Cross-stitch: Vidha Saumya

Elham Rahmati (b. 1989, Tehran) is a visual artist and curator based in Helsinki. She is the co-founder and co-editor of NO NIIN. In 2019 and 2020, she worked as the curator and producer of the Academy of Moving People & Images (AMPI), a film school in Helsinki for mobile people.

Vidha Saumya (b. 1984, Patna) is a Helsinki-based artist-poet. She is the co-founder and co-editor of NO NIIN – an online monthly magazine in Finland, and a founding member of the Museum of Impossible Forms – an award-winning cultural para-institution in Kontula, Finland.

What is an adult problem that nobody prepared you for?

Elham Rahmati

Last month, on a rainy May day, I had just sat down to put together a collective letter to the art institutions in Finland, calling upon them to issue a statement of solidarity with the people of Palestine and to use their power and resources to apply pressure on the Finnish government to condemn Israel’s settler colonialism and to demand an end to the occupation. I wasn’t necessarily hopeful that the letter would do anything or that many artists would agree to sign it. Afterall, most of the time, being political in this art scene is a matter of one’s mood. It is a choice that many feel they have.

While I was working on the letter, I kept getting phone calls and text messages from my aunts in Tehran, telling me about their problems with one another. In January 2020, I lost my grandfather, and soon after, the whole family started falling apart. Every day, petty fights and conflicts erupted over things I couldn’t care less about, but they were matters of life and death to them. Sisterhoods, held so dear, were getting trashed and teared down, taking down with them the memories I had so persistently hung on to of the once tight-knit family I had grown up with. My poor attempts at mediation were not only not going anywhere, but they were making things worse. Once, I was a little tipsy and in a ridiculously good mood, so I suggested auntie A approach auntie B–who was enraged with her over some shit–the way Shahrukh Khan would, with love. I promised that love would be the answer to everything and that if they talked to each other from a place of love and affection, which I was sure they had for each other, they could find a way to forgiveness and reconciliation that would take them back to whatever half-assed normal relationship they had before my grandpa’s passing. My post-advice self-gratification didn’t last long as my Bollywood-inspired master plan failed miserably and I was politely asked to step down from my position of the wise diasporic problem solver. In other words, they asked me to shut the fuck up and let them unload on each other whatever pain and anger they had suppressed to avoid upsetting the family patriarch. What’s the point of concealing decades-old grudges and resentments now that he’s gone?

The phone calls ended and I looked at the letter in front of me. I’m useless at dealing with even the most trivial of domestic dramas. What brings me to think I can do anything meaningful in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle? I’ve had similar thoughts before, usually when I’ve gotten into an argument with a male family member about their unfortunate, misogynist ways of thinking. How can I proudly bear the title of being a feminist when I’m incapable of holding my own in a conversation with my father/brother/uncle, etc. to make them understand why what they have said or done can be considered misogynistic without giving up halfway through the conversation/battle?

Isn’t it true that most of us feel like failures when it comes to bringing about change in our circle of loved ones? For the most part, our lives cannot afford to live up to our own politics and values. Wasn’t it Marx who desired that his daughter marry into a wealthy elite family and his wife to always wear a red shade of lipstick? Wasn’t Arendt a racist who wrote in support of segregation in the US South, praised colonialism and called it a “form of achievement” carried out in “exotic countries”?

Isn’t it true that most of us feel like failures when it comes to bringing about change in our circle of loved ones? For the most part, our lives cannot afford to live up to our own politics and values. Wasn’t it Marx who desired that his daughter marry into a wealthy elite family and his wife to always wear a red shade of lipstick? Wasn’t Arendt a racist who wrote in support of segregation in the US South, praised colonialism and called it a “form of achievement” carried out in “exotic countries”? I could have used a course in art university curricula that focused solely on preparing students to deal with the hypocrisies, offenses, and sometimes outright crimes committed by the star artists and thinkers they’ve been taught to learn from/cite/idolize/hold exhausting reading sessions and panel discussions on. We haven’t been taught how to come to terms with such disappointments, whether in ourselves, our friends and family, or in those whose politics and practice we admire and look up to. We haven’t been taught what to take from them and what to leave behind. We haven’t been taught what to expect, from whom to expect that, and when. We write Call for Action letters to fight against things we’re suffering from, be it climate change, racism, or Israeli apartheid and we address those letters to individuals instead of institutions and governing bodies who have actual power and control over these issues. We are disappointed in these bodies so we put the burden on our own, becoming unpaid agents of Neoliberalism, unwillingly, unknowingly. An adult problem that nobody prepared us for.

***

This editorial has been a pain in my ass for a while. I started it in May, finishing it now a day before publishing the fourth issue. Why? I don’t know. I guess June has not been the easiest month for me. Those of us growing up in Iran who at some point were or still are sympathetic to the Iranian Reform Movement of the late 90s-Early 2000s call this time of the year ‘خرداد پرحادثه’ which translates to ‘Eventful/momentous June’. One reason for this is that the Iranian Presidential elections happen every four years in June and they are always a major spectacle of power struggles in the local scene of politics, at times promising and at times, like this year, frustrating and devoid of any hope. My eventful June/Mercury Retrograde this year came with an overload of work, romantic disenchantments, overwhelming expectations from others, a thesis presentation and my 32nd birthday, celebrated next to the sweetest of feminist allies in Stockholm with a mudcake and a birthday present from Vidha. She gave me an embroidery of the word ‘Nonsense’ which is a catchphrase of hers that I’ve come to love and parrot after using her tone. I’m going to frame it and hang it in my flat as a constant reminder of many things. One being that not everything I say, write or do has to make sense at the time I say, write or do it, this editorial included.

PS: The other day, the friend of mine whom I mentioned in my previous editorial called me. The one who had the overly ambitious plan I had advised to tone down because I thought there was no way in hell it could be taken seriously at this point in her career. She told me she got the grant she had applied for and she mentioned that she didn’t tone anything down. Then she suggested that I give the update here and since I’m ending the text addressing ‘nonsense’ and that of my own in particular, I thought I should listen to her.

The ‘and love’ in NO NIIN

Vidha Saumya

Until I considered furthering my education and relocating to Helsinki, Mumbai was home, and the prospect of continuing to live and work there seemed permanent. Mumbai never coaxes you to stay back - like a freeing parent, she is happy to have you back but happier to let you find your place in the world. I still consider Mumbai to be my home, a city that is comfortable, manageable, and energizing; and Helsinki, a city I have resisted, critiqued, and complained about, is also my home. Helsinki has taken me in like a new friend, and I wonder how much of myself will I discover here? Although I am still arriving at version 2 of myself and life is more often anticlimactic, I am confident that I am making progress through drawing, writing, cross-stitching, thinking, talking, and at the moment through a step-by-step, halting, physical process. It takes time. I often reflect on who I am now and how this city has shaped that. When I was about to board the flight in January 2016, my dearest friend left me a message saying, “The universe is giving you a break, embrace it fully.”

Friends wish you all the love in the world

The dual mode of imagination that an outsider is compelled to maintain is neither reductive nor simple. Their silenced voices are always looking to re-occupy the spaces which have been denied to them or are being appropriated by those who claim to speak on their behalf. These various types of knowledges must be able to be performed in our voices. At NO NIIN, we are looking at the peculiarities of urgent and necessary voices, their chaos, and meaningful instances of the contributors’ non-standard, personalized orthography of every issue.

Every week, from 9 to 5, Elham and I mediate between the editorial and administrative tasks of running and publishing a monthly magazine. We dutifully follow a structure and system of work devised in the early months of the project. This system values friendship over projects, definitive working hours, being interested in the interests of the contributors, and an easy point of exit should our ecologies not match. It’s all okay. It’s not that we’re unaffected by criticism that comes from places where we seek compassion. When that happens, we bicker, we bitch, we rip, we stitch and move on. In the past six months, I have leaned on Elham for support and resolve, and she has been an audience to my “nonsense” grunts.

Love is “Nonsense”

To keep things simple, we chose (from an open call) and commissioned texts that feel intuitive and relevant to the writer’s reality, rather than ones that require the reader to acquire more complicated standards employed in theoretical editions. Because the function of the artist has evolved considerably, producing a profound separation between the interests of disciplines and developments, if we do our work effectively, the readers will be able to sound out relevance and resonance with their ongoings in the ecology of what we think of as the art world. This impacts the artist, and through our editorial work, we’re working together to figure out how to overcome or traverse the legacy of institutions, and how the artist’s relationship to the scene may nurture new vocabulary and notions.

To love you need time

NO NIIN aspires to quickly absorb new ideas in the artistic air and use them as a springboard to develop new theories about fragmentation, disruption, art autonomy, logical thought, practicality, and everyday meanings. There is admiration, there is troublemaking, there is organising, there is attention and bringing them together to see what happens. Will NO NIIN assume a role of its own creation?

Is it possible that our commitment to love will not wane even with the harshest of criticisms, and the bleakest of times? Love subjects the world to reason, a toggling between unity and disjunction. It rebels against the wholehearted understanding of universal language, speed and flux and plunges with full force – towards a bricolage, a disjuncture, broken lines and disjointed narratives.

Love is a continued dialogue

NO NIIN aspires to quickly absorb new ideas in the artistic air and use them as a springboard to develop new theories about fragmentation, disruption, art autonomy, logical thought, practicality, and everyday meanings. There is admiration, there is troublemaking, there is organising, there is attention and bringing them together to see what happens. Will NO NIIN assume a role of its own creation?

Love is the fear of the unknown

For a long time, I’ve been sneaking up on love, and by the time the last issue was finished, the contracts had been received, payment setup had been made, and the rose bush in front of my house had produced a thousand flowers. I look out for love and try to grasp it between my fingers and breathe it in. It soaks me, exposing my grief, anguish, and fear of irrelevance.

“There is no love in life, where is it?”

I’m taken aback by this question, and I return my gaze to the balcony, where the roses are white and in full bloom. “That’s love, no?”

“Those are just roses and they bloom every year at the end of June.”

I shake my head in negative.

“A-ha”, I say, I shake my head because my head is full of love.

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