Tuesday, January 22, 2019

A Pakistani, with curiosity

The London-based Rehana Zaman talks about her film which is being shown at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, as well as racism, and her views of India and Pakistan 

Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the London-based artist Rehana Zaman was walking down a road at Fort Kochi, a man approached her and said, “Are you from North India?”

No,” she said. “I am Pakistani.”

Taken aback, it took a moment before the man broke out into a smile.

Welcome to India,” he said.

Whenever she introduced herself as a Pakistani, the people smiled and some shook her hand.

A featured artist in the fourth edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, Rehana, in collaboration with the film collective, Liverpool Black Women Filmmakers, is showing a 25-minute film called, ‘How does an Invisible Boy Disappear?’ It shows a young girl Liyana who goes in search of a missing black boy Jamal Clarke.

I wanted to show how black and brown women are portrayed negatively in the media,” says Rehana. “The film has archival footage of disturbances between the police and black and brown communities and the way the state dealt with racial unrest. Your background, gender and ethnicity can affect the way you are treated.”

Rehana says the official approach is disappointing. “In fact, there is a disproportionately larger number of black and brown people in the prisons,” she says. “I do feel like an outsider even though I am part of the system (she teaches fine art twice a week to undergraduate students at Goldsmiths, University of London). I have this double consciousness.”

Rehana is always aware that her name and Muslim background can have a negative impact. “However, I pass muster because I speak English well, and I am Westernised in my dress,” she says. “But my mother, relatives and friends are not treated in the same manner.”

There is an in-built racism. At her University, out of a staff of 40, there are only two Asian women. “They treat me well because it is a liberal arts institution,” says Rehana. “But when it comes to hiring practices or wages, it is not so good. The language used by the bureaucracy is very welcoming, but the structures can be very hostile. If you look at the statistics, and the people who are at the top of all institutions, you can see the bias.”

She says the London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who is of Pakistani origin, gets extreme criticisms and a powerful backlash. “He has to be seen to be doing more against terrorism,” says Rehana. “So, he encourages a greater police presence on the streets, an increase of ‘stop and search’ of young Asian and black men and asks Muslim community leaders to do more.”

Meanwhile, when asked to define India in one word, Rehana says, ‘Partition. I have relatives in North India. I also think of people, communities, colour and food.”

Rehana likes biriyani, dosas, appams and idiyapam. She is a regular visitor to the South Indian restaurants in London.

In London, she is friendly with Indians from Tamil Nadu and North India.“But mostly, I have friends among British and Kenyan origin Indians,” says the 36-year-old.

That may because Rehana is part of the diaspora. Her parents had migrated from Pakistan because of economic reasons in the late 1960s. So Rehana grew up in a town called Heckmondwike, around 300 kms from London.

She was always interested in art and after graduation from Goldsmiths, she has concentrated on her career as an artist. “I am interested in scripts, film history and politics,” she says. Her mode of expression is through films and she has participated in the Liverpool Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2018.

Meanwhile, when asked her views about Pakistan, where she does visit, Rehana says, “Pakistan is a beautiful place. In cities like Lahore and Islamabad, people can move with relative freedom. But that may not be the case in rural areas. However, a lot of my Pakistani women students express frustrations about the lack of freedom they have. If I go to Pakistan now, I don’t think I can travel alone. I will need the company of my brothers to go from place to place. The behaviour of the state can be authoritarian. If you have an encounter with the police, you can face a lot of difficulties.”

Rehana pauses and says, “That’s the case in many places in the world: freedom is being steadily taken away.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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