The arts have always played an influential role in bringing about awareness to the injustices facing minorities all over the world. Art can explore the varying elements of history, by delving into the emotional experience, evoking layered, empathetic responses from its audiences, portraying a point of view unlike our own. As our world is beginning to transcend the traditions of artistic exclusivity, into one centred on inclusivity and freedom, we realise the power of not just the person but the communal narrative. Through platforms like Instagram and Twitter, all creativity can be shared globally, giving those who have previously become silenced an opportunity to be heard.
Creatives from all walks of life are realising the importance of their position and the power they hold by merely expressing their lived realities. With this realisation, art is becoming potent with politics; more than it has been in recent years. This medium is used to initiate real political change by first changing the cultural mindset. Artists in the realms of film, photography, music and fashion are using their mediums to further spotlight and expose the issues within our societies’ institutionalised systems.
The gradual acceptance of responsibility’s progress can be traced over the past decade, with more and more people forming initiatives, communities and networks to connect people on their shared experiences. One such platform is Dardishi, a community-focused zine and arts festival that showcases Arab and North African womxn’s contributions to contemporary art and culture. Their work spans from illustration and photography to literature and film, with each area delving into a personal perspective or experience. The publishing world is saturated with the stories of white women, but is limited in its exploration of the stories of women of colour, let alone non-binary, intersex people, trans women and Arab and North African womxn.
Dardishi is using their position to continuously uplift and spotlight those who have had no access to such a supportive platform. We had the pleasure of speaking with the founder of Dardishi, Samar Ziadat, on her journey in building this network of creative womxn. As a queer disabled Arab woman, Samar has experienced her fair share of frustrations with the art world. Despite her disappointments, she has managed to turn her anger into a community filled with love, support and acceptance. Samar expresses just how great it is “to be surrounded by like-minded womxn who understand your joy and your pain – especially when for so long you thought you were the only one.”
You’re an activist, researcher, curator, and editor, when did you realise your passion and power for raising the voices of Arab womxn within the arts?
I have the immense privilege of having a feminist mother who encouraged and nurtured my creativity, and it is largely due to her guidance, love and care that I am in the position that I’m in today. I knew from an early age that this was valuable and rare because many of my friends growing up did not have a family who encouraged them in this way – and this acknowledgement continues into my adult life, where I know that accessing the arts is largely contingent on having a background that is middle class. Being creative, and having access to lots of forms of art was crucial to my sense of wellbeing as a child – especially during my teenage years – so it angers me that there are so many systemic barriers in place that don’t allow for everyone to access the arts. I firmly believe that art is not a luxury, but truly an essential mode of self-realisation that everyone deserves to have.
I founded Dardishi while I was completing my masters in art history at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and it happened at this time because I was facing a lot of prejudice and significant systemic barriers at university, and I could see how much harder it was for other women who were less privileged than me. Being a queer disabled Arab woman made navigating the art world in the UK (as a professional and an art lover) near impossible, despite my middle-class upbringing and the support of my parents. I saw that it was even harder for those like me who had the added oppression that came with being working class, trans, black or navigating the asylum system. When I founded Dardishi I was feeling especially defeated and frustrated, and was growing increasingly desperate for solidarity and comradely – and I hoped that the platform would help us work together to provide opportunities and solace for us all.
You’re the founder and director of Dardishi which started as an online publication back in 2016, launched on International Women’s Day. What was your driving force behind this, and what prompted the Dardishi Festival in 2019?
Dardishi is a not-for-profit community arts project that showcases the cultural production of Arab and North African womxn in Scotland – and yes, you’re right, it began as a zine in 2016. As mentioned before, the zine was founded out of frustration and with the hopes of building solidarity with other Arab and North African womxn creatives. Since then, I’ve expanded this platform from simply being an online zine to becoming a fully-fledged annual project that includes publishing a yearly print zine, delivering an annual Festival at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, hosting a Designer in Residence every year, and running year-round events. Dardishi Festival 2019 and 2020 saw hundreds of people attending events exclusively run by Arab and North African womxn, the completion of two design residence by Arab and North African womxn artists, and our zine is now stocked by several distributors including Glasgow’s local queer bookshop. We’ve also been running online events throughout the pandemic, including film screenings and a podcasting course for womxn of colour.
When running all of these activities I’m always embedding as many access measures as possible to ensure the most marginalised people can attend, including: closed captioning for all films screening, British Sign Language interpretation upon request, only using wheelchair accessible venues that also have gender-neutral bathrooms, and selling all tickets on a pay what you can basis so that no one is barred from engaging in Dardishi’s work due to economic circumstances. When I use the term womxn, I also mean to include non-binary and intersex people and trans women – and that the priority lies with those who are also of colour.
How did you seek and find all these amazing creatives to join you in this endeavour? Was it difficult to find artists willing to share their experiences?
Because I have an academic and professional background in art, I was already researching and keeping up to date with artists whose work I admire, and many of them were other Arab and North African womxn. I never ask anyone to work for Dardishi for free, because being an artist is a job like any other. Receiving funding from project grants, donations, tickets sales and selling merch is what keeps us running. Doing your research and treating people’s time, skills and experience with respect are all that’s needed to attract the best talent. Throughout the pandemic, people have continued donating to Dardishi through our website which has been heartwarming and essential as the project faces immense threat during this time.
Arab and North African people, specifically womxn, have been struggling with brutal injustices for centuries, with little to no attention from the Western Media. How do you feel about this lack of awareness, now, in regards to everything that’s happening in the USA in terms of the BLM movement?
I don’t really know what to say apart from it is horrendous. It’s horrendous for anyone to suffer under oppressive systems and to be ignored – especially when those systems are fatal. Solidarity with black people, down with white supremacy, and ACAB ACAB ACAB!
Being based in the UK, do you think this has given you more freedom to explore and discuss issues, such as queerness, that would be difficult or even taboo for womxn living in say Turkey or Iran?
I really wouldn’t know about Turkey or Iran because they’re not Arab or North African countries, and I try not to speak about cultures that are not mine because I couldn’t possibly know what it’s like to be a queer Iranian or Turkish person. Being queer and being an Arab/North African person is by no means mutually exclusive, and I do know people living beautiful and textured lives as queer people in the region. However, yes, for obvious reasons it is much, much safer to have these conversations so publicly in the UK than in an Arab and/or North African country. Again, it’s a tragedy that being yourself without the threat of violence is a privilege in this world.
There are elements to Dardishi that resemble some of what Rookie Mag elicits, were they a big inspiration for you and Dardishi?
Dardishi started out as a zine, and I still publish one every year. Zines are DIY self publications that emerged in the early to mid-20th century, as a mode of democratising information outside of capitalist frames of production. They are usually made by hand and/or in limited batches and are either distributed for free or for very little (to cover printing and postage costs). Because marginalised people are (and historically have always been) less likely to have their work published, and often live lives outside of the mainstream, punks and working-class people of colour have always been central to zine culture and DIY movements. From the late 90s onwards, publishing zines online became quite popular because it was a free way to reach thousands of people globally.
I was already an adult when Rookie mag was created, and although I think what they did was important for some young people at the time, and I’m really hesitant to attribute zine makers of colour’s credit to an online magazine that was founded by a middle-class white American girl.
As an editor of a publication focused on uplifting the voices of Arab womxn, you have some quirkiness and humour to the work! Do you think that in order for the wider world to start paying attention to these stories, publications have to cater to Western aesthetics?
Absolutely not. Catering to Western aesthetics has never been part of what I’m doing with Dardishi – in fact, it’s entirely the opposite of my intentions. Dardishi is about creating a space for Arab and North African womxn to thrive, learn from one another and connect to our culture/s and heritage. I wouldn’t say that the tone of Dardishi’s zines are largely quirky or humourous – our current zines explore the theme of collective trauma, and the last explored the concept of family (of which many of the pieces explored what it means to not have family or to feel without family). Some of the work published is funny or light, and that’s because I’m attempting to share a plurality of experience and identity – and being happy or funny is certainly not a white phenomenon! I’m not necessarily interested in reaching a wide audience – I’m interested in reaching the people that are discarded, ignored, and forced out of the conversation.
On a lighter note! What has been the most rewarding part of working with Dardishi and all of the people involved?
Getting to work with the different womxn who are involved in the project is an absolute relief. It’s great to be surrounded by like-minded womxn who understand your joy and your pain – especially when for so long you thought you were the only one.
And finally, what does the future hold for Dardishi, and Dardishi Festival?
Dardishi Festival 2021 will be taking place in June, and our latest zine will be published in the next month, so watch out for that! We’ve also got online events until the end of the year, and all of them are on a pay what you can basis! www.dardishi.com is the place to be. We’ve also on Instagram and twitter as @dardishi, and Facebook as Dardishi.