Grant Watson<I’m always interested to hear about different parts of the city. And I think I read in an interview that you lived in the Isle of Dogs near Canary Wharf, so maybe we can start there.
Rahemur Rahman<Sure. I was born in 1990 and grew up in the Isle of Dogs. It was a very weird place; almost like dead land. Nobody really wanted to go there. And to be honest, even the architecture that was built around it really fed into this idea that nobody should go there. There were only two little bridges that linked the island to the mainland—one little wonky bridge to Canary Wharf, which would swing in the wind. And I remember specifically as a young Muslim person of color, it was awful because obviously back then the Isle of Dogs was where Millwall Football Club was, it was like the epicenter of racism in the nineties. I grew up literally watching that, fighting kids in school, watching our uncles fight, our neighbors fight. But within all of that there was a sense of community. It was this weird thing where severe racism was happening around you, but actually it forced the community to become insular. We’re seeing that again now, massive pockets of people where everyone’s turning inwards. But that became our safety and our haven, I guess. I grew up in this bit of the Isle of Dogs where there are four tower blocks, which still exist. There’s this one memory that I have, which I’ll never forget: we used to come home for lunch. It was like all the Bengali kids between years one and six. And there was maybe about forty-five of us who lived in those blocks. We used to all meet up outside of the primary school.
GW< Forty-five? It was a big group!
RR< It was. I’d gather up my little brothers and our neighbors used to take all their little brothers and sisters, and we’d all go home for lunch. We lived in the same block, so we used to see all of our mums, in the tower, watch us walk home and walk back. And looking back now, that’s such an endearing image, because actually all the moms were just trying to make sure that we wouldn’t get beaten up, which was a common thing. But then I lived through a weird transition. Growing up in the Isle of Dogs, it was like everyone who was white and British was antagonizing and bullying everybody else including the Black community, the Vietnamese community, everyone. And then we saw this massive shift after 9/11. I was in sixth form at that time, and after that, there came a huge wave of Islamophobia and suddenly I realized—even as a young person—that the divide was no longer about race. It was about religion. And I remember growing up through that and thinking, “oh my God, what am I going to do?” Because I was always in Bengali groups, but I had this thing where I didn’t really completely fit in with them as well, because I was sort of doing this character of a guy who’s from the street, but I was also dealing with being gay. So that was a massive whirlwind.
GW< Was that whirlwind internal in terms of you realizing you were gay, or was it that you were attracting the attention of other people because you were out? Or was it rather how young queer people often express things that out them unintentionally?
RR< I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but growing up in London you do meet and see other gay people. So, from a very young age, I knew what being gay looked like. I knew what a gay person looked like. I saw it in schools, in spaces, but I also knew that I wasn’t going to do that. Part of me, even though I knew that I was gay, said, “no, if you do that, you’re going to get rid of everything that you have.” So I just played the exact opposite. And I did it for many years, up until I was about twenty-four. I came out when I was twenty-five, and then to be honest, it was only after I came out that I did therapy, and all that stuff.
GW< Maybe just sticking with your childhood a bit more, how was life in your home? I didn’t know that the Isle of Dogs had a big South Asian Bengali community. How was it in your block? Was it predominantly Asian?
RR< Well, it was quite a mix, to be honest. I grew up with a lot of white people and a lot of other cultures as well. We all spoke English with each other. There were twenty-one floors in my block. Actually there weren’t that many Bengali people in comparison to other areas. My mom has three sisters and all of them live in Whitechapel or Shadwell where it’s very, very densely Bangladeshi. It was different in the Isle of Dogs, because we grew up in a much more multicultural place. And I really saw the difference when I used to visit my aunts, because I spoke differently. I didn’t really understand the lingo that they were using. The Bengali community, especially in East London and those parts like Shadwell, speak a very mixed fusion between Bengali and English, and because the schools are predominantly Bengali, they speak Bengali at school. So their Bangla was actually really good. I wasn’t any of those things and neither were my siblings. So we were always outsiders in our extended family situations. And then to be honest, my dad didn’t make it any better. He had this obsession with us not wearing Asian clothes. He was a tailor by trade and he made us clothes all the time. So we’d show up to some family event and everyone else’s in traditional Asian clothes and we’d be dressed in little suits.
GW< Was it like a hand-tailored suit made by your dad?
RR< Yes, yes. With a massive lapel, obviously, like the size was still adult size. And all our outfits were made of different fabrics. There’s this one picture that I have of a suit that my dad made me. It was gold. And it’s got gold button sequined things on the lapel. And I was like, “god, I wonder who decided to put that on?” I was so young. I don’t remember. Maybe I asked him to put it on!
GW< But he was a tailor, right? Was he working in Whitechapel or Brick Lane?
RR< Yes. He came to Brick Lane when he was nine years old.
GW< Was that in the seventies?
RR< Yes, late seventies. He came to England with his uncles and just went straight to work in the factory, so it was like real slave labor, child labor.
GW< At the age of nine?
RR< Yes, and it’s weird, to find out that’s quite a normal thing. One of my other best friends is Bengali too, and the more we speak about these things, our parents and our dads all had very similar lived experiences. So, he came when he was nine and he still works as a tailor. And there are so many other dads who are still there as well, because they don’t know nothing else. It’s quite sad because they’re still in really bad working environments. The money’s not that great, but they’re making clothes for high-end brands like Joseph. And obviously there are still factories like that—that exists in the UK, particularly in London. I think a lot of people forget that it’s on our doorstep.
But when he first came, he went straight to work in a leather factory. Initially they wouldn’t let him work on the machines, because obviously the factory owner didn’t want to waste a machine on teaching a kid. So, he had to spend three or four years just collecting the dust off the floor, sweeping or tidying, and then on his off-hours he would learn the machines. Once he had taught himself, he then had to show the boss—the person who owned the factory—that he could sew, and only then was he allowed to work on the machines. He became quite specialized in leather work, but also worked in other factories. At one time he thought he was going to have a big Indian restaurant, but that didn’t really work out. The one thing that has always been very constant in his life are the factories. I haven’t spoken to him in about four years, but to my knowledge, he still works there.
GW< And did he speak to you about that experience? Because that was a really very complicated time, right? In the late seventies, it was the height of the National Front.
RR< We never spoke about that or any of his experiences in Brick Lane, or about being here, what it was like growing up with that type of racism. I think it’s just one of those things—and this is something that me and a lot of my people of color friends have come to a conclusion about—our parents haven’t dealt with anything that they’ve gone through. They haven’t had any professional help. There’s no therapy, there are no conversations about things like that. For them to have conversations about it means that they have to relive it. And to be honest, it is a trauma response, where if you stop talking about it, then you no longer feel the pain. I think it’s very similar to the way that my parents dealt with the partition back in Bangladesh. The idea of war, they live with that as well. I think that type of silence, if anything, is them protecting themselves. So my dad has never, ever really spoken about it, only in small glimpses.
My dad really didn’t want us to have many elements of being Bengali, he wanted us to be very British and to really assimilate. That’s why he made us suits; he’d always talk about us being proper. And obviously once I grew up and understood the language of what he meant by saying “be good” and all of these things, he basically wanted to whitewash us. To be honest it actually worked in his favor, it even helped me. I speak quite posh. I can sit in white space and white people feel quite comfortable around me. I can be in brown spaces and be comfortable in those spaces, too. But I meet a lot of Bengali people who don’t have that type of life skill, which my dad taught me.
When I was very young, my dad used to take us on, almost like tourist, trips around London, and I know no other kid who ever did that. I remember my dad bought me my first art book when I was around ten years old. When my sister won an art competition at primary school, she got tickets to go to the Courtauld Gallery. I fully remember the journey and everything. I remember walking around that gallery being like, “oh my god, this is amazing.” And then my dad took us to the museum shop and said, “you can get any book you want.” I remember picking out this art book and being obsessed with it. And then continuously begging him to take us out, to go do these things. And he did. That’s why I’ve always been very comfortable in museum spaces. He spent a lot of time making sure that we had exposure to culture, that we would have the skills and the language to be able to speak. He really did try.
GW< Can I ask, well, maybe you don’t want to say, but how come you haven’t spoken to him for four years?
RR< I came out when I was twenty-five and it ended really badly. It’s still quite a weird space. And this is where culture, religion, space, and time kind of collide. All of those things affect the situation and obviously the type of conversations that I’ve been wanting to have with him, he’s not ready to have.
GW< What about your mum? Did she come independently of your dad from Bangladesh?
RR< So my mum’s story is a bit weird as well. Her parents came here when they were quite young. Her mum and dad had British passports. No one’s ever really spoken about how they got British passports. Now I know through all the research I’ve done that for anyone who’s from South Asia to get a British passport at that time, you either did something with the British government or you fought in the war, or you did something else for them, but nobody really knows how my great-granddad got a British passport. Either way, he had one but he decided not to raise any of his kids here. So his four girls, including my mum, were raised in Bangladesh. And then because he lived here in the UK with his wife, he started marrying his daughters off, one by one, to men from here. My mum was one of them. My dad was twenty-four when he went back home. I think my mum was fifteen when she got married, sixteen when she had her first child, and eighteen when she was flown over here, in 1989, I believe. And then I was born after they came here, in 1990. But her story is a bit weird because I think, much like many other South Asian women, it goes undocumented because it’s hard to get them to speak about it. That’s what my next project, which I’m doing with the Museum of the Home here in London, is about. It’s all about women’s experience and multi-generational trauma, and how we archive it.
To be honest, all of these other conversations that I kind of have in the background fuel a lot of what I do and the way that I work. I keep asking these questions even to myself, not only to understand what my parents must have felt, what they were going through, but just to deal with a lot of the issues that I have myself as well, with ideas of home and belonging. But I think what is also really good, and I’m seeing this with a lot of South Asian creatives, is that we are using our work space to have these conversations almost for or on behalf of our parents, because they don’t know how to speak. And I don’t mean in the way of language, I mean in the way of emotions.
GW< I think this term “intergenerational trauma” might be useful. I’m sure that’s what you’re already thinking about. How generations that don’t speak about their experience somehow pass it on. And then it gets spoken about later in a different way. But what was your home life like? Was your mum’s focus to make home life good for all of you?
RR< That was it, to be honest. We didn’t realize how hard a life we had growing up until we grew up. There were nine of us in a three-bedroom flat, and we lived there until I was about twenty-two. I think for me, childhood was quite great. I grew up with all of my siblings. We played so much. We also bullied each other until we were red and blue, beating each other up, all of that stuff, like children will. And because there were so many of us in our family, when we used to go outside to play no one could do anything. Cause if you hit one of us, there were like eight hands about to come down on your face. That created a nice safe haven for us to just be kids. And when we got into our teenage years, because of the situations and the environment we grew up in, we all became quite rebellious, awful teenagers. Then my parents had to really see every single one of their kids go through that. And yes, that must’ve been a lot for them, but we had a great time.
GW< What was it? Clubbing, drinking, and drugs?
RR< All of that, like going out, running away, drugs, drink, skipping school, fighting at school. I was a really troublesome teenager.
GW< Where would you go out? Was there a scene, a club scene in the East End? Or did you go into town? Where were the venues and the spaces that you would hang out in as teenagers?
RR< So, when I was maybe like fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, we would still just travel around London, jump on a bus and go to a random place, like South Bank, and smoke loads of weed and just do nothing. But when I got older, when we went to college, all of us had part-time jobs and were making a bit of money. Obviously, because we were all Muslim, going to a club wasn’t that easy. So, we used to do apartment parties, during the day. One person would book a flat and everyone else would pitch in. Let’s say it cost 500 pounds for the weekend, so everyone would give like 40 or 50 pounds each. And then we would just have a massive party in this one flat over the weekend. We would go to this house and just get absolutely trashed and dance and smoke and drink and do whatever.
GW< And what was the music?
RR< The music was always like R’n’B, hip hop, grime, dubstep. Sky TV had just started, there was this channel called Channel U, which then became Channel AKA, and all of this stuff where M-Dubs and Tulisa and all of those people were born, Tinie Tempah, Dizzee Rascal. They were all born off this social media type of TV show , where you would request a song via text message. It was just a great time to be honest.
GW< And where were the apartments?
RR< Oh, not too far from my house. There was this one apartment that we used to use a lot. There was a company called Marlin Apartments; a lot of people in East London would know them. And the apartment that I used to love taking was one that overlooks the Millennium Dome. It’s not too far from East India Docks, I think it’s called Equinox or something like that. We used to always use this one apartment on the twenty-fourth floor, you would just have this great view and have a great time.
GW< Sounds brilliant! And how did you end up getting into art and going to art college?
RR< This is where I was quite lucky. Because I was an awful teenager, I was sent around to loads of different youth clubs and all this stuff where they were trying to fix me. And then just by chance I stumbled across this art club. It was because one of my best friend’s sisters went there and she needed two guys to put clothes on to take photos. So, we went, put the clothes on, and then the woman who ran the course tried to convince us to do it, too. I kept coming back every Thursday and ended up doing the summer course. Then I became really immersed into the arts through her. But it all started when I was maybe fifteen or sixteen, like an after-school club. The woman who ran it would have loads of tea, biscuits, and cake and while we were having tea, we would be doing embroidery or something.
GW< Did you mind that there is a gender association with embroidery, if you were trying to downplay the fact that you were gay, or was it just okay?
RR< No, it was weird. I just kind of went for it. That was the one thing I didn’t mind, because I had a girlfriend at the time as well, and she was on the course with me.
GW< I see, so that was sorted out.
RR< I had my beard. So there was no way anyone was going to say anything. But as I now tell people a lot, I played the character so well. I remember when I came out to that girlfriend when I was much older, she was like, “I always knew, I was just waiting for the day he was going to throw these girlfriends away.”
GW< Brilliant. But was it primarily a textiles arts club?
RR< Yes. So, they used to do screen printing, knitting-machine knit, and hand knit. The equipment, to this day, I still use in my work. In those youth club situations, the Arts Council had just released their arts award qualification where you can get bronze, silver, and gold arts awards. I pitched to ask if I could do my gold. And they said, yes, and then I did it, and that helped me get into Central Saint Martins. And it was like boom, boom, boom. And that helped me get to where I am now. They’re a great club (A Team Arts) and they’ve helped so many young kids like me from backgrounds like this who needed that constant support, constant mentoring. Sadly they’ve only recently lost their funding through the council. And luckily an amazing woman called Berni Yates, who works for Central St. Martins to widen participation, and Alexander McQueen, obviously Sarah Burton and that whole team, have just picked up this youth club because of the amount of kids that they’ve literally saved. And I was in the first batch of those kids. I was really lucky!
Read part 2 of the interview with Rahemur Rahman here.