Letters To Ummi. A conversation with Estabrak – Unlimited R&D Award

Update February 2022

Letters To Ummi (formerly titled QWANA’s CHILD) is a long-term project about the conversations that are so hard to have with so many around us. It is a cross-disciplinary traveling project based around the honest expression of the hidden realities and silenced voices of Queer everyday peoples from within the West Asia and North/Africa diaspora and its region.

Focusing on inclusive, anonymous, and diverse personal accounts, Letters To Ummiwill safely centre these realities whilst moving towards intersectional justice no matter the physical location.

www.LettersToUmmi.com – available soon.

Interview May 2021

Bagri Foundation: Estabrak, tell us a bit about yourself. We would love to get to know you better and understand how your journey as an artist has brought you to cross paths with us at the Bagri Foundation.

“We are powerful because we have survived, and that is what it is all about- survival and growth.”
– Audre Lorde

My name is Estabrak (pronounced Iss-ta-brruq) and I am a cross-disciplinary artist interested in people, in understanding individual and collective agency, freedom of expression (especially within the arts), in justice and in care. Originally I am from Iraq, born in Iran and raised in London UK after having come here with my family as a child refugee.

Unsurprisingly I have lived in a world which has politicised my existence before I have had the chance to even step into it and so the politics of the in-between is something which often drives me towards making the work I do. This is without doubt tied into concepts surrounding identity and for me, both identity and survival are about the connection between things.

For the past seven years, my works have been engaged with concepts surrounding the intersections between human behaviour, water and our environments; centering racial, social, humanitarian and climate justice.

Often, my practice is based on organic processes that have progressively made space for participation and long durational work. This brings into the foreground the question of time – and the importance of this in such an extractive and instantaneous world.

Using live techniques, underwater photography, paint, installation, film, sound, performance and still images – I am an award winning artist, film maker, facilitator and researcher committed to inclusivity and most importantly – a participatory arts practice. Currently I am exploring ideas around community and what that actually means as we often speak of it (community) as a singular monolith yet most of us exist in many communities and sometimes these communities can never align. What then?

So I guess maybe here is where the paths between the Bagri Foundation and I have crossed; because we’re both curious in understanding, in learning and in growth. And for me, both education and curiosity does not and cannot only exist behind four walls.

BF: The Unlimited R&D award that we are proud to support, will give you the possibility to explore the first of what you mentioned being the eight-step process of the QWANA’s CHILD project. Can you tell us what the project is and how you are planning your collaborative research and development period?

“It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.”
Angela  Davis

Reservoirs are ‘large natural or artificial lakes used as a source (store) of water supply.’ Speaking on the work of Stuart Hall, John Akomfrah echoes these words of Angela’s, stating that ‘one of the few spaces and reservoirs of memory for diasporic subjects is the archive’

I would continue to say that this idea of the archive is just as significant to those whom have stayed as to those in the diaspora, as the continuum of survival often has no starting or end points outside of birth and death. And as far as I am aware – we’re all learning how to survive in any given environment.

Water, the archive, the storing of memory, of lived experiences, of vulnerable honesty and exchange and of safety, are the nuclei of this work and the proposed RnD stages ahead.

At this stage, the project intends to focus on helping build a safe, accessible, interactive and multilingual online platform through the reservoirs of honest conversation. Working with Multitudes –  a Black Feminist co-operative who believe that technology and design can provide opportunities and tools for collective liberation; our online platform will focus on an engaging open sourced audio archive of our peoples sharing. Intentions are of significance here because when you make space for long durational work which centers honest conversations, participation and flexibility in growth and in its people are what will help inform the next, more visual stages. And this is the beauty of being offered an opportunity to work on research and development stages of a project.

QWANA stands for Queer West Asia and North Africa (WANA) and WANA is a much more inclusive way of describing the diversity within the region than phrases like ‘Middle East’ which centers unnecessary viewpoints (Eurocentric) and the white gaze. I mean… Middle East of what exactly?

Queer encompasses many things, but for me in particular it is also a more broad and inclusive way of describing the LGBTQIA+ community. In the instance of QWANA’s CHILD, we are focusing on the inclusion of QTIBIPoC (Queer, Trans, Intersex, Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) and those around us.

The idea of QWANA’s CHILD came from questioning what happens when the archive itself is dangerous to those of whom it is archiving? And I hope the work ahead can help address this unfortunate reality, as many Queer lives globally are not safe. And so the idea of being ‘seen’ or being ‘heard’ does not extend its hand to everyone.

BF: If we fast-forward to 2022, what would a good end of the R&D period look like to you? Looking at the future, what are your long-term aspirations for QWANA’s CHILD? How do you think it will embrace such a vast range of geographies and identities?

‘Home is not land and borders. It’s about people you love.’
– Sarah Hegazi

In one of her last public interviews, Sarah spoke about a fundamental experience of human existence – love between people. In honour of Sarah and so many others who have fallen at the hands of politicised discrimination, the long term aims of this project are simply to help make more space for QWANA’s people to feel safer and more human. It is also a project aiming to bridge gaps between our diverse communities and the often toxic heteronormative ones around us; inviting safe and progressive interfaith, intergenerational and intercultural engagement.

I hope we can build something beautiful together, because often I feel that we forget about how much warmth beauty can bring us. And in this beauty, if we can make space for the ‘everyday’ QWANA; the one who isn’t already visible, or isn’t even able to be open in their environment for whatever reason – then this to me, means something far more than a project goal or aim. It means to be open to making more inclusive spaces, learning how to better facilitate them for one and other – whomever we may be.

As with most marginalised realities, this project will be pushed forward through the engagement of our own communities both near and far and I hope all the previous years of work I have been doing can help highlight the potential of where QWANA’s CHILD is going.

Centering safety, I think back to one of the first public projects I did in the industry ‘Self Portrait with Aunt and Rebecca‘ and how much I have grown and learned from it. Yet how little has changed in the environments surrounding us as Queer people. That conversation changed my life, and I hope this project can help change that of others too.

To know more about the Bagri supported Unlimited Research & Development Awards selected artist click here.

Lead by the emotive, visual poetics of the in-between, Estabrak’s particular interest lies in honest approaches to ignored sociopolitical realities, usually explored through progressive, cross-disciplinary ways of storytelling. Using live techniques, paint, installation, film, sound, performance and photography – Estabrak is an award winning artist, film maker, facilitator and researcher committed to inclusivity and a participatory arts practice. She has been named one of “five incredible underwater artists” by the BBC and for the past seven years, her works have been engaged with concepts surrounding the intersections between human behaviour, water and our environments; centering racial, social, humanitarian and climate justice. She has showcased on an international basis in such places as New York, Dubai and Berlin, along the way exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Arts, & Tate Britain. Estabrak has been supported by agencies including; the Wellcome Trust, Invisible Dust, Arts Council England, Red Bull and the Ocean Global Foundation, and presented work to the UN. Based in London, she is originally from Iraq, born in Iran and raised in London, after having come to the UK with her family as a child refugee.

Interviewed in May 2021 by Alessandra Cianetti, Project Manager

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