Hi Maria. Can you tell us a bit about your practice?

For the last few years, in my work, there's always been an undercurrent of humour and I always use myself as a direct source of reference. I feel like it's a bit self-obsessed, but within making work about myself, I talk about these broader themes of race relations or my position as a visible Muslim woman of colour. I use a lot of humour in my day-to-day life and I think that comes across in the work. I like to have fun with it, so if I'm going to talk about being called a 'dirty paki cunt,' it's going to be done in my way, which is a bit funny. That's how I deal with stuff – it's not necessarily going to be heavy. I like the idea of taking the audience one way, then suddenly dropping the punchline and making them think: oh, this isn't actually supposed to be funny – this is something really traumatic.

I feel like it's a bit self-obsessed, but within making work about myself, I talk about these broader themes.

I use the act of green screen – transporting yourself into all these places – as a sort of institutional critique. Generally, I use video work, but I'm trying to branch out into making physical pieces, like collages. I did a fabric print recently at Changing Rooms Gallery that was to do with my face and religious text. So, yeah, my work is really self-obsessed!

I also like working collaboratively with friends, like Hugo Hutchins, who I met at CSM. He's @hugohutchins on Instagram. He's my muse. I work collaboratively with him on the crossovers between him as a gay man and me as a Muslim woman, in reference to our dating lives, so the humour comes across in that work, too.

What brought you to green screening initially, and how does it inform what you make?

I got it randomly because I liked the idea of changing up the background for silly videos. I just bought it off Amazon. It's really easy. Some people ask me, how do you do green screen? But you just film, you drag over the footage, and it does it for you. I was like, hang on, this is actually fun! What does this mean if I'm transporting myself into a different location? How can I use this?

It started from green screening myself and Sara*. You know that footage of Lindsay Lohan in Mykonos? I filmed Sara doing the dance – having fun in Mykonos, bitch! Then I used the same audio. It was really funny, but we thought, we can take this further! So, me and her used it collaboratively in pieces we made about our identity or inhabiting spaces that we wouldn't necessarily be able to inhabit. We did this piece called Pakistani Girls. It was around the time when a woman got fined in the South of France for wearing the burkini. We'd both worn one. I was talking about my experience of wearing one in Egypt at a holiday resort. It's a Muslim country but, at the holiday resort, I stuck out like a sore thumb. To be honest, it just looks like a scuba diving outfit with a little bun on top, but I was subjected to such a toxic, white, male gaze. Someone tried to take a picture of us! These guys from Essex. We bumped into them in the hotel lobby, and they thought we were foreign, but my sister invited them to sit with us. She goaded them, saying: oh, we're from London, too! Essex – we border Essex! I used to work there! And they were so uncomfortable that we had autonomy in coming for them. We couldn't say ‘you took a picture of us,’ because they could deny it, so we thought, let's just make them sweat. And then Sara was talking about her burkini experience. It's non-threatening, so we just wanted to show us having fun at the beach. We green-screened a random beach – we tried to get the same beach in France, but we couldn't get good photos – then we made Pakistani Girls, after Katy Perry's ‘California Girls’. We changed the lyrics around to make sense for us. So, that was a fun commentary, using green screen to say, we clearly can't inhabit this space – if we did, we'd get a fucking fine! Or be subjected to having to strip. We're supposed to be all about women's rights, but what if I do just want to wear a burkini? It's not that deep!

What does this mean if I'm transporting myself into a different location? How can I use this?

So, I like using the green screen like that, for fun, to work in a self-introspective way. Like interviewing myself in 30 Questions. I thought, this behaviour is shambolic, what is my life? Let me ask these questions! I've done other videos where I go on a date with myself or have therapy, but I'm the therapist. But the therapist, i.e. me, was asking all these questions like, why are you like this? It was too much! So I did the Vogue format. I had fun with that, being myself but not really being myself, creating some sort of distance. I love green screen. I think everyone needs one.

How do you choose background images?

It's just having a piss about with it, like, this looks funny, this looks good, this is a good reference. I did this dad-dancing video – it's me and Sara together, because I was like, I can't make this work alone! I used a digitally-rendered desert picture, not an authentic one, to comment on otherness. It’s a land that I have reference to in my ethnicity, but I have no claim to it, because it's not who I am or where I am. But you can also see the rest of the studio where it was filmed, so it’s about inhabiting all of these spaces at once, but also not at all.

What happened with your last show?

I was supposed to have a show before Covid called It's Not Easy Being Green. It was inspired by Kermit the Frog's parody of Frank Sinatra’s ‘It's Not Easy Being Green.’ It was about using green screen to become invisible in one way but visible in another. I'm here and I'm not here in this space. I just like Kermit as well – his whole thing of otherness and the song celebrating the fact of being ‘other’.

How did it feel having the physical show moved online?

It was literally the week before lockdown happened, and we realised it wasn’t safe for us to do it. The gallery was a really cute space, and we had the physical elements of green walls, a green floor and a camera so that when people walked in, they would be automatically keyed to a different location. Then suddenly it was online, and I don’t know how to do online stuff! So, I made this webpage. I hated it. That was right at the beginning of Covid and having an online private view wasn’t a thing yet. People didn't know what to expect from it. My favourite thing was posting out private view kits. People could sign up to receive a reading list, instructions on how to join, information about the texts and the show, a drink – either Rubicon Mango or some G&T from Sainsbury's – and personalised ribbon, a little stand and a green card to write your name on, so that when we were on screen, everyone could see it. Looking back, I wish the packaging was better, but I was turning it over within a week.

That was right at the beginning of Covid and having an online private view wasn’t a thing yet. People didn't know what to expect from it.

The idea before it went online was that I was going to inhabit the space and use it as a residency project, so that didn't happen. I was going to livestream from there. So I just livestreamed from my room, at home, every day for an hour. It was driving me nuts! I livestreamed on the night of the private view, then I livestreamed the day after. It was a commentary on what happened, and it messed up. The third day, I did yoga. The next day, I played Sims – I've worked with Sims before, downloading custom content to get a true representation of myself. Then on the fifth day, I literally just slept on screen. On the last day, I had a chat with a curator to wrap it all up. But those livestreams were the death of me! That's why I slept on one of them – I was like, I can't do this!

It sounds like you really made it work! How well do you think galleries have handled moving online?

Some galleries go with the lazy option, and some galleries make something more interactive. Like ‘Queer Correspondence’ from Cell Project Space. You signed up for a mailing list – they had limited slots, I tried to get one – and each month an artist would post out works. It came in this neon yellow envelope, and you’d have texts, or writing, or whatever the artist wanted to show. One person sent a little vial of perfume, and it was tiny but the most pungent scent. This is hearsay... I didn't actually manage to get it.

Shall we talk a bit about humour?

It's not intentional. It was just natural. The thing is, even at uni, they were like, oh, you make memes. I don't want to be grouped like that! Like, your work is funny, that's the conversation, that's it. Other tutors were like, are you sincere about this? Yeah, I am sincere about it! Just because it's a bit funny doesn't mean I'm not sincere. At one moment, I thought my work wasn't good enough, because you see other artists who don’t use humour, but the work is amazing. So, to be a sincere artist, maybe I need to not use humour. I tried not using humour in some works, and that felt so inauthentic to me.

I tried not using humour in some works, and that felt so inauthentic to me.

Some people say it's how you deal with trauma, but I'm not that traumatised! It's how I deal with any and every situation. It's a case of keeping things at arm's length. I used to use myself and my image a lot, but I'm moving towards using animated figures and other pictorial representations of myself, and I think that helps create distance. If I'm going to talk about an uncomfortable topic, let's keep it far away and look at this cute Memoji instead.

The humour makes it so enjoyable, but then it makes you wonder if you’re allowed to enjoy art in that way.

I have friends who make TikToks that are so funny. They’re commenting on this and that. If they were framed in a different context, they would be art. Nominate this for a Turner Prize, please! I like that blurry line. Is it serious? Is it not serious? Even on my Instagram, there are some pictures – like this one of me and my brother smoking shisha, but I had the green screen up in the background, so I just put a picture of Dubai behind us – and people were asking, is this work? No, I'm just having fun! I remember reading that when you call a work funny, it loses its humour, so I'm very conscious of that. It's not a gimmick, I promise. It's just how it is.

*Sara Gulamali

Next week, we’re publishing Maria’s Insights on studying at CSM as a Muslim woman of colour, breaking apart notions of what art can be, the gentrification of prayer and – of course – NFTs. See you then.