An analysis of the unanimity and discourse of our collective human cognition; and the creation of a connected energy.
Palm to palm, fingers intertwined
A maze of skin and bone
Gestural motions, blessings, commotions
Their hands the soul of their existence Their hands the reason for mine
Amongst the movement, figures fade in a coalescence of forms A silhouette of human connection
A capitalisation of change
Leaving artist Zeinab Saleh’s studio in London, I was enamoured by the notion of hands. As a concept, a metaphor, a tool and an expression of nostalgic memory. Often taken for granted, the five fingered contraption on the end of our upper limbs is almost symbolic of our state of consciousness, the awareness of one’s own existence and sensations within our environment. Part of a whole and akin to the ideas of unity, connectedness and community – they are also linked with the notions of kinesics and creation. Consciously mapping these associations as Saleh spoke about her process; I quickly scribbled notes: ‘the gestures of family celebrations / the physical act of visual documentation / strong belief in collaborative and communal spaces’. Later in the visit, as Martin took a photo of the artist’s hands placed delicately against the brightly coloured fabric of the baati dress she wore, their importance and relevance to not only her process but her identity became clear.
Each of us has an inescapable past; Saleh’s however is one that comes with some very distinct associations that are easily ascribed to her orient and are both embodied and resisted within her practice. Working from a place of western modernisation whilst keeping an intentional restrain on cultural innuendos; her work still epitomises the fundamental characteristics of East African society, togetherness. Dropping the names of peers Maria Mahfooz, Shenece Oretha, and Danielle Braithwaite Shirley during our chat with an excited enthusiasm about their work, it’s clear that Saleh is one to champion those in her creative community and thrives within the dynamics of a collaborative working environment. Noticing a postcard from Shenece taped on the wall; a black and white lino print of a woman’s long, wavy hair; she explains, “It makes me smile”.
Mountains never meet, but people do. Swahili proverb. @_zeinabsaleh 12.10.19
Despite having left Kenya for the UK with her family at only nine months old; Saleh has access to what seems like an endless collection of archival VHS footage of home weddings, parties and festivities that have now influenced much of the content of her work. Sketching whilst watching, she’s drawn to emotive gestures associated with dance and movement. As a consequence of this, as well as the creation of her own video works; her paintings reflect multiple shifts in one plane. Making the movements appear ‘still’ whilst keeping them from being completely static. Working with themes relating to culture, technology and politics; some concepts are rather precarious to characterise or portray. Using the formal elements of painting such as colour and line can therefore help to concentrate on the meditative process of creation and in turn the process itself becomes about these fundamental practices. With an essence of ritualism, there is a palpable affiliation to the Muslim prayer. A wakeful meditation five times a day, where one is able to transcend beyond oneself, to have recognition and cognisance of the oneness of the divine in order to contemplate, reflect and develop the presence of body, heart and mind.
I’m practicing mindfulness / learning to breathe / you can get so tangled in the London tide rushing off the moment you leave home / frogs, cows, hares and piglets / Scottish tap water. @_zeinabsaleh 06.07.19
As perpetual considerations within her practice, it does seem as though contemplation and reflection have allowed Saleh to confront delicate topics with a certain finesse. Subtly broaching the subjects with the use of symbolism and metaphor; she references current political turmoil. An image of a frog in boiling water, isolated in a glass, boiling slowly. A personal reflection on the bureaucracy at play both in the UK and Kenya. Using alter egos or animals to project her internal affections, Saleh attempts to avoid self representation and identity politics.
By touching on these concepts with a collective understanding, she is still able to portray them through a personal lens. As I studied a work in progress hung on the wall of her studio, Saleh explained it’s context. Conceived on the notion of lithium lakes, there is a direct correlation to our use of mobile phones. The lakes, many located in Bolivia, are farmed, the compounds having several industrial applications with iPhones being the main offender. The work inevitably speaks volumes about our modern reliance on technology, the use of our data, targeted advertisements on social media and the state of our mechanised society. It also demonstrates the devastating environmental impact that these lakes have on our current climate crisis. Linking back to her degree show work at the Slade School of Art, a silk print of an old Nokia device; it is a somewhat bleak reality check and in direct opposition to Saleh’s own values.
Wearing one of her mother’s baati dresses during the visit; I felt as if I was in her family home. A bowl of fruit and cashews atop the table and with the radiator blasting warm air it seemed as though our shared space became a shared connection, and by six degrees of separation, I was then part of Saleh’s wider community. Part of her family. I imagined trips back to Kenya with Saleh and her cousins, averting my eyes and keeping quiet as her relatives swindle deals at the local market. Sneakily trying to avoid the tourist prices on local goods and museum fares. Joining in the celebrations, dances and culture that still unapologetically lingers within the cracks of her work. Coming back to the studio, sitting across from Saleh, she explains the baati.
A traditional Somali house dress, which is not unlike a maxi or mumu. Long, loose and free flowing; it is an item directly interlinked with her childhood memories. Often the starting point of her work and repeatedly ‘borrowed’ from her mother; they have a past, a history, meaning and cultural reference, as they are usually gifted as tokens of affection. Donning a baati each time she’s working within the studio, it becomes the protagonist of a quite performative narrative. However, worn behind closed doors, it is the centre of the private vs public, personal vs political debates. What could be a weighted comment on many a societal notation, brightly coloured and patterned fabrics are often deconstructed and sewn in new configurations, using the stitched line almost as if painted; a play between the actual and digital brush marks. Layering compositions with one or more textiles before painting on the top surface, there is a significant focus on texture, alluding to her beginnings in media at the Slade School of Art. With a constant dialogue between what is stitched, painted and screen printed, there is largely an intersection of the concealed and revealed at play.
Well versed in sculpture, painting and video; Zeinab Saleh works from, but is not restricted to certain cultural elements from her birthplace of Kenya, coupled with her British upbringing. There seems to be an innate yet potentially sub conscious prerequisite to highlight the importance of a collaborative society, a community; family. Observing the vast amount of images from “rich white folks” using council estates and fish and chip shops as backgrounds to their ‘own’ assertions. Places that housed many of her own community; Saleh along with friends Sara and Lamisa were prompted to initiate a change within their society, beginning ‘Muslim Sisterhood’.
The project aims to reclaim these spaces and is a celebration of Muslim businesses, the trio have created a safe environment for womxn and non-binary to relearn and re-connect to their history. With the help of funding and the use of such spaces’ as Nike’s 1948London, they are doing “things for Muslim women by Muslim women” and have held public events relating to their cultural context specifically for the Muslim precincts across the city including belly dancing, self-defense and incense making. Unambiguous happenings that aspire to reconnect Muslims with their heritage by emphasising rituals and customs that are otherwise disappearing in contemporary society. Pursuing photography as a way of bridging the gap created by the ‘us and them’ mentality, they have branded themselves with a strong aesthetic that enables an easily digestible intro into this space. Muslim Sisterhood, @muslimsisterhood (and zine by the same name, which is stocked at the ICA Bookshop and at The Mosaic Rooms) holds its own in a very image heavy online microcosm. They are forging a path for positive attention and recognition within the wider society.
When we create out of our experiences, as feminists of color, women of color, we have to develop those structures that will present and circulate our culture. Audre Lorde.
These deep seated ideas of community so ingrained within other cultures can sometimes highlight the western attachment to the online, a separated society and our increasing lack of ability to fully engage with one another. Despite an age of almost forced technological segregation, Zeinab Saleh is an example of how barriers can become ambiguous. How our cumulative narrative can begin to be shaped by positive disruptions of complicity and reclamation; championing the role that connectivity can play in this modern landscape. The new archetype to the changes we all want to see within ourselves and humanity alike.
Words by Emma O Brien