‘I see art as a creative medium which needs to exist in politics in order to engage’ – Saffiyah Khan, the viral protester and artist on channeling a spirit of defiance
You have seen her photo before. Birmingham, last April: Saffiyah Khan, unfazed, hands in her pockets, gazing calmly at the red face of an irate EDL member. The still went viral and, in a big way, the student-activist’s courage was emblazoned across social media.
Six months later, Saffiyah Khan is using her platform in creative and subversive ways. After unveiling her photography work for the first time last summer at Birmingham’s Punch Records, she then dabbled in the fashion world, signing to modelling agency Elite and making her runway debut as "Lady Justice" in Dilara Findikoglu’s SS18 show during LFW.
Seen here in Repossi for Dazed’s autumn/winter 2017 issue, we catch up with the British activist and artist to talk grassroots movements and her powerful enmeshment of art and politics.
Punch records in Birmingham exhibited your work as a photographer this summer — you’re behind the lens this time! Can you tell me a bit more about how the show came about and how you got into photography?
Saffiyah Khan: The exhibition was a photo documentary of a youth engagement project based around the south Asian music influences, and how young people could couple it with modern sounds to produce a track. I got into photography a couple of years ago after my mum gave me her old DSLR, but I really picked up on it when I got my first film camera. Now I shoot digital because film is sadly just not affordable.
You’ve also been modelling here and there and made your fashion week debut in London with Dilara Findikoglu. Is modelling something you want to pursue further?
SK: LFW was amazing and it was an honour to walk for Dilara. At the moment, I’m enjoying modelling and I’d like to see where it goes, although I never planned to be doing it!
What role do you think art and fashion can play in protest and activism? How can creative projects engage with politics?
SK: I see art as a creative medium which needs to exist in politics in order to engage. Political art makes politics accessible to everyone, it asks the audience for their interpretation and opinions — it’s something which is rarely encouraged in politics. It shows that everyone has an opinion on politics and this is important. I also believe politicians need to find more creative ways of reaching out.
Looking back at the photo that went viral last April, how did it feel to be catapulted into the limelight so suddenly?
SK: It hasn’t been too taxing. Everything has been fun. I’ve been busy! That’s sort of a downside I guess, but I love being busy. For a couple of weeks, it was totally strange to see your face in places where you don’t expect to you see your face. It's been sick to see people out there who are so interested in equality. It wasn’t a self-advertisement that I’ve done any work on since, I’ve been open. I'm active on Instagram and Facebook, I don't have Twitter. I made sure there was kind of a cause there which I now have a platform to think about and show attention to. At least people know it’s a problem that far right groups still exist.
Should all protests be peaceful?
SK: I think it would be nice if protests were peaceful… The problem is anti-racist protests are a response to racists. And their ideology is inherently violent. They have their opinions and we should respect them… Yes to a degree that if you believe in working people out of their home because the colour of their skin. I think you need to respond however they’re playing it to you. Obviously responding peacefully is a goal. Always. I don’t respect anyone who goes out looking for a fight. But at the end of the day, fascist groups, racist groups, islamophobic groups have become physical, so you have to be physical back.
Who inspires you?
SK: I never really pick out names for the specific people that stand out to me. Obviously there’s the big political names, people that bring about change. But people who inspire me is people in their communities who are part of grassroots projects. They are working and never get any credit because they almost speak to a problem that is faceless. For example, people who care for homeless people. That shouldn’t be their job but no one credits them anywhere near enough. Homeless people are facing a problem they shouldn’t have to. People don’t get recognition and again it’s for that reason that I can’t really name.
What hopes do you have for 2018?
SK: I think I’m going to be modelling because I find that really fun. I’ll definitely still be doing photography. I’m channeling my energy into my portfolio trying to be very self critical about it. Nail that down. Photography hopefully will continue improving. And Politics definitely as well, I’ve always been involved with politics.
Hair Teiji Utsumi at Bryant Artists using TIGI, make-up Athena Paginton at Bryant Artists using Laura Mercier, talent Saffiyah Khan at Elite Model Management, photography assistants Alexa Horgan, Wynston Shannon, sytling assistants Ioana Ivan, Lauren Perrin, Emily Gallagher, hair assistant Kisa Yamada, make-up assistant Elise Priestley, casting Svea Greighgauer.