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Episode 5: Dayna Ash, Haven for Artists

By May 22, 2024No Comments
Episode 5

Dayna Ash, Haven for Artists

Dayna Ash is an intersectional feminist, performing artist, published writer, playwright, and the founder & Executive Director of Haven for Artists; a cultural feminist organization working at the intersection of art and activism. She was named one of the BBC’s 100 most inspirational Women in 2019, and her recent film Courage, won Best Experimental Film in Montreal Independent film festival 2022. Lydia Ayame Hiraide is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Feminist Centre for Racial Justice. In this episode FCRJ Lydia talks to Dayna about art, politics, the notion of ‘borders’ and creating space.

  • Interviewer: Lydia Ayame Hiraide
  • Guest: Dayna Ash
  • Produced by: The Feminist Centre for Racial Justice
  • Recording, editing: Lydia Ayame Hiraide
  • Additional editing, transcription, design: Ellan A. Lincoln-Hyde
  • Music:
  1. Broken RNB Instrumental by The Audio Way, freesound.org;
  2.  Inn Ann by Daboor
  3.  Snoopy by Sandy Chamoun

Read Transcript

Lydia:  Welcome to the FCRJ podcast, where we discuss topical issues at the intersection of feminism and racial justice, as well as engage partners and comrades in projects we are carrying out together. This series of podcasts is developed by the Feminist Centre for Racial Justice, which is hosted at SOAS, University of London. For more information about the Feminist Centre, please go to our website www. thefeministcentre. org.

My name is Lydia Hiraide. I am a postdoctoral research fellow at the FCRJ, and I’m excited to welcome our guest, Dayna Ash. Welcome, Dayna. Dayna, you are the founder and executive director of Haven for Artists, you’re also a writer and a feminist. I’d love to hear a bit more about who you are in your words. So tell me, who is Dayna Ash?

Dayna: My name is Dayna Ash, I’m based in Lebanon. Most of my work has been interlinked with Haven being that I was the founder, but of course, I have a lot of activities as an activist that do outside of the organization. I’m a writer. I’m a playwright. I’ve done films. I’m about to release my book called The Emerging of the Tide, which basically summarizes my life being an immigrant, being, a marginalized person within these communities in Lebanon, and working transnationally towards solidarity and freedom and justice.

A lot of my work is rooted in decolonial practices, so much so that I don’t believe it can be just a theory – never should have been just a theory. So, a lot of my work kind of revolves around that being an artist and a performance poet. I also bring that onto the stage, and I work with a multiplicity of backgrounds of organizations and activists. So my belief is: whatever you can, you share, you expand and create networks and links so that those that hope to divide us have less of a chance.

Lydia: What you said about decolonial work being more than just theory is extremely important, especially – I’m speaking from the context of a university – it’s something that we’re thinking about at the Centre a lot. It’s an issue that definitely needs to be addressed. I suppose in terms of thinking about how you do that work, you founded Haven in Lebanon in 2011; of course, there was a lot going on in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region at that time, as there is currently. Could you speak a little bit about how Haven emerged and the kinds of issues it was responding to at that time, and perhaps a bit about how that’s evolved? What you see Haven bringing to the world and to the MENA region in particular as well.

Dayna: So originally being that we were founded in 2011 at that time, and I think still currently – how it pushes into our present days – is the fact that there was always kind of a gridlock or a hold on the creative community, on activists being able to organize with creatives and vice versa. Originally Haven was founded to create a platform for artists to be able to kind of break from the hegemony of capitalism and white heteropatriarchy.

The whole premise was: how do we work together in order to not only expand our reach and be able to share the tools that we’ve all accumulated, but also be able to produce without being so reliant or heavily reliant on external funding or having connections to a particular class or being able to get an Ivy League education or so on and so forth?

So it was about ‘how do we create the needs, how do we create the tools to fulfill the many needs that our communities face?’ And that was originally started from a group of artists and we wanted to create platforms that kind of broke away from the capitalistic structures that had been set. And as time progressed…Haven has always been a collective, so it’s always been artists coming in, activists coming in, going out, putting in what they felt was needed at the time. And Haven would remould itself into the needs of whatever community it was serving. So, it was never the same mission because people’s needs change, people’s outlook on the world and kind of the urgency changes. Our creative director always says ‘we have a keen ability for urgent adaptability’. Which is being able to listen to our community, be a part of these communities and actually react to whatever needs they have. So, throughout time, it increased – versus just performances and taking over stages, making sure that artists had access to financial support from one another.

Although we were not funded until around 2017, everybody worked pro bono. We worked two, three jobs and we opened the first cultural centre in 2015. We hosted massive festivals across the country. Then in 2016, we opened our first cultural centre all from out of pocket. A lot of artists lived in it and built it themselves, and we opened our second house because the first house got too small, which is kind of just a reflection…So we never went in and just grew exponentially…So we were very much anti-growth in that way. It was always what the community required at that given point, and that was the route we went towards. And now we’re on our third cultural centre in Beirut.

And it’s become quite necessary for us to focus knowledge production… feminist intersectional works focusing predominantly on works that are created in the, in the SWANA [South West Asian/North Africa] region. So that we can regain not just a connection to our history – because a lot of it has been erased or omitted from the books that the universities would teach us, or the schools would teach us – and be able to kind of take control of the narrative, our own narrative, our own cultural context, and our own understanding of ourselves within the region.

Lydia: It’s a really beautiful and interesting evolution because obviously Haven has become bigger over time, which is a fantastic thing, but it seems to me that it still remains a very grassroots organization. Often things can get co-opted – there can be conditions attached to funding, so it’s interesting how you navigate that.

Dayna: We have a ‘go/no go’ funding sheet actually where every donor is vetted. We go through intensive protocols. We will not take anything that is connected to Zionist entities. We fight against colonization…it’s not just as a theory, like I said earlier, we practice what we preach, and we take a firm stance. The team always says, ‘we’d rather close down than sell our values’. And I go out and do networking and try to get funding for the organization. And we always say, ‘I’d rather come back empty handed than with blood on my hands’. So it’s just, I think, very important for any organization to really stand by the values and principles that they originally were founded on.

Lydia: It’s a practical question as well as a political and broader intellectual question, isn’t it? As you mentioned, Haven is based in Lebanon, but it engages with work across multiple geographical and it seems also linguistic contexts. including the work that you do that speaks to Syria, to Lebanon, to Afghanistan, to Palestine.

Could you talk a bit about what it means to work towards feminist racial justice – to practice the intersection of arts and activism in a transnational context? What does it mean to work across borders? And what are some of the challenges and opportunities in doing so?

Dayna: If you would ask the creative director, she definitely would respond: ‘what borders?’ These are the borders that were written and imposed upon us. They were done by colonial hands. These were empires that were built on the extortion of the people, resources and land of the region. Not just this region – basically the world. A lot of this kind of what drives us is understanding that one of the biggest statements is always we need unity going forward, just as they strive so much to divide us in order to be able to have this exertion of power, because it’s a lot easier to control us and smaller groups. And intersectional feminism teaches us that there is no freedom for one if there is an oppression of others at that expense, and kind of goes against our core value to pretend or to turn a blind eye to what’s happening in Afghanistan or to turn a blind eye to what’s happening in Palestine.

Palestine is impossible to turn a blind eye to. It’s part of our history, it’s within our blood – the cause is within our blood. It’s always kind of visceral and, and quite organic for us to work across these ‘borders’, so to speak, and be able to kind of bring in the ability to speak with each other in order to amplify one another’s voices. I think it’s imperative that no one kind of sticks to what they think is their lane. You know, you cannot talk about bodily autonomy without talking about land sovereignty. You cannot talk about, abortion rights without talking about colonization and apartheid. You cannot talk about racial justice and not talk about climate and talk about extortions or reparation.

You know, these are all things that are so highly interconnected. And to omit one from the conversation is basically to whitewash the conversation or to benefit those in power that aim to divide your – not just your conversation – but your content so that it befits and benefits their agenda.

Lydia: I love what you said about calling into question what the border even is thinking about why we would even constrain the work that we do within borders. When we reflect on how borders come about and what they’re designed to do, it’s a really important question. Thinking about the intersections of those issues across different spaces, it’s not possible to look at one issue without reflecting on the others, as you say. Could you talk a little bit more about intersectionality and how that shapes the work that you do and what that means to Haven and to you as well?

Dayna: I mean, it is at the very core of everything. It’s, like I said, it’s hard to be able to kind of separate those things or to talk about gender rights and not talk about class struggle, to talk about our ability to exist within a space or a sphere of society and not be affected by all the things that they’re also working towards the oppression of us within different spheres. It’s impossible and it should be a kind of a call to action for anyone, any activist that’s working on one and not the others is, is obviously working to some kind of individualistic gain rather than community gain. And I think the hardest thing that people are, maybe now – and I have to attribute it a lot to Gen Z because they’re incredible – is the ability to see past the individual gain and also to understand that capitalism and whites as heteropatriarchy and colonization and imperialism have worked so hard to make you think of yourself.

Like, ‘what’s going on in Palestine?’, you see posts going on, of, ‘hey, make sure to rest, like, rest what?’ They’re posting these videos, they’re telling you what’s happening to them because they want you to see and if you turn a blind eye under the pretext of selfcare, you’re effectively kind of throwing the rest of the community under the bus. We have plenty of time to rest when we have gained freedom for everyone and liberated people from the shackles of oppression and whatever forms they come in.

Lydia: And how do you see that relationship between the individual and the collective coming through from a creative or artistic perspective. How does art support that messaging and that political work?

Dayna: I think it is absolutely insane that as artists we thought that we could separate the personal from the political. I think it is deluded and it is quite predominantly kind of solidified within a particular sense in the capitalistic world, right? Like, you want to advance yourself as an artist, so you need to appease what the people in power want you to say, whether you like it or not, art is political. There has never been a protest without a poster. There has never been a protest without a poem, which is a chant. There has never been a call for liberation that wasn’t translated into a song. There has never been a standpoint of a liberation movement that didn’t have art as its own historian.

Because you always have the victor, the oppressor, writing history, and a lot of the times it’s artists that have to take an active stance to ensure that history also reflects the oppressed. I don’t know how artists can kind of go about and obtain a regular kind of like… just something so abstract and disconnected or detached from movements fighting justice around the world when everything is so interconnected. Everyone… anybody that kind of has that argument with me is just like, ‘when you cross the street, it’s political.’ If there’s no street light, if you might get run over, that’s political stance. You are pushing for political change in your society for people and power to see the needs of the people that they are a reigning over and at the same time controlling – there is no separation. And any artists that kind of tries to do that is effectively turning a blind eye to whatever methods of oppression that are happening at any given time.

Lydia: That’s a really beautiful answer. It also makes me think about the effect of the art that comes out of these movements for people who engage with these posters, with films, with poems, as audiences or as part of movements as non-artists as well, and how that really speaks to a part of you that’s beyond just thinking. It’s a feeling…. it’s a movement in the body and in the soul and it’s a, it’s a really beautiful and effective thing.

Dayna: I mean, we still quote poets, right? We still quote lines from songs and poetry even after, you know, the poet or the artist had passed. Not because we’re idolizing the artist, but because the artist was able to kind of create an anchor within that time and space so that we can have it as a space in history, otherwise it wouldn’t exist. Right now, I think the quote that’s most predominantly in my head is: ‘your silence will not protect you’. That was Audre Lorde’s statement towards a fight for racial justice in the United States, but it’s true to every single oppressive system that’s happening, whether it be gender or class – what’s happening in Palestine, what happens in Lebanon, what happens in the region, you know.

Lydia: It’s interesting, isn’t it, that also Audre Lorde could be writing at the time that she was writing, in the space that she was writing, and yet what she was writing speaks to today to other contexts as well, and how these words last across time, how images last across time, and yet again, motivate and empower and encourage people to keep fighting against the same forms of oppression, the same forms of power that are oppressed – making themselves seen across time and space.

I’m going to pause here and ask you about a piece of music or poetry, a piece of art that captures the movement that you’re part of or the world that you’re working towards.

Dayna: I actually have a tattoo of a particular line from a Mahmoud Darwish poem. He’s a Palestinian writer. It says: ‘I have two languages and I have forgotten which one I dream.’

Lydia: That’s a really beautiful quote from Mahmoud Darwish poem Counterpoint, which actually was an homage to the post-colonial scholar and activist Edward Saïd. It’s a really wonderful way to think about the ties between academia, between academic writing, activism and poetry, and the ways that those worlds collide in struggles as they have done in Palestine.

To come back to the poem by Mahmood Darwish, could you tell us a bit more about what he’s saying there?

Dayna: It’s basically saying that the crisis of identity and exile, and this poem is always in the back of my mind.

Lydia: And what about music? Is there something that you’re listening to a lot in particular at the moment?

Dayna: At this point, I think I’m listening a lot to Daboor, a Palestinian rapper, he has the song Inn Ann.

Lydia: Let’s take a listen.

Excerpt of Inn Ann by Daboor.

Dayna: During the Lebanese revolution, and I always kind of go back to this particular song whenever I’m feeling – I don’t want to say hopeless, but feeling a little saddened by… I’m kind of held back a little bit mainly by grief or mourning – I listened to the song by a Lebanese artist named Sandy Chamoun. She sings I think it’s written by an Egyptian activist during the Arab Spring, and it was called Snoopy.

Lydia: Sandy Chamoun’s Snoopy is just such a beautiful piece of music. And yes, it’s written by Hisham Jaber.

Excerpt of Snoopy by Sandy Chamoun.

Dayna: An incredible song of great emotion, and she is a musician also, so it just brings such an incredible sound to it. So these are the two main songs. One is Inn Ann, which kind of gives me that strength of rage to push forward, and Snoopy, that kind of consoles my grief and mourning.

Lydia: So, what are your hopes for Haven in the future?

Dayna: We try to be as realistic as possible, so we don’t kind of have these crazy dreams that are not rooted in the reality of whatever context we’re working on. We’re working in. Um, at this point, we are a knowledge production centre. We’re a space for people to come together and work together. We hope that we’re able to continuously be a safe space for these ideas. Not because we would stop being safe. This situation or the society as a whole might put people at risk. And I think the biggest thing we’re aiming for is, is knowledge production and publications and conversations and supporting artists connect to activists in order to create a comprehensive understanding of the time and space that we all reside. Researchers and activists should have the ability to work with artists and artists should have the ability to kind of pass on those tools or interlink whatever tools they have with the activists so that it has a long lasting impact and vice versa.

Lydia: That kind of cross disciplinary or space work is also something that the Feminist Centre is really excited and interested in – thinking about the different types of knowledge that are held in different places and how…what we can create together when we have those conversations beyond just the circles that we might be used to organizing in, or the people that we might be used to talking to.

And I think that also speaks to what you were saying about intersectionality earlier and the Futures for Coalition. For those of us who are in Lebanon or those of us who are not, how can we engage with Haven’s work?

Dayna: So we do a lot of online campaigns. We host a lot of people that are in Lebanon have access to our free workshops. We have a system in which we offer free workshops that are centred… that are kind of anchored in decolonial practices and feminist intersectional theory. And they can come in and have free access to workshops, talks, the panels, the concerts, the exhibitions – all of that. And of course, we try to post everything that we create online so that it’s open source. We also have our website, which has reports and structure everything that we’ve ever done kind of shared… We have one right now that’s how to protect activists working in the field. We have another one for artists of how to write grants to make sure that your ideas are coming across and how to vet donors that you’re trying to apply to and kind of try to ensure that whatever we know we pass on and whatever we are missing or lacking can be fed into us by the community and told to us.

Our biggest and most important stances hold us accountable because we should be constantly held accountable by the community we aim to serve. We’re not living outside of it. We are part of it and we’re here to serve. So you can interact with us online on our Instagram, on our website. You can come to all of our free workshops in the centre. You can be a part of the free publications. We also host a community-led zine where people can submit their work. We publish it for free and we do this every three months, so we’re on the sixth one now. The last issue was focused on utopia and it was… it was kind of heavy hitting when most – a lot of the content was sent in about dystopia and it just goes to show really that our job is to hold space for marginalized voices. Just because academia and capitalism has kind of marginalized these voices even further by silencing and erasing them.

So You can engage in multiple, multiple different ways. It really depends on where you’d like to see yourself, whether it be in the workshops or the publications or in the space itself.

Lydia: Fantastic. That spirit of sharing knowledge and creating knowledge together as well, beyond the academy is really admirable, it’s really exciting and invigorating. That spirit of sharing knowledge is also crucial on a practical level. It’s helping people to be safe in the work that they’re doing. It’s encouraging and, and nourishing a politics that is holistic, intersectional, that is creative, uplifting, but also rooted in the reality. And that’s something to really, to really engage in. So I really hope that listeners of this podcast episode will engage with Haven’s work online. It’s wonderful that we can do that from anywhere in the world as well. The online space gives us that ability. So this has been a really wonderful conversation, Dayna.

We’ve talked a lot about intersectionality, about decolonial theory being more than theory; it being praxis action and something that’s done in community and collectivity as well. I am really grateful to you for giving us the time to hear about Haven’s work, to learn more about your approach and to think about the issues that your collective is raising. So thank you so much, Dayna.

Dayna: Thank you, Lydia. It’s really a pleasure meeting you all.

Lydia: So to our listeners – keep your eye out for the next episode in this series and take good care. Thank you.

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