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.
I don’t know who needs to hear this, BUT:
A year has gone by since Vidha and I started the work for NO NIIN. When we got the grant from Kone, I made a bunch of deals with myself:
This time, I’m not going to overwork myself to death. This time, I’m not going to try and prove how worthy I am or our project is to any individual or institution. This time, I’m not going to allow anyone to prioritise work over my wellbeing. This time, I’m not going to prioritise work over anyone’s wellbeing. This time, I’m not going to jump into a collaborative project without doing the groundwork.
The list goes on. Vidha and I decided to make a point of these promises by making them visible in our magazine, in the way we work together and with others, and in the way we introduce NO NIIN in different settings. A few days ago, we had a session with MFA KuVA students to talk about how we have managed to set up the magazine. After the talk, Vidha said, “Having these talks now feels like making omelets.” We don’t need to rehearse or prepare; we know what we’re doing. Well, for the most part, at least.
How qualified are we to do this job anyway? Throughout this year, we have been asked to give exact measurements of our prior experience in publishing, either directly, or via sugar-coated comments that didn’t bother to be sweet enough to hide their unnecessary aggression. I do appreciate ‘professionality’ but I wouldn’t go so far as to carve it as a headstone and hold it over mine or anyone else’s heads. What I love about our work in NO NIIN is that we’ve made a solid effort to value learning over proficiency. I’d like to think that in this field, genuine interest and curiosity-especially when it stems from a place of love, trump the vague idea of ‘skill’. We worked with many contributors who had never done interviews, had never written essays or reviews, and the results were more often than not fascinating. I am so grateful to those contributors who accompanied us in stepping out of our comfort zone by accepting to carry out our commissions despite not feeling fully qualified for them. If there is any magic in NO NIIN-which I’d like to think there is-it is thanks to them.
So what other projects are we working on apart from NO NIIN? Another question we constantly get that makes me spiral down in anxiety. Co-editing a monthly magazine is a full-time job. Is that not enough? What else should I do to prove my artistic flair to you? Well, nothing, because as mentioned above, I’ve made myself a promise that I don’t owe shit to anyone, and honouring that promise is worth more than a handful of projects that I’d take on as evidence of my hyperproductivity. One might say, this is the Kone grant privilege speaking. To those people, I’d respond, “Yes, I have a two-year grant, which means I have a temporary residence permit that will end the minute my grant ends, and if I can’t find another grant, or at least a part-time salaried position, I will have to pack up my bags and leave the country. So shut it, and go check your own damn privilege and leave me alone with mine.” I see I just proved Vidha’s observation that “the third point of conversation in a setting where there is an immigrant is always the ‘residence permit’.” I try not to think about these things as I can’t bear the idea of allowing Migri to rule over my life decisions.
Last year, Globe Art Point held this amazing online dialogue session ‘Reclaiming Boundaries: Dialogue On Harassment And Inappropriate Behaviour In The Finnish Arts & Culture Field’, in their info sheet was a list of behaviour that constitutes harassment and inappropriate behaviour. In my previous working relationship, I had been subjected to most of the items on that list.
In NO NIIN, I found a friend and colleague, Vidha Saumya, who helped me recover from all that. Something I cherish in our friendship and work is that Vidha never shies away from giving me credit for my good ideas and she never takes note of my bad ones. She has never held any of them against me or even mentioned them in passing. If you were in a position where the opposite of that happened to you, then you’d know how much these gestures mean.
Taking on an artistic project in which you inevitably have to work with and communicate with many people, each from a different background, is an extremely taxing task. Add to that, the fact that the outcome of your work is publically available and free for all to see anytime they wish, which automatically makes you vulnerable to different sorts of scrutiny. Some come to you with what we like to call their ‘griefcases’, which is a combination of accusations, and unsolicited trauma dumpings, and worse of all expectations of who you should be and what role you should play. And god forbid you say no, which we have, repeatedly, I think partly because, as brown women in their 30s, we know when we are being bullied.
When the year (2021) began, Vidha and I made plans every month to visit exhibitions and events, read, research, and discuss ideas, but the deeper we got into the work, the less regularly we had time for any of this. As creative people, we often like to forget the administrative part of the job: attending to contracts, making payments, board meetings, and emails, emails, emails. It’s not an overestimation to say that at least half of our time is spent on attending to these things. The remaining time goes to making commissions, reviewing Open Call submissions, meeting with contributors, editing texts, and, of course, checking up on what’s happening in the art scene in Finland and occasionally elsewhere in the world.
In the midst of all these, Vidha and I have always made a point of finding time for what I’d like to call ‘play’, which usually consists of Bollywood talk. I have to confess, in my early 20s, I was a horrible snob, one of those that would judge you relentlessly if I caught you enjoying Britney or any other product of the ‘mainstream’. I have an auntie whom I’m pretty sure I’ve traumatised by my constant eye rolls every time she mentioned how much she adores Shah Rukh Khan. Well, auntie, the joke’s on me, I’ve joined the club, and so has Vidha. It’s never too late to fall for Shah Rukh Khan. In him, we’ve found an abundance of charm, playfulness, humour, vulnerability and love. On November 2nd, Vidha and I gathered in my apartment to celebrate his birthday. We drank wine and ate carrot cake, and Vidha got me to wear a saree for the first time, which made me feel like a queen. If this doesn’t help you partly recover from Kiasma’s response to the question of roles and responsibilities, then I don’t know what will.
During this NO NIIN year, we’ve had few but highly difficult challenges alongside moments of immense joys. The fact that our collaboration has survived those challenges is a testimony that NO NIIN may come and go, but this friendship is here to stay.
Elham (left) and Vidha (right), wearing sarees and celebrating Shahrukh Khan’s birthday
In the June editorial of NO NIIN, I had written about love as a substitute word for work and friendship. Love seemed like a well-functioning algebraic x and I decided to pursue doubts about work and friendship through love. The twelfth month, as the year comes to an end, is a good time to compile poignant details of what the mind has dealt with throughout the year, and if it has brought friendship, wah, kya kehna.
To show each other that the work is difficult, or life feels difficult, needs more than modicums of support. You need someone who can companionate with your politicality. It has been a full year working with Elham (E). A feeling of being amazed is always brewing in the kitchen of working-in-E’s-company; in the company of a feminist who has not only made me a Shah Rukh Khan fan but has knowingly or unknowingly embalmed my confidence, and the love I have for myself. As we work together, we familiarise ourselves with each other’s vagaries, assertions, preferences, vocabulary, moods, and nonsenses, and we flourish in each other’s praises and compliments. We guard each other from unnecessary pressure, and at the slightest hint of the other person getting stressed, we rush to relieve the other - common utterances include, “You rest”, “Don’t worry”.
A couple of weeks ago, we were chatting about being upfront, and I said that I too want to be like that - ‘upfront and take it on the chin’. E responded, “Yes, you should do that, I’ll support you.” Imagine two women killjoying their way into work and life, aha, the joy!
In June, E & I had travelled together to Stockholm to talk about NN at My Friend is Here: Rethinking Feminist Collectivity in Troubled Times – a gathering and a public programme meet curated by Alba Folgado and Carlota Mir. I wasn’t excited.Anything out of routine feels like unnecessary trouble to me these days. But, E insisted, and persisted, and assumed that I must be interested. During this trip Elham defended her thesis, we celebrated her birthday, gorged on hotel breakfasts, roamed around in the market areas looking for the best of fashion (because we were told Stockholm is better than Helsinki (ALL LIES, I say!). On the way back to Helsinki, I thanked E for insisting on this trip, and I was struck by how certain she had been all along that we would have a good time in Stockholm. There have been several attempts in the art and culture scene here to club the two of us as one, or worse, to not assume the individuality of our aspirations, dreams, desires, ideas and that we come from very different geographic, political, and personal locations. Having said that, it is not untrue that we have found many commonalities, and in those commonalities too, we have our differences.
Around the time of launching the fifth issue, we had a rapid disagreement over a review idea, which quickly escalated into me feverishly typing down comebacks instead of reading E’s responses. My heart was sinking, my fingers felt ablaze, my eyes brimming (yes, I’m dramatic). I thought, is this the beginning of an end? Is this where the split begins? Without stopping to think, I brought into this review ideation, years of unresolved matters with working partners, accusing E of implying assumptions. In her quintessential minimal demeanour, she replied sharply, “I’m not trying to imply anything, Vidha. If I have something to tell you, I tell you directly. Don’t read into my sentences.” Instantaneously, it felt as if someone had flash melted my ice palace of defense, held me in their warm embrace, tucked a pillow under my neck, a blanket over my body, and asked me to rest. Tears rolled down my face, I had never felt so safe in my working relationships. I went silent. I found it difficult to accept, but these feelings came with such open arms that I couldn’t withdraw – a realization that I don’t have to constantly watch my back or squint to look deeper, and that I can trust, and that I can be wrong, and that I can lack foresight, and that I can be more boring than I think I am. 45 minutes, and a burger later, I sent E an apology, to which she responded, “No worries, let’s meet tomorrow”. I had not been in such buoyant waters of post-confrontation ever before.
Already in the first months of working together, I found myself nodding in affirmation to mostly everything E suggested for the magazine, and I still do. The truth is we are so used to having our agency threatened and our efforts gaslighted that I admit to wondering during such encounters, ‘Am I so agreeable to all her plans?’ One time when I responded in my usual yeah sure sounds great E said, you don’t have to say yes to everything I say, you can also say no, to which I responded, yeah sure sounds great. It is very pleasant to realise that I have surrendered to her intelligence, her ambition, her doubts, her concerns, and her vision. I think about how such surrender has allowed me, and NO NIIN’s readers to fully enjoy and be amazed at the fireworks of her vision that is sincere, full of desires to be fulfilled and be fulfilling, to be happy, and to find ways to make these possible for the contributors and readers.
NO NIIN in 2022 will also be full of love, criticality and art. Like the year that has gone, the next year will also come with new challenges, which E and I will sometimes dodge and sometimes call for coffee (perhaps in our new office).