“While I’m proud of my her­itage, I don’t want to be re­duced to just my her­itage. The ques­tion ‘where are you from?’ be­comes syn­ony­mous with the ques­tion ‘who are you?’

Harper's Bazaar (Arabia) - - The Interview -

Aglass box in a Lon­don gar­den – the size of a small bed­room – pro­vides the back­drop to our cover shoot with ac­tor Aiysha Hart. In be­tween patches of glo­ri­ous win­ter sun­shine, it rains hard. It’s also cold, so we’re heat­ing the ‘cube’ up with a hair dryer. But, re­splen­dent in pieces from Gucci’s fine jew­ellery col­lec­tion, Aiysha is gra­ciously blasé about the in­clement weather. Whilst we all hud­dle un­der too-small um­brel­las watch­ing the shoot un­fold in­side the glass set, she amuses the crew be­tween shots by mor­ph­ing into Mar­cel Marceau – all timed to comedic per­fec­tion.

Based in Lon­don – and there­fore used to said weather – Aiysha’s first stand­out role was play­ing Veruca Salt in a school pro­duc­tion of Char­lie and the Choco­late Fac­tory, aged eight. “It was, how­ever, prob­a­bly the role that made me want to be an ac­tor,” she laughs. She’s since grad­u­ated from Roald Dahl to break­out roles in Emi­rati hor­ror film Djinn and BBC One’s big block­buster se­ries, At­lantis. Next month, how­ever, sees the re­lease of pos­si­bly her most im­por­tant and provoca­tive film to date, Co­lette. Cast along­side Keira Knight­ley who plays the ti­tle char­ac­ter, it tells the bio­graph­i­cal story of au­thor Gabrielle Co­lette who agrees to ghost­write nov­els for her hus­band – at first to crit­i­cal ac­claim and then to dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect. Aiysha plays the role of Po­laire, a di­vi­sive, eclec­tic and hugely suc­cess­ful French/Al­ge­rian singer and ac­tress who em­bod­ies the most fa­mous of Co­lette’s char­ac­ters, Clau­dine, on stage. With myr­iad side nar­ra­tives, the film’s core cen­tres around free­dom of ex­pres­sion and the chal­leng­ing of so­ci­etal con­straints, and whilst set in the late 19th cen­tury, its com­plex­i­ties very much res­onate to­day.

Born to an English mother and Saudi fa­ther, Aiysha looks back fondly at her child­hood spent be­tween the UK and Riyadh. She takes pride in the du­al­ity of her her­itage, yet un­der­stands the mul­ti­plic­ity that sur­rounds it – both cul­tural and so­ci­etal. She doesn’t want to be boxed in, pi­geon-holed, lim­ited be­cause she’s a woman, or be­cause she’s Saudi or Bri­tish. Her ver­sion of hu­man­ity is of ac­cep­tance and equal­ity, and of free­dom of ex­pres­sion that is free from op­pres­sion. Like Co­lette and Po­laire be­fore her, Aiysha likes to ques­tion the sta­tus quo. She’s open about the com­pli­ca­tions she’s faced sur­round­ing her cul­ture and speaks fer­vently about fem­i­nism, racism and cul­tural mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion. She’s woke. And that’s what is so beau­ti­ful about this 28-year-old ac­tor – Aisyha’s here, query­ing and chal­leng­ing ex­ist­ing con­di­tions, not sit­ting on the side lines, watch­ing ev­ery­thing yet say­ing noth­ing. She’s ar­tic­u­late, in­formed and, per­haps most poignantly, thought-pro­vok­ing. She raises awk­ward ques­tions and asks for an­swers.

In what makes a com­pelling and un­fil­tered read, Aiysha opens up about the top­ics she’s most earnest about, in­clud­ing the di­chotomy of a bi-cul­tural her­itage, chal­leng­ing the so­cial land­scape of ac­cepted norms, the lim­i­ta­tions still put on women in the 21st cen­tury, and why ’80s power dress­ing paved the way for her views on fem­i­nism...

A CHILD­HOOD WHERE EAST MEETS WEST

“I have re­ally fond mem­o­ries of my child­hood in Saudi Ara­bia – they were such for­ma­tive, care­free years that were re­ally rooted in fam­ily. It was only upon re­turn­ing for hol­i­days as a teenager and young adult that I would feel the con­straint of not be­ing able to come and go as I pleased, or walk out­side in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. I also be­came acutely aware of the lim­ited roles for women to play in so­ci­ety and the pro­fes­sional world. It both­ered me that women didn’t have the same op­por­tu­ni­ties that men did, and still don’t. Al­though, there have been some pos­i­tive changes, which I hope will con­tinue.”

HER CA­REER AS AN AGENT OF CHANGE

“I al­ways knew I wanted to be an ac­tor from a very young age, but I didn’t think it was a re­al­is­tic pur­suit. So for a long time I con­sid­ered law, be­cause I had a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in Sharia law and I wanted to fight for women’s rights in Saudi Ara­bia. How­ever, I ended up be­com­ing an ac­tor, but I hope to gar­ner enough of a plat­form through my ca­reer to still hon­our my early am­bi­tion, as it’s some­thing I feel very strongly about.”

ON FORM­ING HER FEM­I­NIST VIEWS

“I went to King’s Col­lege Lon­don to read English Lit­er­a­ture, which was one of the best de­ci­sions I’ve ever made. It in­formed and helped shape so many of my world views, in­clud­ing fem­i­nism and how I ap­proach my work. I grew up with a phe­nom­e­nal mother who al­ways said, ‘Get your ed­u­ca­tion, have a ca­reer, stand on your own two feet and never let any­one con­trol you.’ So fem­i­nism was a phi­los­o­phy I grew up with but I never re­ally gave it a name un­til I went to univer­sity. It was there that I was in­tro­duced to fem­i­nist the­ory and the vo­cab­u­lary to ex­press my thoughts and opin­ions on gen­der equal­ity and fe­male em­pow­er­ment. I’m so glad that to­day fem­i­nism is such a talked-about po­lit­i­cal move­ment and that it’s speak­ing so loudly to so many men and women. To­day, I am an ‘in­ter­sec­tional fem­i­nist’ and it’s a very im­por­tant part of who I am.”

DEFIN­ING ROLES

“In A Dis­cov­ery Of Witches, I play the part of a two-thou­sand-year-old vam­pire ge­neti­cist, Miriam Shep­hard, who has ded­i­cated the last few hun­dred years of her life to re­search­ing species’ de­cline and ex­plor­ing the DNA of vam­pires, witches and demons. And then in Co­lette, I play the role of Em­i­lie Marie Bouchard, or Po­laire as she was fa­mously known, a French singer and ac­tress who was the first per­son to em­body Co­lette’s most fa­mous char­ac­ter, Clau­dine, on stage. Both women are of MENA de­scent, as Po­laire hails from Al­ge­ria and Miriam comes from an­cient Sa­hara, and no­madic be­gin­nings. What I like is that one is a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure, the other fic­tional, but nei­ther nar­ra­tives nor on-screen per­sonas are driven by their ‘her­itage’; rather they are both de­fined by their ca­reers and vivid per­son­al­i­ties.”

THE DU­AL­ITY OF HER HER­ITAGE

“I’m hugely proud of my dual her­itage. It’s taught me to see the world in many shades of grey and it’s im­bued me with an in­nate ap­pre­ci­a­tion of cul­tural di­ver­sity. But you do find your­self con­stantly walk­ing a line be­tween two worlds, never fully ‘ex­ist­ing’ within ei­ther. It’s lib­er­at­ing to op­er­ate on the pe­riph­ery, as it gives you a unique per­spec­tive, but the world is in­tent on box­ing you in and pack­ag­ing you up. Oth­ers have al­ways placed me in cul­tural or eth­nic boxes that I’ve never de­fined my­self by. I en­coun­tered it as early as five years old, and still en­counter it as an adult, par­tic­u­larly in the world of act­ing. At school in the Mid­dle East, I was con­sid­ered English and in the UK, I was con­sid­ered ‘eth­nic’. It’s a strange ex­pe­ri­ence to only be made aware of your ‘oth­er­ness’ through the eyes of oth­ers. Oddly, in Saudi, my oth­er­ness made me feel cool, but in Eng­land, at a young age, it made me feel stig­ma­tised. Twenty-five years on and we still live in a world where white beauty takes prece­dence. I re­mem­ber be­ing made con­scious about the colour of my skin and think­ing for a long time that it made me ugly. While things are slowly start­ing to change, there is a long way to go.”

ON MI­NORI­TIES IN MAIN­STREAM ME­DIA

“While I agree we need cul­tur­ally-spe­cific sto­ries from and about peo­ple of colour, we also need peo­ple of colour in every­day sto­ries about hu­man­ity. The key here is that white­ness is nor­malised and there­fore as­sumed to have no im­pli­ca­tion po­lit­i­cally, while all other skin colours are sites of po­lit­i­cal op­pres­sion and the ori­en­tal­ist gaze. A white ac­tor can play al­most any char­ac­ter, whereas an ac­tor of colour is con­tin­u­ally placed within the con­fines of their re­li­gion, pol­i­tics and race. The com­mon and dan­ger­ous par­a­digm of plac­ing peo­ple of colour in depth­less roles sends a di­rect sub­con­scious mes­sage to the au­di­ence that these peo­ple don’t feel, that they don’t mat­ter as much, that they aren’t as im­por­tant, that they are not hu­man. MENA ac­tors in par­tic­u­lar are the least rep­re­sented and most stereo­typed on screen, and I’d also ar­gue that they are the mi­nor­ity most racially mis­cast. Not to men­tion the amount of Arab char­ac­ters that are white­washed when played by Cau­casian ac­tors. How is it still ac­cept­able to ‘brown up’ some­one for a role? Then, when you do see MENA char­ac­ters on screen, they are usu­ally agents of vi­o­lence, and only seen within the con­text of war. As [ac­tor] Riz Ahmed re­cently said, we are ‘ei­ther be­ing bombed or bomb­ing... Ei­ther killing or be­ing killed.’ MENA women are con­tin­u­ally de­picted as vic­tims, ei­ther of ex­trem­ist ide­ol­ogy, re­li­gious fundamentalism, sex­u­al­i­sa­tion or vi­o­lence and are of­ten saved by the Western man in the end.”

RE­DUC­TIVE STEREO­TYP­ING

“While I’m proud of my her­itage, I don’t want to be re­duced to just my her­itage. It’s lim­it­ing from the per­spec­tive of an ac­tor as well as a hu­man be­ing. The ques­tion ‘Where are you from?’ be­comes syn­ony­mous with the ques­tion, ‘Who are you?’. I de­fine my­self by many things, not just my her­itage, which is just a small part of many other things that make up my in­di­vid­u­al­ity, and yet pub­licly I am of­ten re­duced to ‘Saudi ac­tress’.”

CHAL­LENG­ING THE STA­TUS QUO

“I love the way my char­ac­ter Po­laire in­verted the pa­tri­ar­chal beauty stan­dards of her time and em­braced her self-pro­claimed ‘ug­li­ness’. She was de­scribed in the most un­for­giv­ing man­ner for her quirky style and her ‘car­i­ca­tured’ fea­tures: big hands and feet, a long nose and pro­trud­ing smile. I hap­pen to think she was ab­so­lutely beau­ti­ful. In a self-penned ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled How My Ugly Face Makes Me A For­tune, Po­laire ex­plained that she could never com­pete with the dar­ling beau­ties of her Mu­sic Hall days, so she aban­doned any de­sire to con­form and em­braced her ‘ug­li­ness’ and the things that made her unique. By lib­er­at­ing her­self from the con­fines of so­cial ideals of what a woman should look like, she also un­locked her po­ten­tial as an ac­tress, stat­ing that her lack of van­ity meant she was ‘not afraid to twist, con­tort, be hideous, in or­der to wring my heart’. In openly cel­e­brat­ing her unique­ness and gain­ing self-ac­cep­tance, she dis­cov­ered a power that no-one could take away from her. I find it in­ter­est­ing how such ideas res­onate to­day, par­tic­u­larly with beauty stan­dards be­ing more sharply pre­scribed and scru­ti­nised than ever be­fore. Women are un­con­scious vic­tims of in­her­ent pa­tri­ar­chal con­di­tion­ing and consumerism that con­stantly tar­gets us and dic­tates the way we should look and feel about our bod­ies. While men are largely ap­pre­ci­ated and cel­e­brated for their suc­cesses, per­son­al­i­ties and in­tel­lect, a woman’s cur­rency too of­ten de­pends on her phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance. Why should women have to fit a beauty ideal? And who even de­cides what that beauty ideal is?”

REAL-LIFE HERO­INES

“For me, ac­tor Yara Shahidi is the ul­ti­mate hero­ine of the new gen­er­a­tion. For some­one so young, she seems so wise be­yond her years. I par­tic­u­larly love the way that she doesn’t just present a glossy, su­per­fi­cial im­age to the world, rather she has some­thing to say. She’s in­tel­li­gent, and she’s so­ciopo­lit­i­cally gal­vanised. She also cel­e­brates her mind, not just her body, which is rare in this age of so­cial me­dia. I also ad­mire [Saudi di­rec­tor] Haifaa Al-Man­sour. I loved her de­but film Wad­jda, which was the first fea­ture ever to be shot en­tirely in Saudi Ara­bia. I re­ally ad­mire how she’s bro­ken through in such a dif­fi­cult and male-dom­i­nated in­dus­try to be­come Saudi’s first fe­male di­rec­tor. Her work and in­ter­na­tional suc­cess are em­pow­er­ing for other young fe­male cre­ators, par­tic­u­larly from the Mid­dle East, in­clud­ing my­self. When I’m feel­ing dis­il­lu­sioned, I of­ten watch in­ter­views with the poet, Maya An­gelou. As a woman, she was such a source of em­pow­er­ment and pos­i­tiv­ity, and her ad­vice is tran­scen­dent. I’m also go­ing to throw in Po­laire... Re­search­ing her for Co­lette was so in­spir­ing – I hope I can make a film about her life one day.”

EX­PLOR­ING DIF­FER­ENT CHAR­AC­TERS

“I find it lib­er­at­ing and en­light­en­ing tak­ing on dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters. I learn so much from the women I em­body, not just about my­self but oth­ers too. And at its core, act­ing is about truth­fully ex­plor­ing the hu­man con­di­tion and em­pathis­ing with the ugli­est and most beau­ti­ful in­car­na­tions. To ex­plore parts of our­selves that we of­ten re­press is such a priv­i­lege, and it is why the­atre, film and tele­vi­sion can be such pow­er­ful tools for so­cial change.”

TRANS­FOR­MA­TION THROUGH COS­TUME

“I have a strong re­la­tion­ship with clothes, and I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing cos­tume as a way to em­body the psy­chol­ogy and phys­i­cal­ity of a char­ac­ter. Most of the cos­tumes in Co­lette were orig­i­nals from the late 19th and early 20th cen­tury. Wear­ing some­thing that con­tains that much his­tory in ev­ery thread it’s made from changes the way you in­habit your body. Po­laire was fa­mous for her 16-inch waist, so I too was tightly laced in corsets. The phys­i­cal dis­com­fort and ex­ter­nal trans­for­ma­tion played a part in help­ing me in­habit the body and psy­che of Po­laire.”

FASH­ION AS A TOOL FOR EM­POW­ER­MENT

“I wouldn’t say that fash­ion de­fines me but I like to use it to com­pli­ment my mood. Fash­ion is, by its very na­ture, demon­stra­tive and per­for­ma­tive so it can be what­ever the wearer wants it to be. I also be­lieve style is as much about at­ti­tude and en­ergy as it is about the ac­tual gar­ment. I dress to em­power my­self and I wear what makes me feel good and con­fi­dent, so that I’m able to walk into a room and ex­press my mind as op­posed to my body. My mother was my first icon. Ev­ery­thing she wore al­ways fit­ted her per­fectly and she had such an el­e­gant and poised style. I’m pretty low-main­te­nance with my own style and I have a very eclec­tic wardrobe. I’ve been in­flu­enced by the power tai­lor­ing for women at the end of the ’80s – think Christy Turling­ton and Cindy Craw­ford in broad shoul­ders, high-waisted trousers, roll-necks, tai­lored jack­ets... It makes me think of as­sertive women in po­si­tions of power, women who were walk­ing into a room and tak­ing con­trol. Women who were dress­ing like men, rather than dress­ing for men.”

HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS

“My last trip to Saudi was a few years ago, but when I go back I just en­joy catch­ing up with my fam­ily. I love watch­ing the calm, pink sun­sets and dusk is my favourite time of day there. Hear­ing the call to prayer ring out al­ways makes me feel nos­tal­gic.”

THE FE­MALE GAZE

“I wanted to be pho­tographed by a fe­male pho­tog­ra­pher for this cover shoot be­cause I wanted to be seen through the fe­male gaze. Firstly, and cre­atively, be­cause I find what women find at­trac­tive and cap­ti­vat­ing in other women isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the same as what men are drawn to, as I be­lieve for women it’s of­ten more about the essence of a per­son rather than their phys­i­cal im­age. And se­condly, be­cause we have to prac­tice what we preach when it comes to equal op­por­tu­nity. For so long we’ve had men pri­mar­ily be­hind the lens, but also as di­rec­tors and men call­ing the shots when it comes to em­ploy­ment. There are so many amaz­ing women work­ing in ev­ery in­dus­try who are of­ten over­looked be­cause of their gen­der. I be­lieve that it’s time to start lev­el­ling the play­ing field and I want to con­trib­ute to pos­i­tive change.”

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