“Excuse Me, May I Touch your Skin?”: An Interview with Asna Adhami – Mary Elizabeth Luka

Excuse Me May I touch your skin Ive never been this close to a coloured person before

Image: “Excuse Me, may I touch your skin? I’ve never been this close to a coloured person before…” Asna Adhami 2013 (from the video/poem “Excuse Me, may I touch your skin? I’ve never been this close to a coloured person before…”. Image copyright, courtesy of the artist).

 

Othering me
Asna Adhami, 2010

You are smothering me with your othering me

Stop smiling at me

with that unresolved bigotry

veiled insincerity

masking your discomfort

of my colour

and ancestry…

 

It’s making me uncomfortable.

 

Stop smothering me with your othering me

Imposing camaraderie

and feigned hospitality

brewing animosity

when you really

want nothing

absolutely

to do with me…

 

We can all clearly see.

 

Stop smothering me with your othering me

Your ‘where do you come from-ery’

ever so innocently

trying to prove something

about we

to me

and to yourself

more importantly…

 

Come on, you’re not fooling anyone.

 

Because smothering me

with your othering me

is a certain kind of cruelty

a friendly ambiguity

stuffed into a guise of nobility

deeply hiding

agendas and acrimonies

stereotypes oozing of privilege…

 

It’s plainly the real reality.

 

That your smothering me with your othering me

is absurdity

all about you

not a thing to do with me

your discomfort with

what I look or sound like

and where you think

– on the surface –

my world begins

and yours ends…

 

So I’d really appreciate it, if you’d stop smothering me with your othering me. 

 

 

untitled too

Image: “untitled too” Asna Adhami 2008 (image copyright, courtesy of the artist).

Meander

Image: “Meander” Asna Adhami 2008 (image copyright, courtesy of the artist)

 Spiritual footprint
Asna Adhami, 2006

Why is it

that people choose not see

what we do and how we live

impacts more than the ecology

 

What lives in our spirit

has an enduring legacy

what we give out to others so freely

but forever refuse ourselves to see

 

anger attacks the very base of a soul

leaving it barren and unfunctioning

as clear-cutting does a rainforest

depleted and injured

desolate wounds will throb to recover

 

Painfully…

Indefinitely…

 

Hostility, spoken or unspoken,

pollutes the very air

occupying precious space

manipulating moments

to spread its contagious poison

 A silent, vicious and deadly poison

 

Unconscious bystanders will begin to suffocate

not ever knowing why they are lashing and thrashing out

at the next person they see

 

Hatred is that toxic waste 

that seeps into the essence of beings

that permeates foundations

and penetrate hearts

that perpetuates in the form of Violence

into aggressions big and small

transgressions latent and manifest

 

Destroying our chance to be whole

A peaceful, healthy and happy whole

 

It’s time to take responsibility

for our actions and our deeds

own what you and I have done

to deplete our collective space to breathe

 

To contribute to the wounds that will take more than time to recover

And scars that may never heal

 

We all have a choice

we all have the chance

to make it right

to be real with ourselves

own our intentions

and our ignorant slumber

To better our enduring legacies

 

Consider this an invitation

an invitation to spiritual activism

a call to action

an opening

to cultivate something new

 

Allow the purest of your compassion

to fall on hurt like rain

washing away the bitterness

making space for change

clearing the way for you to see

that which is outside of you

As it really may be

 

Plant the seed of forgiveness

that you have grown from within

make this offering to yourself and to others

your inner voice will guide you

to the right place

and the right time

If you allow it to

 

With every moment

and with each breath

apply the awareness of gratitude

in as much as you can do

appreciating abundance

of the possibilities and opportunities

open to you

We have so much more than what we need

 

Light up your heart

shine your love like the sun

healing with your warmth

let each ray illuminate darkness

yours and others

see beyond your limited vision of before

to transcend selfish, devastating ways

 

Make space.

Make peace.

eh sonoghomah

Image: “Eh Sonoghomah” Asna Adhami, 2009 (image copyright, courtesy of the artist)

 

Mary Elizabeth Luka: Tell me about your work

Asna Adhami: I would describe myself as a storyteller, in the contexts of the work that I create as a poet, a journalist, a broadcaster, filmmaker, photographer. And in those capacities, I’ve had the privilege be a part of / bear witness to a lot of different aspects of many peoples’ lives. In my journalistic capacities, there’s a license or permission that people give you to tell you those stories, they entrust you with them. As an artist, that’s where I get to tell my own story, about my own experiences and ruminations on themes like identity, labeling, othering and belonging by using my art as a means for meditating, exploring and sometimes, purging. I think the process of creation is an active one, and a transformative one. It has this period of rest and reflection, and then activity, and then rest and reflection. It’s an ongoing cycle of things that involves exploration [and] experimentation. And the storytelling is a way to do that.

I was always a storyteller from the youngest of my days, so I’m told. Photography was a way to bear witness and explore.  A lot of my photography – are what I call portraits in nature – they’re found moments of beauty that I am inspired to collect and share. And my poetry came as I got older. Growing up, I didn’t always have a voice in my environments – maybe because of my gender or my cultural identities – so writing became a way of exploring, documenting and giving voice to those experiences.

Even when I’ve been asked to do event photography at times, I’ve always been a documentarian. I don’t tend to stage photographs. I do that “under duress” (laughs). I like documenting and recording those moments – moments of tenderness and intimacy that I just happen to notice. Not in an obtrusive way – but as things are unfolding, when something beautiful [occurs] and you happen to be the person who can see and share that. Being a storyteller allows me to share the uniqueness of my way of seeing and experiencing the world with others, reflecting it back. I think that’s the joy of being for everyone, hopefully, to be able to explore and claim those unique and special things within themselves, and then find ways to share them, if they want to, if it’s appropriate or when it’s safe to.

 

view from the tow truck

Image: “view from a tow truck” Asna Adhami 2012 (image copyright and courtesy the artist).

MEL: Your media based work or documentary-style work, is almost conversational. You’re so thoughtful about how you approach who’s in the frame and who’s not.

AA: They are kind of ‘conversations’ or meditations that sort of orbit around in the universe in a certain rhythm, and there’s a constant dynamic between the subjects, the audiences and myself. I think (the frame) is about negotiating the impacts of the oppressions that I’ve experienced in my life, and how that has reinforced my desire to be mindful of not perpetuating those oppressions in my work, as much as possible. That’s where managing the integrity of the story that’s being told to me, comes in. I feel like a caretaker, and it’s always important to know where I stand and how I am occupying the ‘caretaker space’. My nature photography takes that tone, in a sense because I think people can gauge where their emotional and spiritual landscape is, very immediately, in natural settings. Sometimes I think that if the animals in the wild are comfortable enough to just do their routine things very close to a photographer, it’s a reflection of that person’s inner condition.

That would come from the roots of my spirituality to some degree, from a Sufi origin – and idea that we are all reflections of one another.  That informs my philosophy as a journalist. I don’t need to impose myself into the story, because I’m already there. Every editing choice, every clip or frame, the timing, cadence, emotional tone. I’ve never aspired to be the journalist that tells people what to think: I’m doing my best to convey the stories as they were told to me without polluting them with my own perspectives and letting the audiences interact with them for themselves, in their own way. And I suppose that’s the same with my art practice. Especially the photographs. Because they’re moments in time that emerge spontaneously and meditatively, for me. The photos are often inspired by what’s unfolding in this moment. My poetry is closest to my photography in that way of spontaneous or spiritual reflection. I don’t set out to write a poem, they just arrive. They might percolate, they might inhabit me for a while, but they tell me when they’re ready to be delivered.  Sometimes [I change them], but I tend to let them be. I tend to be a purist. Both in photography and poems. Typically, I don’t photoshop, I don’t edit. But sometimes, in live performance or exhibition, I might ad-lib or expand on something – but only very slightly. That’s when a creation becomes a different kind of interaction, with some opportunity for animation. That’s when I might play a little.

MEL: That’s interesting – in terms of failure. Do small moments of adjustment allow for a shift? That is, not striving for perfection?

AA: It’s organic, they’re evolving. They’re not perfect. I’m not a person that believes in perfection. I feel like there are always opportunities for us to learn and grow and be better versions of ourselves. And that doesn’t come from judgment but comes from a place of living and growing, being open to that, even in our own work. All of us learn to communicate, or to be mobile; all of us have a journey that starts with stumbles, tumbles and unintended turns. But there’s always a learning curve that involves steps that aren’t the desired outcome, in everything in life.

There’s this idea of failure in our society in general that is negative, and powerfully negative, in a way that debilitates communities and people, and to some degree, our societies. I think the older wisdom-traditions all understand the path of learning to include what might be called failure, as a part of that ongoing journey of learning and growth, which is natural and to be expected. That problematizing of the so-called missteps; if you add the layers of oppression into that picture, becomes even more dangerous, because then it’s who’s so-called failures become exacerbated or highlighted that becomes problematic. We see that in any of the “isms” or any of the “otherings”. A failure to be a certain religion or orientation, or a failure of parents who didn’t do something in how they raised a child. In a Sufi paradigm, you don’t see a difference between you and another person, so you don’t quantify a “failure” as a judgment. Because you do the introspection first. By understanding your own ‘so-called failures’ what you’re invited to understand, is that that could be you under any other circumstance. It’s often an introspective act, because the only people that we truly know are ourselves: What is my intention? What am I doing? Rather than an outward expression of success and/or failure.

 

inspiration for the road

Image: “inspiration for the road” Asna Adhami 2011 (image copyright and courtesy of the artist)

MEL: Talk to me about the poems.

AA: “Othering me” is a funny little poem about growth and learning. It’s a purge poem. It’s a response poem, a response to oppression, to being racialized, to being challenged in how I identify myself, and seeing that happen to others around me. Some of these purge poems are, as part of my practice, ways to engage and activate in ways that do hopefully enlighten, and also for me not to internalize the damage and violence that comes with those kinds of acts. It’s a way to give back the violence without being violent, and still honour my experience. So it’s breaking the cycle of violence, but it’s still trying to give back to the people (who are enacting that violence) a sense of what they’re doing by engaging in those behaviours, while at the same time, building a way to not let that stuff take root within me and hurt me or others.

I like “Spiritual Footprint”.  I think it does the same thing, but it’s a much more gentle purge. For people who might feel a little tender about coming to these realizations, it’s a gentle piece. That was another kind of anthem that came out of the experience of seeing so many people acting out their entitlement to their pain in a way that hurt others.  Because they were in so much pain. But feeling pain is not license to inflict pain. It’s easy and it’s understandable because of how we have structured our communities, societies, families, friendships. Sometimes people can be aggressive towards total strangers as well as  their loved ones. This poem came from seeing it, and looking inside myself to understand those moments within. I believe that feelings are teachers – and when they come, the work is to understand them and learn from them so we can understand ourselves better, so that we don’t hurt people more, or deeply, or at all. Something to aspire to.

“Touch Skin” is a tough one because it was the beginning of the purge poetry for me. I just did the video; finished it last year (2013). The process from when the event happened to making the film was a 20-year journey. For the first many years, it was really hard to understand, let alone articulate, the experience that became a poem and eventually a film, based on a true story, because it was so loaded with so much of the violence and legacy of oppression, of colonialism, of racism, of classism, of segregation, of privilege. Sometimes it’s hard to separate from your lived experiences, because that’s still stuff that’s happening around us today. But eventually the poem came when it was ready. It told itself: it was aybe 2004, and is part of a trilogy called “Oh to be me” or “The few times in my life that I’ve ever been speechless” (laughs).

 

The worst part of that poem, and that life moment, is that she didn’t wait for my answer:

“…and before I could gather my shocked senseless wits about me or muster a response… a wrinkled and bony white finger poked my sweaty brown arm…”

I’ve had influences in my life like growing up South Asian in Canada and out east that inform my world view in a way that makes this kind of interaction a virtual impossibility. The thing about Touch Skin is that I said a lot of things in that poem that are still true today. Those moments are still like getting kicked in the gut, and it takes a moment or two – or sometimes more – for a person to recover from those things, depending on how hard that blow strikes you.

“What is in you that in so many years of living, sheltered years of living, you chose to stay away, from how many hes and how many shes, from how many… because of their colour?… Touch me? You want to touch me?! I would have said ‘No!’, but now it’s too late….”

It’s a commentary on privilege and people’s choice to just ignore the rest of the world because of their privilege. It’s a commentary on and reflection of their sense of entitlement. “Touch Skin” is a poem that was the first of its kind [for me]; it opened up the door to say “here’s the other side of your action”. You feel entitled to your privilege but don’t want anything to do with the consequence, or to the wake of it. That poem was a way to create that insight.

MEL: What happens in our heads with that kind of “back-and-forthing”, if I can use that term?

AA: I think that’s where I would use a term like failure. As a human community, I think we lapse into failure when we lose our compassion for one another, and we can’t seem to connect with our empathy. When we distort our privilege into a type of entitlement that overrides someone else’s humanity, I would call that a failure.  To me, that’s just maybe more of a tragedy, than more of a failure. And even if we do use the language of failure, I have to believe that we as a human society can adjust ourselves. I think, maybe in little ways, when it comes to my purge poems or poems that have something to do with oppression, that’s me sharing ways in which I’ve understood my own corrections or adjustments. Or else they are the adjustments or corrections I desire in my own environment [laughs softly].  Because all you can do is put it out there. But this idea of failure; there is that underlying sense of sorrow around the tragedy of the failure for compassion, but at the same time, you need [still] more compassion in the face of that, to understand it, to accept it, and hopefully to create a space that allows it to move and shift.

Asna Adhami specializes in telling intercultural stories, in singular and plural contexts. She explores themes of culture, identity, multiplicity, success, struggle, transcendence and resilience in all her work – as a poet, photographer, journalist and filmmaker – calling herself a “cultural expeditionist.” Asna’s passion for the resilience of the human spirit manifests in her work on justice and equity initiatives, writings and photos that aid transformation and societal change on a local, national and global level. She also applies this sense of equity to media access and awareness courses and her intercultural education work. Asna’s poetic works are ignited by spirit, love, nature and simple moments in human experiences. She is influenced by many, including Urdu, Persian and English poets, and is especially inspired by the traditional Sufi poetry of elders and ancestors. Asna regularly engages audiences with her provocative poetry, headlining shows and performing at arts, cultural and human rights events.

 

M.E. Luka is a trailblazing creative consultant, scholar and media producer-director with two decades of leadership experience in the culture sector and cultural industries, particularly broadcast and digital media, non-profit management, and culture sector business development. She is a published business and academic specialist in creative and strategic policy, planning and practice. Luka is an award-winning arts documentary producer-director for television and digital media as founder of CBC ArtSpots, including culture-based non-linear storytelling, social media management and visual culture in her approaches. M.E. is currently co-developing an interactive media property that could change music video production globally. The heart of her work plays out at the intersections of the arts, cultural studies, communications, media production, design and social media. A Vanier Canada Scholar and doctoral candidate (ABD) with a defence date of August 2014, she has a proven passion for research and teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Contact: http://moreartculturemediaplease.com/ | @meluka01

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