can and cannot make at any one point in time. Once I’ve decided what it is I’ll be creating, I usually dive right in without any preliminary drawings or sketches but often use photographs as a starting point before I begin the painting process.

What is currently on your playlist and what are you reading?

I’m almost always dipping in and out of books from different genres, I’m currently reading I Belong Here – A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain by Anita Sethi, Inglorious Empire by Sashi Tharoor and The Indian Textile Sourcebook by Avalon Fotheringham. I’m listening to the audiobook of A Woman is no Man by Etaf Rum. Playlists are often dominated by the likes of Tupac, Dave, Frank Ocean and old school Bollywood.

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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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