These are verbatim transcripts of interviews, reflecting spoken rather than written language.
INTERVIEWER: It’s the 28th January 2022, and we are recording the interview virtually in Exeter and London. It’s a life story interview for the Out and About: Queering the Museum project at RAMM. My name is Jana Funke and I’m interviewing Rushaa Louise Hamid today. Thank you so much for doing the interview.
PARTICIPANT: Thank you for having me.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you. We’re asking everyone to look at the RAMM collection and to choose an object that you can connect to in some way. So can you tell us which object you’ve chosen and just describe it to us, please?
PARTICIPANT: I’ve chosen this set of Islamic prayer beads, that comes from Sudan. The necklace is recorded as being taken from a Mahdist soldier back in the Victorian era, as part of the Khartoum relief expedition. So it comes out of the conflict that was going on in the time where Sudanese people were fighting for independence from the British. And it’s a very fascinating object to me, because of the way that it’s been labelled. I think the original label had it down as a rosary, which is obviously a bit different from a lot of the Islamic prayer beads. And the material was listed down as ‘hardwood, or maybe nuts’. I think it’s very likely that it’s actually seeds, that are called lalob in Sudanese Arabic.* They are seeds from a particular tree. But the thing I found most fascinating about it was that it has 78 beads, which, for those that aren’t familiar with Islamic practices, most Islamic prayer beads have 99 beads, or a multiple of 33, because part of the meditation is saying each of the 99 names of Allah as you go through them. So it didn’t strike me at first, but when I actually looked at the piece, I knew there was something a bit off. And after a while, I ended up counting the beads and going, “OK, there are 78 beads here, this is not right. Something is off.” And it just captured my attention so much. I became very obsessed with it, I have to say.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you. You’ve already touched on the next question, what drew you to this object? Is there anything you would like to add in terms of your first encounter or engagement with the object or the research you did?
PARTICIPANT: Yeah. I want to say that it did take me a while to think about counting the beads. I had just kept coming back to the page, going, “There’s something that’s not quite right. I don’t know what.” And to be honest, I was really fixed on reading through the labels, thinking something about the labelling of the object was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t from that exact time period, or something else. Which I find quite interesting, because a lot of times in museums, you take labels for granted. You’re like, “This is a correct label of this object.” But it was only after I started talking to a lot of other people and I encountered the beads, I thought, “There’s got to be a bit of a deeper story here.” My dad had come to the conclusion that it was a fake [laughs]. Which I do not hold, I do not think it’s a fake object. But I think it’s very likely that at some point the prayer beads were broken, and some of the beads were lost, when they were in someone’s personal possession. And so at the point when they got handed over to the museum, there wasn’t necessarily anything that would flag it as broken if you weren’t from that background. And so, to me, part of it was that it spoke to something a bit deeper, which is the fact that you have people for many generations that are often in positions of privilege, and they are the ones that are deciding what is important to show, what gets preserved, what gets taught about. And so – because essentially my assumption is that at no point did you really have somebody that had that right background, that would’ve instinctively gone “That’s missing some beads.” And it’s only nowadays that a lot of these institutions are starting to have much more diversity. You have people from these different backgrounds – whether it’s different ethnicities, different nationalities, whether it’s people who aren’t straight – who are starting to interact with these objects, and being able to uncover new ways of looking at them that are actually quite obvious, if you’re from those groups.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, that’s so interesting. How something can be mislabelled and miscategorised for a long time, and then it’s really obvious if you have that knowledge and information to reframe it. Do you think other LGBTQ+ people who might look at the object, encounter it… would it resonate with other people, or do you think you have quite a unique relationship or connection with that object?
PARTICIPANT: Part of my connection with it is I’m part Sudanese. And I grew up part of my life in Sudan, so I automatically am very drawn to things that are labelled as being from Sudan and there is that element there. But I think on a broader level, a lot of our conception of queerness is very white, it’s very influenced by Western cultural values, and it means that a lot of the queerness in other histories gets skimmed over, or it gets treated like a novelty, or there’s an attempt to cram it into a pre-assigned label that we’re comfortable with in the West, rather than just letting it be its own thing. And I’m aware I’m taking a little bit of a leap from beads, but when I was researching the beads, it got me thinking about a lot of other Sudanese folklore, and doing more investigations on Sudanese folklore. For instance, there’s a lot of stories in Sudanese folklore of women stealing the skin of men, to the extent that it’s just an accepted fact that there is a part where you can hit a man on the head and all his skin will come off. And then these women would dress up in these old men’s skin and go and live their lives. And that to me felt really inherently queer, and it’s a really common story, but it’s also not one that’s necessarily passed down as much anymore. And another thing I found out is, there are lots of old cultures and old languages in Sudan that aren’t Arabic, and the one that my family generations back used to speak, Nubian, has no gendered pronouns. You don’t have ‘he’ or ‘she’. Everyone is just referred to as the same. And when I was looking that up, I was thinking about not only is this an endangered language that’s at risk of dying, but we’ve entirely lost what the culture was behind that language to come to the conclusion that there’s not really gender. I think if you don’t have gendered pronouns, your conception of gender must be radically different. And that’s been lost. And so for me, that object, the part of why I connect it to queerness, is the sense that something has been missing and that hasn’t been noticed. And it’s been missing all along, but it requires you to reflect on it. So I think not necessarily every queer person will connect with it. But I think a lot of people from different cultures might do. Queerness in a lot of ways often gets framed about what’s going to happen in the future, and this idea of progress. And we don’t talk as much about what the past is, and this entitlement to history. As queer people, we have an entitlement to have history, and there is a lot of history, it’s just not been taught about.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, definitely, thank you so much for that. I think that’s really important, reflecting on the uses of queerness and also the limitations of the term. Of course, in addition to doing this research, you also produced a digital artistic response to the beads as part of the project. I was just wondering, reflecting on that process, how that might have informed, changed, extended your relationship with that object, or what you were saying about queerness and the relationship to the historical archive and record, or the museum as a space?
PARTICIPANT: It definitely deepened my connection to a lot of those things that you’ve mentioned. Starting with the object itself, I feel like I’ve become so familiar with it, I can very instinctively visualise it. I’ve dwelt on it a lot, and I’ve spoken about it a lot, and I’ve become very enmeshed in the history of prayer beads, which I wouldn’t say I was before. But also in the broader sense of queerness, in the sense of the place of the museum, when I was doing the art piece, more and more something that I kept coming back to is that, in a lot of ways, history is denied to oppressed people – whatever those oppressed people are. And it could be oppressed in the sense that a lot of Nubian cultures got ignored, got neglected in this pursuit of pan-Arabism and this pro-Arabic movement that went on in Sudan. It could be in the way that museums, especially back in the Victorian era, were much more about this idea of showcasing a particular viewpoint of the world – [a viewpoint] that we are here in the UK and we have the top culture, and we have conquered these other parts of the world and come see these places which are inferior to us. And I have a very unique relationship to that whole process as well, because I only exist because of colonisation. I’m part British and part Sudanese, and the only reason that those two really were in the same space to produce me was because of the colonial process. And because of the fact that, for instance, my grandfather was sent abroad by the British, because he didn’t really have much of a choice in that. He was told that he was gonna become an architect and therefore he had to become an architect, because the colonial powers that be dictated it. So grappling with this whole process, and making the video really entrenched just how much that actually has this knock-on effect. Because it got me thinking a lot about how, when I was growing up, I very much saw the idea of going to the UK as escaping to… this idea that in the UK it would be a place where I could be me, and I could be out and I could be open, I could live my life. And actually, that’s not necessarily true, because there’s a lot of issues in the LGBTQ society about ethnicity, about race, about culture, that actually does mean that to participate in that space you often have to suppress other parts of yourself. And it’s not actually this really neat, ‘you’re free here and you’re not free there’. It’s a lot more nuanced. And doing the video project, I was thinking a lot about how it would’ve been so helpful to me growing up to know about those past experiences from other cultures – not just from this really Western lens of queerness, but having an idea about… even just about the lack of gendered pronouns in Nubian, which I only found out about as an adult. I think I would’ve felt very vitalised by that as a child. I would’ve gone, “Oh, these are people that thought so differently, and that means it’s OK that I think so differently.” But we don’t necessarily all get that.
INTERVIEWER: Building on that, I guess, thinking about the museum as a space where we can encounter some versions and forms of history, but also not others, how do you feel about being part of this project, having your voice in the installation in the museum? And what is the importance of a project like this? But also think about perhaps the limitations or the restrictions of a project of this kind.
PARTICIPANT: I really appreciated getting to be in this project. And I was also a bit sceptical at first as well. And I was sceptical because I think a lot of organisations, a lot of institutions will do things like this as a tokenistic endeavour. And so it’s an idea that you will let certain people have a voice for a very short amount of time, and then you can say that you’ve done it and then you never do it again. That fortunately wasn’t what this project was, but I was certainly worried that that’s what it would be. And there’s an element, when you get involved in those things, that there are restrictions placed on you about what you can and can’t say. And that you… may be allowed to be critical, but you have to be critical in the right way and in an acceptable way. I think the important thing for me in the project was that I actually didn’t experience having any of those restrictions, and I was able to say what I wanted to say the way I wanted to say it. And that there was a lot of interesting dialogue back and forth with the museum – not in a defensive way, but wanting to genuinely engage with things I had brought up. And it’s especially important because museums tend to reflect what society finds important to preserve, and what society finds important to teach the next generation about. And so I think it’s very vital that museums really invert this process of top-down labelling, top-down curation, and take a pro-active approach of inviting people in and adding nuance to a lot of their displays. And we’ve seen some of that happen now, and I’m hoping for a lot more, and a lot more museum spaces to do this in the future as well. And I think it was very invigorating that I could feel like I was part of a process that was actually genuinely trying to do that. And that genuinely wanted to explore the ways in which museums have historically failed people and correct that.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, thank you. I really felt the same reservations going into the project actually, because you never know how institutions work. And any institution has issues, and certainly I would say that about the university that I’m in as well. I think that’s a general point. But thinking about, you said we often think about the future, and I guess the last question is going to be a little bit future-oriented, so it’s about, I mean, what you hope other people might take away from the project as a whole, or projects of this kind? And what we need to do, and what else we need to do? But also your story, your voice as part of the installation, your object, what are some of the things you would like people to think about or take forward?
PARTICIPANT: I’ll start with the micro. I’ll start with, from my story and from the things that I’ve put in, I would like people to know that there are many histories that they’re not aware of, and those histories are very rich, and they might even be from the backgrounds that you’re from. You might’ve grown up entirely in a culture and have no idea about the true extent of the level of history that you’re in. And just because something is in the past doesn’t mean it isn’t important. I find myself very reassured and grounded by the idea that there is a track record of people like me that stretches back for hundreds and thousands of years. And that who I am now is not the first time that somebody with this particular combination of different demographics has appeared on the earth. And heritage is something that you can be proud of, and it’s something that people should take pride in, and it’s also something that should be explored, because there’s always more to talk about. And this idea that things weren’t as progressive in the past isn’t necessarily true, or things aren’t as progressive in other parts of the world, isn’t necessarily true. So from my story, I’d hope people take that into account. On the wider level, I think the space of the museum is one that should also be a space of active enquiry. That a museum isn’t just a catalogue or a collection. That it is a space for real questioning. And that history as collected in the museum is active and it’s constantly being written. And the way that we look at the same object will change over time. And that’s a good thing, and that’s something that we should invite. If we’re not updating our descriptions of objects then we’re not actually doing what we’re meant to be doing, as keepers of history. If we maintain what some Victorian person wrote down, that’s not going to be fair to the object, but it’s also not going to be fair to us as human beings wanting to learn more about the world. And so I really hope that other institutions – and they don’t just have to be museums, it can be any institution – but I hope that other places start thinking about the idea of the story that we tell about our history being something that’s a living document, and not something that you write once and it’s fixed.
[00:22:08] End of transcript
*They are also called ‘desert date’ in English.