Baesianz is the London-based collective and platform dedicated to celebrating artists of Asian heritage. Through celebrating Asian art and all kinds of Asian identities, Baesianz has built an amazing community which focuses on inclusivity, community, and amplification. Founded by Sami Kimberley, Sarah Khan, and Roxanne Farahmand in 2019, the Baesianz team has since welcomed Christine Lai, Dilesh Patel, and Jyni Ong. Here, the Baesianz team discusses their collective and shares their views of the art world with writer Olivia Griffith.
What does Baesianz stand for in terms of representation within the art industry?
Sarah: We created our collective because the art industry wasn’t necessarily offering something that we could work with. We stand for the inclusivity of Asian artists beyond tokenistic box-checking quotas. We stand for making your own environments if they’re not already there and seeing how you can respond to exclusion in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you need to conform, and where you’re able to create your own things.
Sami: Baesianz was created as a home for those who we didn’t see within the industry growing up – for each of us there is an individual story behind this. Personally, being someone of mixed-Asian heritage without much of a connection to my Asian roots, it felt impossible to have a confident voice of who I was – something that is integral to forging your own path in any creative practice. In a larger sense, and because of these different beginnings, we felt it was important to create a space which celebrated all Asian heritages, mixed heritages and marginalised identities within the Asian diaspora who, like us, didn’t know where they would fit.
Christine: I think what’s interesting is that a lot of our community are second-gen Asian immigrants, which isn’t really a voice that has been platformed in the arts until now. Partly, this is because, generationally, the main wave of Asian migration was in the 70s and 80s and so we haven’t matured yet, but also because many of us – especially in my experience – have parents who aspired for us to pursue more traditional careers. For every Asian artist I’m friends with, I could probably name ten more who are lawyers, doctors, or accountants, which unfortunately plays into the stereotyping of how we’ve been represented. For me, Baesianz is this funny paradoxical thing where we’ve all kind of come together to celebrate our heritage, but also rebel against our parents and society too!
How is representation changing in the art industry?
Sarah: I think it has been changing for a long time – change is continuous. There are always going to be people who have done it before us and legacies carrying on. Of course there’s gal-dem, Hungama, Daytimers, Pxssy Palace, Misery Party, Azeema, Eastern Margins, all of these amazing publications, collectives and club nights centring on marginalised identities that were started by people of the same identities – these have been happening for a long time and they will continue.
Roxy: If publications and platforms like gal-dem and Azeema etc. didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have had the courage ourselves to believe that we can create our own platform, and create our own narratives about Asian stories and Asian artists, so I think it’s only going to expand and grow.
For me, the most powerful act of creating positive social change lies with feeling part of a community. Lots of the Baesianz collective, including myself, never felt part of a community growing up and were made to feel marginalised instead.
What do you think about the power of art within society, and its ability to create positive social change?
Christine: As a curator, I’m always weary of the idea that art itself can create positive social change because it’s often taken from an aestheticizing point of view. I do believe art can bring positive social change, but through communal action. Looking at a work does not do anything but inspire – it’s what you do with it next that’s important. Much of our work at Baesianz is event-based as it turbo charges the works in a way that gives you a space to connect with others and act together.
Sami: Forever art has helped to shift perspective and offer a counter to mainstream culture. It’s able to tell a story, create emotional connections and democratise feelings – with art, you take from it what you see, and so its power is insurmountable. Artists like Ai Wei Wei are among my favourites as, although innately political, he’s able to do so through art, and the messages he can convey are far more powerful to me than an essay in an academic paper. Not because the latter is less important but because art speaks in a different transcendent language, one that many others understand better.
Jyni: For me, the most powerful act of creating positive social change lies with feeling part of a community. Lots of the Baesianz collective, including myself, never felt part of a community growing up and were made to feel marginalised instead. I have had many conversations with friends where we talk about how much we love one another and how grateful we are to be a part of each other’s lives after so long feeling alone in our identities. Even though lots of us haven’t known each other for a while, the bonds we have forged run deeper than many of our longest friendships and that speaks volumes.
Sarah: I think art has historically been an important part of societal change and revolution. It tells us about the energy of a society, and on a personal level to encounter an artist’s work that speaks to you can often offer you permission in some way – either to accept some part of yourself or teach you about the world we live in, teach you about community or something in time. I think for that reason its power to be a catalyst for change is incredible and has always been there. That’s not to say all artists use their work in this way, but even to see that they’re a working-class artist, or a queer artist, or an artist that speaks to a part of your identity can be a very healing experience for many people.
What are your thoughts on the wider art industry and current art trends?
Roxy: With the wider art industry it seems to be that a lot of highly funded projects come from the non-POC, privileged world. That’s why we try our best to offer grants and residencies to help support the practices of those who come from marginalised backgrounds.
Sarah: In terms of general trends, I think there’s a movement towards VR and digital art. While I do appreciate this, it’s also moving us away from physical, real-world connections and as a collective,it has become incredibly important that we have those physical contacts – especially for the exhibitions we run which allow people to see work in real life and with Baesianz FC which allows people to come together in sport. I do hope there’s a move towards the art world remembering that community and connectivity and being in space with each other are really important.
Sami: One thing I miss is the concept of art movements, like Bauhaus or minimalism, which are a snapshot of moments in time. Because of the Internet and the speed that ideas are shared, consumed and discarded, I don’t know if that’s ever going to be possible again. What was a movement is now a trend. I’d love to see us all slow down again. Perhaps this is just my perception, and I’m missing something – if so, please DM Baesianz and let us know!
What does the future of the art world look like for you?
Jyni: I think a lot needs to change in the art world for it to change positively. Something needs to change with this capitalist model that we’re currently living under in order for us to have better qualities of life as a (hopefully one day thriving) community. But til then, all we can do is try and support each other in the best way we can; continue to encourage and inspire one another, take up space, and rest too, which is very important.
Sarah: I hope it would look intersectional, inclusive, a movement away from elitism, and with more opportunities for people from working-class backgrounds.
Roxy: That’s the dream, isn’t it? That’s what we’d love for it to look like, and I do feel that there are some elements of that taking shape, for example, the Turner Prize winners of the past few years have been far less elitist. Assemble won a few years ago, which is an amazing community project focusing on architecture and social housing. And of course, the incredible collective Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S.) were nominated last year and shared a strong statement about exploitative art institution practices at the time. I don’t know where the future’s going, but hopefully, it’s in the right direction.
Sami: I would love institutions to give back what they take from artists – the imbalance is alarming. I see the value in the big galleries; the platform they can give and the access they provide is important – especially as someone who came from a working-class family in Cornwall with little artistic inclination – and places like the Tate have been instrumental in my art education. In my utopian vision, I don’t see artists being devalued or taken advantage of for their time and talent, but being more of a partner with these places, and with the same respect and funding that big artists receive.
In my utopian vision, I don’t see artists being devalued or taken advantage of for their time and talent, but being more of a partner with [arts institutions], and with the same respect and funding that big artists receive.
What brings your community joy?
Dil: It’s coming up to a year since I joined the Baesianz crew and what I have come to understand is that a big part of the joy in our community is the trust we have in each other. My parents would take me to big dinners and dances in London for people who, like them, had emigrated to the UK from Pandoli, Gujarat. I saw how comfortable and happy they felt at these functions with people who now lived all over the UK, and the trust they had in their community through shared experiences was strong. Where they felt they belonged, I felt lost as a second-generation Asian but I feel I have found that belonging with the Baesianz community; a community I trust.
Roxy: BAESIANZ! Well, it can be different for different people. I know for myself and for people that I’ve spoken to, it is being able to be in a creative world with people who are like me, who come from that same culture, the same background. What brings me joy in the community is the conversations you’re able to have that I maybe don’t feel I’m able to have with my other non-POC friends; that personally brings me a lot of joy.
Sarah: Knowing that there is a welcoming space for us brings a lot of joy. Being in community with one another – Sami and many of our friends are part of groups like ESEA Sisters who are for East and South East Asian women, trans, and non-binary people, and we have our friend Rahel who organises cooking clubs under Spoons, her vegan Indonesian supper club – all of these spaces around us bring great joy. Knowing that there are many different events we can attend and be in a safe space with one another, and have incredible conversations, while held by each other brings a lot of joy. Also with our football team WhatsApp group, we’re always in communication, and knowing that someone is just a message away brings us joy.
Jyni: Food. Asians love food.
What projects do you have planned for the future?
Sarah: Well, since 2019 we’ve programmed film screenings, exhibitions, radio shows, artist talks and performances. We recently launched our cinema club which takes place at Spanners in South London that Roxy hosts which showcases the most diverse and iconic cinema, and we decided to make everyone’s ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ dreams come true with our football team, Baesianz FC, a space for women, trans, and non-binary people of Asian heritage. Keeping it dynamic is our motto and the only thing we have yet to do, but is in the pipeline, is to create a zine. That is the reason we started and it’s one of the only things we haven’t done.
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