Po daljšem časovnem usklajevanju (intervjuvanec je zelo zaseden!), nam je le uspelo izpeljati pogovor z umetnikom, pisateljem, kuratorjem, ljubiteljem zinov in aktivistom Hamjijem Ahsanom. Živi in dela v Londonu in Maastrichtu. Zase pravi, da ima Aspergerjev Sindrom.
Njegov prvenec Shy Radicals: Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert (Bookworks 2017) je špekulativna fikcija o revolucionarni politični stranki za sramežljive, tihe, introvertne in osebe na avtističnem spektru. Omenjeno delo je široko cenjeno in ima mnogo privržencev. Med drugim je navdihnilo nova umetniška dela, najti ga je tudi v učnih načrtih več univerzitetnih kurikulumov.
Za Aspergistan Referendum, ki je nastal po knjigi Shy Radicals, je bil leta 2019 nagrajen z veliko nagrado Grafičnega bienala Ljubljana. Leta 2021 si je bilo v Galeriji ZVKDS mogoče ogledati njegovo razstavo I DON‘T BELONG HERE.
Ahsan se poslužuje širšega razpona medijev: risanje, zvok, slikanje, kiparstvo, fotografija, performans, video, vodenje razstav in kritično pisanje. Njegovi tematski pomisleki se osredotočajo na področja sekularizma, politične diaspore, ustvarjanj arhivov, zaporniškega sistema in novih tvorb imperializma.
Kot aktivist in borec je bil v ožjem izboru za nagrado Liberty Human Rights Award 2013 za svojo kampanjo Free Talha, kampanjo o izročitvi in priporu brez sojenja v okviru vojne proti terorizmu.
S svojimi deli pomembno opozarja na obstoj nevroraznolikosti in se bori za prekinitev brezčasne dinamike neoliberalizma, ki sistematično izganja drugačnost in poskuša utišati vse, kar bi lahko prineslo nenadno spremembo.
O Hamjiju Ahsanu in njegovem delu smo v reviji Vox Alia že pisali, zato vas vabimo, da si preberete članek o znanih osebah na spektru v številki 26.
Žan: When did you first hear about autism?
Hamja: The BBC children’s television showed a lot of autistic young people, often in art programs, doing very intense drawings. I didn’t have a full understanding what it was at that point. The first mainstream portrayal of autism I saw was in Rainman, the movie with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, which they showed on television. I watched that as a child, so I had this idea about the savant or the person with very intense mathematical abilities or whatever.
As an adolescent from the age of 12, I related a lot to autistic portrayals and identified a lot with characters. I often was quiet at school and I would just like to be absorbed in things and left alone. The way in which a lot of children’s portrait characters were shown was very overbearing. Like loudmouth clowns, bright colors, and I just wanted to be self-absorbed and explore things on my own. And then when I got into adolescence, I didn’t really fit into the playground or I didn’t really I felt the certain sense of being a misfit. Often a lot of intense bullying.
Then I take an intense interest in it when my brother becomes formally diagnosed with it, which is around 2006 to 2008 when my brother was incarcerated and he was diagnosed whilst detained without trial. That is when I took to try and empathize and support him. I got very immersed in the literature and also other people campaigning, researching and redefining what it meant.
The first mainstream portrayal in Asia was the film My name is Khan. With Shahrukh Khan, a famous Bollywood movie. My brother suggested watching this film as a campaign tool. So we had a hashtag once called My name is Azaan, which is a rhyme of Khan. Also The Curious Incident of the Dog, and the writer of that was quite supportive towards my campaign work as well on social media.
Those were quite apparent through certain groupings of friends. I guess, later on Steve Silberman calls this neurotribes. Certain groups of friends and people I relate to were very much either later self-identifying or later being diagnosed into adulthood. So a lot of people I got close to through friendship because I just liked the way they acted and found it relatable were later diagnosed.
Also, when I was adolescent in my teens, I had a lot of problems of suicidal depression, and I found a lot of the other people of suicidal depression were diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. So in adolescent and teenage mental health service, I came across a lot of people with Asperger syndrome who’d also attempted suicide or engaged in self-harm.
And then I realized one of my favorite rock stars, which was called Richey James Edwards from the band The Manic Street Preachers. He was later, retrospectively speculatively diagnosed as autistic, possibly too. I found it just through people I was drawn to at a interpersonal level. But yeah, mainstream portrayals were, as I said, those films that I’ve just mentioned.
Žan: They are (films) rather one dimensional, I’d say.
Hamja: Yeah, I’d say retrospectively, they’re rather one dimensional, but I don’t think they’re totally bad. And with My name is Khan, it portrays the autistic guy, that hero in the heartthrob of the film, which is quite unusual.
Žan: Oh, I meant Hollywood portrayals.
Hamja: Yeah, the Hollywood. Bollywood portrayal it was very much quite subversive, I think. And it’s also on Islamophobia and I don’t know if you’ve seen that film, My name is Khan. I’d recommend a screening. Because it’s a very big famous Bollywood film. Main actor in it is called Shahrukh Khan. He’s the most famous and beloved of all Bollywood actors. He always plays the hero.
There’s quite a lot of interesting portrayals from India. My favorite book on autism is called I Think Why Speak Where My Lips Can’t Move? The author Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay is an Indian autistic person, translated into multiple languages, but experiences prejudice as someone incapable of doing anything. That book touched my heart.
Žan: Have you been diagnosed yourself?
Hamja: No. I asked to be diagnosed. I was diagnosed first with depression and then social anxiety disorder with a clinical psychologist and then with manic depression in my teens. I asked a doctor to diagnose me or put me through and he just said it wasn’t very helpful and that was it. I find people get diagnosed through things like being often through the court system or prison or like when they have some clash. So, I mean, I was diagnosed clinically because my school grades went down and I used to just sleep all day. But I found in terms of like a sense of group belonging and people who’d relate to me and people who’d I’d relate to, it seemed to be people who were either later diagnosed. You know some people are diagnosed in their forties and fifties.
Žan: Not uncommon. Yes.
Hamja: Yeah. I find psychiatric diagnosis – I’m still a bit skeptical of it. To me it’s an emergency management system and it’s an approximation and it’s there to recognize a vulnerability. But, you know, people aren’t, you know, zoological species. They’re far more fluid and flux. So diagnosis – I have a degree of skepticism and cynicism around the American Psychiatric Diagnostic Manual and ways of categorizing people. I say more as like a group affiliation. That comes from within.
Žan: Well, yes, but it can’t really come from within. If you don’t know, you have it.
Hamja: I understand that. But for example, at school, there’s certain types of children who get bullied and certain type of children who are bullies. And often I think that’s often around a neuro tribe, as Steve Silberman comes at all like.
Žan: Well, yes, I can say I’m a big fan of the American mental health model. They don’t really have one, but I suppose it is probably helpful to recognize certain diseases and conditions that require special attention. And that is actually a very good thing so that you can get the help you deserve. So you can function better. Yes, it’s a disability, just one you can’t see because you’re not in a wheelchair or something like that. In that respect I’d say it’s probably quite useful.
Hamja: Yeah. Yeah, it is. I guess I’m already diagnosed with another vulnerability. So that becomes my main point of contact. With welfare services or support or recognition, vulnerability.
Žan: Yeah. So you’re quite an interesting public speaker. How come you became a public speaker? What motivates you?
Hamja: I became a public speaker when I was campaigning for my brother and through human rights campaigning against the human rights abuses during the war on terror and the war against truth.
The Iraq War was a big event in our life in 2003. That was a lot of people’s entry point in Britain to activism and public speaking. Because there were so many lies from the government and the mainstream media that that’s how people created alternative platforms. The Iraq war brought 2 million people onto the streets of Britain, and it’s a biggest public protests in British history and the war on terror invaded everyone’s lives.
So that was the motivation. I got to know a lot of the Guantanamo Bay detainees. I’m very good friends with Mohamedou Ould Slahi who was in the film The Mauritanian, which everybody watches. I’m very good friends with Shaker Aamer and the other people who are detained indefinitely. My brother is part of that same generation and I got a liberty. But to start with, I was actually very fearful and awkward. And then I found the media, the government and the British state were so dishonest and so heartless that it was my duty to be truthful and honest. So I spoke from a very clear heart and through sincerity. But there were a number of other campaigns that inspired me.
I support Liverpool Football Club. In 1989 Hillsborough disaster happened. There were 96 or 97 deaths because one of them died later. Liverpool football fans were crushed to death and the police and the media and the government blamed the fans for killing each other when all the time it was due to police and state neglect. And so over 30 years, they uncovered the truth. There was very much demonization of the city of Liverpool and demonization of football fans. So that inspired me a lot to speak truthfully against government lies and things like that.
I find a lot of people it’s easier to speak truthfully as a low income person as well, because I feel like nobody owns me and I always try and speak sincerely and truthfully as I know it. I find governments, including Slovenia and Janez Janša, speak a lot of lies and a lot of dishonesty. It’s our duty as citizens to speak truthfully and sincerely and with a full, sincere heart.
Žan: Well, yes, exactly. Unfortunately, it’s quite modern to believe in some sort of fake reality that you create for yourself.
Hamja: I was also inspired by Greta Thunberg recently. When I go to Slovenia, I spoke in Slovenj Gradec. It’s a very small town. I found we’re talking about Greta Thunberg. A lot of young people could relate to the topics of my conversation. And Greta Thunberg became a good focal point because, as I said, I gave the reference, My name is Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, the actor. Not everybody knows about Bollywood film or Indian film in Slovenia. But with Greta Thunberg, I had a figure that I could speak about.
I’ve also traced the history of like awkward or shy and autistic public speakers. Another big inspiration to me was Patrick Pearse from the 1916 Easter Rising, which was a anti-colonial revolt against the British Empire. He was retrospectively diagnosed as autistic, but he was also very awkward. He gave very fierce and brave public speeches.
Another person who inspired me is the human rights lawyer, Gareth Peirce. She represented my brother and a lot of other people. She represented Julian Assange as well. But a lot of injustices like the Hillsborough case I just mentioned and she’s portrayed in this film called In the Name of the Father, which again, I recommend everybody watch. She has a very quiet way of speaking, but she speaks so truthfully.
And I find that the way of the mainstream speak – so say something like Fox News is very like loudmouth chauvinistic. I find not to be like that is another way of speaking with a sincere heart and truthfully. Also there’s a lot of hysteria, I guess, in Slovenia around refugees, Muslim refugees. I find speaking in our way is against hysteria as well. So just speaking in a bit quiet, it’s not to be hysterical.
Žan: When you speak in public, what environment really suits you best? You have a preference?
Hamja: I speak with the book Shy Radicals. I told it in lots of different places.
Žan: As for the environment.
Hamja: Yeah. So that’s a lot of environment. I’ve spoken in the comedy club, I’ve spoken in a poetry festival, I’ve spoken in art galleries, I’ve spoken in universities, I’ve spoken to trade unions, I’ve spoken to nurses unions, I’ve spoken to anarchist groups, leftist. They’re all spaces that invite me. So Shy radical draws. I’ve spoken to mosques
and Muslim rights organizations, so I’ve spoken in a lot of contexts and the book gathers and attracts all these different types of people and they invite me and that’s been my life since the book came out five years ago, including of course, in Slovenia.
I like zine festivals a lot. I like meeting people through Zine networks. I like bringing people together through zines as a participatory format.
Žan: Do you think there’s any higher meaning or a higher goal to your public speeches?
Hamja: Yeah, to speak truth to power and make a better, more inclusive environment for all of us. And to save certain things from being destroyed. In Britain, because of neoliberal austerity, we have a lot of libraries being closed down, a lot of museums being closed down. And these are very good public spaces where we could be quiet or investigate. So I also want to save libraries, museums, but also places like even cathedrals and forests and quiet public space.
There’s a real war in Britain against those spaces, and I’m sure it’s more broadly against forms of neoliberal capitalism, all these public spaces which were reserved for different types of people and were good for mental health, are being destroyed from public parks to libraries. And I think it’s very important we save, well not only save those spaces, but build more of them.
Žan: Yes. And it’s the austerity. Or you could put it like you need to save money so that I can spend it. That’s preventing all of that. That’s the big problem. You’re quite right about that. So on another note, you establish the radical movement. Can you tell us about the activity of the movement and any goals you might have.
Hamja: The shy radical movement is some way between reality and fiction and fantasy and grounded reality. It takes various formats. In the most basic format it’s just a book that’s been widely distributed. It’s going to be translated into Spanish next year and into Italian. And it’s also a film that you can watch now on Nowness.
I also make artworks in relationship to it. So I ran a referendum as part of Ljubljana Biennial, which ended up winning the grand prize where people could vote to be part of this state or Aspergistan, which made sure that a sniper sanctuary and beacon or homeland like a type of federal state people could be part of. And we won that referendum. That was also conducted in Poland, and we won by even a bigger margin. So it showed there was actually a hidden majority of people who also felt the same way.
But the other interesting thing that has happened is that other groups of people from all around the world have made up their own collectives or their own artworks or their own books using concepts from the book. So it’s inspired autonomously, many different artworks around the world, from dance pieces based around the Shy Radicals lexicon, which is a series of body gestures drawing upon quiet withdrawal or to sculptures and to other artists books. There’s even a collective called Academics Against Networking, and that was set up at University of Manchester. They even conducted a strike. So they went on strike, the lecturers at university and they had like a more quiet poetry book reading as part of the strike, and they included Shy radicals within that.
I spoke to Nurses union and the nurses’ union was asking for ways in which it could be applied to nursing practice in real life. It’s also taught on a lot of curriculums. It’s taught on a neurodiversity curriculum at Brown University in the United States, but it’s also taught on politics curriculums in the United States. It’s also taught as graphic design in Belgium and also part of communication and graphic design in Royal College of Art and Media and Communication in Goldsmiths University. So it appears on a lot of curriculums around the world, also on fine art curriculums. It’s taught at Birmingham University of Fine Arts. So other students are making art projects based around it too. It also circulates within education and in very serious, quite elite educational institutions.
Žan: That’s nice. I think there should be more projects or movements of this kind.
Hamja: Yeah, and it keeps generating and a lot of the people who’ve done these other projects, they’re not even people I know, it’s totally autonomous. They develop these projects. There were some robots wandering around Belgium, which I showed in my installation, and that was directly inspired by my book.
I also act as a distribution. I have friends who make autistic zines or radical mental health zines or zines about radical, inclusive movements like the Indian Black Panthers, the Dalit Panthers and I distribute their work. I also act as an archive and a collection. So I archive and collect things around the themes of Shy radicals. You can go to DIY Zine Bank @diyzinebank on Instagram. You can see some of that collection. So like collect things like records, as well around some of the rock musicians have inspired Shy Radicals. So there’s a whole host of activity around that.
I find a lot of spaces that I interact with start using introvert or neurodiverse inclusive language after I’ve spoken at them, whether that’s at a university or a political organization. That’s just presence in the world and that keeps growing and growing and growing. But a lot of people from around the world also write in their own political grievances in to Shy Radicals. So in Brazil, I have some fans and they don’t like Bolsonaro, so they have the foreign Bolsonaro movement and Shy Radicals. They sort of put it into like a new narrative. I have other bands from Beijing and they look at ways of navigating Beijing pretty well. I have an artist fan, now friend, called Kanthy Peng. We went through how we looked at the city and there’s parts of the city where people play chess and there’s part of the city which is like very busy High Street and how to navigate that. And then I have other reader, fans and friends in Mexico or like Dubai or different parts of the world can keep regenerating and expanding and rewrite those introvert histories into different parts of world.
Žan: Well, you mentioned Aspergistan. Can you introduce the project and tell us.
Hamja: Aspergistan is a fictional, I guess, federal republic, which is run by laws that I made up that provide a beacon, homeland and sanctuary for quiet, awkward and autistic spectrum people. I wrote a constitution for the state and I draw upon other constitutions from other utopic states. And I mix constitutional language with language from teen movies and other things.
Žan: So which place that you know is similar the most to Aspergistan.
Hamja: There were parts of Ljubljana that was very similar to Aspergistan. And I found the biography of Jože Plečnik as quite similar in terms of he very much liked quiet, isolated space. And the particular way he’s designed the whole city. There were a lot of places, but my favorite place in Slovenia was the Švicarija, the house next to the MGLC. I mean, there’s a certain way you could hear the birds singing.
During the first lockdown during COVID there were actually some good points, a lot of people found themselves rediscovering themselves through just spending a lot of time indoors. Another thing that sort of become real in Aspergistan is the trade union movement in Britain has admitted that neurodiversity and neurodivergence into its language of inclusion. So within under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership who I supported, there was a branch of Labour called Neurodivergent Labour, led by an autistic spectrum trade unionist called Janine Booth, and she drafted laws and motions and policy to make workplaces and public space more inclusive. I find the things I was imagining in Aspergistan were therefore becoming forms of reality.
Žan: That’s very good. Yeah. Sadly, Corbyn didn’t win, actually badly lost because of Murdoch and the media campaign. And then of course, Boris came with all the shit he did.
Žan: So while we’re on the subject of Aspergistan, how many votes did the Republic get in the referendum in Ljubljana sometime ago?
Hamja: It’s about a 1000, probably something less than 1000. If you go to the #voteaspergistan you’ll find some details and it has the percentages. I think it was 70% or something. But look at #aspergistan. Poland got even higher percentage of the vote. But they were both landslide victories. I thought it would actually be more like Brexit. I thought it would be very close, but it was actually very much in favor of Aspergistan.
Žan: They were in favor of a good idea for a chance.
Hamja: Given the way elections have been going in Europe, from Italy’s fascist leader to Poland, to Britain, not letting Jeremy Corbyn win, to see one good election was actually very heartening, to say.
Žan: Yeah, we need some of that. A lot of time you use art as a tool for activism. How come you chose that particular medium?
Hamja: I think it chose me, but I mean, I studied fine art at Central St Martin’s. I was in a conceptual art pathway. I guess art opens up a new format of doing things and thinking. There are often a lot of set formats in terms of how we can write. In newspapers you write in a particular style to 500 words or a thousand words. Art opens up more styles of writing and more styles of thinking, but a lot of the time it is choosing me. So I wrote the book and the publisher is Book Works, which is an art world publisher, publish a lot of Turner Prize winners.
I get invited a lot to be a guest lecturer or guest tutor in fine art everywhere from Goldsmiths to Royal College of Art. I even was once spoke at the Ulay Foundation to their education programme in Ljubljana and also in the Netherlands or Germany. A lot of the time I’m being invited in the art world and so whoever invites me creates my zones of interest.
I was invited to Documenta which is the peak prestigious exhibition in contemporary art and I redid Shy Radicals as a fried chicken shop that was opened, and so it keeps evolving. I made a series of fictional fried chicken chains for Documenta. I did some of my research in Ljubljana. There’s a fried chicken chain. What’s it called? There’s one called Hood Burger, and that influenced me. I went there to eat with the Slovenian collective called Nonument, they are Art Producers.
Žan: So what do you think is the potential for any kind of movement like that for both the neurodivergent people and the society as a whole?
Hamja: Still, there is a lot of potential. As long as we face injustice and discrimination and alienation, we should just keep up. Trying to overturn those conditions of being bullied or left out are not sustainable or tolerable. We turn our grievances and our sorrows and our alienation into forms of creative imagination and energy to make a better world. And a better world is possible. We have to keep believing that.
Žan: Well, yes, obviously. So you mentioned being an introvert. So do you think is actually the limit between being an introvert and extrovert or can it be a little bit of both?
Hamja: I think of it more as an affiliation. To me, it’s not always a good thing to identify both sides. My political consciousness starts with Tony Blair. And from 1997 when I can vote as an adult. Tony Blair came into power and Tony Blair had the so-called Blair’s Third Way, where he was a bit capitalist and a bit of socialist or whatever. And so Blair Right, and Blairism, which is the most dishonest, warmongering, selfish philosophy, which says to me that isn’t a way forward. I’d rather someone was partisan and someone was not. I don’t know.
I sort of see a sense of collaboration. Some funny things happened though, so I actually have a bit of extrovert fan base, and some of the extrovert fan base say it made them become a more sensitive, aware person. But I’ve also had some people saying they converted from extroverted. The more conversion, the better. And ultimately, I’ve just believe introverts are better people, they’re better listeners, they have better sensitivity and all power to us.
Žan: Well, honestly, I wouldn’t say anybody is better or worse for being an introvert or not.
Hamja: The way in which the economy functions is that we are made to be like that. So you get all these things in employment called assertiveness skills, or an employer could ask for someone outgoing. Even if you’re doing a job like invigilation in a gallery where you’re just sitting quietly, or even like politicians, politicians should be listening more and speaking less. And the problem is they speak more than they listen. And so I hadn’t think the world order would be a more just place if we listen more and we listen more sensitively. And that’s why I think introversion is a better structure of political power and a better alternative.
Žan: Well, that is definitely yes.
Hamja: I live in London and I’m sure it’s very similar for other city centers apart from Ljubljana. It’s very difficult to just find a quiet place to sit on an evening or a night or a weekend. If you want to sit quietly and have a deep conversation with your friend, It’s very difficult. But I found in Slovenia lots of spaces like that, it’s not that busy anywhere in Slovenia, you know, compared to London and New York, It’s still quite low key.
Žan: Yes, you can still find a lot of quiet places in Ljubljana.
Hamja: Yeah, exactly. So that’s why I liked it a lot. You know, I’m very fond. Ljubljana is a very special place in my heart. I like Slovenia even more, having spent time in Germany, I had a very horrible experience there. It was the same in Documenta there. They didn’t give enough equality to neurodiversity. One of my art friends is a part of a group Project Art Works and they are a neurodiverse artists studio and collective that got shortlisted for the Turner Prize. They work with many autistic people and people with so-called complex needs. And we work together sometimes. And they complain, too, that Documenta didn’t recognize neurodiversity enough.
In Documenta, you just had too many spaces that were noisy rave parties, even when you went to a forest and every launch event. There wasn’t an idea that there were alternative sensibilities or there are people who could find that alienating or distress. And even when you went to your hotel, you just couldn’t go to sleep because there’d be 8AM or 4AM rave party right next door to your hotel. So there were quiet spaces in the galleries, and that was good for you to not be overstimulated or too much sensory processing. But then after the gallery closed, they didn’t really alter the world outside.
So for Documenta I made a lightbox sign called Aspergistan Midnight Wings, which was my fictional fried chicken chain, I put it next to the quiet room and next to quiet room I put lines from the Aspergistan constitution about having 24 hour public open access to quiet spaces rather than just being a few rooms dotted around the galleries, although that’s become an increasingly popular feature in major galleries. I’ve seen it in the Netherlands. It’s also in Tate Modern. You have quiet rooms in galleries, and I think that should be just standard everywhere.
In Ljubljana, in Slovenia though, a lot of the city and also the natural landscape is like a quiet room. It’s almost like the outside world is a quiet room. You don’t get traffic jams in
Slovenia, really, like compared to London and New York. Even the busiest place, which is the triple bridge, it’s not that busy compared to like Leicester Square or Times Square in New York.
Žan: Well, yeah, that’s a very good thing that we have. So what areas of autism are you active in?
Hamja: I’m very much interested in autism zine culture and collecting and archiving zines. I do a lot of public talks and often partner with other organizations, sometimes also film programming. I’ve shown the Shy Radicals film. The last time it was shown was in Documenta to internal screening, and I worked for Project Art Works. I would recommend you to interview them. I will introduce you to them. We program films together. And they work well. I just think a lot of educational institutions should recognize this.
Žan: Yeah, I hope you’re doing that; Introduce us. We’d love to interview more of this zine culture and the autism culture in general.
Hamja: There’s actually a blog called Autism Zines, (website: https://autisticzines.home.blog/ ) and it lists all that autism zines, and it was inspired by a talk I gave at the Autism Arts Festival in Kent in England. And the person came to my lecture, which is about Autism zines. And then he made a blog, Autism zines, and catalogued them all.
Žan: Oh, so there are. Do you read a lot of magazines that are similar to Vox Alia?
Hamja: There’s a blog called Partly Robot (website: https://partlyrobot.com/) run by autistic zine maker Andrew Coltrin. He’s very good blogger. He’s a big fan of the book and says he resonates with every line. But a lot of it is forming alliances and friendships and providing some sort of mutual support network. Like if someone from America makes an autism zine, then they can give it to me and I distribute it in Europe and England. Then they do the same for me. And then we all are creating that network of loving support. It is also part of the group too.
I met some autistic diagnosed fans in Slovenia who I also met up with and I felt angry that the opening of my exhibition made them feel a bit excluded. It was too much like an extrovert neurotypical opening, and they didn’t really consider it to make everyone feel at home. Well, I still think people think a bit hard. I mean, I like to think they do or I leave a presence with them.
Žan: I suppose so, yes. So on another note; what advice would you give yourself 20 years ago, like your present self?
Hamja: I didn’t realize a lot of the things that I like 20 years ago would still be going. Zine Culture is now bigger than ever. I mean, I actually give myself very banal, practical advice about money, actually. I do have problems with my bank balance.
A very inspirational response to the question: I’m still alive. I’m still here. That spirit is still unbroken. The times that I’ve had very big downs, like very recently, I’ve been recognized by my good publishing deal and being in Documenta and getting the grand prize. But there were very intense moments of self-doubt to the point of depression. And I guess in the end, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. And I didn’t always see that. A lot of the artwork I made earlier in my career, I didn’t even bother to preserve it because I had very little faith that things would get better for me. And then… A Life is full of nice surprises. That’s what I would tell myself.
It’s always full of nice surprises. It’s a very strong truth. When I was younger, I was very prone to forms of fatalism and depression and seeing things as one dark tunnel. And there’s always unexpected light around the corner, and the light of the human spirit can’t be left out.
Žan: So in that regard, you did mention earlier that you can achieve the most with silence. I was wondering if you could tell us a little more about that?
Hamja: You don’t have to always have a ready opinion all the time. Jeremy Corbyn was like that. He would always speak sincerely from the heart. And sometimes the media landscape wanted snap answers. But I also think when you’re quiet, you can learn from… If someone’s stupid and says something stupid, they’re exposing themselves and you get to learn the weakness of their argument or their lack of it, so they expose it. If you stay quiet, it actually opens up space. And yeah, as I said, the political structure is better if we all listen more.
Žan: Yeah. So leader of the trade syndicate is probably somewhat like that too, isn’t it? I’ve heard some of his answers. They were actually quite short to the point. They’re moving away from the sensationalism. Well, since we’re on the topic, who’s really your role model and why do you look up to them?
Hamja: I still love Lisa Simpson from The Simpsons, even though she was an act of fiction. I also love the character Wednesday Addams from the film Addams Family. I like the coolness of her. Against what’s now called toxic positivity. I like lots of people. I mentioned Gareth Pierce, the lawyer. I also like lots of people from Racial Justice Movements. I like Malcolm X a lot. I still love Malcolm X and there’s actually speculation he was very shy, actually just been a great public speaker. So someone other like Dick Gregory, I think another black civil rights activist say he was very shy. I’m quite interested in the Irish Republican revolutionary tradition. So Bobby Sands, which you might know from the film Hunger, inspired a lot of people. I’m very inspired by the Palestinian people, was very strong supporter of the Palestinian cause. And so, as you can see from my background, that never being broken down, no matter how far you push to the edge, you still have the spirit to struggle for your dignity and your recognition as a human being.
So that’s inspired me. I still find aspects of inspiration in the Partisans, and I know it wasn’t as idealistic as portrayed, but, you know, when I see the partisans making artwork on the field and the lino prints and stuff, I like looking at the artwork and their creativity.
I’ve just spent time in Germany where there’s a sort of Nazi revivalism in places like Germany, Croatia, Poland, Ukraine. And I find it very ugly. All these anti-Nazi heroes who defeated Nazism, this ugly revisionism towards people who gave their lifeblood to struggle against fascism and Nazism and racism, and this rehabilitation of people who collaborated with Hitler and the Holocaust in this new framework. And I find that really ugly.
I’m reading a lot of books on World War Two at the moment and collecting a lot of older books of World War Two. I didn’t realize how bad things are in Germany, but I actually thought Germany was a nicer place then Britain. And then when I went to Documenta, I received so much racism, death threats, people calling me monkey, really crude racism, real crude hate, that I really appreciate how much love I was treated with in Slovenia. In Slovenia there was a treatment of hospitality and welcoming. And it’s also rooted in its history because earlier point in history, it was part of the anti-colonial movement. People were just so much nicer to me. Like everyone would want to cook dinner for me. When I’ve met people in Slovenia, everyone was like, oh, and my grandfather was a partisan but when you meet people in Germany, they’re like, oh, my grandfather was a Nazi.
Then there’s like some of the people like Beatrix von Storch, who’s a deputy leader of the AfD, the fascist party. She’s a literal blood descendant of Adolf Hitler’s finance minister. And she comes to our exhibition in Documenta and slanders all of us. There are a lot of neo-Nazi murders, mass murders like the Hanau shootings and the NSU Underground murders happening in Germany that no one really knows about outside Germany. And when you go to Slovenia, there’s you know, obviously Janez Janša, he wasn’t a very good figure, but it’s still better. You could still have the right to oppose him very freely.
Žan: He wants to make it more difficult. But fortunately, it’s not working.
Hamja: Yeah. Pegida in Germany was very frightening. It made me appreciate Britain a lot more because I think London is still much nicer place. I didn’t realize how high rightwing, far right violence is in Germany. And you know, also part of the Nazism hate agenda was ableism. They hated disabled people and they hated vulnerable people and they probably hated neurodivergent people. That shouldn’t be forgotten that part of fascism hated the disabled and the vulnerable and those who are different. And we’re part of that family of difference. And, you know, the thought of different people are subhuman.
I really think Germany is in a really bad place, especially for Palestinian rights. It’s really, really, really bad. In Slovenia, the government under Janez Janša was tied to right wing.
It was tied to Netanyahu. But they had a right in Slovenia to be pro-Palestinian, to be pro BDS. I could do that freely and I could freely criticize the government. So actually, when I was in Slovenia, all the people who ran the arts institutions, they also hated to do so.
In Germany the arts institutions are run by people affiliated to the government, even though they know nothing about the art. The head of one of Documenta Institutions in the supervisory board is the mayor of Kassel as part of the same party. So I would be punished for criticizing the chancellor. And that doesn’t happen in Slovenia. I can freely criticize Janez Janša. In fact, the curators helping me would probably have the same views of Janez Jansa, too. But anyway, I really, really appreciate what a nice place Slovenia is. I look forward to going back there again.
Every place has problems. I always tell people to come to Ljubljana and come to the Bienniale and I will continue to do so.
Žan: You can come anytime you want! In your opinion, obviously, what people with autism bring to other people and to the world. You know, as in terms of positive values, something like that.
Hamja: Non-neurotypical persons – we might be minorities, but if the majority was sensitive towards our needs, they’d be better people. The entire history of everything from the arts to technology is full of neurodivergent people. But I also think we don’t have to do extraordinary achievements in order to be fully recognized as equal beings and equal citizens. We don’t have to. We can just be. I think every person who’s non-neurotypical opens up another way of sensing the world and renewing the world and seeing the world with different eyes and different senses and therefore feeling alive again in a different way to.
Žan: So what, in your opinion, are the strong areas of people with autism?
Hamja: It’s a difference. I just always preferred being around such people and when I lived in the Netherlands, one of my best friends was Hannah Dawn Henderson. She’s also an autistic diagnosed person. Rethinking of details in different way or like a small thing can be a big thing. And a big thing can be a small thing. Like the significance of things changes. You know, my brother, who’s diagnosed autistic, has just some amazing abilities. He taught himself Arabic from a textbook and then he’s a translator and a scholar. And no one spoke Arabic in our family. I do feel part of that sensibility of his archival mind and his scholarly mind came through his autism.
Greta Thunberg says it’s her superpower as well. But I mean, I still think we don’t all need to be super beings, you know, like all our friends can delight us in their own way. If you enjoy someone’s friendship or company or presence in the world, that’s enough. Whilst there are extraordinary people in human history, we don’t all have to be extraordinary people or whatever that means. And I feel the same with migrants. There are a lot of migrants who win gold medals and do great things. But the idea that they are only fully human beings and fully equal people because they achieve these medals is not a discourse I’d like to go down. I’d like the way of just being and like existing to be enough. We exist and we are equal people. If a person who’s neurotypical recognizes their neurodiverse friend in deeper ways, they’ll also experience the world in a deeper sense of color and appreciation, and it would open up spaces for them in their mind and their memory and their sense or engagement. I’d just like that we all be better friends of each other.
I’ve achieved things as an artist and writer, but they also come with a lot of stress and pressure. And I mean, part of the reason I was targeted at Documenta was because they saw me as successful in a way. It also brings new vulnerabilities. The life of people who may achieve fame, it’s often high pressure. I’ve written one book and it went down extremely well. I plan to write my second book called Radical Chicken at some point, but I was always under the pressure that the second book won’t be as good as the first.
And there’s always this sort of pressure to keep up with the time. Achieving things also brings a new set of like pressures and exhaustion. I’ve got a lot of followers around the world and I work for a lot of places around the world. Sometimes my head is in six different countries at the same time, six different bosses at the same time. So my head is still in Germany and Documenta and is still in Slovenia and it’s still in Italy, and sometimes my brain can just become like a traffic junction and I don’t even remember where I am. So that’s not a good place to be all the time. And sometimes it’s just nice to go to a quiet park, like in Slovenia, or the lakes and the mountains and just be. And that’s also an ideal existence for just achieving things.
Žan: This actually brings us to the end of our interview. Do you want to say anything for the end.
Hamja: I’ll just say I really deeply love Slovenia, and Ljubljana is always going to be a special place in my heart.
Žan: Oh, thank you very much.
Hamja: I consider myself an ambassador for people deeply engaging with the city and the nation. That’s why the radical film is shot there. And just I mean, if you want to help, just keep spreading Shy power and keep spreading the vocabulary and the book with your friends and make your zines about your experiences and send them to me. And I’m always here distributing other people’s zins. I’m always in zin fairs.
And maybe… Build a more just, inclusive, equal world together.
Aljaž: Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. Follow: @shyradicals on twitter and instagram
#VoteAspergistan for details on the Ljubljana project that won the Grand Prize at MGLCLjubljana Biennial 2019
The Shy Radicals Film can be view online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsTdDvd1PuM