We take our time. We’ll get better

“There’s no utopia until the revolution arrives. Right? I cannot run from one place to another. The revolution has to come, and it has to come for all of us everywhere.”

Simeen Anjum

Simeen and I interviewed each other on a warm and sunny day in Portland, a week after I arrived from New Orleans, where I had been participating in school remotely, to complete my first year of the Social Practice program at Portland State University. Simeen has a quiet warmth that I was immediately drawn to when we met in the fall of September 2023, and we both entered the program hoping to understand how art could help create and sustain a better world. Related and equally as important, Simeen has a deep commitment to delicious food–I never go hungry when I’m with Simeen. We both dream of a better, more just world. I hope you do too. 

Both of us felt deeply affected by watching the genocide in Palestine unfold in front of us during our first year in school (as so many did), and we shared a similar cycle of initial hope watching the student encampments begin followed by deep sadness witnessing the universities across the country so violently shut them down. Although we come from different places, we are both hopeful optimists that people working and moving together can (yes, really can!) make a better world. I hope you enjoy reading this second half of our conversation, and if you haven’t read it yet, be sure to check out Simeen’s interview of me, “Where Do We Go From Here?”

Lou Blumberg: I’m curious to hear your reflections on moving to a really new place in the midst of a genocide supported by the country that you moved to, and what that’s been like. But maybe before we do that, how are you? How are you today? 

Simeen Anjum: I’m okay. I’ve been kind of drained. I mean, I don’t want to say bad because I’m just so grateful to have found all of you. It has definitely been difficult, especially with everything that you mentioned that’s been going on. I feel like I’m coming from a lot of existing political suffering from India. I really hoped that coming here would give me some space from that, which I was really looking forward to. But that’s not how it ended up. So that makes me think that this struggle is going to go on, no matter where you are and it’s our responsibility as human beings to respond to what is going on. There’s no utopia until the revolution is there. Right? The revolution has to come, and it has to come for all of us everywhere. So that is one realization that I had.

A screenshot of Simeen’s instagram story on April 29th, 2024, juxtaposing her college protests at Jamia Millia Islamia with the protests at PSU. Photo courtesy of SImeen Anjum.  

With everything that happened in the last week, with the student encampment at PSU and the local community supporting it, it really gave me a lot of hope and empowerment. I’ve been here for eight months. After eight months, for the first time on campus, it made me feel like I finally belong here. I found my people. I found that sense of community, that sense of looking out for each other. So that’s a milestone for me. And even though everything is difficult, I’m really grateful to have found that community, to have that glimpse of a community.

Lou: I’m curious to go back to utopia and what you imagine utopia to be. Have you ever felt close to experiencing that, or been in a place that felt close to utopia?
Simeen: I feel like the only feeling close to utopia that I’ve experienced was before I became more aware. ‘Ignorance is bliss’ – it definitely puts you in a bubble. I would have personally liked to live in that bubble for longer. But because of my identity, the bubble was broken and not by my choice. When your identity is the one being targeted, and you and your community are at the receiving end of oppression, you cannot stay in that bubble. And my friends and other people who come from a more privileged social location, are still living in that utopia. In the same country and same city. So it’s very tricky, I don’t know how to process that. But at this point the utopia that I would love to build would include everyone and not just the privileged class.

Simeen painting a mural in Delhi in 2019 during the Citizen Amendment Act protests. Photo courtesy of Simeen Anjum.

Lou: Sometimes people use that ‘ignorance is bliss’ argument here in the States to say, “well, that’s why we shouldn’t learn about critical race theory. That’s why we shouldn’t learn about oppression, because that’ll just make people upset.” Or the argument in Florida with a bill that the legislature was trying to pass was, “we shouldn’t teach critical race theory, because then white kids will feel guilty and they’ll be sad.”

Simeen: What we need to understand is that someone with privilege can ignore it and not be sad. But for someone who’s on the other end of the spectrum, they don’t have that privilege. It’s a reality that they have to live through.

Lou: As someone who holds some privileged identities, I feel like the work for people who do have that privilege is to recognize that you actually can’t be living in a utopia while other people are not. We all need collective liberation. We all lose something by living in an oppressive system, even people who have privilege, but of course to a very different extent. 

Simeen: Yeah, you cannot reach your fullest self in that system. 

Lou: How do we build a utopia, a mini utopia?

Simeen: Mini utopia…we should make a Zine about this! We can make a utopia for our friends that might need a break. It could be a space where you go to recharge, so you can go back to fight again. It should definitely be cozy. There should be a lot of pillows. There should be other comrades to support you emotionally and tell you, “hey, it’s okay if you’re scared. If you’re tired, it’s okay. We take our time. We’ll get better.”
Lou: Sounds like the collective the first years are working on, “Taking Our Time.”

The Taking Our Time Collective/1st year MFA students during the class trip to Pittsburgh. L to R: Lou, Simeen, Clara, & Nina. Photo by Olivia DelGandio. 

Simeen: Yeah we just keep going back to rest right? We need it so much. I feel like in activism it gets hard to take a step back and care for yourself. But rest is a part of resistance, because the fight is gonna be long and you cannot humanly go the whole way without paying attention to your own needs. I think it should be emphasized more that we have to take care of ourselves. 

Lou: Yeah, totally. I know I’ve been thinking about that in relationship to the slogan, “disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest” that’s been on so many campuses right now, and how there are moments where you can’t rest because the state doesn’t rest, but how we need rest so much.

Simeen: True. We should definitely work on building a system and general understanding of taking turns and making sure that everyone is getting enough rest because we need to be able to sustain the fight.  I think this is the moment for us to think more about this. We need to level up.

I think we don’t take rest as seriously because there is a sense of urgency in the air. We all want to bring about change now, but we need to understand that it’s gonna take longer. And we need to build stronger and more sustainable strategies so that we can keep going. Even when we are sleeping, someone will be there in our place. 

Lou: You sleep, I watch out for you.

Simeen: Yes, someone making sure everyone is eating enough. That would make us so strong. Oh, my God, if we figure this out…

Lou: I feel like it requires so many people. But we have so many people. There are so many of us. 

Protest at the Red Fort in Delhi, 2019. Photo by Simeen Anjum

Simeen: Yeah, we are so many people. There were these protests in Hong Kong a few years ago, and they were just so well coordinated, even though these people didn’t even know each other. They would show up to the protest and then afterwards dissolve into the city.  No one could catch them. And they each had their particular role. When you have a community that has predefined roles and areas of work, you’re able to share responsibilities. 

Lou: What do you think your role is?

Simeen: I cannot say it while being recorded  [laughs]

Lou: Totally. Really good security practice. What else should I ask you?

Simeen: We already spoke of hope.  What else have we not spoken about?

Lou: Something that I think about and I wonder if you think about is, living in the context of climate collapse and apocalyptic predictions that so many people have about the incoming severity of storms and climate change. For me, that can be coloring all of these conversations. And I wonder how you feel about that.

Simeen:  I feel like I really don’t think so much about it, because there’s just one thing after another, and the climate just stays at the back because you don’t see its effects here, right?

Lou: On this beautiful sunny day.

Simeen:  It’s not right because I think ultimately we should be thinking about it. Especially coming from New Delhi, I have seen the city become a gas chamber, literally, the way it is right now. Everyone is coughing. Everyone’s voice is changing. The older people are getting more sick. Young people are having to get all these inhalers and medicines. And I have no idea why it’s not an emergency. I think it’s an emergency. But there is no talking about it, because we are so busy earning our daily bread and working for our basic necessities. We don’t know what to do about it. Sometimes when you wake up in Delhi everything just seems gray. The landscape has changed, and it has all happened in front of me. I would never go out on a weekend and just want to walk around because it looks different. It looks like something out of a dystopian movie. If you go today, there’s no sense of urgency, nobody is alarmed by it. It’s just something in the background that’s happening. The primary thing remains the same, that I have to earn this day’s bread. 

Lou: And the people that you end up working for to earn your bread oftentimes are the same people who are profiting off of not doing anything about climate change.

Simeen in Portland’s Forest Park, May 2024. Photo by Lou Blumberg

Simeen: I mean, if you make more money you can buy an air purifier for your home, for your kids. I think that’s the biggest form of violence in the end. As time passes, it’s gonna get worse. And the rich can modify their houses but the poor will still have nowhere to go. That will be so bad. Do you know about the Bhopal gas tragedy? An American person had his factory somewhere in a small town in India, and he was running it without proper safety measures, because in India you can get away with a lot of things by bribing the government and the government is also very lenient. They don’t pay attention to all of this, and labor is cheap. There was a poisonous gas leak in the factory, and the workers there didn’t know what to do. They were not trained in taking care of themselves. They were not trained in how to stop the gas from leaking and ultimately traumatizing. Long story short, the whole village died.  It was like many, many, many thousands of people, and the American company got away with it. No one faced any charges at all.

Lou: That’s terrible.

Simeen: Big companies definitely exploit the resources of poor countries. And I really hate how, whenever we talk about climate, it is based on individual action: “you change your toothbrush, you recycle.” I mean those are definitely good, sustainable practices. But that’s not what it is about, right? We are not causing this climate crisis. It’s a bunch of companies that are exploiting our resources everywhere, that are putting all their waste in the waters and everything, and there’s just no conversation about it. I feel like the whole climate conversation has been hijacked by these companies.

Lou: Yes, I mean, it’s like greenwashing. This is really a big thing in Louisiana. There are companies along the Mississippi River outside of New Orleans that emit poisonous gasses, and the rates of cancer are so high in the surrounding communities that they call it Cancer Alley because of all the toxicity. And those companies, you know, it’s like Chevron, Shell, big chemical companies. But the Aquarium in New Orleans is sponsored by Shell, and there’s 

 a monument to how helpful the oil platforms in the middle of the ocean are for creating sea life. And that’s greenwashing right? It’s like, you’re the ones killing the fish, and now you’re telling everyone that you’re actually helping with their habitat?

We need to create as strong of a system as they have, but a system of people power! Speaking of people power, I’d love to hear you talk more about your project In Dark Times Like These.

Simeen:  I feel like when I came to Portland it was a big transformational moment for me. I moved to a whole new country and was trying to find a sense of belonging and a sense of community. And then the genocide started after October 7th. I was thinking about what I needed at that time. It was very emotionally exhausting. It was also isolating, feeling so helpless about everything.  I kept remembering how back home during protests or community gatherings, we were always singing all these songs. It was so refreshing and so hopeful. And that was something that I felt was missing here at protests in Portland. That’s where the idea came from. Why don’t we just get together and sing just for the sake of it? Not for any particular event, but just to sing together and cherish how it makes you feel.

I named the project In Dark Times Like These because a lot of these songs are actually timeless. They have been used over and over for a very long time. Singing some of these songs does give me a lot of hope because I know that there were people fifty years ago who felt just as bad as we are feeling right now and then they sang these songs like the “Bella Ciao” song. And it gets modified each time depending on where and when it is being sung. I think that’s beautiful and something really precious that we all share. I think we should make it cool again. 

Like the “We Shall Overcome” song. It’s such a precious song for me because that’s like my childhood and I didn’t know it was used here in a very different movement. It connects us in such a beautiful way.

Lou: There’s something about singing together in a big group that really works. I feel this grounding, you know.

Simeen: People have always been singing together. This is something that the governments will never do. The bad guys will never do that. It is something only you and me can do.

Lou: Yes. I agree. Are you continuing the project?

Simeen: I am. I just didn’t find a chance to actually sing in this dark time. 

Lou: I’d love to sing with you sometime. 

Simeen: I also feel like in times of crisis we are in so much despair that at times we forget to sing. We forget to–like we discussed earlier–we forget to rest. To take a pause and take care of ourselves. Even though singing and resting are just as important for us to keep going. There has to be songs in dark times, right? 

Lou: Yes, absolutely. I’m curious to hear more about your relationship to art making and what role you think the artist has in dark times like these.

Simeen: I don’t think of myself or artists as a very separate entity or anything like a hero who observes people from afar. I don’t feel like it’s anyone very special or outside of society or anything. I think you’re just there, you are one of the people in the crowd. And you’re just supposed to respond, just have a natural human response. 

Lou: That’s such a big thing, to take away all of the other narratives that we might experience and just have a natural human response. I think that’s something that you do well. That’s one role of an artist in a movement space. 

Simeen: And that response can come from anyone who is part of the movement, not necessarily someone who is going to an art school or who has an art degree. I’m personally glad to be alive at a time where those hegemonies that we had associated with being an artist or art making are finally dissolving. People are like, you know, we don’t care about it. We’ll make art. We’ll make bad art, do whatever you want about it. I’m really happy to be present at that time when those hegemonies are no longer keeping people from making art.

Lou: That’s a really nice thing to point out. I feel like the more people making art, the more opportunities for new ways of being and seeing, and in order for more people to be making art you need to forget about what makes good art or bad art. It should be okay to make bad art. I’ve been telling myself that, anyway.

Simeen: Yeah and on a different note, I’m the first person in my very, very big family to study fine arts. They’re like, “What is this subject? And why do you study it? What kind of job do you get?” Because for most people, for most middle class people, you go to university so you can get a job, any job, some job. And studying art is like, kind of a privilege that is normally reserved for people from more socially privileged backgrounds. In my first year, I was going to all these exhibitions and all these shows, and just looking at other people and thinking about “where do I fit in here? How do I fit in here? And will I ever fit in here?” 

But a realization that I had recently is that you don’t have to fit in here. You just have to be yourself. Do what you do and respond to things as you experience them. That’s been my journey. Because, starting my second year, there was a huge protest in the Arts Department. I’m coming from a background where there’s no sense of a high brow aesthetic, there’s no accessibility to art institutions – we are disconnected from that whole world of classic aesthetics, matching colors. Sometimes our bed sheets and pillowcases don’t match. That’s just how it is. So I was learning to appreciate art without beauty, without a sense of aesthetics. It’s not necessarily about looking good, it’s about responding and feeling and embracing those feelings. I think that’s been my biggest learning journey. 

The first artwork that I now recall myself making was because I was just confused. I’m coming into art school with a different background, and I don’t know what others are talking about, like how to make a fucking painting. So there was a protest in the Art Building, and we had this iconic sculpture, a bust in our department that had his mouth open. It seemed like it was screaming. And I put a ribbon around the sculpture, around his mouth. So that morning, when everyone came inside they were like, “Oh, there’s a ribbon around his mouth!” and that was my first artwork. I didn’t consider it to be an artwork but I now think it was. I only recently started to believe in myself as an artist! 

Simeen’s first artwork, 2019, Jamia Millia Islamia. Photo courtesy of Simeen Anjum.

Lou: Did anyone help you get there?

Simeen: Yeah, I met a friend who was an artist. She’s graduating this year from School of the Art Institute of chicago. A few years ago, she was discussing something she was working and I gave her a random suggestion that she should use these dastarkhwan, dining mats that are a specific thing in our culture. And she is actually incorporating them in her work! It’s been like four years or something, and it just makes me really happy. You don’t really have to have a background and a big experience with aesthetics or working with art to be able to do it. And she has really been a mentor to me and has really pushed me to believe in myself and helped shape my art practice.

Lou: Definitely, yeah, it’s a lot about believing in yourself and taking risks. 

Simeen: Yes, and letting yourself feel things and pay attention. And also giving yourself the liberty to express, and the liberty to rest!

Simeen Anjum (she/her) is a social practice artist and cultural activist from New Delhi, India. Locating herself in the disquiet of state suppression, surveillance, personal and collective trauma, she attempts to document, cherish, and archive the smallest fragments of ordinary life. Through her work, she hopes to provide alternatives to established socio-political narratives. She works in direct interaction with her community and surroundings.

Lou Blumberg is an artist, educator, and facilitator with ties to Portland, New Orleans, and San Francisco. They think a lot about what it means to feel safe vs. what it means to be safe, what you can gain by being vulnerable, and how to live a good life. Hire them to mediate your next conflict.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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