Women

In Conversation with: Zahra ben Ammar

February 25, 2018
Dhanaks

Photographs and Words Zahra Ammar.

Separator.

Foreword

With a background in Economics, Finance and English, she passionately doodles on any surface, weaves threads and is in love with paper and food. She loves the versatility and form that paper has to offer. In her own way, her expressions are cut and folded into her artwork.

When not surrounding by mounds of paper, she is wandering outside on her bike with crazy ideas churning in her head, reading thrillers or writing poetry.

You can purchase work from Zahra ben at her Etsy Store: https://www.etsy.com/shop/ZahraAmmarArt
You can stay up to date with her latest creations on her:

Instagram
Website


It sounds like a juxtaposition, but I believe I have ended up where I have wanted to be.

What was your upbringing – catch us up on your life from your childhood till now

We tend to label things in life and then conform within the set boxes whether set by people or ourselves. Life is chaotic and pushes us out of those niches we carve out for ourselves. I sometimes laugh when I think about myself. I have a degree in Economics and Business, and ended up teaching ESL (English as a second language) to 16 years olds. Then, I got a degree in English and ended up as a paper artist and teaching art. It sounds like a juxtaposition, but I believe I have ended up where I have wanted to be.

I come from a background where art is not a lifestyle or anything one can or should pursue – ever. Parents put a deck of cards in front of children that define what they are to become. These cards consist of being a doctor, an engineer, getting a business degree or  … no, thats all the cards. Right there.

Four years of business school later, I found myself in the Middle East teaching Economics and then finding myself subbing for English. Being good at teaching it, I landed myself a bucket load of more course work.  For eight years, I worked with students who could barely utter a word of English to those who spoke in as if from the Elizabethan era. I was frustrated working with hormone filled teenagers and also loved every moment of the energy they were filled up with. They made me the patient person I am which I need in the process of creation now. They made me realize that it is not the formation of a sentence or putting the  right punctuation that would make an assignment great, it is the idea and the voice. The editing always comes in the end anyways.

 

The book was like a realization that anything is possible but also to be vulnerable, mostly to self-doubt.

What was the spark?

The spark was always there in some form or the other. People who know me know that my hands are always in motion, literally. If I don’t have paper in my hand, it is a thread or a kitchen knife or a book.  Even when life got in the way, I would be doing a patch of embroidery, a doodle on my textbooks, or putting a dash of paint somewhere.

I self published ‘Spring Delusions’ two years ago which I termed as chaotic poems of despair and blooming hope. Along with each poem, I had my sketches and a few digital artworks to fill in for things that can not be worded. I spent a lot of time learning how to do things. My goal for this book was to hear my own voice and sing something for the world that has given me so much and if I were to connect with even one person out of the 8 billion, it would be enough.

The book was like a realization that anything is possible but also to be vulnerable, mostly to self-doubt. It wasn’t a hit, no one knew about it, yet there were these handful of people who emailed me back sharing their thoughts and ideas. And that was enough.

To pursue it as I have done was a risk that I just needed to take. I was at a turning point in my life two years ago and I felt that if I did not ‘make’ things that I wanted, I never would later and that would be a waste. We only get this life once, I just had to listen to myself.

 

The way it absorbs colors, bends itself, allows to be torn apart and put together, is incredible.

In our previous brief interview with you, you spoke about paper- quote “We think of it as a medium to be worked upon and never as a colour palette itself.” I think that is profound. Can you elaborate further?

We think of paper as a mundane object but if we look at the history, it has been vital in shaping and changing civilizations and the way they work. Commerce, history, communication, art, education, the medium of transference and preservation has always been mainly paper until now. But paper has a language of its own if we are willing to listen to it. The way it absorbs colors, bends itself, allows to be torn apart and put together, is incredible. It shows the incredible power of a thing so humble. It has the potential to give depth and structure, create moods and shadows, and weave a story just as good as oils or watercolors or a concrete sculpture.

 

Art is not about waiting to be inspired or being hit by an ‘aha’ moment.

What is your relationship to your art?

In one word, complicated.

It is much harder to be creatively constructive than anything else. I have worked in the regular work environment for a decade and it is much easier because a certain path is laid down with goals to achieve, schedules to manage and deadlines to report to with a clear objective. When it comes to creativity, it is part skill, part experience, part knowledge, part intuition and part internal struggle. I have to sometimes give up control and let the work lead itself and that is not easy when you can’t see the end at times. At times I have spent days on something, invested my time and attention to only see it not work out. At other times it has been as if my fingers are driven and the end is something far greater than my expectations.

For me, art is all about communication where words are not enough. Everything around me that has something to say, inspires me, that can be good food, the rain, a mundane object, a hike, a laugh or a very intense conversation. It is all about asking oneself, ‘if I were to translate this into my work, how would I do it?’ Unfortunately, inspiration is such an overused word nowadays that it sends out a wrong message to aspiring creatives. I learnt this the hard way.

Art is not about waiting to be inspired or being hit by an ‘aha’ moment. Instead, it is all about putting in the work day in and day out. What I mean by this is to just sit down and create. Mess things up and experiment and refine till you get there. Everything starts with a blank. It is okay to put down chaos and imperfections on paper. It is like creating incoherent sentences before a beautiful composition is formed.

 

Instagram has helped me connect with brilliant artists all over the world who have been kind enough to share their insights and knowledge.

What role does community play in your artistic pursuit? Be it in terms of your family, your faith or an online art community

I have no formal art education. What I have learnt is through trial and error, books, my curiosity but mostly through people. Instagram has helped me connect with brilliant artists all over the world who have been kind enough to share their insights and knowledge. Some have helped me emotionally and intellectually because it is very easy to have self doubt. Criticism by own self, both positive and negative is a deep hole in which one can get lost.  I have turned time and again to get clarity with my online friends and am always there to provide the same. Being an artist is a constant struggle and having supportive family and friends has been very integral for me, for criticism as well as a backup. My pillar has been my husband, through the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

It is the path to perfection that interests me now.

What is of utmost importance to you? Or perhaps your greatest driving force- discipline or passion?

My younger self would say to achieve perfection.

I am old enough now to understand that all we can do is to strive for it. It is the path to perfection that interests me now. The idea that I could leave a tiny footprint (or even a fingerprint) in whatever form on this earth has driven me so far. But memories are subjective and ideas evolve and are forgotten and regurgitated over time. What drives me now is to explore my own possibilities as well as touch people in some way. I ask myself, ‘What can I do that pushes me out of my comfort zone?’ Literally there are days when I hop out of bed because I can’t wait to try out something. These ideas are sometimes inspired and sometimes not. It is a pretty random process, could be when I am hiking or reading a book, or some random conversation or the weather, some art piece or a piece of fabric. However, I don’t wait around for inspiration to hit me. It is like any other skill in the world and one can not practice enough. The skill needs to be honed day in and day out. I keep oscillating whether I am for discipline or passion. Both things are valuable to have, but I believe passion is such an overused, overblown words nowadays. Sometimes it can be an overwhelming urge to create but sometimes it can be just a tiny spark or an irritating itch. When it is the latter, people tend to often ignore it or overlook it because they feel they need to have a burning passion to do anything of significance. That is why so many people never explore their own possibilities. This is where discipline comes in. I create the days I am exploding with ideas and the days when I am blank. Lines need to be sketched and cut, and better ways to fold need to be learnt and perfected. Action creates flux and growth and eventually, amazing things come to being.

 

Others will try to drown you out but if you voice yourself long enough, you will be listened.

What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

Persevere.

Fight for what you want and not conform to what society wants you to do.

Don’t take the safe options because they are easy.

Listen to yourself and stand up for it. Others will try to drown you out but if you voice yourself long enough, you will be listened.

Keep working consistently, you will get there.

Stop thinking about too much about ifs and butsjust do it.

 

How do you balance your work and family?

I treat my work as work even though I love what I do. It is easy to strike a balance that way, most of the times. My husband has been the most supportive driving force behind all my work. There are times when I have to go completely insane and work till midnight but then it is with the knowledge that it is my responsibility.  Read Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits and explore the 4 quadrants of time management. It has changed my habits, priorities and the way I treat time.

 

 The whole moment was surreal.

A cherished memory of Moula and a particular teaching that you hold dear. 

Last year at my home when I showed Moula my work and presented him with one of my works. The whole moment was surreal. I feel truly blessed and have seen opportunities falling out of the sky and into my lap one by one. I totally attribute all of them to Moula. His words about being true and fair to everyone is something that always stays within me, whether in business, family and friends, community or country, or with oneself. Everything has a consequence. As humans we have a right to treat ourselves as well as others with respect and humility.

 

I have been met with only respect and love by everyone around me.

How does the role and identity of a mumina intertwine with other aspects of your life?

The human mind is a fascinating thing. Once you make friends with it, things become really easy. When I came to the US, I was told things would be difficult. Au contraire, I have been met with only respect and love by everyone around me. It is all about the aura. If one cringes and is fearsome, others feel that too. If one embraces and cherishes their clothes and identity, it goes around and spreads good will. I an optimist with a grain of salt and know that things are different all over the world and unfortunately McCarthyism still runs rampant for Muslims, however, the best we can do in this world is be positive. What good can come of being dragged into quagmires?  I read a blog post where the author talks about ‘unfair advantage’ where there is one aspect of your life that makes you so unique that it sets you apart. I think for me this is it.

 

No one likes change, but it is change that brings progress.

What challenges are women facing today?

Living in the Middle East taught me a lot about discrimination, all sort and forms. It also opened my eyes to the incredible hurdles women have to face internally and externally. With a plethora of images rampant in media, it is easy to lose focus to what wants to be. The idea of being perceived and labelled versus what one wants is a real struggle for women. Society wants women to behave in a certain way and to break those barriers has always been extremely hard. No one likes change, but it is change that brings progress.

 

He is my personal savior, hero and confidant.

Historical figure you are inspired by- be it within Islam or even otherwise.

Moula Ali. He is my personal savior, hero and confidant. In times of terrible crisis, internal and external, he has pulled me out, given me hope and been a beacon for me. I am stumbling here for words because no alphabets strung together can define his greatness. He is an inspiration for all eras because of the risks he took to uphold and safeguard the values and ideologies he believed in for all time to come.

 

A book?

All books by Michael Crichton. All. I am big on thrillers and mysteries and voraciously listen to audiobooks while working (I have 50 on my list to read this year already). The way Crichton pushes the boundaries of imagination and explores relationships between humans and the world and the possibilities of being is amazing.

 

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