The morning after Halloween, when most good ghouls were out scaring up ibuprofen and Bloody Marys, the multi-disciplinary artist Tamara Jafar called for a diasporic assembly to haunt the legendary Chelsea Hotel.
“We’ve got Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, a bunch of countries,” she demurs, gesturing towards the kitchen, where several of her co-conspirators sit in luxe velvet wraps and leather jackets, having their eyeliner touched up. Jafar, an artist-in-residence at the New Museum’s NEW INC program, makes work motivated by “the idea of decompartmentalization, which is just another word for a little bit of experimentation on transcendence.”
Through this work, she aims to consider the importance of people she refers to as “cultural producers,” specifically how they can most effectively band together to have a stronger hand in collective governance initiatives. After being asked to curate and DJ a night of Middle Eastern music and visuals at Harvard University’s School of Design, she was inspired to gather this particularly transcendent group of cultural producers — people who, by her estimation, are “crushing it” — who she loosely refers to as the “ArabsTurksPrzns.”
Inspired by a diversity of artists from Mashrou’ Leila and Fatima al Qadiri to Frank Zappa and Paula Abdul, Jafar (herself a musician as well, part of the sometimes-two, sometimes three-piece CULTFEVER) wanted to bring in everyone from costume designers to metal musicians to discuss how people of their diaspora living in the west could contribute to their own visual representation from a variety of perspectives. At the Chelsea Hotel, they’re being filmed by accredited music video director Steve Willis for what will eventually serve as the visual accompaniment to Jafar’s Harvard presentation.
“I have a lot of friends who are involved in cultural production but also in counterculture, who don’t really tend to spend a lot of time outwardly discussing their origins. When you sit down with somebody, you don’t necessarily think you’re going to have a connection based on something that feels arbitrary — especially when you grow up in the west and you’re like, ‘Well, I’m in a band and I don’t really spend much time every day meditating on my ethnicity.’ It becomes funny when you meet a dude in an Iraqi metal band — well, a dude in a metal band that happens to be Iraqi — and suddenly you’re like, ‘Oh shit, where were your parents in Baghdad? When? How did you get over here?’”
This common ethnic bond is one starting point for what Jafar identifies as a “fluidity of affiliation,” an intersectional, sociopolitical approach to the artistic process. “We’re consumers of media. We hear the loudest yellers, too, and the loudest yellers occasionally have opinions [about people from the Middle East] that scare the shit out of us… At a certain point, I think there’s a moment when I was like, ‘Am I an Arab? Do I count? Do I get to self-identify?’ The point [of “ArabsTurksPrzns”] is to start considering again how to contribute to the ways in which we might like to see portrayal of Arabs publicly.
“A lot of us grew up in places where what we were doing was actually very difficult to do, in the sense of our families and parents not necessarily getting it, or approving, or appreciating it,” she continues. “So beyond the fact that being a musician isn’t necessarily the easiest lifestyle, we had sort of an in-common hurdle to jump of trying to connect to our families who didn’t necessarily approve of what we were doing.”
Hence the self-assembled family of “ArabsTurksPrzns,” gathered in what was continually referred to as an “Arab puppy pile” on a long velvet sofa. When the university asked her to provide visuals, she initially felt “ELATED” — all caps — “because normally they don’t go for the girl in the rock band. But then I realized there aren’t visuals that I would get behind, that I really believe in, of people representing the types of music I like to listen to that are created by Arabs and Persians and Turks and people from north Africa.” So she made her own, in hopes that Arabic music will finally get the credit it’s due from the world of rock ‘n’ roll.
The end result, audibly and visually, is everything Tamara Jafar cites as being intrinsic to her work, and artwork that serves the global community — Intersectional, representative, and inarguably, transcendent.