Check out Hassnat's postal exhibition with OUTPUT here
Hello and welcome to the latest episode of OUTPUT Gallery's podcast. My name is Gabrielle de la Puente, I help manage OUTPUT Gallery along with Michael Lacey. OUTPUT is a space in Liverpool city centre that works exclusively with creatives from or based in Merseyside. On today's episode, we are joined by Hassnat Sikander, whose work explores the emotional and psychological impacts of cultural enforcements. Hassnat uses text, collage, spoken word and sound to raise awareness about injustices towards women and the mental health issues that are often neglected within traditional communities. I've sort of brushed over that introduction because I'd love Hassnat to introduce her own work. So yep, welcome to the podcast! We always start our episodes by asking the same question, so - what is your relationship like with art?

My relationship with art, wow... it's a really deep relationship, it's a relationship that really saved me actually, through my most difficult times. My work often reflects conversations or topics of loss, grieving and struggle. It's also been a beacon of hope for me. Yeah, it's a way for me to deal with the difficulties that I have in my life, and giving it back to my audience so they can somewhat find something they can relate to, and not feel like they're on their own. I've been through a lot of therapy and often when you are going through therapy or trauma or struggling with it, often you feel alone and you feel like no one else can understand what I'm going through. It's probably also to do with the fact that the healthcare professionals, it's more of a clinical approach. What I'm trying to get it is- when somebody says that they understand, it's like... my art is a way to say that I understand where you're coming from because I've also been through difficult situations in my life, and I'm making it something for you to take what you want out of it, and use it in any way that you want. Maybe you want to talk about it to me, or you want to make your own art from it, but it's giving the audience an option to do what they want with it.

What was the first piece of art you made that fulfilled what you just said, that took a problem and presented it to the world in a way you hoped would help others relate?

When I was in my second year of University, I wasn't actually creating that much work. I should rephrase that - I was making work but at that time I thought it was just a way for me to cope, because I was going through therapy and I couldn't concentrate on the topics or the projects that were getting given to me to complete. I was doing really bad in my studies, I thought. But I was actually creating a log on my phone, I have an iPhone so I was making it on voice notes - I would just record how I'm feeling through a stream of consciousness, so I wouldn't actually think about what I'm feeling and structure it in a proper way, I would just vent, basically. At that time I didn't have that many friends, I had just left my home because of some mitigating circumstances, so I was just... I didn't know who to talk to about these things. I didn't have anyone that was brown, pakistani, from a muslim background, basically. I didn't know where to go, so I just started recording it on my phone. Then I had a tutorial with a tutor one day and they said, how is your work going along? I said actually I haven't made any work... and they said, what do you do in your spare time? You come in the morning, before uni starts, because I used to spend my whole day there. They'd say you come to the university and spend the whole day there, what are you actually doing, are you just sitting there? What are you doing? I said basically I just write down how I'm feeling, because I'm feeling crap, and I record it on my phone. They said OK, let's have a listen, and we listened to it and they said I could make some work out of it. I was like, what? At the start it was really hard because it was something so personal - how can I share something that is a way for me to deal with my trauma, with an audience? Or even as a form of art? Then it just kind of developed into so many different things. I had never thought my work would become text, or collage, or spoken word, or sound, or so many different things. Photography, even. I did not expect this to happen, so it was kind of... it still is a journey, obviously life changes, my practice has changed so much since uni. Originally it started with me talking about how I'm feeling to my phone, because I didn't know how to talk to people. I was struggling with my mental health and I did not know how to tell people what I was experiencing, and that basically turned into my practice.

You said that it was a way for you to understand and process your own feelings, because it was difficult to speak to people about it. Has making art, using your own trauma and healing as a subject, helped you to communicate that better?

Yes, definitely, because people have come to me specifically and said to me, with confidence, obviously I won't mention any names at all or whatever. But basically, people have come to me and they have said Hassnat, your work, even though it might not relate to what I have been through, I can feel your pain and I can feel your rage and I remember a 14-year-old version of me and I feel like through your rage, I can feel my rage. For me that was the biggest compliment ever, because I was like, thank you for saying that. I never thought that my work would become this, for people, that people would react to it in that way. For somebody to just come to me and be so brave, to say your work helps me to feel these emotions that oftentimes are neglected or frowned upon - feeling anger, or sadness, or loss, or whatever. Usually people are like, ok, come on, you need to heal from this and you need to get over it. Allowing people through my work to feel those feelings and not feel guilty or bad for feeling those feelings... it's a normal human response to trauma, or to anything, like if you've been through a difficult situation.

You started with voice notes, and then after that, over the course of your BA at Liverpool John Moore's University, what other types of mediums did you work in?

I tried loads of different things, once I realised OK, I have a purpose now. I'm making work to raise awareness about issues that infuriate me and make me angry - why is this happening, why are women being silenced, why is forced marriage a thing? Then I started thinking, I'm not responsible for changing everything, but I'm allowed to say how I feel about this, right? So I originally felt a lot of burden, I felt I have to change everything. But after having a tutorial with Zarina, that really helped me so much, because I realised... I can't change everything, but I can raise awareness. Then I started thinking about how am I going to do that, I'm only one person, how can I- what more am I going to do? Then I started writing actually, that's where it started from. So I recorded the voice notes on my phone and then I started creating text from it. It started happening, I would leave notes for myself because I struggle with psychosis so I would leave notes for myself and come back to it when I was having an episode. Like, what have I written there? I started using that text, and writing - not thinking about punctuation or grammar, anything besides, a thought is in my head and I'm writing it as fast as I can. Often my wrist would start hurting. It was really hard but it was so good, I was thinking I'm just going to write everything down. I'm just going to not think about anything, no one's stopping me, no Auntie from a wedding is asking me to marry her son or whatever, that pressure that you get, I'm not having any of that. I'm not listening to anyone, I'm not feeling the pressure of being in an asian culture, the pressures of that. I'm just writing, this is my safe space and I'm writing everything. Then it developed into spoken word, because I realised, OK, this text piece is really good. I would ask people in my course to read it, and they would read it as normal text, like how you're just reading off a paper.

They weren't performing it?

Yes, exactly! So then I was like, no, you need to read this word with rage! And they'd say, what? And I'd be like, yeah! Like, when you're reading "I am the dust beneath your feet", yeah, the FEET has emphasis on it! They would be reading it without it, and I'd be like, NO! FEET has emphasis! It's just a small thing, but it was my text so I knew how I wanted it to be read. Then I started recording it. In the university we had these recording booths, I used to be there often, pretty much half my second and third year I was in the recording studios. I would just be screaming in my phone - again, I used my phone - then I'd try different ways of saying it. I was thinking to myself, if I had to confront the person who caused me this pain, how would I talk to them? How would I want this text that I've written, this note, how would I say it to them? I was finding it hard to confront my trauma so I was thinking, if I had to read this to somebody who caused me all this pain, and put me in this position, how would I say this? How would I want them to feel this? So then I started recording the sound stuff and started performing, because the sound stuff made me feel like, because of all the rage and adrenalin in my body, I wanted to release the trauma that was in my body, the ache and pains I was having. I wanted to release it, so I started moving, so there was movement and I incorporated parts of my own culture and movements that I'd seen in things I was exposed to like Bollywood movies or different things, like India and Pakistan... my family's from Pakistan but there's a lot of things that are intertwined between the two. I would often watch Bollywood movies and see how they're moving their body and how delicate it is, and the wrist movements and things, that would become something so beautiful and delicate, but there's so much control. That's what I wanted, I wanted to take control of my situation. So then I started incorporating the spoken word which is full of so much anger and rage, combined with this delicate movement, saying - I am going to move as delicate as a flower or a butterfly, and I'm in control. This space is mine and I'm going to move so softly, so smoothly, and the sound in the background is like - aaargh! The audience is so confused... I wanted to create that confusion.

Was there any particular film stars in Bollywood or sequences or films you were looking at or thinking about at the time?

Mainly, I really listened to a lot of 1930s music, traditional black and white movies. I'd often watch them with my Grandma, there's something so beautiful about it. There is something so poetic in the way they move and the way they are being so shy - I don't know how to say it in English! The way they hold themselves is so delicate, so posh, so beautiful. I was like - I want to do that! It's something that is expected of us, as well. I wanted to take ownership of it but also be like, my sound piece in the background is telling you that you can't control me. I'm taking ownership of this movement, that is so delicate and soft.

You did a show with OUTPUT once before - you were the third, or the second exhibition at OUTPUT. Do you want to tell the audience a little bit about that exhibition in case they aren't aware?

OK, of course. First of all thank you so much for giving me that opportunity, because it was my first proper show, after leaving uni and stuff. It was a really good time for me to experiment with the general public, I had been showing my work through exhibitions that were held by uni. I did one or two in London but this was my first proper thing so thank you so much. So a little bit about that work... I was actually named TANSSAH, obviously my name is Hassnat but at that time I was going through a difficult time and I had to hide my identity and you kindly helped me with that. I was named TANSSAH and all my artwork was under that name on Soundcloud. It's all changed now. What was I talking about? Originally it started from a segment of another piece of work. My original piece of work was at Liverpool John Moore's University, it was my final major project, and I did something that I can't believe I did, it was probably the best thing I've ever done in my whole life. I got a shed, I deconstructed the shed, then I constructed the shed, to the measurements of a victim who had shared their story with me. I wanted to basically create the same dimensions of the shed that they were locked in, I wanted to construct it and then I wanted to break it, with a sledgehammer, basically. I destroyed it as much as I could destroy it.

That destruction was a performance at the degree show, that's right, isn't it?

Yes it was a performance, it was really hard, that sledgehammer was so heavy.

I'm not surprised!

I don't know how I did it... when I first held the sledgehammer and I was hitting it, it wasn't breaking. Then I remembered something and I realised why I was doing this, I don't know, something just clicked in me, something snapped and I thought, if not now, then when, Hassnat? And I just broke that shed. I took out all of my anger, grief, pain, I used to go to university and in my lunch time I would go to therapy, and then I would come back to uni and do my work, and I would go home, and I couldn't sleep. I had really bad... I just wanted to take all of this thing that I was carrying for so long and just take it out. That's why I made this piece of work, and I broke the shed and I don't know if anyone has ever been to John Moore's but the whole of the uni, in the back where the car park is, there's a bit of grass, but the building itself is all made of glass. So on each floor there was people, I didn't know obviously, when I finished the performances people were telling me about this. But there was people on the first floor, second floor, third floor, because there was somebody screaming at the top of their lungs and breaking a shed. They were like, what's going on? But that was my piece for my final show.

And then how did you resuscitate that work for the OUTPUT exhibition?

Yeah, so for the OUTPUT exhibition, because I had broke the shed, I believe the OUTPUT exhibition was called Build And Rebuild. Basically what I was doing was with the shattered pieces of the shed, I was reconstructing this shed, basically. Saying that, I will build it up and destroy it until it turns into dust, basically. There was pieces of the shed there - I tried constructing it but it was really hard, I had crushed it. The shattered pieces that were left there, the planks of wood, it created this haunted atmosphere of something that happened, and somebody witnessing the aftermath. You're going into somebody's personal space, invading it, but being allowed to invade it.

You also had video works in the space, a big projection, and a performance as well - again your identity was hidden, so you were totally cloaked, but I feel like that performance is something I'll just never forget. There was a red light filling the space, you came in through the back, there was a really big audience waiting to see what would happen. It wasn't even that long, but it was just so intense, and all of the rage you've described so far in this interview was clear. It was so well edited and performed, it was great.

Thank you so much, that's so kind of you. I guess, yeah, it's really weird, I'm a really shy person. When people meet me in real life I find it really hard to talk but when I perform I'm someone else, it's a different persona completely. I'm not Hassnat... I guess I am Tanssah, at that time. Originally when I created that name it was my name spelled backwards, and my name actually means nice and kind, so if you spell that backwards...

Interesting! So it's been a few years, there's been and still is a whole pandemic. You were due to show with OUTPUT again but we've switched to postal exhibitions and yours is the latest to go out. For anybody listening, do you want to describe the work that you've made?

For this particular project my work is a series of collages and texts that I have written through lockdown, it talks a lot about loss and grief and struggle, and also hope, again. I guess the work I made was a reaction to, basically I lost a member of my family, and it was very difficult for me to deal with that. I wanted to get away from everything, I didn't want anything to do with anything, I just wanted to disappear. And then there was Covid, and again, this is something that a lot of people can relate to. We've been in our homes, we've struggled with this. I didn't know what to do and I basically created a new movement for myself and for other women and people, I named it Punk-jabi. My family is Punjabi and I wanted to make... I've been listening to a lot of punk music during lockdown, to get me through it, I just needed to get my rage out. I was like... I want to see more of my culture in punk. I haven't seen anything and the stuff I have seen, I don't know. I made the name up, punkjabi, there's probably someone out there who has already made that name, it's pretty straightforward. It was a reaction to me dealing with some things, with being silenced a lot, I've had to move back home so it's been really difficult for me in that aspect. I've been making work to deal with my situation, having all this independence for the last five years when I was living in Liverpool, and then having that taken away from me, in an instant. Something I have worked so hard to make for myself, and then it's completely shattered in front of my eyes. It was almost like the shed being broken with the sledgehammer. I just- I didn't know what to do. I'm making this work about grief and loss and stuff, and I'm like - yeah, you can deal with this, always having this hope. Something I've worked hard to create it just taken away and I'm like, how do I find that hope in myself now? So then, this is why I made punkjabi - I needed that Hassnat back, that rage back, how do I do that? So then I realised moving back home, although it has been really difficult, it has exposed me to more of my culture. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, loads of different things that are to do with my culture. Although there are some things that I really hate, and just detest, I cannot deal with... there are some things I love about my culture, and dealing with that without thinking that it's all or nothing. I'm a very all or nothing person, I love all of it or nothing at all. I kind of feel like that's what I did with my culture, I was like- nah, I'm not getting exposed to this at all. The work I made is also dealing with the fact that I am from two cultures, you know? How do I balance that. I'm being pressured into something, or feeling pressured to do certain things or have a certain life, but I've also got a different set of values that tell me to have my independence. It's like, conflicted thoughts - that's what my work is about, saying yeah, you're going to grind me to dust, but remember that if you grind me you're going to have blisters on your hands to remind you of your injustice. You're going to do this to me because you think you can, but remember, there is consequences to your actions.

How is all of that presented?

OK, so the images that I've made, they're basically a series of different collages that I made on different days. Sometimes I would make them when I was feeling happy and then they're a bit more colourful, sometimes I'd make them when I'. feeling really low and it was really like a journal for me. I've been journalling a lot, during lockdown, trying to keep in track with my feelings and see how I'm doing with myself. These images are illustrating how I feel, and the text that I have contributed with it is just like a journal that I've made to talk about how it feels to lose somebody, how it feels to lose a feeling of freedom, how it feels to deal with grief, to struggle. In some of the pieces I'm questioning things - I want my answers, but I don't know where to get them from. It's just a journal of me asking questions. Maybe there aren't answers out there but it's just me saying, what do I do? Then things that people have said to me, comments that people have made that have really hurt my feelings and I didn't know how to cope with it. So I just had to make something out of it, I'm going to have to put this and that and make something out of it that expresses how I feel. It's a new medium for me, I've never really experimented with collage but it's really interesting for me because it has helped me to- even to think that certain colours I've used are linked with how I feel. Why is it linked, you know? It's really helped me think about things, I've used this colour when I was feeling this way, that's strange or that makes sense... associating colours with feelings. It's just really helpful for me. The choice of texts that I use has significance as well, there are texts that I've used that are camoflaged with the imagery and it is really to do with feeling dissolved and feeling like you're not visible, so that's why I created those things. Each piece in itself has a reason behind it - why I've used the text, or the imagery, why I've used the colour. Each piece is completely different to the first one. So it's a lot of different things.

Yeah. So, now that lockdown is lifting, is there anything that you feel you have learnt over the past 18 months that you're going to take forward into your life and into your art practice as well?

The main thing I've actually learned is to believe in myself, and also that no piece is a finished piece of work. Which is really something that has got to me, during this time, because I would be editing something and I'd be like - it's not finished, and I'd be working and working on it, and I'd think - I can do more! That just really limited me sometimes, I wanted it to be perfect but nothing is perfect. I think the main thing that I've learned is to try things. Nothing has to be a finished piece. Experimentation - this piece I worked on, it's something new I was trying out, with collage. I wanted to try something new because I wanted to make something that represents punkjabi. Punk magazines I was looking at, it was a lot to do with ripping pages out and sticking them on. I did a collage but on my laptop, working digitally. I would scan things in, and do it that way. What I've learned is to believe in my own abilities and to believe in my work, and the purpose of my work, and how I can actually adapt my practice very well. I used to think my work was really limited to grief and trauma and stuff. This work specifically has been hope for me, it's helped me to reconnect with my culture. I'm learning how to read and write Urdu, and it's just really helped me in a lot of different ways that are not directly linked with art, but with my life personally.

That's really nice, it's very optimistic. That idea that art, once it's made by the artist and then placed in an exhibition space, is a terrible limit that the white cube format has imposed on everyone. Art students seem to absorb it to this day and  I don't think it's true. As you know I write a lot about video games as well, and when games are made and produced, they get sent out into the world but there are updates that follow that game forever. It's always changing, and I think the art world could learn a little bit from that. It would take the pressure off artists, as well.

That's another thing with how you are saying, about how things are changing, everything is changing. That's something I found very difficult because my work was talking about a certain type of topic, and I felt like I was forcing myself to keep making work about that topic. Because originally my work was about arranged marriage, domestic abuse and cultural enforcements. All of that, psychological abuse etc. Now my work is changing and I'm talking about different feelings, and although it is still to do with feeling that I'm struggling with, it's changing and turning into something that is slightly optimistic, because my mindset is changing. That was really difficult for me because I didn't know how to change it. How do I mould this? Am I just an artist that makes work about one topic, because I've already put that out there and that's my identity - can my identity change? Can my practice change? That's the questions I've been asking throughout this project.

It's going to be really exciting to see where your work goes next, I think, if it continues to bring in more subjects and moods, more personality as well. Very excited. So if any listeners are interested in getting a postal print from Hassnat's exhibition as well as listening to the sound pieces she has made, go to outputgallery.com and you'll find all of the information there as well as documentation that you will see what it is we have been talking about. Where can people find you on the internet?

So at the moment, Soundcloud is the best place to go (https://soundcloud.com/user-992787119). But I am currently working on a website, although I was always against it, but I'm working on a website and you'll find all my previous performances - I have everything, so you'll find everything on there.
Well send us a link when it's ready and we can share it as well.

Of course, thank you!

Thank you so much for joining me on this episode of the OUTPUT Gallery podcast, and we'll see the listeners on the next one. Bye bye!

Bye, thank you!