Erin Aniker chats with festival founders Hamja Ahsan, Helena Wee and Sofia Niazi
Hamja Ahsan (writer, artist, curator and activist), Sofia Niazi (Illustrator and Co-founder of OOMK Zine) and Helena Wee (artist) are the founders of DIY Cultures, an annual, day-long festival and celebration of counterculture and arguably the most inclusive and inspiring zine and book festival in London.
As well as providing a platform for underground zines, artist books and comics, DIY Cultures Festival also champions and hosts artist-run spaces, talks, films, animation and exhibitions. I have the pleasure of interviewing them over email to find out some more about the ideas and inspiration behind the fair, how DIY Cultures Festival was first brought into existence and whether the festival has stayed true to the founding DIY ethos by which it was first inspired. We also discuss Brexit, today’s general election, what zine-making means to each of them and their personal highlights from this year’s DIY Cultures Festival 2017.
I begin by asking about the origins of DIY Cultures Festival and how the three of them first came to meet. I learn that Hamja and Sofia met each other at the London Zine Symposium in 2011 and were brought together by Sofia’s zine about Muslim women, which she produced in a still overwhelmingly white environment. Hamja comments:
I saw she made a zine on hijabis and I had never met anyone like her before in these typical independent spaces. We were starkly visible as the DIY landscape at the time was 99% white.
Hamja and Helena met working together on art projects under Other Asias, a transnational pan-Asian arts organisation that Hamja had just set up, hosting projects like ‘A Cup of Tea Solves Everything’ and doing underground art shows after their graduation. They both studied on the BA Fine Art course at Central Saint Martins and were working in new media pathways. Sofia is the only member to not come from an art school background and Hamjam remarks that “[she] takes some pride in that”.
Hamja, Sofia and Helena became good friends after crossing paths again within the ‘Free Talha Ahsan’ campaign run by Hamja in support of his brother who was detained without trial or charge in 2006 for over six years “for marginal association with an obsolete website under the War on Terror”. Talha became the only man published in OOMK Zine, a zine co-founded by Sofia Niazi of DIY Cultures, and his prison poetry was in its first ever issue. Hamja explains:
Talha’s unjust, cruel detention and extradition to a death row prison in indefinite solitary confinement and the failure of the government to protect had a role in raising our political consciousness and sense of urgency. Talha’s freedom campaign was organically absorbed into DIY cultures; I read his letters from solitary confinement on stage and there was a huge cheer when he was free.
The inclusive, radical, political and social commentary that DIY Cultures Festival champions, means the festival serves as a much needed platform for many marginalised groups and communities. Hamja refers to DIY Cultures Festival as “something of a solidarity network”, with it supporting those who protest organisations committing state crimes, such as PREVENT, HMP Belmarsh, Guantanamo detainees, Reclaim Brixton and Hillsborough Justice Campaign. Hamja comments that “the white hipster-dominated zine fairs often erased or ignored these histories and concerns.”
I ask the three of them how they first became interested in zines and how they would define them. I learn that Hamja in particular has been fascinated with zines and zine culture since the age of 13. She recollects:
I had been making and collecting zines since I was 13 years old, when Riot Grrl and the print music press was in ascendency. My brother Talha bought the Bikini Kill/Huggy Bear split album – that aesthetic influenced us, as well as the cultish following around the troubled Manic Street Preacher lyricist Richey Edwards and accompanying zines.
Helena goes on to describe a zine as “a way of getting your voice heard when no one else is talking about what’s important to you.” She explains:
It can be printed, hand-written, drawn or coded. It can be, but is not always, a physical object. It is an artwork which anyone can make, affirming the fact that anyone can be an artist. It is a drawing, a poem, a piece of prose, a story. It is a call to arms, a manifesto for change. It does not have to be pretty or polished; it just has to be true to your ideas and your voice.
The festival has grown organically from its birth in two spaces at Rich Mix to being in five venues and having a four-week exhibition coinciding with a day festival, DIY Knowledge, at the Lower Cafe Gallery in Rich Mix.
We discuss the growth of the festival and whether DIY Cultures has stayed true to its founding DIY ideas and ethos. Sofia explains:
“The day festival alone this year was attended by over 2000 people. In 2013 it was attended by around 800 and our #DIY2017 hashtag was trending number 2 in the UK. This has all been made possible by the incredible effort, energy and enthusiasm of so many people. DIY Cultures would be nothing without the people who support it, choose to be part of it and who travel from all over to attend it.
The festival does not operate in a vacuum: DIY Cultures takes inspiration from many other initiatives and is as good as the great many publishers [and] activist and artist led projects who we have had the pleasure of collaborating with.”
Sofia describes her experience of zine fairs during her art school years, where she had an appreciation of the illustrated books, funny zines and informative booklets, but also an awareness that the existing zine fairs she visited were just not relevant for most people:
I wanted DIY Cultures to be a festival that had the creative and DIY spirit of zine fairs but also addressed serious issues and explore intersections of art and activism. Hamja’s ‘Free Talha Ahsan’ campaign was quite central to the first fair and we found that organising a festival around DIY culture and grassroots activism would mean a wider range of groups, artists and publishers could be involved which in turn would attract a broader range of people.
Something which is really important to me, which few people probably notice, is that DIY Cultures is an alcohol-free event and that there is a prayer room available. I’m really grateful that Rich Mix accommodate both and that Helena and Hamja are keen for this to be a regular feature of the fair; it shows me and other Muslims that we can organise, attend and be comfortable in creative and cultural spaces. We don’t have to sit out or leave our religion at the door.
A zine is, arguably, the most inclusive and easily made form of communication for ideas and opinions. Its inclusiveness lends itself to the expression of political and social commentary of marginalised ideas by marginalised groups. The influx of applications received for this year’s festival prove the relevance of both DIY Cultures Festival and the zine in today’s multicultural UK. Sofia says:
As the zine fair organiser, I was excited to see so many new people and collectives applying for table space at DIY Cultures this year. As a Riso geek, the work of Birmingham based Rope Press really stood out to me. They had a very impressive spread of beautifully bound publications and an enviable range of colours at their disposal. I think it was their “F*** Trump” sign that initially caught my eye.
Studio Operative and Dead Trees and Dye were serving up some really great publications and posters from behind the ‘zine bar’ including very relevant general election related propaganda and the latest issue of their illustration journal Limner 4.
There were a lot of international highlights too this year. We (OOMK Zine) recently travelled to The USA and Malaysia to research independent publishing practices and were keen to share some of the work we had come across. We visited Malaysia (KL, Ipoh and Penang) and the USA (Chicago) in order to build international connections with artists and groups who are interested in DIY practices […] For DIY Cultures we were delighted to be able to exhibit some of the zines we collected during our trip to Malaysia along with the research publication we produced (‘A Study of Publishing Practices in Malaysia: KL, Ipoh & Penang’).
The first DIY Cultures Twin City is Chicago and as part of the exhibition at Rich Mix they displayed a range of zines and publications collected throughout their trip including a selection chosen by staff at the legendary Quimby’s Bookstore. Work from artist and publisher Marc Fisher (Temporary Services, Half Letter Press) and Palestinian illustrator and author Leila Abdelrazaq, was also exhibited.
Helena discusses her favourite highlights from this year’s festival:
The festival has opened up many interesting discussions over the years and always strives to promote those whose voices are less heard in mainstream media. For example technology, like zines, has long been male-dominated. A few years ago the news about Wikileaks and Edward Snowdon was hitting the headlines and it really put into perspective how overarching the impact of technology could be. As an artist who works with technology, I wanted to show how important women were, both [in terms of] working in technology and creating art that exposed hidden narratives concerning its role in society.
For our 2015 exhibition DIY Justice, we included artists group Deep Lab an all-female collective of writers, artists, coders and cyberfeminists who examined issues of privacy, surveillance and large scale data aggregation. We also had a special talks panel on DIY Science, Technology and Gender, which included speakers such as Black Girl Tech who teach coding to black women to support and empower them, and Chooc Ly Tan, an artist specialising in science art.
This year, we also continued the theme of women and tech through our commissioning of Hannah Whitaker’s Run to Run as our Interactive Commission, where the aim is to run along Brick Lane collecting objects and eventually visiting the job centre to get employed. We also included Gemma Anderson in our exhibition DIY Knowledge. Her work offers an alternative way of classifying nature through isomorphology and drawing. Through these curatorial decisions we hoped to widen the discussion surrounding women in science and technology, and highlight the important role they play.
My conversation with Hamja, Sofia and Helena turns to the festival’s role in providing a platform for all voices to respond and contribute to UK politics, in particular Brexit and the looming general election. Hamja mentions the impact that these two events have had on DIY Cultures Festival 2017:
The upcoming election cast something of a shadow over the talks panel. Every speaker had been on the receiving end of cruelty of the current Tory government in the toxic post-Brexit climate.
Hamja goes back to our discussion of this year’s highlights and describes the now viral photograph of Saffiyah Khan, the closing speaker at DIY Cultures Festival 2017, smiling serenely in the face of an enraged EDL protestor:
The photo of her staring the EDL in the eye was so charged. She looked like the coolest person in the world, like Patti Smith on the cover of Horses fused with Jayaben Desai on the Grunwick strike, but for the struggles of our times.
She was very humble and self-deprecating at our event, and told me she was honoured to speak at our event and had an ace time.
Hamja moves on to discuss the wider, more general achievements of DIY Festival internationally:
It also meant a lot to me that DIY Cultures had not only changed the landscape of London and UK but also sparked inspiration in other continents. The Tanzania Zines were another big highlight for me and the alternative press histories of Uganda. It was the first time we have brought East Africa into our Zine nexus. They can also be seen in the DIY Knowledge exhibition.
I also commissioned and co-directed a new film on Hillsborough, the worst police cover-up in British history, with a focus on how fanzines helped people survive and resist under Thatcher. It was great to explore zine histories outside of London. Sheila Coleman, of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, has been one of my heroes and one of my radical aunties.
But really, there were too many highlights to choose from. The closing panel was an all-female one on prison with the Reclaim Holloway movement who gave a really insightful presentation on the social injustice behind the incarceration regimes. I think the neurodiversity long table which featured intersectional feminist psychotherapist Guilaine Kinouani also worked really well this year. As Helena and I aren’t really fashionable and trendy like many of our audience and magazines who display interest in us, relooking at Autism histories and Aspergers as a theme in the festival opened something up.
The most attended and packed out discussion this year was called ‘Shy, Autistic, Introvert, Resistance and Identity’. It featured a long tribute to Lisa Simpson, by Nina Power, as a feminist and resistance icon. This was also the launch of my debut book Shy Radicals : Antisystemic politics of the Militant Introvert, which seeks to turn all hitherto intersectional identity politics on its head, with a satirical piece of speculative fiction about a political party that aims to be the Black Panthers but for shy people.
Helena is the first to mention this year’s outdoor commission: Clapham Film Unit’s State of the Nation Digital Soap Box, a personal highlight of hers, that which was commissioned before the three founders of DIY Cultures knew about the general election. Helena explains:
Once we had found out about the election, we realised it would be a great opportunity for people to have their say and try to change things for the better. Topics discussed included the difficulty young people have getting a job and accommodation as compared to the older generation, Hillsborough and the impact zines had on their justice campaign, and getting out the vote in 18 to 25 year olds so they can have their say in the upcoming election.
Helena also mentions Mapsquad, a group of disabled young people who participated in and put together a music video with Jack in the Water, and the neurodiversity long table that was also one of Hamja’s highlights:
There were discussions around creating spaces for autistic spectrum artists and performers, and how arts organisations can facilitate this. Many forms of expression were encouraged including drawing, speaking or just nodding in agreement, and people were not forced to speak if they did not feel comfortable doing so.
For me it is this kind of inclusivity and openness which makes DIY Cultures special. This democratisation of creativity extends to all forms of art at DIY Cultures, not just zine making, allowing a more diverse spectrum of creatives into the space, and to exhibit their work.
Image One: A photo of some of the exhibitors at DIY Cultures Festival 2017 taken by Senaka Weeraman
Image Two: Official DIY Cultures Festival 2017 poster illustrated by Sofia Niazi
Image Three: Front Cover of ‘This be the answer: Poems from Prison’ by Talha Ahsan
Image Four: Official DIY Knowledge Poster
Image Five: A photo of some of the exhibitors at DIY Cultures Festival 2017 taken by Senaka Weeraman
Image Six: A photo of selected Malaysian zines at DIY Cultures Festival 2017
Image Seven: A photo of selected zines by Rope Press at DIY Cultures Festival 2017
Image Eight: A photo of artist, Chooc Ly Tan
Image Nine: A photo of Saffiyah Khan and Hamja Ahsan holding a ‘Make zines, destroy fascism’ tote bag
Image Ten: A photo of local resident Saffiyah Khan smiling at EDL leader Ian Crossland in Birmingham (Photo: Joe Giddens/PA)
Image Eleven: Front Cover of ‘Shy Radicals’ by Hamja Ahsan
Image Twelve: Neurodiversity Open Longtable Poster image by Vincent Camley