On May 11, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, I received Mara Ahmed’s email with her responses to our conversation. At the time, some media outlets were starting to give attention to the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African-American man fatally shot while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia. Since then, we’ve seen George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and learned about Breonna Taylor’s tragic death in Louisville, Kentucky, among many other cases of violence against black people in this country. As a team, Instruments of Memory has joined thousands of protesters to demand justice and to support the Black Lives Matter chapter here in Los Angeles. Now more than ever, this site is committed to record and give voice to womxn, particularly womxn of color that bring a more diverse dialogue to the arts.
We are deeply grateful to the activist, filmmaker, and multimedia artist Mara Ahmed for her openness and knowledgeable input during this interview. In it, she shares her views on borders, racism, and the impact of the Coronavirus on immigrant communities and people of color. This is the second part of our in-depth conversation; it has been edited and condensed for clarity.
One approach to contextualize Mara Ahmed’s production is to focus on her experience as an immigrant and the richness of her multiculturalism. Coming from three different continents and living in the United States since 1993, for Ahmed the possibility of mobility has shaped her sense of identity and the choices of topics and images that she explores in her work. Evoked from the ties that bind and divide her place of origin to her current home, Ahmed’s work uses those ties to reflect upon important issues such as immigration, borders, inequality, and racism through the lens of history and tradition. As she has explained, “My hybridity is a product of the geographic, linguistic, cultural, intellectual, and aesthetic displacements that have marked my life. The collage work, the multimedia art, even the activism, are all efforts to harmonize the incongruent, the disparate, the contradictory.”
The analysis and exploration of these topics is something that she’s also taken into the classroom. As a professor in a private liberal arts college in Rochester, New York, Ahmed transformed instruction into an opportunity for dialogue among her students as I had the occasion to observe when I visited her class last fall. “I taught a course at St. John Fisher College in 2019. It was called ‘Through Another Lens’ and it used films from different parts of the world as a lens to discuss alternative histories, cultures, and politics. One of the papers we read was ‘Reimagining Home in the Wake of Displacement.’ The authors analyze how ‘narratives of displacement are often characterized by an idealization of the past or a romantic desperation to return to one’s homeland’ but they remind us that ‘to dismiss such narratives as mere nostalgia would be to overlook the work they perform.’ They go on to elaborate that nostalgia is an ‘act of cultural labor’ by which ‘displaced people cultivate diasporic identities generationally, thus keeping a cultural connection to place even where physical return may be impossible.’ In effect, repeated narrations of home provide a sense of security and community similar to the comforts we expect from our actual homeland. This reading of nostalgia resonated with me. Art, filmmaking, and writing are all ways of creating such ‘refrains’ of home but also of subverting and expanding them. This is where political activism comes into the picture,” she said.
As an activist, her efforts thrive through her passionate interest in blurring barriers that separate and isolate different communities that have experienced exclusion and segregation by addressing the broader effects of these issues in her work. As she admits, “Although I don’t believe in national borders or nation-states, I do see myself as coming from the Global South. I am part of the colonized world, the ‘East’, the ‘Other.’ Not only has this enriched my life on account of the solidarity that exists between all colonized people (we are the majority) and the power we have, but also because of the intellectual and moral clarity this framing brings to everything. Many of the stories I choose to tell whether in writing, art, film, or community actions, highlight histories and cultures that are deliberately erased, manipulated, or ignored. Those are the narratives that interest me. I want to document, elevate, ritualize, and inscribe them on the world’s consciousness. I want to problematize the easy-to-consume, hegemonic, Eurocentric discourse that we are fed 24/7 and which has become so normalized, we can’t seem to think outside of it.”
The awareness and well-informed research in Ahmed’s work draws upon interdisciplinary points of view that also acknowledge non-Western and non-binary approaches to the most current and relevant issues in our contemporary society. Referencing the intellectual posture of Palestinian writer and curator Nasrin Himada, Ahmed explains, “Most people cannot imagine a world without capitalism or the prison system. The first question they will ask is: what would you replace it with? I love how Nasrin Himada addressed this question in an interview with Leopold Lambert for The Funambulist. I would like to quote directly from it and the words of Himada when they say:
I’m not already thinking that there’s something to replace the prison. When I think of prison abolition or transformative justice, I’m not thinking that we need to come up with infrastructures or buildings to replace the prison institution. I’m thinking, first of all, with non-state imaginings, though not necessarily connected to anarchist traditions. I want to make that clear. I don’t know much about anarchism. I am really just thinking about the societies, structures, and ways of organizing in communities that existed, already existed, before this land was colonized. Second, I think a lot about time. As a prison abolitionist and a transformative justice advocate, I know that I am already working within a different time frame. This work, just plainly speaking, takes time. Because it’s about consistently changing — being-in-transformation — how I live, and how I want to be in the world. These politics are lived politics, and are fundamental to how I desire to live with others. They’re life-changing, not state-changing.ON PRISON ABOLITIONISM with Nasrin Himada
The Injured Body
For Mara Ahmed, documentary filmmaking is not only a unique form of art but also a powerful platform for activism. She is currently completing her fourth film “The Injured Body”, a film about racism in America, which spotlights women of color. According to Ahmed, this film “tackles the difficult task of unpacking racism. Although racism has always existed in America, starting with European colonization, we are seeing a shift in political and civic discourse whereby it has become acceptable to be publically racist and incite racist violence. The recent killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was chased and shot while jogging in Georgia, is frankly unbearable. That it took hashtags, petitions, and mass protests (particularly by the Black community) to bring about arrests is also grotesque and infuriating.”
Ahmed’s “The Injured Body” is now set to be completed amid one of the largest racial protest movements in recent history. She says it “is a response to this political moment, but also to the foundational racism embedded in American life. It showcases the voices of a diverse and international group of women of color who share stories of micro (and not-so-micro) aggressions.”
Inspired by Claudia Rankine’s book “Citizen: An American Lyric”, the filmmaker has found echoes and a common voice in the words of this celebrated Jamaican-born poet and writer. According to Ahmed, “In an interview about her book, Rankine explains how ‘understandings around race and positioning around whiteness are at a point now that they feel invisible, except to the receiver. That’s part of what white privilege is, that you are able to move forward and do what you want without any pushback, and then consequently without any thought to what you said or what you’ve done, especially when you have a society that doesn’t penalize people when they do even more egregious things, like shooting people in the back.”
For this project, Ahmed conducted interviews with women one-on-one but also in groups. By documenting their voices and making them visible, this film draws attention to the injustices facing black Americans and people of color in the United States. As she explained, “I chose to approach racism by focusing on microaggressions for two reasons. Firstly, as Rankine explains, we seem to understand structural racism somewhat but are baffled by racism coming from friends. It is disorienting because it is unmarked. ‘The Injured Body’ hopes to home in on the language needed to ‘mark the unmarked.’ Secondly, personal stories lend themselves to filmmaking, because they can create a powerful reckoning — they allow intimacy and connection. It is compelling to lift the voices of women of color not only because their stories are dismissed and misrepresented by mainstream media, but also because they operate at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression including racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ageism, ableism, etc., and can articulate the multidimensionality of their experiences.”
As for the release of this film, Ahmed has explained, “‘The Injured Body’ has been shot for the most part, except for B-roll that will be filmed later this year. Although the film has not been edited yet, the need for its message is such that it’s already been used to provoke deliberations in the Rochester community. I am excited to start editing soon, now that I am a bit more settled in our new space in Long Island.”
No turning back
It is uncertain how we are going to overcome the recent health and economic crisis that has hit immigrant communities and people of color the hardest. When I asked Ahmed what would be a way to engage and support these communities at this time, she admits: “This is a big question. Many have said how the pandemic is a great equalizer. Sadly, it’s quite the opposite. The pandemic throws into sharp relief the gross inequities and cruelties of a maniacally greedy, profit-oriented, dehumanizing capitalist system. Income and wealth inequalities in the US are obscene. The global distribution of wealth is even more distorted and disturbing. It’s a suicidal system. At this time of crisis, we need to provide resources to the most vulnerable: large public projects that provide employment and housing, healthcare, testing and personal protective equipment for all, and equal access to technology, which is essential for remote learning, online work, and social distancing. People’s lives depend on this. We should also keep in mind that pre-corona life is NOT what we want to return to. This is the time to imagine and organize a just, kind, and decolonial world. We must be wary of disaster capitalism and remain committed to our vision, even in the midst of a disorienting crisis. It can’t be said often enough that we are all in this together.”
Before ending the conversation and as we try not to forget this unparalleled time, I asked Ahmed to tell me her favorite instrument of memory. “What an excellent question. It really made me think,” she said. “I wrote a piece for Kundiman called ‘Le Mot Juste’ about all the languages I love and live in. In it, I talk about how, as a child, I spent hours poring over an old frayed dictionary to learn new words — their sounds, shades, genealogies, and multiformities. I was completely mesmerized by the lushness of language. So I would say that creating the audio poem, ‘Knowing is Beautiful,’ was one of the most satisfying experiences for me. Although I’m highly visual in how I think, I feel that the lack of images leaves much more to the imagination. Having to depend on the less intrusive, less domineering medium of oral storytelling (and sound effects that underline it just so), allows listeners to own the story in a way that they might not be able to do with film. They could fill in the gaps and generate their own images based on their personal experiences and memories. Perhaps this is why oral storytelling is an innate part of being human.”
Thank you, Mara!
Mara Ahmed is an activist, artist, and filmmaker based in Long Island, New York. She studied art at Nazareth College and film at the Visual Studies Workshop and the Rochester Institute of Technology. Ahmed’s artwork has been exhibited at galleries in New York and California. Her shows are multimedia fusions of collage, photography, graphic art, and film. Her first film, “The Muslims I Know”, premiered at the Dryden Theatre (George Eastman Museum) in 2008 and started a dialogue between American Muslims and people of other faiths. Her second film, “Pakistan One on One”, opened at the Little Theatre in Rochester, NY in 2011 and is a broad survey of public opinion about America, shot entirely in Lahore. Her third film, “A Thin Wall”, explores the partition of India and possibilities of reconciliation. It premiered at the Bradford Literature Festival in England in 2015, won a Special Jury Prize at the Amsterdam Film Festival in 2016, and has been screened worldwide, most recently in Taiwan. Ahmed is interested in creating dialogue across both physical and psychological boundaries. In 2017, she gave a TEDx talk about the meaning of borders and nationalism entitled “The Edges That Blur.” She is now working on ‘”The Injured Body”, a documentary about racism in America, focusing exclusively on the voices of women of color. Her production company is Neelum Films.