La piel de papel · Paper Skin

It has been many months, perhaps even years since I last wrote a post. Today I have just returned from a week long artist residence at La Cala de Chodes and of the many different themes I worked on, I spent a lot of time thinking, talking and writing about my research process as an artist. In this blog, I have always tried, to share this very process and have missed doing so. I left residence committed to write again, at a slower pace, leaving time for thought and preparation, and decided it best to start today.

Over this past week, I set myself an intention of trying to comprehend my relationship to how I consume culture: responding to a personal dilema I face time and again regarding cultural appropriation. Before I continue, I will just step back for an instant and situate myself – in italics.

I am from many places: born in Casablanca, to a family of Sindhi origin, my father born in Mumbai and mother in Accra. I grew up with an earful of languages: English as my mother tongue, French as a second language, which was trickled with words in dárija while Hindi garbled from the television in colourful Bollywood dramas and choreographies and in the background the “elders” (grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles) would converse in their Sindhi dialect to share family secrets. This, turns out, is one of the best ways for a child to learn a language.

I have lived in many places: I moved to london at 18 to study art and design, began my professional life back home working for the family business while making and exhibiting large abstract oil paintings in my spare time. I began a new phase when I moved to Madrid 15 years ago and studies many different aspects revolving around book-making. During this time, I lived in Paris for two years.

My work is multi-disciplinary: I write, illustrate, design clothes, teach, make books, cut paper. And all of this, these lists of multitudes, have been fundamental in how I live and work. All of this has made me insatiably curious and have caused internal unrest which more often than not provokes creative responses of one sort or another. 

So, all of this said, I can get back to the appropriation dilema and address my obsession with multitudes. I have spent a couple of decades struggling with the weight of what I was entitled to take from the multi-cultural baggage that make up the stuff of my vital experience. Despite the weight, I have not found another way to navigate this world, rather than ingesting all that I live, experience and see. Once ingested, through my creative process I have learned to mix and mash it all up: weaving together miniature paintings, medieval illuminated manuscripts, bestiaries, Indian Kalamkari block-printing, Dadaist collages and William Morris patterns to name a few. The discomfort of taking things that I don’t consider my own has held me back from playing more, from mixing more, from moving out of the cultural references “close to home”. This weight, this fear of appropriating in the colonial sense of the word – by trying to own it – has conditioned me to feel uncomfortable learning from new and unrelated sources. Stopping to reflect upon all of this awoke a series of questions: · does our cultural heritage necessarily define us? and if so, how do we define cultural heritage? · have I, for many years, felt more comfortable nourishing my creative landscape with references linked to my bloodline? · and by doing so, have i done the very thing I can’t stand – which is to attempt to define and identity as purely one thing? · is it possible to navigate the world with a discourse other than a genealogical one?

And the questions, of course, led to more, and even bigger questions questions: · what does it mean to make something your own? · what does it mean to “take the skin” of something or someone else? · do I inhabit my own skin? · how do I inhabit my skin? · what does it mean to be an artist? · does self-expression surge from a desire or necessity?



This week in residence, I began questioning all kinds of thought patterns and beliefs. In parallel, I researched cultures, philosophies and intelectual discourse unfamiliar to me: the Caribbean carnaval, African masks, transvestites, Amazigh female signers, Oceanic art, mediaeval bestiaries, the monstrous and the grotesque. I looked into art brut, antique toys, the work of Paul Cox, Mexican popular art. I watched performance artists such as Lemebel, System K, Leigh Bowery. I listened to the songs of Rodrigo Cuevas, La Bruja de Texcoco and Lido Pimienta. I searched the etymologies of words such as folk (english), insuffler (french), baraka (arabic), and anthropomorphic (english); as I discovered the delights of visual poets such as Joan Brossa.  I stumbled, time and again, across the concept of transformation and metamorphosis.



Images of the Chilean writer, poet and performance artist

As I sat down to write, I couldn’t help thinking back a few decades ago, to my first readings of Edward Said, back when I was grappling with the idea of colonialism. Rather than paraphrase, I found this quote, that expresses succinctly the paradigmatic shift I seek.

Visual poems by Joan Brossa

“No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental. Yet just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultures and ethnic identities. No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about. Survival in fact is about the connections between things; in Eliot’s phrase, reality cannot be deprived of the “other echoes [that] inhabit the garden.” It is more rewarding – and more difficult – to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about “us.” But this also means not trying to rule others, not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies, above all, not constantly reiterating how “our” culture or country is number one (or not number one, for that matter).”
― Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism


During various conversations at La Cala, I realised one part of the key I was looking for: cultural appropriation is not owning something but rather making it your own. Which links me to a newspaper article that seemed to tie everything nicely together. The concept of “resonance” coined by German sociologist Harmut Rosa has been elaborated by Nathanaël Wallenhorst, doctor in the sciences of education, of politics and of the environment. Through his studies of the concept, Wallenhorst develops the concept of resonance as an active listening of our surroundings and of the planet, transitioning from a state of existence to co-existence and integrating resistance to the current state of affairs as a predominant attitude.

The article also proposes a strong shift in education and the consumption of culture, revindication the very act of breathing in or infusing (insuffler in French) culture to make it one’s own that I mentioned previously. And I would like to link this argument back to the perplexities of appropriation and identity once again with the words of Said.

“Liberation as an intellectual mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialism, has now shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarnation today is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile, the political figure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages. From this perspective then all things are indeed counter, original, spare, strange. From this perspective also, one can see ‘the complete consort dancing together’ contrapuntally.”
― Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism

This sense of dance, sounds and movement that Said so eloquently mentions, tied in with the concepts of transformation/metamorphosis are precisely what intrigued my research into the carnaval. Working with the idea of carnaval is interesting in that it offers a dance between concepts such as indulgence and constraint; celebration and austerity; chaos and control; transformation and identity. I was surprised to find  nuances in the etymology of the word: borrowed from French carnaval, either from Italian carnivale, from Medieval Latin carnelevale, from carnem (flesh) + levāre (to lighten, raise). The alternative carnem vale (“flesh farewell”) is a folk etymology. To raise from the flesh, to leave the flesh, to restrain from the flesh, to embrace and renounce carnal desire.

The concepts of elevation, transformation and celebration implied by carnaval offer me a space for playing within new imaginary areas. I spent my week directly researching the subject, during which I discovered the incredible Herzog documentary Jag Mandir. In parallel to this I looked at medieval bestiaries and monster imagery. I read about the mask in Paul Zumthor’s Le masque et la lumière.

I cut paper, made stamps, drew with ink and played.


There will be more readings, explorations and ruminations. There will be more time and space for playing. The carnaval has only just begun.

Song of the day

La Bruja de Texcoco – Té de Malvón