Interview with curator Hamja Ahsan

by Sultanah Parvin

DIY Cultures has established itself as the leading annual POC-led Zine and activist fair in the UK, taking over all four floors of London’s Rich Mix this year on 29th May from 12pm – 7pm.  This year’s DIY Cultures features Media Diversified writer Guilaine Kinouani speaking on Radical Mental Health and a workshop by Jesse Bernard on Navigating Mental Health through Hip Hop. There will be further sessions on Preventing PREVENT, History of Black Arts Magazines with the Stuart Hall Library, and an opening panel convened by Decolonising Our Minds.

In this exclusive preview of DIY Cultures 2016, Sultanah Parvin interviews its co-founder and co-curator Hamja Ahsan for Media Diversified:

SP: What are the origins of DIY Cultures?

HA: For me, the origins of DIY Cultures grew out of a discontent with the status quo with zine cultures, independent fringe arts and Leftist book fairs more generally. I had a bone to pick with white domination and white exclusivity. I wanted to create a better world, open conversations, create something homely and hospitable to people I cared about. But I also had a tremendous affection for aspects of punk and lo-fi creative cultures which railed against the aspirational Asian middle-class values that I grew up in, and which I felt rejected me and deemed me worthless.

OOMKSofia Niazi (currently editor of OOMK) and I met each other 5 years ago at London Zine Symposium when she was part of Walrus Zine Collective and I was part of Other Asias (a transnational artist collective I used to run with my then creative-partner Fatima Hussain who was based in Lahore and Islamabad; now mainly run with Helena Wee, also a co-curator of DIY Cultures). There was quite a zine revival at the time with the Alternative Press fair and London Zine Symposium, but I saw the stark racial disparity between who was represented and what geographies and parts of the world were excluded. Usually the zine world map extended to Brighton, Portland, Oregon and Berlin and ended there. The Zine world of Other Asias stopped over at Karachi to Siberia to Bangladesh to Cairo to Almaty.

There was also a stark lack of interaction between the hipster class (before that word had much currency) and the majority population of settled Black and Asian migrants. You saw this same pattern in all the places where independent culture mushroomed in London such as Tower Hamlets, Peckham, New Cross and Deptford — distinct white and POC worlds living side by side. As a Media Diversified article pointed out, hipsters don’t integrate. The type of debates and speakers and radicalism represented didn’t extend or represent my world. In 2011, Sofia and I went on to produce Tooting Zine Fair at a pop-up gallery in the predominantly South Asian area of South London where we both grew up (yes, with Sadiq Khan as our MP!) as a precursor to DIY Culture.

When I met Sofia it was quite a revelation. Walrus Zines were the only collective of Black and Asian women at the fair.  I would often be the only POC at these events. Sofia made a witty zine on hijabis that I loved and went on to buy for all my friends.  Zine fairs were seas of whiteness, even if they were just off Brick Lane like London Zine Symposium – as someone from the Bangladeshi diaspora I felt that exclusion in my stomach. But I was also bothered by the politics of White anarchism who through ossified thinking and conventions of anti-religion had alienated so many, creating new cliques and elites – despite having pretensions of being non-hierarchical and more inclusive. Hence DIY Cultures is the only zine fair run by Hijabis with a prayer room.

There was a coldness in my heart everytime someone from the hipster class sneered and brushed past your stall as if you didn’t exist. But that made me more determined to stay there. Every time I met a person of colour at a zine fair they would go on to become a friend and comrade.  I wanted to create an Assata Shakur guerilla army that overthrew the white-supremacist, Imperialist world order from my zine stall. This ambition became my wing of DIY Cultures.

But at another level, there is also an affection for people existing within the Zine world. There are many ways into DIY Cultures – some people who have forgotten the love of drawing, or people who enjoy making things by hand. We also support work like DIY couture, book arts and contemporary craft makers. It is also about the world lost through spending too much time in virtual worlds, on a smartphone and online, so there is a real sense of participation, community and the face-to-face encounter. We also have events reflecting on technology and the politics of Ludditism.

SP: Has DIY Cultures managed to achieve what it set out to do and how?

HA: Yes, the landscape of the zine world has visibly changed and I do think that DIY Cultures was a catalyst for that. I remember at the zine fair that OOMK hosted at Open School East during their residency there that POC where central Muslim narratives were represented and set the agenda. Malaysia, Lebanon and Pakistan become part of the zine world map. It was visible and tangible – the scene had undergone a sea-change and entry-points and vistas had been opened up.

Rewriting histories of DIY culture is important for me too, so it’s about more than a white history of Riot Grrl and Portland, Oregon button badges. We have worked with groups like Black Feminists, decolonising our minds in our talks and panels. This year we will have a workshop on History of Black Arts Magazines with the Stuart Hall Library archives. In future, I would like to look at Bengali Baul culture as a punk culture, and pirate radio as a Black and Asian history of DIY.

I also grew discontented with the ossification of Leftist book fairs and activist festivals. They were always the same, with the same speakers — the Tariq Alis and David Harveys, and whoever had a new book deal with Verso and needed a circuit to promote their new book. They lacked imagination and created a class of literary festival Leftists. My favourite event at DIY Cultures was called Unemployment and creativity where we just had six unemployed creatives who didn’t necessarily have a careerist biography. They all had such interesting insightful things to say. A buzzing activist festival doesn’t always have to have Owen Jones speaking at the end.

I also like to support small press. Some of my favourite poetry publishers such as Sidekick Books are doing something very innovative. They make something of an income and pick up new followers and extend their community. I appreciate the sensitivity and care of Book arts.

But the main achievement for me is seeing people who come to DIY Cultures one year and by the next year have formed their own zine collective or are inspired to write and edit their own publications. Or people in the audience one year are on the stage speaking the next year.

SP: How crucial do you think something such as DIY Cultures is to the fabric of our society?

HA: Too much of the conversation is by “successful” people. I feel there needs to be a space where the unsuccessful people can flower and be heard. A lot of the people in DIY Cultures are in the same place in life as me: precariats.  In many ways I feel I failed the expectations of my respectable Asian parents and community by not being able to reach a decent income threshold… So I feel there is a forum for us. My co-curators, Sofia and Helena Wee, have different life stories. But we’d agree that DIY Cultures really isn’t about careers or judging people or status or success or competition. It is really about cooperation, find way to relate to each other and the values of community spirit.

There was a solidarity network built around the Free Talha Ahsan campaign, which was my life when my older brother was detained with trial, charge or evidence for six years under an extradition request from the USA under the war on terror.  This solidarity extended to other people affected by state crime or state neglect which weaved into aspects of our talks and workshop programmes. I would be disheartened to see events on Pussy Riot in these spaces while British Muslim prisoners, who had been abused, tortured and detained for too long, were not cared for, so I wanted to rewrite the agenda. I used to read out my brother Talha’s prison letters and poetry, which he wrote in solitary confinement from a death-row Supermax prison, on stage. When I announced he was finally free at the opening of the last DIY Cultures there was a big cheers and whoops of joy from the audience. His campaign booklet would feature on my zine stall and offer chances to have one-on-one conversations with new campaign supporters.

Hence we supported the campaigns for Shaker Aamer, Moazzam Begg and No Separate Justice in New York at DIY Cultures. There is a whole zone of community care and justice outside of formal litigation and the courtroom, and within these support networks. That’s part of the DIY spirit too.

DIY Cultures opens up ways of doing things beyond managerialism and without big capital or grant-dependency in a cultural world where everything is over-professionalised. The language of curating itself in its Goldsmiths/RCA deleuze-o-babble is elitist and deadening. I think art and activist organisations can learn from us on how to genuinely open up beyond a formalised diversity policy and revitalise. There are conventions of thinking and communicating in the workplace, in academia, in Parliament, in a courtroom, in industries — but there are worlds beyond that. And that is the world invented by the family of communities within DIY Cultures.

DIY Cultures day festival runs 12pm – 7pm on 29th May at Rich Mix in London. A full timetable of workshops and talks can be found at diycultures.tumblr.com

An accompanying exhibition, Radical Libraries, runs 25th May – 4th June in the Lower Cafe Gallery of Rich Mix.

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Sultanah Parvin is a writer and blogger covering issues of women, faith and colour. Active in the Muslim community in London for the past 20 years, she now shares an online platform entitled #SpokenWord, which seeks to expound the most current ideas on topics of race, faith, and justice through all forms of literary expression.

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4 thoughts on “DIY Cultures is a catalyst for change in the zine and arts world

  1. A great interview with Hamja Ahsan, who is, as always, witty and full of new ideas. DIY Cultures is doing some path-breaking work to challenge the neoliberal mindset and nurture original work in a wide variety of areas.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m really looking forward to this today! DIY Cultures is such an important space, it’s my fave zine fair because it’s the only one I can go to where I know there will be lots of people of colour/ queer people/ queer people of colour. Looking forward to the mental health talk especially

    Liked by 1 person

  3. HA is clued up and inspirational. Can’t wait for the event. It looks well organised and there is an incredible variety of workshops and talks.

    Liked by 1 person

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