To be open: an interview with artist Riya Hamid

Art — 09.04.18

Interview by Patricia Ellah 
Photography: Lili Peper and Patricia Ellah 
All clothes are Riya’s own

I bumped into Riya Hamid on the train. I recognised her because I followed her on Instagram. I talked myself into speaking to her. I had wanted to photograph her for the longest time because she is absolutely stunning, but I never got around to ever asking. Most importantly, I wanted to hear her views on things; art, men, women, feminism, friendships, writings, film, and family.

On her Instagram, she wrote of many peculiar memories of her childhood in her captions. They were not particularly happy, to me, she expressed a sense of sadness that I felt akin to. The children of our generation that had experienced forms of physical and psychological abuse who didn’t see the world as simply as everyone else. I appreciated her honesty in regards to her experiences as they addressed the reality of what it meant to grow up with memories and stories that were not for the dinner table. Her ideas on friendships and feminism don’t just talk about the empowerment of women in general; it reminds us that women are humans too and are quite capable of bringing other women down, poking holes, poking fun, yes, especially now in the age of false presentation.

Riya Hamid moved out of New York last summer to live in Berlin, she has modelled for H&M, lonely lingerie and was featured in Vogue’s World 100 list of the people that inspire them.

It’s a really hot day when Lili and I interview Riya. We are sweating and melting into horrendous beige leather couches that her all bro roommates picked out. We are in Brooklyn in her old apartment in Ridgewood. It feels like we are talking to an old friend, someone that Lili and I must have known at some point, that feeling of familiarity breaks the interview into sections of personal revelations and moments of unloading harboured truths.

Patricia: Did you have an author that you read, and you thought, “This is why I want to be a writer?”

Riya Hamid: It was Anne Sexton who I read when I was thirteen. I think the subject material was a little morbid for a thirteen-year-old to digest, but I remember just being really really bewildered. She has one poem about laying in bed alone touching herself as young lovers are fingering each other in the backseat of cars. For some reason it really struck me, it’s this woman who is just so unashamed of not only her sexuality but also her loneliness.


Patricia: Do you think about those themes now, what else were you interested in at that age?

Yes, I think there was a nice conglomeration of media that I was attracted to when I was younger. When I was around 12 or 13, I became interested in film. I grew up in an immigrant household, so my parents didn’t speak English and did not expose me to any sort of American culture. I never knew what song was playing; people are still baffled when I say I haven’t seen Star Wars, for so many Americans that film is a staple of their childhood. When I was reaching my teens, I made it a point to dive into all of these things that I was completely oblivious to; I just watched all of the classics. I started with Pulp Fiction, that was the first serious film I watched at 12. I looked at the list of the New York Times best films of all time, and I would try to watch one or two a day.

Patricia: What are your favourite pieces of writing?

That is such a difficult question, can I just say the book I’ve been reading? It’s ‘Bluets’ by Maggie Nelson. It’s these little anecdotes about her love for the colour of blue. It really delves into philosophical and psychological dissections of what love and sexuality are. Tragic and beautiful. I would also say ‘The unbearable lightness of being’ by Milan Kundera and ‘Franny and Zooey’ by Salinger are books that I find myself returning to again and again. In the past few years I’ve been reading books almost exclusively by women in an effort to undo a lifelong patriarchal education, but also, they’re just… better and rawer? I really enjoy Duras, Sontag, Chris Kraus, Rebecca Solnit, and Elena Ferrante. Ferrante’s work is so angry, so furious. ’Meditation at Lagunitas’ by Robert Hass is my favourite poem in the world. “The Lover” by Marguerite Duras and “A Very Easy Death” by Simone de Beauvoir are harrowing novels that deal centrally with the writers’ relationships with their mothers in uncomfortable detail. I’ve always found it difficult to talk about my relationship with mine— that medley of love and resentment.


Patricia: TV shows and films?

I love Mad Men. I’ve watched every episode of every season at least three times. Twin Peaks. Recently, I’ve really enjoyed Big Little Lies, but it did bother me that although Zoe Kravitz is the only major black character, she doesn’t get screen time in the way that Nicole or Reese does, and when you do see her there is basically no duality in her character. She’s consistently just “good.” In the Mood for Love and Paris, Texas, and Close Up are my favourite films. Wong Kar-Wai, Kiarostami, and Ashgar Farhadi are names that come to my head first. High Maintenance is so, so, good. I don’t think there’s been a show quite like it. It’s re-defined how a show can be so viscerally meaningful and also hilarious – using a diverse pool of subjects without being tokenising and always, always humanising them.

Lili: Do you have any favourite women directors?

Yes! Lost in Translation is my favourite film of ever, although I have to say that everything else Sofia Coppola has done I have been very underwhelmed by. I saw the film ‘Raw’ recently directed by Julia Ducournau and thought it was really good (and really nasty), especially when I found out it was her first feature film. Also, Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, American Honey). She’s also going to be directing Big Little Lies season 2, which I’m really excited about.


Patricia: What environment do you create for yourself to write?

I’m not a morning person; I have this fixation with the night time, I like being awake during the night. I think it’s because growing up without a room, I never had privacy until the rest of my family was asleep. I revelled in those hours of solitude, quiet. I like to be up until about 3 am, and then I’ll wake up at 10 am and go down to the coffee shop. In the last three months, I’ve been forcing myself to sit down and write. I used to have this belief that art is cathartic, that I’m not going to force it if I feel emotional. If I feel inclined, I’ll write, and the words will just pour out. But now, I realise that if you do that you can go months without writing, and you need to practice your craft, or otherwise it diminishes or just stays the same. On the days that I can’t spend a lot of time writing, I’ll write a haiku because there are a finite beginning and end, and there’s a lot of freedom in the restrictions of a Haiku.


Lili: Do you think New York is a source of inspiration to you?

I grew up here, so I have a different relationship to the city. When you are from New York, every other place gets ruined for you, but at the same time, I feel stifled here. For a lot of people New York is this symbol, it is where they come; it is where they thrust themselves to accomplish their dreams. It enlightens them, it invigorates, they feel impassioned, but for me, I’ve always just been here. I think I’m ready to go somewhere foreign, to feel those same feelings that people feel here in New York.

‘The Room II’ by Riya Hamid

Patricia: Why were you drawn to art?

I was bullied relentlessly as a child, specifically middle school. It was constant throughout my childhood, but particularly middle school was the worst. I had this teacher who was from Barbados and she was the coolest. She was beautiful; she had perfect posture, you could tell by the way she walked and conducted herself that she had so much pride and confidence in herself. At the time that was so foreign and alien to me because I didn’t have that. She was the only teacher that was affected by seeing me bullied. I was from a conservative home, I wasn’t allowed at that time to dress myself. It was important to be covered and not stir any desire in men. I would go to school in these ugly little frocks, I would smell like curry and I received a lot of racist remarks. It was relentless, and everyone would participate. I remember someone passing me a note, and it would just say “You’re ugly.” Kids in middle school are horrible, and it happened every day. There was a time I looked into the mirror to study myself and try to draw what I saw because I didn’t feel a kinship with my reflection. I remember standing in the mirror and thinking: “Fuck, I’m ugly and I have to be ugly for the rest of my life”. Now it’s really funny to think I honestly felt that way, but at the time it was gut-wrenching. One day after class she told me I was beautiful and no one had ever said that to me before. She also said I was a great writer. As I child I read compulsively because as a girl I wasn’t allowed to ride a bike or be outside really. So I spent a lot of time just drawing and reading, it was a way to cope, to escape my environment at home and at school. It was a place of my own creation; it was the only place that gave me comfort.


Patricia: Does it still give you comfort the way it used to?

Yes, when I have an idea, and I start writing I get lost in this world, in this frenzy, in this headspace, it’s like a high but there is not a drug you can take that can make you feel that way. It’s even better at the end when you squint, you glance, and you look at it, and you feel that it is good and you are actually getting better.


Patricia: What have you been listening to?

Sorry, I’m in such a weird mood, I had a really bad night. I had a falling out with a friend who has just been really really nasty for some reason. I want to pretend that it does not affect me, but it does. We don’t follow each other on Instagram anymore. I saw her in someone else’s story, and she was wearing a skirt of mine that I had been searching for, for months. It’s a skirt I thrifted in Paris that’s a bit sentimental to me. She was wearing it, and it gave me this ache — like this person that I’ve shared so much with is now a stranger to me, we are on bad terms, and yet she is wearing this thing that is mine. It was this primal, bitter, angry feeling that made me wonder if I was petty to feel this way. There is this really modern idea of wholesomeness; you have to be wholesome, you have to be independent, you have to let the negative feelings just flow out of you and not pay them any mind. You have to be all of these things that aren’t easy to attain – especially since we are all people navigating our individual traumas. But, back to music, I’ve been listening to Tame Impala, ‘Is this is it’ by The Strokes and ‘Depression Cherry’ by Beach House.

Lili: No, you are not petty to feel that way. It’s has become really important in our generation not to shy away from feelings. The history of women’s emotion is tied to this idea of hysterics, and what it means to be hysterical. I think a lot of women now are challenging the notion that to be progressive you have to be less hysterical. What does it mean to be hysterical, where does that feeling come from? It’s valid to have feelings, and it’s valid to express them. But anyway, The Strokes are amazing, it’s crazy how they are the foundation of the New York cool band, and when you see bands now you’re like ‘hm’, kind of like The Strokes, so good.


Patricia: What are your earliest memories of art?

I remember when I was in Bangladesh and I was with my aunt, and they were making this pita, like a pastry. They are really ornate, so they carve geometric shapes unto these pitas. You can’t tell if they are more beautiful or more delicious. It made me wonder about art, I had this conversation about this with a group of people the other day, a lot of people in eastern countries make art on a day to day basis. They make art, but they don’t realise that they are, it’s more a way of life than it is about the artist and their artwork. It’s not commodified art; it’s more pragmatic. My childhood was filled with that kind of art. In Bangladesh you also make your own blankets called a Katha, you would take old Sari’s that are no longer in use and sew them together. My grandmother would sew these patterns onto them with her hands, not even with a sewing machine, these blankets would keep you warm at night, yet they were also so beautiful to look at.

The Room I, by Riya Hamid

You can follow Riya on Instagram to discover more personal revelations, artwork, and gorgeous selfies.