Creatives in the Industry: Q&A w/ Mohammed Z. Rahman

Visual artist, writer and zinemaker Mohammed reveals his favourite projects of 2022 and the intricacies of representation in the creative industry

10 January 2023

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What is your name and where are you based?

I’m Mohammed Z. Rahman, a visual artist, writer and zinemaker based in London. As an artist, I’m interested in the overlaps between food, gender, nature and migration. On top of making art, I wear several freelance arts & culture hats including with A New Direction (hiya!) and Writing Our Legacy, a Brighton-based organisation supporting global majority writers and creatives. I’m also on the advisory board of the V&A East. Balancing grassroots with bigger institution work has been a great way of keeping perspective.

What are the most and least enjoyable parts of your job?

I love working with new scales, materials and collaborators - be it working on canvasses for the Brent Biennial 2022 (BB22), clothes for my recent Bimbos Against Borders campaign with Everpress, risograph posters for community projects and tattoos. I’m hooked on the ’whoa I made that?!’ feeling when my style is translated across media.

The crappest part of my job is the admin that comes with being a freelancer, the inconsistent pay and chasing invoices, hands down.

What recent projects are you most proud of?

I was honoured to have my first solo show, Unfurnished (2022)– an installation of paintings as part of the wider BB22 programme that took place last summer (2022). I got the chance to illustrate the marketing and merch graphics for the programme with designer Marwan Kaabour – it was a proud moment for me to have friends send me pictures of the hundreds of billboards and posters around London.

On top of this I made a colouring zine, titled Pavement Flowers (2022) for a public youth programme which was fun and loved by the adults as much as the kids!

I look up to other visual artists in the London scene like Mina Owen, Elise Rose and Anna Corfa whose respective creative genius each looks like the imagination of more than one person. BB22 has perhaps been my favourite visual arts project so far for this reason as I got to show different sides of my practice on a theme I care about.

Why did you decide to take part in this project?

Eliel, the curator of the BB22 DM’d me after seeing my Instagram. When he explained the theme of the project “In the House of My Love”, which centered care and resistance following the Hostile Environment Policy in the UK, I knew it was an opportunity I had to take. As someone who has grown up in London to a migrant family, I wanted to make an homage to migrant life and the ways we make homes in the UK.


One of my favourite parts of the project was being introduced to the work of the other artists on the programme including Linett Kamala and Zinzi Minott.

I rated how the project made the traditionally elitist art biennial community-oriented, i.e. a free programme, community commissions, repurposing existing community spaces and supporting local businesses. Metroland Cultures also hooked me up with my first studio space which revolutionised my practice, plus I felt genuinely supported by the crew.

What was your journey like when you were first starting out?

Like, what choices did you make to lead you to where you are today? So, I came into the arts after doing a degree in social anthropology at SOAS with the intention to write better fiction. While I studied postcolonial and gender theory, had amazing lecturers and grew a political conscience, I was icked-out by how inaccessible academia is. Coming from a working-class migrant background, I often felt misunderstood and alone in my experience and had no real vision of a future.

To digest this crisis and entertain my friends, I used to write and illustrate zines and postcards on the side. By the time I graduated, I wondered what the hell to do with my degree but knew I needed art to survive. Working with museums and galleries was a response to these two callings.

My first break was getting onto the Creativity Works: Arts Festival Leaders course ran by Create Jobs at the time (now solely ran by A New Direction), where I volunteered with Tate Modern on their I Am At arts festival. Then I joined STEP into the Smithsonian and the STEP programme – which landed me a paid traineeship at UCL Culture and Foundation for Future London. These A New Direction programmes gave me the resources, networks and industry experience to kickstart a career in the arts and culture sector.

Since then, I’ve had my first artist’s residency at the Apocalypse Reading Room curated by Ama Josephine Budge at Artsadmin, and my biggest visual arts commission yet at the BB22.

How has it been navigating the industry as a person with your identity?

That’s a chunky one and a topic which warrants mostly rant. I will say, an optically diverse team is no gauge of what they represent or whether they’re worth celebrating.- Identity, for me, includes someone’s values and if/how they work for a more inclusive and fairer sector. Of course, it’s good to know that a person who looks like me can get into certain roles, but it’s meaningless if that same person thinks and acts in ways which serve an exclusionary status quo.

Also, positive representation is often spoken about in terms of senior roles - which (let’s be real) is tied to higher salaries. That implies that you shouldn’t aspire to people who aren’t in leadership, which is a pile of hot steaming classism.

There’s a wild assumption that if you have a bunch of protected characteristics, you’ll be a spokesperson on certain issues. This feels like being held to a higher standard for who I am and involves extra emotional work. Even if I experience certain forms of inequality more clearly than others, it’s still an ongoing struggle for me to do the right thing.

I wasn’t born with knowledge on how privilege and marginality work or what access means- that’s homework for everyone to do. Maybe I’m doing it now, but sadly, there’s also a bias which encourages you to define yourself in terms of your protected characteristics when applying for roles. This is simplistic and inaccurate at best, if not outright trauma-vampirism.

What keeps me in love with the arts are the community projects and organising that do the work of representation with access, kindness and dignity. Writing Our Legacy, Hajar Press, Oestrogeneration, Jacob V. Joyce and Black Moody Boi are some examples of people, groups and organisers whose work feeds me and gives me hope. Something else I got out of STEP was networking with my cohort. We still use our group chat as a kind of informal union which I really cherish.

If there is anything you would have done differently starting out, what would it have been?

Maybe it’s privileged to say, but I don’t think it’s helpful to have regrets. I try to value all the mistakes I’ve made as lessons. For example, I tried to open an independent clothing business during a global pandemic which flopped- it meant working 3 jobs on top of looking after sick relatives to pay off my expenses. It was hard and awful, but it taught me lessons about planning and boundaries.

I was lucky to have empathetic and generous mentors and colleagues – shoutout Natalie, Ama and Janine – who I could be honest and vulnerable with. My biggest choices all involved putting myself out there and being open to growth and failure. A better question then is how I want to apply the lessons I’ve learned in the future... I would say prioritising my joy is an ongoing one as I really struggle to book holibobs.

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