Color photo of four women.
Batikh Batikh members (L to R): Sarah Trad (founder), KT Abdir-Mullally, Kenza Bousseloub, and Shaina Nasrin. Photo by James Izlar.

Get to Know Batikh Batikh

James Izlar

An interview with Batikh Batikh, a SWANA (Southwest Asian, North African), femme, queer artist collective based in Philadelphia.  I spent the day at their exhibition Echoes / أصداء, by member Kenza Bousseloub, to get to know them better.

James Izlar: So I wanted to start off with Batikh Batikh. How did you guys meet? How did you start?

Sarah Trad: Two years after COVID started, I was consistently hearing a lot of issues and hurdles to the SWANA (Southwest Asian, North African) community making work. There was a consistent lack of resources to further their practices—things like documenting, knowing where to install their shows, or like how to promote their shows or, you know, not having the financial resources to document a show or project that they had done in order to further get an application in for some sort of benefit; the art world always is cyclically layered. I had also in the last few years been taking on a lot of professional things that were making me realize the amount of experience I had—I’ve been working from like my first marketing and curatorial assistant jobs ten-plus years ago and had experience in preparator work, and installing, and deinstalling, and event coordination. I’m a film programmer in one of my other side-hustle projects, so I have a really big connection with international SWANA filmmakers, and so I think I was starting to really recognize my authority—the ability to kind of create an art world or an art space for Philadelphia SWANA artists and to help with a lot of what I was seeing. As I moved forward with the project, I was reaching out to a lot of people that I had met over the last ten years of working on the fringes of the art world in Philly. The first thing I knew was I needed to get project grants, and then I knew that because of the political state, the politics of Batikh Batikh, like, I didn’t want us to be a nonprofit. I wanted us to have a lot of freedom to express our points of view politically because the SWANA region is a very political region, and I wanted us to be as authentic as possible.

In August of 2022, I started reaching out to KT and Shaina because they were the first artists that I was going to pursue for solo projects. And initially, I knew that I just wanted to sort of host like pop-up exhibitions and get local artists solo exhibitions, which is a really big moment in an artist’s career. And I wanted to be able to document that and give them mentorship, curate the work, handle the promotion and marketing that not everyone has the experience in, but be able to do that also coming from a context of being within their culture.

When we started with Shaina’s show, we basically were just applying for grants to figure out, like, okay, you want framing, you want printing, we’re going to figure out how you pay none of those costs and how to document it, promote it, get a website, get an Instagram presence, etc. I talked with KT and Shaina about having them on the roster or the program for this year’s shows and they both just were so excited with the work that was happening—they just wanted to get more involved. Then the same thing happened with Kenza during Shaina’s show; Kenza came on board and we also simultaneously had the opportunity with Vox [Populi] to get this space for, like, April–May, for now.

JI: Shaina, with your project, how has being in this collective shaped your process as an artist? That goes for all of you as well.

Shaina Nasrin: I feel like one thing Sarah and I really connected on when we first met was common themes in our world. And so I think I definitely was thinking about all of these things beforehand and that was, like, a really good connecting point for all of us, or at least for my perspective. We had a few studio visits, and I feel like from those studio visits, the actual exhibition was curated and that specific show was developed over time, but it was rooted in things that I’ve been thinking about for a while. And being a part of the collective has affected my process because I’m able to show my work to other people. I feel like I was working alone a lot and was not able to talk to anyone about what I’m thinking or get a second opinion. A lot of my work is very personal and it didn’t always feel right to share with certain people, so I felt really safe to share this stuff in Batikh Batikh because It felt relatable to things that we were talking about. So I feel a little bit more open now in my process and being able to talk about it with other people.

JI: KT, Kenza, would you all agree with that?

KT Abadir-Mullally: Yeah, I think that a big part of what Batikh Batikh does as well with our crits is being able to present your work and not have to explain your culture for the first, like, 20 minutes. That people can, like, finally look at the work. For me, my family’s Coptic—they’re an Egyptian religious minority and that’s just, like, a lot of layers to talk about. The SWANA region isn’t just, like, Arab, you know, there’s like layers of diversity within this land. So having those conversations and talking to people who come from shared backgrounds, they may just, like, have a little more knowledge. It saves time and energy, because it’s exhausting presenting like a history of land in order to look at a sculpture or, like, a video piece, so that’s something that I really value, and it’s also a really important pillar for BB.

JI: Jumping off of that, you guys have been doing a lot of critique, and events based around the SWANA community as well. How has the community responded to the events, to the collective?

Sarah: A lot of people have come up to me being like, “Where have you been? Where has this been? I’ve been waiting for this space. This feels so needed.” That’s what it’s been expressed to me, and that’s honestly kind of upsetting a little bit because I’m like, “Oh, where have we been?” But it is also a really rewarding thing to hear, because I feel like I’ve met so many people that I would have never crossed paths with, so I at least feel a bigger sense of community. I get that sense from other people as well.

Kenza Bousseloub: I was talking about this Sarah a while ago, when she mentioned that to me. And I was saying how there feels like no sense of community—even with my work, too, I feel like I am lacking the sense of guidance or support—and when she told me about [Batikh Batikh] I was like, wow. This was a little bit of what I needed. I’ve been wandering around, kind of desperate for this connection with people that can understand me and the work that I do.

JI: And how hard was that before the collective started? At least within the city? Was it difficult at all to try to make that sort of connection?

Sarah: I think like, for me, it feels a lot like it was the right place, right time. I also feel really sad about that. I mean, people have come up to me like and been like, “Oh I wouldn’t have moved out of Philly if I knew that this was gonna start!” Like we had someone come to our crit that lives in the Midwest and they were just like, “I used to live here for so long. And now I’m back visiting, but I came to this event.” We’ve had someone from Vancouver who’s Algerian come to [Kenza’s] opening and, like, for the Ya Sapphics screening and Philabibi dance party, people came from New York—

Kenza: And North Carolina, too.

Sarah: Yeah! I also think that I was still seeing this lack of this one region that gets overlooked a lot because it is so diverse ethnographically, even within BIPOC art spaces or art initiatives. It’s hard, I think, to figure out where SWANA people fit in sometimes, and there’s just a huge lack of knowledge about the SWANA region, who occupies it, and what kind of art people are making. There wasn’t really a space in Philly that was specifically geared towards bringing a community of emerging, local queer and women artists from the SWANA region together, and that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to see people giving resources to emerging artists, and wanted to see that diversity reflected. And then the other thing is, in the Northeast there’s nothing really here for us, which is strange considering the migration history of different SWANA people to the US. Like, [Batikh Batikh] is not just like a SWANA space, it’s a SWANA-American space, and like I would even say it’s very specific to Philly, you know? Even in New York there’s no space that’s a SWANA dedicated gallery. Arabs have been there since the late 1800s. And then, the fact that we were in Philly and also have just this huge growing art scene of young emerging artists, I was like, well, let’s just start one and do it ourselves. And, I think for me, it’s been very Philly-centered; I’ve had people come from outside of the region be like, “Can I come and curate something?” And I was like, no, this is just like a Philly thing right now. Like this is just until I get all the resources to the Philly artists. We’re not expanding, this is really just for us. We haven’t had this for so long and we have such a big growing community, and for me that’s, like, where I wanted to really focus.

James: Do you think you would ever expand outside, in a perfect world?

Sarah: I mean, I would always take care of Philly! Philly First, you know? We have collaborated with people; we’ve cross-promoted Oscilloscope because of connections we had in New York, and I would love to do screenings with other collaborating spaces with people in New York. But the one thing that I always say with people that are collaborating is like, how do I bring it back to Philadelphia? Like, there’s people internationally that want to do screenings that are happening co-current, but for me I’m always like, okay, as long as it’s happening in Philly and people can see it here, that’s when I’ll expand.

JI: Shaina, there was something about your and Kenza’s work where, in a way, they’re an introspective on life and remembrance. How important is remembrance to you?

Shaina: It is looking back towards my family in history, thinking about the complexities of what they were potentially going through, and trying to link it to my own experience. I think there’s always these cycles that families go through generationally, and it’s hard to kind of separate myself from that in my work because I’m just always thinking about it and how that remembrance can also influence the future, not only just the present moment.

Sarah: Not to box you in, but it’s a very diaspora thing. I say that’s only because I have been around other SWANA curators who don’t give a shit about the diaspora. There’s been this thing where, as someone who was born here, a lot of artists (including myself) interact with their culture by placing it in both spaces, like to look back to family. You look back to place, you look at memories, that’s a huge thing for all of our practice. There’s also this thing where people don’t take the idea of reflecting on diaspora as seriously. And for me, that was something where I was like, why isn’t that relevant? There’s a huge diaspora population, and that work is going to talk to people. We’re an international culture, but we’re not always going to be able to access our home countries for political and financial reasons.

Shaina: Right. Sometimes, remembering is the only way you can access.

KT: Also, I feel like it pisses me off because of people who are here for religious asylum, or political asylum, or because they’re queer, you know? That’s like stupid. There are corrupt governments all over the world, in the SWANA region, as well here, of course. That should all be taken into account, because how communities thrive and maintain the culture in other places is so cool and beautiful, you know? And that’s something we’re talking about in our work, how culture can move beyond borders and still have connections to land.

Sarah: And to understand the complexities of things like migration and being queer. Sometimes people leave because they can’t be who they want to be in their home country. Batikh Batikh is trying to examine those things without judgment of those countries, because also, you know, we are coming from that region and understand the long complexity of why those things happen, but also to understand the intersectionality of being queer, being a woman, being in diaspora, having these cultures that already or so underrepresented or, like, like have all of these misrepresentations. So, to really dive into those intersecting identities is really important and we wanted to focus on that.

JI: KT, is your upcoming exhibition also about memory, or something else?

KT: So, I’m trained as an archivist as well as an artist. [The exhibition] is an installation of various sculptures and writing, as well as an interactive sculpture. The title is Desecration: A Process, and it’s, like, comparing American and western Egyptomania, as well as the canonical disregard of, like, queer stories. Internationally, there’s this hunger and desire to claim Egyptian identity, and to literally destroy its bodies and graves to get your hands on some old artifacts to tie yourself to power and empire. As far as queer stories, I worked in like several different archives; a lot of the collections have been found in dumpsters because families have a queer family member, and their friends to go dumpster diving and say, “Can we keep the evidence of their life and their joy, and, like, try to keep it safe?” A lot of the archives are grassroots, volunteer-run, people just being like, “Let’s not forget people that we love.” We want to encourage people to look through their own histories and make those decisions while they’re alive and, which is sad in the queer community, how that’s something people really should be thinking about more. Then during the opening, we’re gonna have a performance of some really awesome burlesque performers here in Philly. We’ll be talking about the exotification of the SWANA region, this worry and desire to live protected, and gender-bending queerness. It’s going to be crazy!

Desecration: A Process opens August 10 at AUTOMAT, in the Crane Arts Building, Philadelphia.

James Izlar is a photographer and multimedia artist currently working in Philadelphia. Born in Washington, DC, his work is inspired by his broad cultural background. You can usually find James at the movies or getting lost in a daydream.

This post was supported by a Re:imagining Recovery grant to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.