Variant Space: exploring the female Muslim experience through art – The London Economic

Variant Space: exploring the female Muslim experience through art

A truly modern collective, Variant Space founders Nasreen Raja and Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail met not at art school or in a studio, but on Instagram. We caught up with one half of the team to learn more about their London-based, all female, all Muslim, creative collective.

Both artists identify as British Muslims but with deep connections to other places, and explore ideas of identity, culture, faith and gender through their work. Nasreen Raja specialises in printed textiles, inspired by childhood memories of Pakistan as well as growing up a British Muslim. Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail is a photographer raised partly in Saudi Arabia, creating mixed media pieces.

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Together, the two have created Variant Space, a collective of Muslim female artists who are passionate about developing discourses through their works of art: “In essence, our sole objective is to display variations in talent within the Muslim female community and conquer the stereotypes.”

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“We formed the collective after having met on social media – Instagram,” says Nasreen Jamal Al Lail. “It began as an online archive last year, and then organically developed into a community of artists. Having come from artistic backgrounds ourselves, we appreciated the richness and diversity in the various artistic forms the community offered.

“We were also acutely aware of the huge lack of platforms allowing Muslim women to take control over how they wished to portray themselves – most media representations were rather poor, limited and, at times, patronising as well as derogatory. Our main motivation to set up the space was to overcome these obstacles with artistic sense. It’s about taking charge; about freedom and choice.”

The collective’s aim is to subvert “current misused and ill-drawn” conclusions in popular culture about Muslim women through creative expression. This can take the form of workshops, talks and exhibitions, all aimed at enabling the artists to be part of a “constructive interconnected environment”.

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It wants to capture not just the intricacies and nuances of the British female Muslim experience, but of Muslim female experiences from across the globe. “We have artists from all over the world – Egypt, Afghanistan, just to name a few,” says Nasreen. “And they all contribute to a finely woven fabric in our collective. What is most unique is our shared vision of empowerment through artistic representation.”

Last year the collective took part in a project alongside the Made in Europe charity – an anti-poverty, environmentalist movement led by young Muslims – at the Living Islam festival, creating an installation piece with recycled objects, as well as other pieces, for a pop up art show.

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Continuing its global approach, Variant Space will be taking part in Shubbak Festival this July, taking place all over London, including the Hayward Gallery and Barbican, which aims to showcase new talent and works from some of the most exciting young artists from the Arab world.

Nasreen is keen to point out that the collective is not inward looking, not self-isolating as a Muslim collective – its aim is to include everyone in a dialogue: “Variant Space does not prescribe to any ‘isms’ and it is not concerned with the process of ‘othering’”, she says.

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“The formation of any group almost always forces you to adopt a standard or a label, but we are ultimately addressing a deficit through collective empowerment. This is not about adopting victim mentality and accusatory polemical art, but an effort at fluid interaction between the artists and the audience.”

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