Chronicling displacement with creativity

By Devana Senanayake | 24 Jan 19
Lines on the Soles of My Feet by Marziya Mohammedali

For Perth-based activist and artist Marziya Mohammedali, the question “Where are you from?” crosses several geopolitical and historical boundaries. Born in Hong Kong, raised in Kenya and still retaining her Pakistani heritage, Marziya moved to Australia for university and became a citizen shortly after.

Her story follows a family legacy of displacement. As a result of the partition of India in 1947, Marziya’s grandparents crossed the British-imposed border into East Pakistan. In 1972, East Pakistan turned into the autonomous country of Bangladesh, resulting in her grandparents relocation again, this time to Karachi. Later, Marziya’s parents moved to Hong Kong and Kenya to secure a stable life for their family.

“I’ve migrated here, yes, but if you look at it, all of us are settlers on this land.”

While she is now a dual citizen of Pakistan and Australia, Marziya continues to feel “other-ed” by Australian society. She says, “I’m not sure I have assimilated as people would have liked me to”.

During her first trip as an Australian citizen, the Australian Border Force pulled her aside and questioned her: “Who bought your ticket? What card did you buy it on?”

“People at the Border Force have absorbed these stereotypes about people of colour so they look at my passport and they have this moment of cognitive dissonance because that they can’t get their heads around it,” reflects Marziya.

She recognises, however, the links between the immigrant experience and the initial colonisation of Australia. “I’ve migrated here, yes, but if you look at it, all of us are settlers on this land.”

Yet, in her experience, solidarity between “othered” groups has given her comfort. She recalls a beautiful story of encountering an Indigenous man on a train right after she arrived in Australia. After the July 2005 bombings in London, she and other Muslims had been heavily ostracised. This man reached out and shaken her hand, making her feel welcomed. “You and me, we are friends and no-one likes us here,” he said.

“I’ve kept that instance in my mind for so long because it was a show of solidarity in a very crucial moment,” Marziya said. “I’ve been told all this negative stuff about Aboriginal people, and then I move here and that happened to be my first interaction of someone showing me solidarity”.

Marziya’s personal journey of displacement has been the fuel for her art and activism, particularly concerning asylum seekers and refugee rights. “I wouldn’t exist if my parents hadn’t made that journey. How many people are not going to exist because of Australia’s detention policies?”

She integrates forms of poetry and photography in her work to deliver her message. The visual element allows the disenfranchised to feel seen. Through poetry, Marziya reaches an audience that is distanced from traditional activism by striking an emotional chord.

Her work bridges the political, personal and emotional, covering themes of race, immigration, transition, displacement and belonging: “” sprang out of her simultaneous annoyance and amusement at the mindset of some American kids at a youth festival who could not believe that Kenya had buildings or infrastructure of any kind. “Being Osama”, produced right after the 9/11 attack in America, encapsulates the struggles of Muslims in a post-9/11 world. She juxtaposed a scene featuring an MC, dressed in traditional Pakistani clothes, joking about being hassled and comparing to Bin Laden to a brother’s burial.

She also managed a Kenya based project named “Koroga”, a Swahili term meaning mix and bewitch; the project fuses the visual and written forms to give agency to the Kenyan diaspora. “We played on the different meanings of the words by calling our project that.”

Through these creative forms, Marziya stresses on the importance of people of colour taking possession of their narratives and their voices. The internet has democratised the ability to be heard through the rise of self-publishing, but the struggle for self-actualisation continues.

“We hear the same white feminist voices all the time, we hear them talking and taking up space. We need to keep taking up space, being loud, being angry and making sure we are heard.”