We need to appear in the form of a hybrid being

Mary Ana (untitled, 2019), courtesy of the artist

An interview with Mary Ana (Maryam Sheikh) by Antke Engel

December 2019

AE: Maryam, you contributed to the Caring for Conflict-KLIRRRRR festival in 2017 with your video Bisheh (Mary Ana 2016, Iran/Sweden, 15min). You call it ‚a video love letter‘ tackling the condition of migration and the possibilities of feminist solidarity and resistance. At that time you were already living in Sweden, but still waiting for asylum – after a three-year journey fleeing from Iran via Turkey. You have now been granted asylum and found a flat in Gothenburg, where you live with your cat Anarch and continue your artistic practice. Currently, your work is mostly in painting; however, the topics are similar to those you dealt with in your five video works: migration and flight; the loss of loved ones left behind; the violence of a world defined by authoritarian regimes, war, and environmental catastrophe as well as sexism, homophobia, and heteronormativity. What you create is very powerful, colorful, and poetic. In an email you wrote, referring to a poem by Forough Farakhzad, that the ugliness of the world would be worse if people closed their eyes to it.

So, do you think that art can be a form of resistance as well as remedy? What does it mean for your artistic practice that you are working under conditions of migration?

MA: I moved towards painting when I was spiritually and psychologically overwhelmed by the migration process and its consequences. In the host country of Sweden I have been facing discrimination and racist issues at school, university and society milieus and for that reason I have not had any relation to the outside or to humans for a period of six months. During that period I took pen and paper with the intention of writing a note but in spite of my efforts I could not write even a line. Then instead of writing letters I found myself drawing lines, points and various figures. Since then I’ve felt that painting is therapy for my soul and helps me, disregarding the problems that make people exhausted, to continue my life with a purpose. Through painting, I express and portray in my way what passes through my mind and find a language. Hence I think art can be resistance and remedy against the hideous and inadequate systems which have not yielded anything in the world except war, immorality, injustice and sickness.

Artistic practice is in fact a kind of experimentation and a relation to oneself and others. It is also a way to get familiar with the minor artists whose thoughts and works are against the dominant streams and relations. Furthermore, artistic practice produces creative ways and points of view by simple means and on a low budget, while at the same time raising valuable, useful and practical concepts. One example is the video „In My Language“ (by Amanda Baggs). In this video we see how an autistic person turns her room into a location and makes herself an actor who not only knows the limitations caused by her disorder, but also knows ways to overcome these limitations and give the viewer a kind of indirect education about the manner and way of approaching autism; and we can even say, rather than as a disorder, she perceives autism as a way of being or a manner of behavior which just differs from what is called normal.

AE: In the exhibition that was part of the KLIRRRRR festival we already displayed one of your paintings, which depicts a grim looking soldier in uniform tenderly embracing and caressing a cat. Are you interested in this kind of contradiction?

MA: I rather paint figures and situations which I am interested in. If I am not interested in someone or something and I feel obliged to include it in a painting, for example police, closed circuit camera, statesmen, etc., I will certainly do it in ways similar to those of so called primitives or cave humans, who used to paint portraits of their enemies and strike and damage them so that the same thing might happen to them in reality. I try to do the same with paint and brushes. Of course, perhaps this damage would not be obvious in my paintings because I paint in multiple layers, for example I paint a cruise missile, then I exterminate it by spreading red paint on it, then on the red spot I paint a bird which is flying over an active volcano. In fact, nothing remains of the missile, except the fire that has exterminated it. However, the case is quite different for the images I am interested in. I often paint from photos and in selecting a photo I am more scrupulous than in painting. For example, when I was working on the collection of figures of resistance, I never painted a photo of a police officer attacking a protestor or demonstrator with a baton, weapon and tear gas, but instead I selected and painted the image of a Palestinian child who, amidst fire and mortar and smoke, has a sling targeted at the enemy.

It is so important for me to feature what is invisible instead of reproducing the world of visibilities. I gained this method incidentally by seeing these photos and real acts across the world. They raised the question for me of how in times of conflict, one can keep oneself creative and, in spite of oppositions, not reduce oneself to the role of a warrior but make art from one’s struggle which will also be useful for other people with similar experiences. In fact, these situational conflicts, like the presence of the child on a battle field using weapons instead of being on a playing field and playing with toys , makes an artist from a defeat. It also creates similarities and common links to other defeat-artists across the world with different cultures and languages. For this reason I felt a connection to your website Caring for Conflict and the thought behind this title is so valuable for me. BecauseI feel in today’s sick world every artist should also learn care in order to support and take care of the earth, animals, plants and other vulnerable humans against the disasters inflicted on them by humans themselves.

Mary Ana (2109, untitled), courtesy of the artist

AE: So for you, including animals in your paintings makes us see care as much as conflict? Human and non-human animals are struggling for survival, and sometimes they are also struggling with each other. Oversized birds are a recurring motif. What do you mean when you write that your paintings are on the topic of migration, not only the migration of humans but also the migration of animals?

MA: In todays deranged world and due to civil and foreign wars, countless humans are forced to leave their lands and set off on a path of migration. It seems to me that the most important category in migration is the confrontation and crossing of borders and gates and walls that we already got to know on the geographical map. And now as immigrants, we find ourselves crossing this map, with the difference that the course of reality is much more complicated, precarious and enormous than the points and lines that we have anticipated on the world map. In fact one can say that all wars take place because of these boundaries and borders drawn by governments, who, consequently, make their people stray and wander like ghosts around the world.

AE: I very much like those hybrid or cyborgian figures that blur distinctions between technology and nature, for example the plane that has antennae like an insect, or a bird melted into a submarine, or is it a boat turned on its head? Why this mixture of nature and technology?

MA: It is interesting also for myself, especially when I paint from my imagination. At first I paint repetitive figures such as a fish, a woman, a cat or a bird, and in a second step I connect to them things such as wings, antennae, wheels, telephone lines… Perhaps, in this way I feel we are not integral in our singularity, but instead we need to appear in the form of a hybrid being. One day I read an essay by Deleuze/Guattari about nomadology in which they were talking about the war machine as opposed to state apparatus: Instead of distributing binary oppositions between states we could understand everything in relations of becoming and thus be capable of passing obstacles. Indeed, perhaps the combinational figures that I paint are a kind of assemblage of the war machine, trying, like a nomad with his/her wagon and animals, to move, relocate and experience multiple becomings. I illustrate this movement as opposed to the sedentary by borrowing bird wings and fish fins, car wheels and smoke from a train’s chimney and synthesizing them with human or animal organs. For example a human who has wheels instead of feet and has ears like a cat. In fact, by combining technology and nature, my intention is to reinforce the motor of the being that I have painted so that it can pass existing obstacles more easily.

AE: Is it different for you to work in painting? Does this influence the way you tackle your topics? And will you also continue to make videos?

MA: I think the only difference between working in painting and in film is in the materials. My research and thinking method and concerns are eventually the same: the will to resistance, freedom and permanent revolution.

Warm Regards,

Copy-editing: Lucy Duggan

more paintings


01-11-2020—00:22 h—Caring for Conflict

How queer is ‚diverse‘? Change in German civil status law concerning birth certificates


In December 2018 a change in German civil status law (Personenstandsgesetz, PStG 45b) has been introduced concerning sex_gender registration in the birth certificate. Under certain conditions (that is, with a doctor’s certificate confirming a “variation of sex development”) it is now possible to delete the obligatory registration as female (w) or male (m). Furthermore, there is the option to register as “diverse” (d). Yet, even though the law has been passed, the administrative regulations of putting it into practice (Regelungen und Ausführungsbestimmungen) remain vague and vary from city to city (district court to district court). In some cities it has been possible that transgender and nonbinary persons, who are ready to interpret themselves under the headline “variation of sex development”, make use of the law by, while in other cities a narrow interpretation of the § 45b as designed for intersex persons only, occurs. Due to the lack of clarity and a critique that the current version of legal regulation leads to legal inequality or, more precisely, legal discrimination, it seems that the application of the law has currently been (inofficially) suspended until there is a clarification how the so called transsexual law will be repealed and transferred into civil status law, too. Detailed information (in German language), also for persons who do not hold German citizenship, one finds on the website of the LSVD (Lesbian and Gay Association of Germany).

Wig Piece (I WANT), Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz, 2015, photographer: Annik Wetter

Clearly, it would have been much easier to abolish sex registration by the state altogether, an option also suggested by the constitutional court. However, since this is not (yet) the case, I would like to ask: Is there a queer potential to the option „diverse“ offered by the German civil status law since January 2019? Is the German „divers“ (diverse) comparable to what used to be called genderfluid, genderqueer, and is now mainstreamed as nonbinary? My answer would be: yes and no. According to most of the media coverage, „diverse“ is not captured as another option of classification but presented as a third gender. This, however, is narrowing down the option into a clear-cut, well defined category. As such, it might be fitting well with what the legislator had been hoping for, when trying to limit the legal option to inter persons. The Organisation Intersex International (oii germany), in contrast, insists that so called intersexuality captures such a wide spectrum of sex characteristics that it is impossible to subsume them to one and the same sex or gender. Furthermore, it is impossible to draw excluding lines against trans and nonbinary persons, particularly, if one takes seriously the ruling of the German constitutional court from 2017, which underlines self-perception as an irrefutable moment of sexual identity.

So, the question is whether ‘diverse’ holds another status than the categories ‘female’ and ‘male’? Does it contain a wider variety within, or a higher variability in time, or simply address people who self-identify as more genderfluid? Though, here one has to consider that on the one hand inter or trans persons might very well claim the categories ‘female’ and ‘male’, which makes these categories more variable and less cis than usually recognized. On the other hand, inter, trans, or nonbinary persons who opt for ‘diverse’ might also be claiming for themselves stable, inborn, and clearly defined sex_gender identities. Not least, it is quite remarkable that the term nonbinary as it is used today, lost much of its genderfluid or genderqueer flair; instead it is associated with a dimension of authenticity, is securitized through accusations of misgendering, and often declared an identity. In claims for gender equality it does, indeed, seem necessary to recognize nonbinary/diverse as categories in their own right as well as of equal rights as female and male.

Therefore, the problems of the logic of categorization are back on the table. For one thing, ‘diverse’, as is the case with ‘female’ and ‘male’, too, fosters the impression of a false homogeneity. Secondly, it tends towards a hierarchical binary: Here, this means clustering female and male as the norm (or ‘normal genders’), while designating a status of ‚deviant‘ or ‚other‘ to diverse. This is a significant problem, because it clearly undermines gender equality. For many activists and organizations the only consequent solution would consist in getting rid of any state defined gender designation whatsoever. However, is this the only possibility of reducing and removing gender inequality? What about positions arguing that a third category creates visibility? That it allows fighting discrimination and demanding recognition for genders (or sexed_gendered subjectivities and embodiments), which up to now have often been disavowed into non-existence? Does a third option necessarily lead into the logic of categorization and a hierarchical binary? The German constitutional court ruling introduces the formulation that a ‘positive’ characterization of one’s gender has to be available to everyone, since gender is part of ones personality right and a status named ‘neutral’, ‘none’, ‘deviant’ or ‘other’ could harm human dignity. The demand for a ‘positive’ formulation of a thrid option equates, at least formally, diverse, female, and male. It does, however, not result in queering the binary, but tends towards an additive logic. Therefore, I would like to suggest a different take on the option ‘diverse’:

My argument is that as long as male and female do not also lose their status as clear-cut categories, the status of diverse cannot be equated to them, but should be understood as carrying a queer potential. This potential evolves from ‘diverse’ creating an alternative to either ‘many’ (countable, categorized) or ‘no’ gender at all; or more precisely, shifting continuously between these options. Accordingly, to identify with the option diverse could mean understanding oneself as multifarious. Sex_gender dimensions of our embodied subjectivities could be perceived as carrying our various biographical experiences and relationships. Thus, change, be it continuous becoming or radical transformation, always also effects and encompasses our embodied sex_gender. For some, as I would say for myself, ‘diverse’ bodily experiences crisscross female options, sometimes touching though not comforting themselves in masculinities – experiences that include flirtation with butch and androgynous engenderings. For others, ‘diverse’ might take on completely different forms. Brain and hormones – due to their openness to environmental influences – are contributing though not determining sex_gender self-perception, and undergo change. No reason to see brains or hormones as being female or male rather than multifarious and diverse. Consequently, one could also free female and male from the status of clear-cut categories and see them as diverse in themselves. As such, §45b of German civil status law could become the entrance point for queer or genderfluid subjectivities and embodiments into the mostly cis gendered heteronormative public.

Antke_Antek Engel

* This text is not an exact translation of the original German blog post from August 2019, but a revised and restructured argument from November 2019.  Political and legal developments are in process; so look out for up-dates.

08-07-2019—13:49 h—Conflict as Method

Chinwe Nnajiuba: „I won’t be easily intimidated“

Chinwe Pam Nnajiuba aka Juba is a Berlin-based DJ. In this interview she lets us know how she deals with conflict and discrimination whilst empowering herself through music.

Interview: Valerie-Siba Rousparast

Chinwe Nnajiuba (Foto: Valerie-Siba Rousparast)

CfC: You’re originally from the UK with a background in Nigeria. What brings you to Berlin?

Chinwe Nnajiuba: I moved to Berlin because I wanted to escape London. I was living at home with my parents and felt like I needed to spread my wings and capitalise upon this time in my life to be independent. As long as I was in London I didn’t think I could do that.

I think what gave Berlin the edge for me is that it’s relatively close to the UK and affordable. Additionally I had learnt German in school, so I thought it would be the ideal place to improve my German – however Berlin is the worst place for that because everyone insists on talking English.


10-05-2018—17:00 h—Chinwe Nnajiuba: „I won’t be easily intimidated“

Deaf Stress Factor: Hearing Ignorance

The event focuses on audism.

Audism refers to decades of discrimination of Deaf People. Hearing and speaking are define what is seen as normal. Deaf people are seen as having a defecit, and sign language is devalued. Are hearing poeple so self-assured that they ignore audism? When do conflicts start? How does the Deaf Community relate to queer-feminsim? And to racism?

We are engaging with conflicts within and beyond the Deaf Community. This involves reflection on the KLIRRRRR festival and to Caring for Conflict.

When: Saturday, October 27, 2018 at 6pm (program starts at 7pm)
Where: aquarium (Südblock), Skalitzer Str. 6, Berlin-Kreuzberg
We: Xenia Dürr, Silvia Gegenfurtner, Simone Lönne,  Melanie Loy.

In German Sign Language (DGS) translated into spoken German.

Die DGS-Verdolmetschung und weitere Maßnahmen zur Barrierearmut des KLIRRRRR festivals queerer Konfliktkulturen wurden gefördert von Aktion Mensch.Funded by Aktion Mensch.

Facilitated by the Institute for Queer Theory (iQt) as part of Caring for Conflict. Contributing to the series When does it Become Violence.

09-30-2018—23:36 h—Arena