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The making of two ex-Muslim mastheads: how would Roy Lichtenstein paint an Asian woman?

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HeinousDealingsBannerSmallAll three new additions to our site will by now have settled in somewhat; I’m lucky enough to have known two of them, Hiba Krisht and Heina Dadabhoy, quite well before they joined FtB. In the best-part-of-a-year between our hivemind’s decision to invite them and the actual debut of their blogs – it took so long because our site redesign went on forever – Hiba and Heina’s names became inseparable, which was something of a problem when they both commissioned me to create their mastheads (right). Since readers seem to like the banners, I thought perhaps I should write about the time I spent on them.

The common ground is inescapable. Both Heina and Hiba are ex-Muslim – more precisely, atheist – women of colour; both are feminists; both live in the US. They’re both queer, both polyamorous and both twentysomething; both are former hijab-wearers; they even have somewhat similar first names. (Would dubbing them the H-bombs be in bad taste?) When it comes to branding a personal blog, uniqueness is the order of the day – so the challenge of bannering-up both Heinous Dealings and A Veil and a Dark Place was always going to be distinguishing two writers I’d grown used to mentioning side by side.

Thankfully the likenesses are superficial: study their work and it’s clear each is their own quite different blogger.

Heina was a Sunni Muslim, Hiba a Shiite. Hiba is a Lebanese Arab; Heina, ethnically south-east Asian, is a Desi. Heina was born and raised in the US; Hiba is a several-times migrant.

Hiba’s writing tends toward the long-form, often centred on personal narrative. Heina’s is more typically about current events or blogosphere controversies. Heina’s voice is more conversational, often referencing comments or directly addressing readers. Hiba’s is more literary (her posts have been printed as-is in journals). Hiba, an academic and professional translator, relies mainly on turn of phrase for colour. Heina, a cosplayer in her spare time, draws on memes, gifs and pop culture.

Heina’s persona is distinctly ironic, dripping with snark. Hiba’s is known for being gutwrenchingly sincere. Hiba’s apostasy plays against the backdrop of her middle eastern taste in art, food, clothing, even grammar; Heina’s aesthetic – lipstick, heels, polka dots – is hard-femme Americana.

How do you represent these sorts of differences in two 728x120px images?

000Heina’s image could be read as a rejection of her roots – her A-line dresses and nail polish as aspirational, 1950s symbols that they are of idealised suburban whiteness. But an ex-Muslim who blogs on racism isn’t someone running from their background, and what feminist – actually, what woman today – dresses as a fifties housewife except on purpose? It’s a wardrobe filled with the intent to ironise, hijacking iconography meant to exclude women like Heina. She might as well, it struck me when she asked for a blog header, insert herself into Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings of pale, thin blondes – so I decided I should do just that.

Like most pop art and like her, Lichtenstein’s work is tongue-in-cheek. Filled with soap opera heterosexuals and exclamation marks, it’s as much a camp performance of his era’s gender politics as her look is – but that being so, he never to my knowledge painted anyone who looked like her. That raised a problem: with no precedent, how do you paint an Asian woman in Roy Lichtenstein’s style?

Some liberties were taken. The famous Ben-Day dots in his work were originally developed as a means of saving coloured ink while shading, so always appear on a white background there. This works for the pinkish hue of Caucasian faces, but trying to represent Heina’s skin tone that way in early versions left her looking zombie-like, so two different tan shades were required. Nor did Lichtenstein ever, to my knowledge, paint people with curly hair like hers or mine, and the resultant line work uses a technique more mine than his. Still, it seemed to work. (If you’re wondering why Heina’s hair is purple, it’s because its actual colour would have rendered as an amorphous black blob… as well as just because.)

Of course Heina, who broadcasts her opinions, had to have a thought bubble in live transmission – and of course her blurb had to be drawn like Lichtenstein’s narrative boxes. My hope is that the finished banner is as witty, camp, colourful and recognisable as she is, and her readers’ responses suggest it succeeded.

000When it came to Hiba’s blog, the task was the same with one added constraint. First, create something to symbolise A Veil and a Dark Place; second, make it instantly different from I’d done at Heinous Dealings.

Hiba is middle eastern rather than Asian, more literary than Heina and less western in terms of reference points: it made sense immediately that her banner would feature Arabic. The language’s script is exquisitely ornate, resembling embroidered latticework or chain mail when densely spaced, and while initially I wondered if using it for an ex-Muslim blog was ethnocentric, it struck me that doing so might actually combat the conflation of Islam and Arabia: unlike most current or former Muslims Hiba actually is an Arab, and associating an atheist’s blog with that spidery lettering seems like a way of reclaiming it from fundamentalists.

The phrase in the texture of the letters was meant to be the blog name, but annoyingly my laptop managed to unravel it somehow, and I’d likely have to study Arabic myself to rectify this. I’m convinced no colour suits its writing better than inky black, so wanted originally to keep the banner monochrome; for the lower portion of text , I was also tempted for a time to use Trajan Pro, that most Roman of fonts. What stopped me? Well, although both those concepts would differentiate Hiba’s blog from Heina’s, another ex-Muslim got there first.

Maryam Namazie’s banner is a thing of beauty – to imitate it even by accident would do all parties involved a disservice. Moreover, her blogging style and Hiba’s are very different, and it occurred to me her monochrome text suggests the matt black clothing of Islamist theocracies she rails against. Hiba’s subject matter is more personal, and her fondness for middle eastern art made me think the burnt yellow of Lebanese spices would fit. (When in doubt, my mind defaults to food.) For the typeface in the blog name’s second half, I went with Lato.

The pseudo-Arabic letters of ‘a veil’ are my own work, thus unique to Hiba’s blog, and took many hours of tweaking once I’d found actual Arabic characters to base them on. (Making the ‘v’ work was especially taxing.) For a while I messed about with colour fields and added details, but in fact I think the motif is so strong that other details would overpower it, and ‘floating’ on a white background means the banner looks centred above Hiba’s posts. (Like mine, it’s not really.)

Since the new blogs went up, I’ve been commissioned to do similar work for other people. I can only thank both H-bombs for coming to me, and I’m thrilled that on top of being their colleague, I got to support what they do.

Update: Hiba responds here.

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