Text and interview: Alec Coiro
Photos courtesy of Orientation
Ravelin was excited to learn about Orientation, a Brooklyn-based art collective with a mission to confront postcolonial issues, or as they put it: “[make] media orienting you to ‘the other.’” Considering the contentious moment the country is embroiled in, Orientation’s mission seems quite timely. Saad Rahaman, April Son and Natasha Sumant form the recently assembled collective. Sighting Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari as among their shared influences, the three artists believe in both the power of media and that “the more “marginalized people take media into their own hands, the more they can control how they are portrayed.” To find out the nuances of how they go about doing this, we sat down with them for a chat.
By making it simple yet beautiful, we’d like to think we’re infiltrating people’s prejudice
Can you expand on your mission statement: “Orienting you to THE OTHER”? (Do you think “mission statement” is the right word?)
Saad: White people beware.
April & Natasha: Haha, no. We’re not trying to be aggressive. By the other we just mean anyone who feels underrepresented in their skin, ethnicity, sexuality or in their way of thinking about the world. It’s not so much about race, though that is closest to us. The name of our collective is a play on Orientalism, a term, and a paper written by Edward Said. The “other” described in his paper is anyone who is not western or does not fit into the accepted gaze. A lot of Orientalist art has been created over the centuries, depicting eastern culture. We’re trying to flip the gaze so that it simultaneously empowers ‘the other’ and heightens the mainstream gaze to view us with the same kind of intensity. It’s about re-directing the attention, so it has less power to alienate most people.
It’s a three-person collective; can you tell us a little more about each of the members?
Natasha: I’m a freelance designer/art director and have been working mainly with fashion companies, designing websites and art directing digital content. I moved here from India to attend Parsons, where I studied graphic design. Growing up in India and then moving here made me acutely aware of race. I think I’ve now seen both sides of racism. It’s been weird experiencing it and realizing it.
April: I’m a freelance filmmaker and I make social video content for startups. I went to art school (The School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and it was a way for me to break out of my small town bubble and expose myself to new people and experiences. Moving to Brooklyn after I graduated also just made sense. Though the collective was only formed months ago, it’s inspired me to share cultural concerns that I’ve been holding onto for years. Specifically from a Korean American perspective.
Saad: I’m from Brooklyn and I didn’t go to art school because my parents, being first generation immigrants, have no idea what art is. I ended up doing very well in a BioChem Undergrad program. I was on my way to take the MCATS and then said, Fuck it. That pent up frustration invariably ends up in the photos. Or at least I hope so anyway.I’ve always been an artist though. Digital and traditional. I don’t see photography as the end all be all either, but it’s my current choice of medium.
How do the three of you conceive of being a collective? Or, to put it another way, how do the three of you work together?
Saad: I think, in the concept phase, we really try to stay true to the “collective” mindset in that we carefully weigh each other’s inputs and form the final idea together. We elaborate on initial concepts with references, storyboards and a rough shot list. And then we’ll cement the ideas on set.
On the day of we’ll each kind of play to our strengths while I shoot. We’ll keep going until we hit what we collectively agree upon on as “the money shot”.
Natasha: Haha yeah you’ll often hear me yelling “moneyyy shottt!!!” from behind the screen. Usually the concepts stem from an experience one of us has had, and we all talk about it and start to concept images or videos together. Its also great that we’re close friends, so we can be pretty honest and candid with each other.
April: Yeah and there’s also never any fear of judgement, since we are good friends. We’re all really supportive of each other. When we’re brainstorm or shooting, we just kind of play and have fun even if our concepts are heavy. It definitely helps our creative process when we share/swap everything from references to clothes to makeup and props.
How do you see the surreal aspect of your work helping to communicate the politically-charged aspect?
April: Well it’s visually aggressive, so it pulls you in and makes you confront these racially charged ideas. We’re essentially packaging heavy political commentary into these photos and presenting them in a pretty package. It’s a good way to draw people in who would otherwise look past our work.
Natasha: Good media makes you like something or change your opinion on something without you even knowing it. And so by making it simple yet beautiful, we’d like to think we’re infiltrating people’s prejudice or something .. we wanna be anarchists but we’re all such people pleasers so I guess that’s how it comes out in the work.
Saad: It’s an aesthetic that’s always appealed to me from a young age. From Dali to Dragonball, the contrasty poppy palettes and distorted reality have always been visually arresting to me. Using that immediate visceral reaction to grab someone’s attention and compounding it with messages that confront your views of the world and underrepresented people force you to take notice.
Can you comment on how you see your work fitting into the political moment we are in right now?
Natasha: Talking about race and diversity seems to be the necessary zeitgeist of our time. The culture at large is starting to talk about race more openly, and you see a lot of these conversations being had on the internet. Our work fits in the political moment we are in right now because not only is there going to be a huge cultural shift in europe because of the migrant crisis, but also what’s happening in the US with the current election. It fits because the political moment we are in right now is dealing with addressing huge racial / socio economic differences and our work illustrates these differences. Or at least we try. The more work we make the more these issues diminish I hope?
April: We just feel like there are not enough asian artists adding to the conversation. Since there’s no talk about asian culture in the media unless it’s about North Korea, it’s really up to us (all asian artists) to propel the political /artistic movement. We have to bring up issues within our communities and open them up to the public eye and say “Look, take this work, share it with your friends and family and talk about it.”
Saad: A lot of our art comes from experiences we’ve had, and things we have always talked about. Or current frustrations, especially Trump and his comments on Muslims. We did a shoot about islamophobia right after some of those anti muslim comments were floating around the internet. Making it helps us connect with more people and form a new kind of creative community.