“We all need joy” – Making art during the pandemic

Photograph of Sabba Khan

Since March 2020, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre has been gathering material from Black, Asian and migrant communities and individuals that tells stories about their experiences of the pandemic. COVID-19 Project Coordinator Heena Patel spoke to British Pakistani artist Sabba Khan about her donation, a set of six postcards featuring her original artwork created in co-operation with a group of women in Balsall Heath, Birmingham. Around Christmas of 2020, copies of the postcard were distributed to local school children so that they could write and send their own personal messages to vulnerable and older people in the area.  

Can you tell me a bit about yourself? 
I’m an architectural designer and visual artist. My work explores first-world city life as a second-generation Pakistani Kashmiri migrant.  
How did you end up doing this piece of work? 

 I was asked to develop postcards for wellbeing in the time of COVID for Ort Gallery. These postcards would be distributed to elderly and vulnerable people in and around the area of Birmingham with a charity that was providing essential foodbank services. The idea was to promote a message of mental and general well-being, a little nod, a reminder of the simpler things in life, whilst donating food parcels.   

What was it like creating this work? 

 At the time, my maternal grandma was sick in hospital. I recall none of the family were able to visit her, and since her English speaking is not great, we all worried for her. I wanted to draw elderly South Asian characters, to help ease the anxiety we, and many others like us, were feeling at the time. I wanted to put the characters in familiar domestic settings, and the idea was to let these postcards scatter around the house as daily reminders to check in with ourselves. The messages work on both a mental and physical level, practice yet contemplative. The scattered words urge the viewer to linger a little longer, the message is not immediate, and the hope is that one’s eye travels around the image, soaking up both visuals and words together- and hopefully with the soft linger, they slow down, and soak up the message.  

Did Ort Gallery tell you how they used your work? Have you heard anything since about the postcards? 

Yes, the postcards were received by the charity and the local community really well. We had a thousand of each postcard printed, and Ort told me that a lovely relationship between school children and an elderly people’s home had developed in sharing messages on the backs of the postcards. I’ve seen some lovely photos on Instagram and Twitter too.  

What’s it been like for you being a visual artist during the pandemic with everything that’s happened in the last 18 months or so? Has it made you think about your role as an artist? 

 Yes, a lot has happened, and it’s made me acutely aware of how much we still need to grow for an equitable society. The role of the artist is a heavy one in these times, when public funds are scarce, and access to support is minimal. I’m finding artists are left to understand and make sense of the unjust system we live in. I feel I have so much to learn, so much more to understand, that I think my time as an artist will be filled with a constant learning. I also tell myself that this is life, so I guess it’s ok.  

What does your donation tell the world about your COVID-19 experience? 

That we ALL need joy.  

Do you have any upcoming work that you’d like to tell us about? 

My debut book, a memoir called The Roles We Play, just came out on 15 July. It was shortlisted for the Myriad First Graphic Novel Competition. In it, I go from the foothills of the Himalayas in the Kashmiri valleys to East London looking at identity from the global to the local, covering partition, displacement, assimilation, religion and culture.  

That looks wonderful, where can we get a copy? 
You can order it directly from the the publisher, Myriad Editions or from Waterstones

The AIU RACE Centre’s COVID-19 Collecting project is still ongoing. If you’re from Black, Asian and/or migrant backgrounds, we’d like you to donate material that tells your pandemic story. We’re preserving this material to show what life was like for us during this time. So far we’ve had photographs, short films, audio recordings, screenshots and artwork.  It could be a recipe, a song or poem you wrote, anything that tells the world about your pandemic experience. We’re particularly interested in stories from people living and working in Greater Manchester. As we’re still working from home, we are only accepting digital items for now. If you’d like to donate, email us at [email protected] or  
get in touch through Facebook Instagram or Twitter