Shadi Al-Atallah & Sadé MicaIn Conversation
Shadi: We can start with talking about the talk you had this weekend with Lubaina Himid at the Tate, how did it go and how did it come about?
Sadé: So when I finished uni in 2018, Salford University, they offer a scholarship programme for graduates. I applied for that and I got it and it meant I got a studio paid for a year, equipment, money and also mentoring via Castlefield. Throughout that time I didn’t actually have a mentor for that year, but in 2019 once my scholarship ended Castlefield put me in contact with Lubaina and we’ve been in contact ever since. At first it was formal mentoring: talking about my progress within the art world and stuff like that. But now it’s a bit more informal I guess, we meet when we can and talk about art. I knew she had the show opening and two months ago I got an email asking if I wanted to be a part of the talk at the Tate and I was like yeeesss I dooo!
Shadi: Yeah, I’m sure. I don’t blame her.
Sadé: It’s like, even when I get 2 emails about ‘how do you want me to display this and that?’ I’m like please, do what you want!
Yeah so, we got to talk about our own practice and link it together, discussing how we find space to create and how we kind of cultivate productive space for artists to create which was nice. And I said that it’s nice to meet with fellow artists and complain a bit sometimes. I think the allure of being an artist is very mysterious and intriguing but when you’re actually doing it it’s like ohh my god! That’s what I liked about it, we got to talk on a real level.
So yeah, I went down earlier last week to see the exhibition opening, and yeah I’ve been in contact with the people at the Tate
– and yeah the talk went really well, we had to pick a few pieces of work to talk about – Lubaina really wanted us to talk about our own work, I think because she’s been so focused on hers.
And I think she was overwhelmed with all the show stuff
Shadi: Definitely, it always feels good to have these types of conversations with other artists.
I wanted to talk about the work you’re exhibiting right now with Jerwood Arts. I love the direction you’re going with them, especially the intricate small details you’ve embroidered on the face and then the large blocks of different body parts.
Were these completed over lockdown?
Sadé: I made the head first. I made the head because I wanted to make the piece. I got told about the commission either late 2019 or early 2020 and it was supposed to open a lot earlier than it did but obviously because of corona, it didn’t. But yeah, I made the head and I decided to use the embroidery machine and it really worked for that so that I can do all the main features. And then I planned to embroider on every single piece of the body something, but it kind of was clunky when it wasn’t a prominent feature. So, I tried doing hands and patches of skin and that looked weird. So I decided to do just the nose, mouth, ears and belly button. Yeah I think I finished that sometime this year right before I exhibited in Cardiff.
But yeah it was nice to branch out and make a sculpture piece because a lot of my work is film and going out to the countryside but throughout lockdown I wasn’t able to, so it was nice to re-route my practice.
Shadi: Yeah it was a really nice shift. How do you feel about working with figurative sculpture, is that something you want to keep doing?
Sadé: Yeah because I wanted to, so the show is travelling around to three different places, it started in Cardiff and now it’s in London then it’s going to Sheffield and in the middle of the project I got an idea to do different limbs so it can be positioned differently on each wall, but then life and corona and everything and I was like, let me not branch myself –
But yeah I do want to progress that. Somebody had the idea the other day of putting loads of them on one wall and I’ve done dancing films before so it would tie into that and also the movements I do in my other films. I definitely want to continue with it, but It’s quite a tedious medium and also my hands and the upholstering –
Shadi: Oh, Is everything hand embroidered and sewn?
Sadé: No I got an embroidery machine, it’ll do all the images on its own. So it’s like mwah! But it’s all the upholstering and stretching the material it kills your hands. And also having the space and the right conditions to chop up the mdf outside, it’s all weather and life dependant to because I can’t just go out in the garden. It’s snowing outside right now.
Shadi: Oh no it’s snowing already?
Sadé: Yeah, don’t, it started yesterday. So I can’t do anything in the garden or cut so it’s weird that the logistics of making are so informed on so many other things in your life. I can imagine you with painting if you don’t have a studio space.
Shadi: It’s impossible.
Sadé: Yeah just setting up in the kitchen maybe?
Shadi: I tried and I remember my dog was a puppy at the time and I had to cage myself in with her puppy pen because she kept trying to run towards the paintings. I locked myself in.
Sadé: Yeah you’re the puppy in the cage. It’s like with my cat. If I’m crocheting. So I’m just like, whatever the cat wants, I’ll do.
Shadi: So you’re not working in a studio space at the moment, is most of your work done at home?
Sadé: I moved out of my parents’ house last summer and so I have a spare bedroom that I use as a studio. I thought I would keep myself in there but my bedroom is really big, I wanted to swap them around then I couldn’t bother moving my bed so now my bedroom is studio 2.0, kitchen is studio 3.0 and living room is studio 4. Just the entire house really, but it’s fine because I’m not getting in anyone’s way, so it’s good to have that space.
I had a studio, a proper studio, for a year but it kind of stresses me out because if I can’t get myself to work or I can’t get to it, I feel guilty. Whereas if I’m in the house I don’t really have an excuse and everything is easier.
Shadi: I understand the guilt. I have a studio space and I beat myself up over everyday I don’t go. I’m like this is strike one, strike two…
Sadé: Tell me about it. Oh my god it’s so stressful.
Shadi: I’m like to myself, do you know how much each missed day is worth in rent that you’re wasting? I guess that’s the perks of living outside of London or up north is that it’s easier to afford a second bedroom space to use as a studio.
Sadé: I was speaking to people from London and telling them about the rent around here and they’re just like ‘shut the fuck up’.
Shadi: You’re tempting me to move.
Sadé: Honestly, compared to London it’s unreal. I don’t have the hustle spirit for London, I don’t know how you all do it. But yeah it’s so good to have the spare room, I have all my stuff there. I don’t have to travel anywhere to get to it, it’s all there.
Shadi: It must feel different living with your work too, I feel like that creates a whole other dynamic than having your work be separate.
Sadé: Yeah because when I had the studio, you feel the guilt, but you also feel, you get more of a break from your work which can be a positive thing because you’re not consumed by it all the time or sat staring at it while you do other things. But it’s just to much for me, I don’t know, unless my studio was in my back garden in a shed, the stress of it all is just too much for me. I like to be comfortable.
Shadi: While we’re on the topic of being comfortable, I had a question about how your work explores these ideas of comfort and discomfort. As a queer person, I find comfort and discomfort to be always on my mind, when it comes to gender presentation. When you’re home, your gender presentation can be one thing and when you’re out it can be another. There’s always this conversation of comfort and discomfort, like if I present in a way that alleviates my dysphoria then I’m comfortable but also uncomfortable physically and emotionally. I noticed these elements especially in your video work of you dancing. Do you actively think of those things when making work?
Sadé: I’ve actually been thinking about that recently and there’s this question in the Tate thing the other day and I was like, I use my work largely since the second year of uni until now as a vehicle to say things that I was maybe too scared or too confused to state in my everyday life. So like figuring out my gender via work, via art, just creating these things and looking deep inside, not having to have conversations with people to say ‘hello, I am now figuring out I’m not a woman.’ Just using film, textiles and all of that to figure it out. I think doing that and having it be this really personal journey that I’ve made really public, knowing that people could see these works and perceive them in a different way than I mean them and that is what life and presentation and gender really are anyway. I can present myself whatever way it doesn’t mean that people will see me as I want to be seen. I don’t know, there’s a sense of peace and freedom from it. I don’t know if it’s because of work or that’s how life was gonna be anyway, but I’m still searching for comfort largely but knowing there’s always gonna be potential discomfort. I’m never gonna be seen fully as I want to be. I don’t even know completely how I want to be perceived or dress myself, posture myself. But there’s a freedom now I guess, I don’t know. Exploring things to its fullest extent and pushing my body in nature has made me feel more confident and care less. I think it’s time as well and being kind of cynical and old. You know how people say when you get older you do care less?
You can only do so much and try to sway people’s understanding so much . I’ll spend all of my life doing that if I care too much. I’ll spend my whole life trying to reiterate who I am, how I am, how I want to be seen. So I’m just like fuck it.
And the binders, so at the time, when I started making them, I had never worn one but I was having issues with my chest and wanting to flatten my chest but not wanting the physical discomfort of a binder, so I made these binders that were like fashion pieces that were meant to be seen on the outside and remove the physical discomfort that we have and put it on and maybe for Cis people to look at us and maybe feel uncomfortable with the fact that we’re not hiding these means of gender affirmation. I guess through that and through the making and through the trying, I never wear anything, not a bra, my body looks how it looks. I found a peace within myself by making those works. Now I’m just like fuck it. I know that regardless people can see that I have a chest or that I’m compressing it, unless I get top surgery, I’m not gonna get that flat look. So fuck putting myself through that physical discomfort when there’s still gonna be questions.
It’s easy for me to say because I don’t have that hugely strong dysphoria. Most of my everysay life people refer to me as ‘she’ and they think I’m a butch lesbian, so it is what it is. I’ve cycled through these timelines of my own life, I thought that project would end up with me wearing a binder, but I don’t care anymore. It’s unexpected, but nice.
Also in the film in the countryside, with pushing my body physically out in nature, and not in flat lands and having a big body not used to moving in those ways. I pushed myself out of the limits that I’m used to, I found a renewed faith in my own body. There’s a nice discomfort there.
Shadi: I actually wanted to ask about your relationship with nature, especially about the work of your body in nature because I think it’s really interesting. Looking at it, I feel calm, so it’s funny that you say you found an inner peace by not giving a shit, because I feel it when I look at the work. I wanted what your relationship with nature is like, is it a connection you’ve always had and what significance does it have to you?
Sadé: I think I’ve always been intrigued by it and of course I’ve always lived in a city or suburb so I didn’t have access to real countryside. I’ve been on holidays as a kid and seen the Caribbean and the gorgeous landscapes there but never fully been immersed in it. I always told myself I want to go travelling but I’ve always felt so disconnected from nature and being able to deal with it. Like the rawness and grossness. I’m telling myself I’m a nature girl but I’m not.
Shadi: I’m exactly the same, I love nature but I can’t tolerate it, I’m not used to it.
Sadé: I like it on my iphone when I’m just scrolling.
What started those work was a prompt from another artist, she was making a show or zine I can’t remember but gave a prompt to make work inspired by something that I do for myself that’s completely selfish and at the time I thought of travelling because I kind of go travelling on my own and do what I want, no boundaries, no one to tell me what to do. Then that kind of translated to being in nature and exploring. Then that forced me to go and explore the British countryside and get in touch with landscapes that I’m just completely not used to.
A lot of it was physically pushing myself to get a good shot for the films, but it’s quite ritualistic when I’m there because I’m there on my own and having to trust that my body can handle walking down steep pathways in crocs, not appropriate footwear, with all my equipment on my own in weird weather conditions and you know, having to be confident because there are people walking by looking at me posturing myself and doing all these strange things that they don’t understand.
I wanted this kind of euphoric feeling from nature, I wanted to feel a spiritual connection, because I see all these amazing landscapes online and I think I can only imagine what it would feel to go there. I’ve not necessarily felt that, I feel I’m in awe of places that I’ve seen, but there’s this feeling that you’re so insignificant in nature, you realise how small you are compared to the world around you and it’s nice. Not to be too hippy dippy but It’s like we are the same as all these things, we are the land, we are the tree, we are the water, we are all this, we are just another element of life.
It feels like you have to slow down when you’re there and engage with all the things around you. When I’m walking through all these rivers and maintain balance and also not freeze or fall, I’m having to trust my legs and own mind that the water around me won’t push my over. It’s a new way of interacting with the world and space around me.
I feel different since I’ve been exploring outside, I feel more confident because of the way I’ve pushed my body. I feel the urge to explore now, especially after lockdown and I need it rejuvenate myself every once in a while.
Shadi: I know what you mean, I think so many people have had a similar urge to explore nature, maybe it’s because we felt so locked in and nature feels much more free.
I love that freedom aspect to your work and especially how genuine it feels. I think there’s a rawness to it and authenticity that I’m drawn to. It feels true to who you are. Especially because in your writing, you write exactly how you speak and, in your dialect, too. It feels vulnerable and there’s this link to your Northern identity. Is that important to you in your work?
Sadé: I think most of it comes out when I use text or speech audio. I don’t really know if it is important. I think I really like hearing different dialects and linguistics and stuff and I read books before where people are writing in their own dialect and not the Queen’s English and it’s nice to figure it out. And also just like tweets from Scottish people.
Shadi: tweets from Scottish people are so specific.
Sadé: Yeah and I feel proud of myself when I figure them out.
I think it’s important to document this kind of thing because in books and in textbooks we just talk in the Queen's English, properly with punctuation and grammar and all that shit. I’ve lost so much of my English knowledge since leaving school, I don’t know where punctuation goes in a sentence. But yeah, I just felt really compelled to talk how I talk because that’s how I’m best at expressing myself. I think I’m most connected to – when I think of race, I am Black, I am white, I have heritage from the Caribbean, Russia, all these kinds of places, but I don’t have a real connection to those peoples. There have been times where I felt lost or sad, that is something sad for me and I think a lot of people who are not from the countries that their ancestors are from feel the same way just like a disconnect especially when you come from places like the UK where people want you to assimilate into British culture, they don’t want you to celebrate your own, so people lose things, they lose culture and they lose language. So when I look at where I’m from and who I am, I guess the only tangible connection to a place I have is to Manchester and the north and being Northern. I have a connection to Blackness as this massive diasporic thing and I have a connection to Black people and food, dance, music, all of that stuff. But in general, my Northern identity is how I communicate. It’s important to me, just like how I like hearing Londoners speak and people from Birmingham and stuff. It’s interesting because the northern identity is so big and I know people associate any kind of Britishness with whitensess, so it’s nice that there are Black people in the north, and young people in the north. I think people think of northerners as old like ‘I’m goin t’shop’ or farmers or something.
Shadi: Yeah I was on tiktok and there were so many comments of people so shocked by these videos of a Black scouse girl with her strong accent. I think so many people think there’s only Black people in London.
Sadé: Even I get shocked sometimes, I saw a Black guy on live and I thought he was gonna be American and he had a scouse accent and I was like? It’s a novelty to hear these kinds of accents. Not to talk about representation because it’s a tired conversation, but when you see Black people in media they’re either American or Londoners. So when you hear a Black Scottish person you’re like ‘oh shit!’, so it’s nice.
It’s funny because at the BBZ show I had people asking me to translate the words that were embroidered on the shirt and I forgot that some people might read it and be like ‘what the fuck does that say?.’ One of my solo shows is called ‘it teks time’ and obviously that means ‘it takes time’ but some people don’t say it that way, it’s just funny and interesting.
Shadi: It’s funny and it feels real because you can connect with the artist more because you can hear it in their voice.
Sadé: Yeah like I’m giving a piece of me. Sometimes I feel like art, I don’t know if you feel this way, but my entire life I’ve been so disconnected from this hoity toity view of art and people think that art is glamorous and being an artist is glamorous and it’s mysterious and it’s this upper echelon societal thing. Whereas I’m just me and I talk like this and I’m working class and I’m from Manchester. So it’s nice to retain that, because I do take my art seriously and I do want to make sure it’s polished and whatnot. Not that my accent is, see I’m going into stereotypes here, because people would see my accent and my voice as not proper and that I’m not supposed to read the news and shit like that, but I don’t know, it adds this raw side to it all. It’s nice when people are like ‘I’m Northern as well’ at the talk at the Tate the other day these ladies that were like ‘we’re from Yorkshire!’ and I was like ‘ayeee!’ and they were like ‘keep representing’ and I’m like ‘I will.’
Shadi: yeah that’s so true and I feel like artists sometimes feel like they have to let go of parts of themselves and their identity because they’ve entered this world that wants you to be something you’re not. And like, I personally feel uncomfortable in a lot of art spaces. I used to feel a lot more uncomfortable actually, because I had this insecurity that I didn’t know enough or that I didn’t fit in, but I think not giving a shit is so important, to just not care. So I don’t exactly care anymore, it doesn’t matter if you don’t present in a way they expect you to because if you have to minimise who you are to fit in to these spaces then you’re never going to make work that’s authentic.
Especially if you’re making work that’s like yours, which is self portraiture, you’re exploring yourself through your work, so much of it has to do with authenticity. I connect with that because I feel like it’s lacking and when I look at your work I feel this connection of wanting to make ‘real’ work without compromising your own ideas and identity.
Sadé: Like you say, there’s this celebration of messiness, I’m not polished, this artworld is not made for people like me and you. And we’re coming into it. Instead of having to do the same thing we have to do when coming to this country where we have to assimilate and letting parts of ourselves be dampened and dissolved. We’re trying to champion them and bringing them to the forefront, take it or leave it.
Shadi: Yeah and I love the celebratory and joyful energy your work has. It’s a breath of fresh air because there’s an expectation on queer people and Black people to make sad work about how much you hate your life and that it needs some kind of ‘saving’ so others can feel better about their own lives.
Your work makes me feel happy to look at. Sad work isn’t invalid but it’s trying to box work to equate sadness with queerness or blackness that really irritates me. I feel like my own work can be boxed in like that sometimes, but my sad work isn’t sad because of aspects of my identity, it’s just sad because I felt sad that day.
I think many people don’t think actively about their queerness 24/7.
Sadé: Yeah, not all the time. It’s the same, blackness, queerness you’re constantly this ‘thing’ but most the time I’m just chatting shit with my friends or watching tele or tweeting absolute shit. These things inform my life and my work is about them but it’s also just about me as a person who is all these things and is just experiencing everyday life shit. I’m glad you said that. Most of the artists I look at, you, Sola, Bernice, Shenice, all of them, their art is informed by the same things as ours but it’s vibrant and joyous and captures the fun parts of life like in Sola’s work where people are dancing and in bed. There are sad histories with all these things, but there’s beauty because there has to be or else we wouldn’t be here because what would be the point.
Shadi: Yeah and it’s not forced joy or sadness it’s just presenting the multi-dimensional reality of being a queer person. I don’t know if you watch any lesbian films, but a lot of them are so depressing, someone has to die or tragedy has to happen and it’s like ughhh why can’t you just see lesbians chilling in an apartment or something, doing everyday shit. Or they will take a queer person and place them randomly in a show and be like oh look, it’s a queer. I guess I just want to see more art that feels true to reality.
Sadé: I remember being like 18 and and seeking out LGBT movies and particularly lesbian movies and I was watching The L Word, it is iconic but in the worst ways. I felt like a lot of stuff was very white anyway, but also very weird and unrealistic and strange. It’s like a straight person has written this but then made it about lesbians.
Shadi: Like they wrote the script with a straight person in mind and then changed it last minute.
Sadé: Yeah and then just put some sad coming out story and it’s like jesus! I guess that’s why I veered more towards books and now art because it’s actually us making it about us. It’s not some white person or a straight person making their vision of what a queer black person is which is so nice. It’s like when I saw Paris is Burning for the first time, and I know it has a shaky history, but seeing it and knowing that there are so many realities and lives of queer people of colour that we do not know and we do not see, so many histories lost and to see so many queer artists now just flourishing. We are making the history and what people will refer to. I seek out a lot of older stuff and I see that a lot of it starts at the 80s and 90s and not much before that but there is, but it’s hard to find. I’m just glad there’s an abundance of it now and we’re in control of it. It’s not just Rupaul that becomes saturated and becomes taken over by straight people. Hopefully things will stay ours. That’s what makes me sad about things like drag race, it eventually becomes this commodity. It has to be everyone gets a piece and understands it. So it’s nice to make work without any of those people in mind and have Black trans people come to me after shows and be like ‘I really feel it’ and straight people haven’t got a clue, they just like to look at it but they don’t know what’s going on.
Shadi: I guess there’s nothing for them to consume in the language they’re used to.
Sadé: Yeah and I like that. I remember my old lecturer, a nice middle aged straight white man, loves my work and pushes me and he’s proud of me and stuff. But we’ll have conversations and he’ll go ‘I know your work is not for me, I know I don’t relate to it and I don’t understand it and stuff’ and I’m like ‘hmmm yeah you don’t.’
But these young people that come to me after shows do and that’s the importance of it.
I’m just so glad that all these people I see and whose work I follow and who I’ve been in shows with, I’m just so glad that these are my peers and we’re going this now.
Wait how old are you?
Shadi: I’m 28, wait, I think I’m 27. Did I just forget how old I am? Nevermind I’m in my late 20s that’s all I know.
Sadé: I’m 26 and I feel like, I don’t know what it’s like for you, but my entire formative queer years were lived on the internet. I didn’t have queer friends, I didn’t have this whole group of people. And I use media and art and all of that to understand my history and understand who I am, it wasn’t these in person experiences where I met people and we’d go places, I didn’t have that. It’s just so nice now that there’s more of that.
It was youtube for me, people doing these daily vlogs and vlogging about coming out and tumblr.
Shadi: Oh my god yes I watched so many of those coming out videos on youtube growing up.
Sadé: I was subrscribed to this gay youtube channel where a different person who do a video each day of the week.
Shadi: wait, I think I know what you’re talking about, I was subscribed to them too. Was it the something ‘bunch’ it sounds like the brady brunch.
Sadé: YES! Baby Beaver Bunch!
Shadi: I was obsessed with their videos.
Sadé: There was Beaver Bunch and Baby Beaver Bunch. Listen I need to tell you. There’s this artist. I saw a show in Rotterdam a few years ago and there’s this artist that had four pieces, digital prints, talking about their queer experiences and they mentioned the Beaver Bunch in it and I was like, I never had these conversations. ‘Oh my god, it’s not just me’, I cried, this is the first art I’ve seen that showed such a niche side of me. I’m so glad we’re moving past things being so niche and underground and quiet and we can all share this stuff. It’s so nice to see.
I can’t belive you watched it too. Following coming out tags on Tumblr was literally my teenage years, it’s so funny.
Shadi: It’s funny because so many of us didn’t have these groups growing up, I didn’t know many queer people in real life, so a lot of our teenage life was lived online connecting to these people and experiencing.
It’s really cool to be part of things now where so many queer artists are putting themselves and their experiences out in the world.
We come from a generation where being gay was accepted but also not, a really grey zone, definitely better than the 80s and 90s but still not there yet. We had Ellen Degeneres, that’s it.
Sadé: The world’s most evil lesbian, yes.
Shadi: Imagine that being your only representation on tv, an evil lesbian.
Sadé: She’s an icon but I’m not sure if it’s for the right reasons.
That’s the thing, there’s so many conversations that I’ve never had and never will about my formative years. It’s interesting to see now, I feel like a queer elder, because I’m seeing all these tiktok teens and they’re out and they’ve got green hair.
Shadi: It’s so nice now you’re basically presumed queer at birth.
Sadé: Yeah and I’m so happy and it’s so interesting that things have changed so quickly. We came from a weird limbo but we had Tumblr and stuff and a lot of the early online social justice stuff came from that period where I learned to be myself. But there were also these people that were homophobes to the end, it’s so weird. But the tiktok kids, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’m happy for you. Now I have to keep up with the kids, this was just me, but 10 years goes fast.
My current practice is rooted in exploring the self. The self in relation to gender and performance; how the world around me affects my relationship to my queerness and the body I inhabit. How movement is policed by environment and us and how fraught the control we have over our perception is when thrust outside of solitary environments.
I explore how my body is both freed and restricted, liberating myself and my limbs in the British countryside, posturing against vast landscapes foreign to me, capturing the stillness of my form and thoughtful movements as well as those more chaotic and less considered.
I use textiles to eschew the expectation of stealth bestowed upon trans people and our bodies and embrace unmasking the performative nature of gender, placing the onus upon those who aren’t aware of the sacrifices made to find peace within ones body in the way that we are.