I.A.M. image credit: @bendriftwoodphotography

Make It in Depth: I.A.M. Dipesh Pandya

Dipesh Pandya is an artist whose practice draws on research and reflections on sensory and auto-ethnography, ethnopoetics, ritual, linguistics; and complexities in navigating contact zones as a Brown person. Born in Tanzania, he explains his [im]migrant journey began at the age of three, taking him to England, France, America and India. A 2018 Open School East alumni, Pandya continues to make work in Margate as an artist and activist.

Could you introduce yourself and your art practice to us.

The first time I experienced a major displacement in my life took place in 1975, departing from Dar-es-salaam, the city of my birth to arrive in London with my grandmother. At the airport, we were immediately placed in immigration control and the looming prospect of being sent back to ‘where we came from’. Held in a small room in Heathrow at the age of three, did I comprehend and embody this first occurrence in a lifetime of violent encounters with the perception of my own identity, the colour of my skin, my name, my clothing, my accent, my music, my food, my…

As Black and Brown people, we live with the burden of a world that functions by centring whiteness as the default factory setting. The continuation and enforcement of oppressive policing and pedagogical, social and political systems established by the racial capitalism embedded in colonialism; means that we are continually living in states of physiological conflict through being othered…made to feel like outsiders, foreigners, étrangers, aliens…

Born in Tanzania, my [im]migrant journey has taken me to England, France, America and India, with a career spanning twenty three years working as a creative director for high-end fashion and luxury brands. A growing disillusionment with the work i found myself doing, led me to embark on a path of (un)learning; moving back to England from Kochi, India in late 2016 during Brexit, Trump, Modi…and the many others on this growing list of sinfluencers pushing the global rise of racist and fascist political rhetoric. I quickly realised not much has changed in England in terms of race relations since i left in 1993. It didn’t take long to once again be made to feel like the outsider.

Tracing lines from the murder of Stephen Lawrence in April 1993 to the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, it is evident the systems upholding and allowing for these brutal murders to continue are deeply entrenched throughout western white supremacist societies. My work is an attempt to find sanctuary from this collective trauma and strength in resistance. Writing, spoken word and sound are integral elements within my multidisciplinary artistic practice. My mother tongue is Gujarati, my other tongues are Hindi, French and English. I currently live and work in Cliftonville, Margate, England.

Dipesh Pandya family Archive.
Left image: first birthday bash – Dar-es-salaam, 1973. Right image: this photo is taken on the night I left Dar-es-salaam for London with my grandmother. [left to right: my father Hasmukh Maganlal Pandya, me, my cousin Bhavna and my grandmother Parvati (Prankunver) Revashankar Pandya] – Dar-es-salaam, 1975.

How did the work I.A.M. come about?

Over the past four years I have developed creatively generative relationships with a group of young children, their parents and the majority of shop keepers along Northdown Road in Cliftonville and Margate High Street. I.A.M. stems from the seeds I first planted four years ago when arriving in Margate. I found myself engaging in street conversations with many residents of Athelstan Road, Cliftonville, where Open School East was then based. These conversations grew out of the many personal questions, doubts and fears I had from my recent move back to England, following a twenty three year [im]migrant journey from France and America to India and back.

Throughout my year as an associate artist at Open School East, living in the neighbourhood myself, I got to know some of the people on the road and the many corner shops and businesses run by local [im]migrant communities living and working within the surrounding neighbourhood of Cliftonville. They became a huge influence in my work and the development of my practice, including them in S*a**m**i? by Swan Nemesis, 2017, “What you doing outside in the sun? You should be inside, you’ll turn dark like me…” 2018 and my end of year work There Goes The Neighbourhood, 2018, in which I had conversations with these same people centred on music, memory, participation and representation.

still images in the video by @bendriftwoodphotography, video footage by Suresh Basnet, sound by @nina.radio.tapes and @ice.cream.mafia

The majority of them are labelled as [im]migrants at best and a nuisance or stain on the ‘new upcoming, arty party, property prices rising, yoga studio reclining, coffee shop sipping, Tracey Emin bedding, white cube, white washing, gently gentrifying Margate’, far too often lazily portrayed by mainstream media and further propagated by white hipsterism.

I.A.M. seeking to reclaim this narrative with pride at its centre and the hope of creating a greater sense of representation, influence and belonging for the people who make up local [im]migrant communities, giving them the dignity, respect and humanity they deserve.

I.A.M. an act of resistance to laws, structures and narratives centred on the victimisation and erasure of [im]migrant life.

I.A.M. a refusal to accept the rhetoric around nationalism and the good immigrant syndrome.

I.A.M. a reminder that we are the global majority.

Lots of this work is based in Margate – how do you feel the conversation around immigration and race develops in this context?

Recently while wearing an I.A.M. hoodie carrying a Migrate B2021 sign, I was directly and belligerently confronted by individuals and small groups of people from the public as well as two police officers. This took place on two separate occasions when accompanied by another brown person while shooting images and video on the seafront at Margate main sands (day time) and in Cliftonvllle (night time). These forms of incessant aggression linger within us, manifesting as anxiety, depression and anger. Daily violent interactions in person or online remind us that changing the systems allowing people to feel they can act in these ways is an incredibly slow and long-term process requiring us to work harder in sustaining our demands and efforts for respect and equality.

Through this initiative I hope to offer space for the voicing and archiving of oral histories in ways that are built on principles of dignity and care. My work is hyperlocal, slow in nature and long-term in its scope and vision, building trust through human relationships on a one to one level. I use conversation and site specificity in public space as generative systems for research, performativity and dissemination of my work. Impromptu street conversations are an integral part of research and making within my practice.

The words immigrant and migrant have been shaped into powerful tools by politicians and media for so long, they are now freely used without any care or regard for according the sense of dignity and humanity the people they are said to represent absolutely deserve. Journalists in boats are cruising up to rubber dinghies in the English Channel to ask patronising and sensationalist questions with total disregard for the traumatic experiences people in the dinghies are experiencing at that exact moment; their hurt and pain further multiplied by many other intergenerational and physiological traumas. This has created a fog of associated tropes and imagery that are either acceptable in the form the ‘nhs nursing, cake baking good [im]migrant’ or persecuted as the ‘orange life vest wearing, knife carrying, county line travelling, slum landlord, benefit seeking bad [im]migrant’.

We’ve lost touch with the richness of our cultures and in turn, our humanity, in favour of a global blanding of music, fashion, food, film and meme based narratives. Margate and in particular Cliftonville, like many neighbourhoods globally is an ongoing social experiment happening at increasing speeds; and resulting in the erasure of people and their stories, the very material from which we create, express and preserve our cultures.

Situated on the Kent coast, the conversation around race and [im]migration is heavily present in the salty sea air we breathe in Margate. There are countless daily examples, far too many to go into here with any detail; racist bank staff, racist interviewers, racist estate agents, racist bar managers, racist neighbours, racist police and racist members of parliament. A director of a shared arts space on Athelstan Road in Cliftonville, who is also a co-director of a local annual arts festival, once casually told me while laughing it off, that they would be “…happy to see the back of…” a local hand car wash business on the same road because they were “…tired of being splashed with water every time they walked by…”

Migrate, B2021 – available now in the corner.shop
video footage by @zziisshh, audio samples: Bulbul from @kavyatrehan and Dub bahane by @sarathykorwar

Despite a growing Black and Brown community in Margate, organising to combat these pressing problems and deeply disturbing attitudes, too many gatekeepers are still white, privileged, lazy, ignorant and entitled. I.A.M. here to stay and I.A.M. here to fight growing ignorance towards the factual evidence of our lived experiences and repeated calling out of racist aggression that are further legitimised by the government.

As a co-founder of People Dem Collective, I initiated and organised Margate to Minneapolis and a second march from Ramsgate to Broadstairs as part of the uprisings of summer 2020. These spiritually powerful events have forever changed the town I currently choose to call home, the repercussions of which will continue to be felt far into the future, carried by the young people to whom we offered a space of belonging.

I.A.M. challenging the narratives portraying [im]migrants as either a one dimensional group, viewed through a lens of poverty porn, victimisation and as gang-banging terrorists or the still all to prevalent “…you’re alright…you’re not like the others…” which is often served with the classic pairing of “…i’m not racist, i’m not like the others…” These utterances clearly focus and centre white guilt and fragility in direct opposition to any real solutions to problems that continue to exist as a result of structural racism.

sign language, 2021. single channel video, text, photo, 2 min 45 sec.
incantation by Swan Nemesis, photo by @bendriftwoodphotography, audio excerpt from HiiiPower! by Kendrick Lamar.

I.A.M. sets out to “reclaiming language, time and space to tell our own stories in opposition to the oppressive hostile environment created by global governments and media” – how does I.A.M. do this?

This initial stage of the initiative will work towards identifying and establishing projects for exchange and development of skills, the sharing of oral histories, memory creation; and other systems of disseminating knowledge embedded in alternative forms of archive, with connections to specific individuals and families.

These efforts will allow our cultures to be carried along with our voices, far into the future by controlling narratives on the issues ultimately affecting our lives and defining our communities.

I.A.M. a small-scale, long-term and hyperlocal arts initiative existing as part of my work in social practice.

“…storytelling and narrative building both reflects and creates culture…” – Sonya Childress, Cultural strategist, film producer

I.A.M. an extension of my work as an artist and activist, experimenting with alternative knowledge systems, acts of refusal and modes of dissemination in public space.

“Disrupting imperial onto-epistemologies cannot be achieved without recalling our ancestors and stirring up their refusal of empire’s new realities and geographies.” – Ariella Aïsha Azoulay from Stuart Hall Foundation from the Imagined Futures series (2021)

I.A.M. advocating for meaningful exchange and respectful representations of [im]migrant communities building on a series of invitations to participate in conversations and interactions.

“…mobilise everything (we) can find in terms of intellectual resources in order to understand what keeps making the lives we live, and the societies we live in, profoundly and deeply anti-humane.” – Stuart Hall

hands up… 26.5.21 – Vincent Vega, Jules Winnfield + I and I held up Sarathy Korwar for two hours.
the first in I.A.M. FAMILY – a series of conversations about [im]migrant journeys, music, food, names, love, languages, talent, our ways of living and our future cultures.

Language is such an important tool – how can other people use this call to reclaim language, time and space and join you in telling their own stories?

Without negating the difficulties and horrors many [im]migrants face throughout their journeys and as a result of these same journeys, I.A.M. challenging stereotypes while celebrating people and their cultures.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” – Maya Angelou

Collecting stories and experiences of [im]migrant communities told in the languages of these same
[im]migrant communities is an integral part of the initiative centred on care for archival practice to build pride and confidence through the safeguarding of oral histories for our future generations. My art practice uses lyricism, music and linguistics to think through the themes I choose to explore, offering entry points into alternative and ancestral knowledge systems.

…Good friends we have lost along the way. Yeah!
In this great future you can’t forget your past.
So dry your tears, I say…’
– Bob Marley & The Wailers – No Woman No Cry

I.A.M. merch is activated through being worn in public spaces, creating a deeper relevance in who, how and what is allowed visibility while being continually marginalised towards invisibility through systems of erasure. Buying merch from the I.A.M. collection is a way to support the initiative while amplifying the work and its wider dissemination through being worn by people locally, nationally and internationally. The specificity through movements of who, where, when and how I.A.M. merch is encountered is another important aspect of this work, provoking and enabling debate on questions of visibility, representation and who is allowed to participate in neighbourhood life in ways that are familiar to their cultures and vital in creating a sense of belonging and community. The multiplicity of meaning evoked by the symbiotic concepts reflected within the typography, together with its messaging and dissemination are simultaneous and powerful acts of resistance, pride and protest.

“…if you don’t like what you hear change the conversation”

Merch from I.A.M. along with the works from my ongoing project Welcome to Migrate are available to buy at hands.up.if.you.re.brown.corner.shop – a way of supporting the initiative and helping to sustain life as an artist and activist. If you are able to and would like to support, there is also an option to make a donation directly through the website here.

All profits from I.A.M. merch will help me to build on collaborative and supportive ways of working through the exchange of skills and knowledge with and for [im]migrant communities within my neighbourhood.

If you would like to collaborate or offer support with your time and skills please get in touch through the contact form on my website with the subject ‘I.A.M. (your name)’.

I welcome people to share your own personal stories and knowledge celebrating the rich and multifaceted visual, sonic and sensory language of [im]migrant life in your neighbourhoods wherever you are.

Tag @hands.up.if.you.re.brown #handsupifyourebrown #immigrantsvsignorants #iamamajority #welcometomigrate

Conversations are an important part of community engagement and introduce communities that are framed as disparate from one another – how do you approach these conversations?

Often starting from serendipitous encounters to slowly build relationships and trust through a series of conversations and interactions taking place on the streets, inside shops and other public spaces in my neighbourhood. Using text, sound and performance based interventions, I work with the tension that exists in this approach while attempting to reclaim the perceived associations with these shared public spaces. As an evolution of this way of working, I hope to create conditions and the potential to alter the social climate of these spaces and their perception and archiving through performative actions and memory creation.

There Goes The Neighbourhood, 2018
posters using excerpts from Let The Record Show, 2018 – written and performed by Swan Namesis. Photograph by Rosie Lonsdale.
part of “What you doing outside in the sun? You should be inside, you’ll turn dark like me…”, 2018.
Image courtesy of Dipesh Pandya.

You use a range of alter-egos in your work, how does this help open up these spaces for you and your exploration of themes?

Moth Tears and Tiger Memories, 2017
Moth Tears and Tiger Memories, 2017

I use alter egos as a way to compartmentalise and channel the various strands and influences within my practice. At its core, the function of alter egos remains for me a necessary tool for dissent, resistance, decolonial critique and the implementation of strategies of survival within a racist society. See Trigger Warning! Trigger Warning!, 2020.

Funding the work of artists and activists are both complex and difficult, how does the project help sustain your work as well as being a live art work that is dissipated, potentially globally?

As an artist and activist, I.A.M. questioning a lot of things right now as are many people in terms of making ethically and alternatively funded work. Calls are growing to boycott institutions and corporations supporting the oppression of people through state sanctioned terror and genocide, the selling of weapons and upholding of white supremacy; as is the direct action initiated by everything from grassroots organising to big funding initiatives that are looking to radically change the landscape of the who and how of funding.

For now the hands.up.if.you.re.brown.corner.shop is just one alternative but very small way to explore the funding and dissemination of my work as a generative and potentially long-term, global live art performance. I.A.M. especially interested in exploring other alternative and experimental approaches to funding. Please get in touch if you feel you can help.

Your work is concerned with the traditions of skill sharing, oral histories and creating new versions of the archive; all of these devices allow cultures to be carried along by and with the voices of the community. Why did you chose these mediums, how do you feel these acts change the narrative and what are your hopes for the future?

My art practice and the I.A.M. initiative are research based, site specific and process led. I allow relationships to develop through encounters and conversations with the people I interact with in my everyday life within my neighbourhood. These interactions are given time and space to grow through the building of trust and mutual respect. Exactly which form these new archives will take together with the memories and skills exchanged and passed on will be a result of this slow process of human connection; in addition to the personal preoccupations (…and anxieties) at the heart of both my practice and the I.A.M. initiative. It is a long sustained effort to bring back knowledge from the archives through our collective imagination; a necessary and vital act of conservation, resistance and humanity with huge potential for future generations.

“Who even knows the true extent of what we’ve lost…”

‘…Eh! Children get your culture (Natty Dreadlock)
And don’t stay there and jester, a-ah, (Natty Dreadlock)…’
– Bob Marley & The Wailers – Natty Dread

‘…I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be…’
– Whitney Houston – Greatest Love of All

Read and explore more of Dipesh Pandya’s work here.

I.AM. merch can be found here.

The work Trigger Warning! Trigger Warning! is part of Nothing gentle will remain a publication inviting artists and audiences to speculate on how we gather together, now and in the future. The publication condenses a year-long exchange with Curating Contemporary Arts at the Royal College of Art, Open School East and contributing artists Josefin Arnell, Pauline Curnier Jardin, Paul Maheke, Dipesh Pandya, Naïmé Perrette and collaborators.

Follow on I.A.M. Dipesh Pandya social media: @hands.up.if.you.re.brown

We all want to make it.
Make it in our chosen career. Maybe make it big.

Sometimes perhaps just make it to pay day.
But whatever our ambition, what unites us all is the desire to thrive, be recognised – and be supported.
And that’s what Lambeth’s Creative Enterprise Zone is all about. Supporting creative people to do amazing creative things without having to leave our amazingly creative corner of south London.
Because we all want to make it – of course – but more than that, we want to Make It in Brixton.