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The Future Is Now: Conversations with Amirah Sackett, Malika Umarova, and Marat Raiymkulov

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Read the conversation with Marat and Malika

Podcast by Amirah Sackett

Simon Dove: Hello and welcome to The Future is Now, a podcast series from CEC ArtsLink. My name is Simon Dove. I'm the executive director of CEC ArtsLink. For this podcast series, we asked ten independent artists and curators from different parts of the world, whom we call the Future Fellows, to talk about the current context of their work and to share their vision for how they see the future of arts practice. In this episode, we hear from Amirah Sackett, based in Chicago, U.S.A.

Amirah Sackett: My name is Amirah Sackett. I'm a dancer, choreographer, educator, and activist based in Chicago. I weave Islamic themes with dance in my choreography. The style of dance I do is hip-hop, in particular the West Coast style of popping.

To build a more equitable and just society, artists have stepped into a role of speaking out on issues that affect them or the communities they are in. That's why I started doing my work, We're Muslim, Don't Panic, back in 2011; to educate the public on misconceptions related to Muslims, in particular women in Islam.

The pandemic shaped the way we're making art. Some people rose to the occasion. Others had to just take care of their life for a while, and their creativity will spark post-pandemic. I saw multiple things happening. One: artists embracing new forms. People that were stage performers taking to video. I learned a whole new way of putting my art out there, creating short dance films with my partner in the pandemic, Ahmed Zaghbouni, a filmmaker. It's still a learning process for a lot of artists. These are some heavy times, and some artists don't feel like creating super heavy work when they're already depressed or down.

Aside from professional artists, what's happening in society? During this pandemic, the rise of TikTok; of fun, short little clips that are entertaining. I compare that to World War I and World War II, when musicals skyrocketed. People wanted to escape reality. Right now, some people want reflective art, and artists want to create that, and some just want to cheer people up and entertain them. People are gravitating towards things that make them happy and take their mind off of realities.

The West's perception of women in Islam has definitely changed since I started my work back in 2011. Now we have Congresswomen who are Muslim. We have a lot more visible representation in the media. Muslim voices are being amplified, including Muslim artists. I was part of that movement, in 2011, where a lot of Muslim women were starting to vocalize their truths and starting to create. Now, personally, I feel like, yes, educating people of other faiths about Islam is a mission for me still, but more so it's being subtle and letting my work speak for itself.

You can clearly see I'm Muslim. The themes in my work are universal truths and philosophies that are part of Islam, but I feel everyone can relate to. I've been interested in making work that touches people's hearts in a way that they recognize that truth. Then secondary, they recognize that it's coming from a Muslim voice, and that shows more of our unity than our differences. I would call it a more subtle approach. The title of my newest piece is Latif, one of the names of a law, and it means, the subtle.

I've done several virtual programs over the past two years. I was able to teach spring semester dance class at Harvard because it was virtual. That was awesome. A lot of arts organizations are struggling—definitely less work for me than pre-pandemic. Universities are not bringing in artists this year.

The Doris Duke Foundation, especially, has used their funds to support artists. I received a nice grant from them. The grant was about supporting artists so that they didn't have to leave their art and take another job. There has been some great support from foundations, but it has taken a dive and for a lot of artists, especially in the hip-hop community, it's been difficult.

Using Doris Duke as an example, the shift in supporting an artist, and understanding that I'm not just supporting this artist to produce a piece, but to live so that they can produce pieces, that's something I've never seen before, where it's not like I'm giving you this money and then I want a product, it's I'm giving you this money to support you, because I believe in you as an artist and don't want you to struggle and worry about your basic needs. I hope that's a shift that stays. I hope we can look at artists as valuable members of society that should be supported.

When you're struggling to pay bills, you'll be forced to produce art that wouldn't be done as well as if you had your basic needs met. My creativity goes downhill because I'm focused on those things. When basic needs are met I establish a regular routine of creating; getting in the studio with other dancers, that's when I'm soaring. I would love to see that shift in how organizations give funds to artists, to take into account that without a base of supporting artists’ livelihood, there won't be great art. Of course, we'd have to really encourage artists to get better within their forms.

If you're working a job every day, you don't have time to practice your art. You don't have time to elevate and hone your skills. It's one thing being socially conscious artists; it's another to be socially conscious artists who produce art at a high level. That's my goal with encouraging the Muslim community, to work on their skills as artists. It's not enough that you're Muslim and you want to talk about it. The art that you produce has to be at a high level, and it has to compete on that world stage.

The pandemic has encouraged our artists to support each other, definitely. I've seen more collaborations than in a long time. I've seen dancers who never posted videos, never were really on social media, all of a sudden on social media. They've gotten attention from around the world that previously they hadn't had, because they didn't really have the skills or the time to invest in putting their art out there—or their dance form—on social media. Still, they're not necessarily gaining a lot of income.

In particular, our older generation of artists—especially some of my mentors here in Chicago in the popping scene—we were able to, myself and my partner Ahmed, make a video for one of our legends. We helped him with that social media post. He's in his fifties; he wasn't super savvy with social media. After we did that initial, high-quality video, and he posted on Instagram, people went crazy. People that have seen him dance in person were so excited to see that level of quality in a virtual way.

Since then, he's really taken to posting on social media, and I've seen him grow his base and get new opportunities. That's one way we're supporting each other. Since I was collaborating with Ahmed, I was like, all right, who else can we uplift with your filmmaking skills? Who in my community can we work with? The current dance film that we created, called Latif, features also two members from my crew here in Chicago who are not Muslim, but now are honorary Muslims because they're in my piece. No, I'm just kidding.

I am optimistic for the future here, post-pandemic. Any time we go through a huge change as a society, we have to look back at it. We're still in it, so it's hard to know how things have shifted. I literally feel like I'm swimming in it. I have to get on the beach and look back at where I was, to understand how it's changed.

One thing is for sure: the way we produce art has changed, and the way we interact with people, myself as a dancer, teaching Zoom classes the possibility of using this to reach more people. Artists now can share things and society is used to seeing it on Zoom. They don't have to attend in person. That's exciting. The possibilities are greater, reaching more people and new audiences. Connecting with artists across the world is being explored way more than before the pandemic. We will keep doing art projects virtually, for sure.

What's nourishing me now, I'm working in Chicago with a team creating pop-up events in our Indian Pakistani neighborhood—a very famous street called Devon Avenue. I live a few minutes from there, where I get my halal groceries and things like that. Mainly it's a street of grocery stores, small shops. There's no art really happening there, no art museum, no events. Myself and a team, including Asad Jafri who headed up this idea—he's a cultural producer—and his wife Munirah, we've created these events. I love it. It's getting back to my beginnings as an artist. We're popping up on a street corner. We don't have any permit from the city; we're just making stuff happen.

We had an open mic last week and the way the community gathered, and the interest, and the love; we had ladies leaning out their apartment windows to watch, people stopping in their cars, people grocery shopping and stopping to listen to poetry. It was incredible. This is feeding my soul, doing these events at home, and I didn't have time for that before the pandemic because I was traveling, and I hadn't been able to invest in Chicago. Right now, getting back to basics and doing something where it's you and your friends coming up with ideas and just making a show happen, on a street corner, it's giving me so much life. It's so organic and beautiful, and it's benefiting the community. That's bringing me great joy.

Teaching classes in Chicago, I have two students who are twelve years old that have grown so much over the past year from taking class with me; seeing growth even during this difficult time. Those girls give me life too because they tell me stories about the school year. Everyone's worried about the youth during this pandemic and they just have me laughing and laughing about their funny experiences with wearing masks, and kids doing pranks on the teachers in Zoom classes. I'm like, They're going to be okay. Me being in touch with the community directly through the youth and through my neighborhood has been really, really helpful in feeling optimistic.

Pandemic made you look at where you're at, what's around you, and how can I utilize it during this time to create. That was a big blessing and is a continued blessing. Out of anything negative that we experience, there's always positives. There's a lot to be thankful for even during this dark period of human history, but we'll get through it Insha’Allah and we’ll be better than we were before.

Simon: You have been listening to The Future is Now, the podcast series from CEC ArtsLink with support from HowlRound. All interviews and postproduction is by me, Simon Dove, executive director of CEC ArtsLink. The specially composed music is by the extraordinary bass player and composer, Shri. This podcast is part of the ArtsLink Assembly 2021: Future Fellows, supported by the Trust for Mutual Understanding, Kirby Family Foundation, John and Jody Arnhold Foundation, and of course, generous individual donors. These podcasts are available to listen to, or download the transcripts at our website, www.cecartslink.org, or at howlround.com.

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Podcast by Marat Raiymkulov and Malika Umarova

Simon Dove: Hello, and welcome to The Future is Now, a podcast series from CEC ArtsLink. My name is Simon Dove. I'm the executive director of CEC ArtsLink, and for this podcast series we asked ten independent artists and curators from different parts of the world, whom we call the Future Fellows, to talk about the current context of their work and to share their vision for how they see the future of arts practice. In this episode, we hear from Marat Raiymkulov and Malika Umarova, also known as Art Group 705, based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Malika Umarova: I'm the first to start. My name is Malika. I'm an artist, although I do not have professional artistic training. I come from medicine and used to work as a doctor, but now I'm part of Theatre 705; it's a collective. We are based in Bishkek and are making something in between visual art and theatre—something between or a connection between them.

I also have my personal artistic practice and also work with children as art teacher. That's brief, and I should pass to Marat.

Marat Raiymkulov: My name is Marat. I work as a physicist and also as artist. Sometimes I'm invited as an actor to theatre plays or performances. I'm participating in Art Group 705 since the very beginning and was going with the Art Group through several crises.

We live through these crises and search for approaches to go through them. Considering the school part of my life, I was witnessing how USSR was collapsing and so-called post-Soviet time was coming. I had a chance to watch how other systems were coming. This became the source for me to turn to art, which gives rare tools to analyze social, emotional, existential processes.

After the collapse of Soviet system, nothing is yet organized, not yet stable, and we were thrown into unclear, not-so-easy-to-understand, to comprehend, situation. Art allows to search your ways in this life.

We are based in Bishkek, capital city of Kyrgyzstan. We used to be part of Soviet Union. The center of Soviet system was Moscow, not Bishkek, and later, after gaining independence, the city was renamed; used to be called Frunze, then it became Bishkek. Bishkek is often shaken by revolutions. We've three revolutions, coups d'état, whatever you call it. Sometimes it's parliamentary country, sometimes totalitarian country. It's constant shaking, like a mirror of Central Asia. And what we do in Bishkek is, as I said, an exploration, study research of our society, our history, and an attempt to collect yourself, put yourself together.

Malika: Who is our community? First of all, those that are closer to us. These are our artists. Our art community is not shaped, not based on any big or any kinds of artistic institutions. It's totally organized on the enthusiasm of several people. Part of our work is, as Marat says, put yourself together to just be artists, to make art.

That's how these artistic communities are nurtured and staying alive, surviving, and how maybe new artists and audience can emerge. I come from medical field and became interested in art exactly this way, being involved into Art Group 705, and now in Theatre 705. It happened to many other people who were joining.

The art community is shaped through this working together, joining each other for a period of time and keeping these friendship connections. But also of course, there's another community: the audience. Our principal theatres are very strange places. There's a basic understanding, in our people, that one needs to go to the theatre; this is art, high art, and one needs to go.

But people do not go because it's simply boring. It's not about them. It's shaped as, “this is how art should look,” but is not about them. For these people to become community-involved, interested in art, they need to recognize themselves and their modernity, or nowadays life, in these works, in the theatre, in the performances, in any kind of events they can visit and see and touch.

Working with them is talking about them, is talking about us. That brings this connection, and they have this feeling of recognition in our theatre place. We're becoming very small, totally based on ourselves, but city theatre. Because they come and say, oh, this is about us. And even we're trying to make it more in Kyrgyz language, and they're saying even in the language, yes.

Marat: I agree with Malika. We approached collectivity in a different way, not as the union of artists—a heritage of Soviet times—who are joining each other under the same manifesto. Our collective looks more like a theatre where people join each other to bring something different, more than just the sum of the bodies.

This is a collective body. This is one of the basic principles of theatre—different from contemporary art, where you can exist in various mediums, in various spaces. But theatre exists exactly in its own community. This is harder because you cannot go and live, go to New York or the Pacific Ocean, because theatre is people, community, and you have to talk to them, see them, spend time with them.

Pandemic did sharpen relationships, and the crisis was, on the one hand, due to pandemic. But on the other hand, this was political crisis in Bishkek when this third revolution happened. And it showed us that for our authorities, priority is economics.

There are many questions also about the legitimacy of this authority, but we're not talking about that now. Money and big, rich houses, and power: this is what is important in this time, in this political crisis. In crisis times such as today, art becomes even more important because it is necessary to understand what is happening, what words you can use to describe it, and what emotions you have about it. Huge catastrophe is happening, but it might stay without words.

What we can catch, we try to reflect in our performances and exhibitions and theatre. It's important to find what is happening to us.

Malika: Many people are leaving the country in search for a better life, partly due to the reason that Marat was talking about: when you cannot find words to describe, when he cannot find words that he wants to hear. Also talking today to some people, they were saying that it's hard for them to find people for work, for jobs, because good, young, clever people are leaving, and this year even more intensely than usually. I'm worried about that.

When people from our community make a choice to stay, or they want to—when you hear the words you need, or something about you—you receive energy, and this energy helps you stay here and hope for something for your life. It proves there is some reason to still be here, some reason to think: this is my city, these are my people.

Marat: Again, I agree with Malika. There is a tendency towards one-dimensional man. There is a very direct, linear form of life where it's important only to stay alive economically, and that's all.

But while you solve this question, ecology is suffering, institutions are worsening, and it's not less important. Where do people see themselves and their children tomorrow, in future? Future is now. When we work on an artistic network, join forces with artists to create performance, create a theatre play, you see that there are very few alternative spaces, alternative ways where and when you can do this work.

It's important to share your knowledge, not like in the news, where knowledge does not cover our life, events from our life. You need analytics to decide what to do in future, and future is now. Only when we join each other, we create this alternative. Of course, if we succeed, the joy and the energy we have from this.

Today, we can see possible alternatives. Last year was so complicated that we were not sure whether to continue things we started long ago. Also, to make performance is quite complicated, and when you put it within social distance, it's super complicated, and it's the death of theatre. But we continued and are doing it because we felt that people want it.

Today they are ready to support this. There is emerging understanding that art can be a tool of transformation and comprehension, unlike news and social networks. Art is able to talk more in complexity, more accurately, more interestingly. This understanding brought people to readiness, to support physically, to collaborate. This understanding for theatre, for art, is of first importance: people and their attitude, their wish for such activities to continue.

And second, about institutions, this is about, for example, donorship, but not only, all art institutions. Never to hurry, to take time. Art institutions often are either hurrying or making boring things. But pause is a basic principle of learning, not to be limited by timeline, deadline, etc.; to be in the process; to be able to refer, to return to your previous ideas and material and work and rework it.

And the third: it's important for artists, themselves, to support each other. They do it, not all of them, but basically they do it. Our Central Asian community is based on the principle of helping each other. That is what we want to take from now into the future.

Malika: Yesterday, I was thinking about this: not hurrying and making real things instead of making something according to someone's schedule.

Sometimes I'm worried and pessimistic, and sometimes quite optimistic, but majorly, I have optimism. Because I've seen all history of our group and the changes that we experienced, and I see new people coming to theatre place, and this is what Marat was telling, that people are coming to understand that this art is important.

Also because of support from some friends… When there are times you think no one can understand what you're doing, if there's a group of people who recognize and support it, they keep you ongoing and make you an artist. I'm optimistic because of some people.

Marat: Yesterday I was watching a movie. I did not have a chance to find out what this movie was, the name of it, but I liked it. And I liked, most of all, one character. This movie is telling about a spaceship lost in the universe, in cosmos, in space. And people are not aware of it. They don't know it yet, that they are lost and will never come back.

There's a woman, an astrophysicist and she knows we are already lost in space. For me, it's twice as interesting, because this spaceship is the image of Bishkek together with COVID pandemic and political situation.

Also, as a physicist I understand that physics is working with catastrophes. For example, big explosion and emerging of the world, the universe, isn't it a catastrophe? Each time when physics explores these catastrophes, this is wow. In this sense, catastrophes or crises that we go through, that we experience, in a way, this is cool. On their own, they are unique, and our task is to understand that in these catastrophes, accumulated is our previous experience, but also our future.

The idea is to embrace in these crises, all the most optimistic things, and leave behind all the pessimistic things, which need to be collected in art. Thus it will be interested to read all about it after fifty or sixty years.

Malika: Marat was provoked by the words about the spaceship. We did not have a chance to watch this movie till the end. It seems that the ship found a way to return home. But this moment before finding the way is the most complicated. Crisis attracts crisis, and this attracts panic. So does the COVID. We might have not yet understood everything about it. The spaceship needs to find the way, but first to free yourself from panic. There are two ways. There's an engineer who comes after the artist, but the artist has first to collect everything into the land of dream, to clear the way for the engineer’s thoughts.

And we find the way to our home. I am sure.

Simon: You have been listening to The Future is Now, a podcast series from CEC ArtsLink with support from HowlRound. All interviews and post-production is by me, Simon Dove, executive director of CEC ArtsLink. The specially composed music is by the extraordinary bass player and composer, Shri. This podcast is part of the ArtsLink Assembly 2021: Future Fellows, supported by the Trust for Mutual Understanding, Kirby Family Foundation, John and Jody Arnhold Foundation, and of course, generous individual donors. These podcasts are available to listen to or download the transcripts at our website, www.cecartslink.org or at howlround.com.

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