Growing up with a double identity – a South-Asian, Muslim boy to their family, and an avant-garde image maker to the Tumblr community –, Furmaan Ahmed is now taking the fashion and art worlds by storm. Informed by mysticism, magic and religion, the Central Saint Martins student has already worked with some of your favourites, including Willow Smith, Kate Moss and David LaChapelle. Finding a midpoint between photography, set design, art and fashion, Ahmed avoids categorisation while creating their own path.
You are currently studying at Central Saint Martins in London. Coming from a background of set design and fashion imagery, you are interested in creating mood-enhancing environments and moments. What inspired you to choose this career path?
I’m unsure of how I managed to call myself a set designer or image maker, it was quite unintentional. I’ve always wanted to be an artist and create that excitement and feeling you experience when you’re at a concert. I think that’s where my instinct to work on projects that involve audiences and large spaces comes from. I want to create work that facilitates otherworldly experiences between performance and audiences. Moments of connectivity are at the heart of this, and I want to create a space where people can connect.
I find it the most inspiring when a group of people can engage in a work together as it creates this sort of hive effect where people bounce off each other’s energies and the energy of the work to have some kind of profound human experience. This is why I choose to build monolithic structures to be used at live events. I might be romanticising, but I feel it’s similar to the function of the standing stones of Stone Age Britain or the palaces Assyrian kings built. These huge monuments helped humans venerate the land; the colossal scale and impressiveness set up space for the hive mind and a place for dreaming. I’m interested in democratising that kind of veneration, not in a singular god but a community.
How do you feel about the art world, especially since you’re studying it from an academic/institutional perspective?
I’m currently studying Fine Art at Central Saint Martins and I often find the art world, or even my coursework, boring and un-engaging. I feel like contemporary art can sometimes cater to that one per cent of white middle-class people and I find it reductive. Sometimes, I feel too stupid to engage in works, which is the opposite of what art should be about. Fashion images or live stage performances affect the public in a much more immediate and emotional way and have greater knock-on effect and power to influence the public’s psyche. It’s about accessibility.
When it comes to diversity, there is no other city like London. It is a big melting pot of cultures where you can see and adapt to different views, approaches and experiences. In what way does London influence your creative thinking and the way you perceive the industry?
London definitely has opened my eyes and heart to so many more cultures. I think the most positive thing I can take away from working in London is being able to connect with likeminded people who experience this common feeling of this strange kind of duality we must live in every day. After spending some time in Los Angeles, I’ve come to appreciate London’s raw creative approach as to a commercial and slick way of working. It’s probably because nobody has any money in London!
The diversity and different life stories that I have encountered have had a big impact on my personal work. The people I most connect with are all trying to say the same thing but in very different ways, it’s like we are all part of one tree and each person, culture, history and story is a different part of this bigger and very ancient tree. These mixed rich stories are something I’ve included in my work as a mythologising of the truth and history, which gives us this universal heritage.
In a previous interview, you’ve mentioned: “Being queer and a person of colour raised in a strict Muslim household forces somebody like me to want to become a rebel.” Do you think that your past is also the reason that you started to dive into the creative world, as some sort of escape?
Yes, a hundred per cent. When I was younger and living at home, I had to live two different lives: the Muslim boy and then the secret version of me. I ended up creating an alter ego that existed only on the Internet. I would dress up in ridiculous clothes and paint my face different colours and take selfies that I uploaded to Tumblr and Facebook. I didn’t realise it at the time but I think I was trying to create a world or an escape from my gendered and cultural restrictions. I feel like all the sets, characters and little worlds I create are manifestations of that world I was creating on Tumblr seven years ago.
Now that you are studying at a university and actually building a ‘real’ creative career, does your inner circle, like your family, for instance, react differently than they did before all this started? How do you feel about this?
My family definitely does take me a lot more seriously now that I have worked with household names like the Smith family or Kate Moss. I’ve also experienced people taking my work a lot more seriously now, which is odd because absolutely nothing has changed. I’m still doing the same thing and for the same reasons, but for some reason, it’s deemed of value now.
Mentioned in Jupiter Rising: “Your work visits concepts of abjection, the grotesque and divinity. Often adopting codes on historical design to create alternative histories and possible futures.” Where do you find inspiration? What are your main influences?
As cliché as it may sound, I find a lot of inspiration from nature and the elements. I grew up in Scotland and my mother had a bit of an obsession with woodland walks – waterfalls in particular – and cathedrals and castles. My family is a part of a sect of Sufism, so I’ve always been surrounded by ideas of mysticism and miracles.
I think having this kind of ‘magical’ belief system has had an effect on my imagination for sure and I feel most of my work currently comes from the uncomfortable but liberating feeling of not knowing where I belong to when you cross so many intersections as a queer brown person. I really do enjoy bringing people together and creating this hive-like feeling of awe and liberation with my work. It’s why I like to build big and use live stages or sets as a medium for my work.
You are interested in Islamic ornamentation, queer brown hybridity and the marriage of technology and the natural world. Scotland’s music festival Jupiter Rising mentioned in an article: “Furmaan’s work is an ongoing exploration the future of a trans brown body.” These particular themes differ from each other. What is the reason that this combination of elements interests you? And how do you eventually approach translating those interests into your work?
I think these ideas come from a very personal place of how I have been affected by being queer and South-Asian, but I also do believe there is an underlying link between all of them. These themes in my work are about something bigger than us, a higher power or something divine, something that belongs to a community and a lineage of people history has been so cruel to. What I’m constantly trying to do is look into the future of this kind of identity and give a visceral offering of what it could be. I’m not trying to create answers; instead, I’m more interested in creating feelings of empowerment, serenity and awe.
The philosophy of Islamic ornamentation is based on the perfection and beauty of Allah’s creations seen in nature; these patterns are used as a visual language to venerate the divine being, and it’s empowering to utilise this as someone who crosses the binaries of mainstream Islamic ideas. Looking at how technology can be used in harmony with nature is a 21st-century version of Gothic or Islamic ornamentation as we are utilising the most basic tools (such as the elements) to think forward and venerate not a singular male god but the land.
This idea of celebration and love of a community, a sisterhood or network system, is essentially a queer subject as it’s the means of our survival. I think this is a very important issue, especially now during all the discussions about climate change – people are waking up and realising the effect climate change is having on indigenous, brown and queer people. We are going through a re-enchantment of the world, and harmonising technology and nature is essential to that.
This past year, one of your most remarkable works was with Willo Smith. How did this collaboration with her and Cupid’s Vault come about? Tell us more about the role you played.
Working with Willow and Cupid was a really surreal experience. I had just moved to LA to work for David LaChapelle for the summer – bear in mind this was my first-ever time in the United States. One day, I looked at my Instagram DMs and noticed that I had accidentally missed a message from Willow’s team. I was then put in touch with her and Cupid, and the rest happened naturally. Working with Cupid was an absolute dream, we immediately hit it off and it was apparent that we were thinking about the same kind of ideas and world we wanted to create.
Cupid took most of the lead on this shoot in creating the incredible makeup looks that transformed Willow into this post-human deity. In one image, Cupid created a crop circle design of Willow’s face and we shot it in a way that looked like she had been captured in a beam of light being transported up to a ship. Willow was so on board and open to the ideas! She also came up with lots of the ideas herself. It was a total three-way collaboration, which was important as it was three queer artists of colour working together to create something that was going to reach a big audience.
I think it was my second time ever shooting in an actual photography studio with proper lights and kit. I usually shoot in my bedroom or against whatever wall I can find using the same lights I bought on eBay four years ago for fifty pounds. I was really terrified about going into an actual photography studio and having to use all the kit, but thankfully, I had the super-talented Gina Canavan and Devi James by my side.
As a young creative force, you’re already working with household names. However, what challenges would you say you’re still facing?
I think the main challenge I’m constantly facing with my work is walking this fine line between being fine art or just being gimmick or commercial. Sometimes, I do need to question the intention of what I’m creating, and I find this isn’t something that can be overlooked working with commercial clients or people that are so used to working in a fast, formulaic, fashion-industry way.
I also have this frustration of wanting to create artwork in the fashion industry but always feeling that I’m being ‘too much’ or not clean or minimal or slick or sexy enough. Trying to sustain the soul of your work as an artist whilst also trying to capitalise or get exposure from it is extremely difficult. The thing I have always said to myself is, ‘Ok, you’re doing this, does it make you happy?’ And I think being honest with myself when creating has helped me to stay true to what it is that I want to do and say without being influenced by what’s going on around me.
Even though your work is mainly visual, I’m sure music plays an important role in your life and creative process. Could you recommend us three or four songs that have been playing on your Spotify recently?
I’m obsessed with FKA Twigs’ new album, and in particular, the song Fallen Alien. I’m also a huge fan of Kate Bush and I’ve had Lily playing on repeat recently. The lyrics are lovely. To finish, I’d say Lafawndah’s Ancestor Boy and Caroline Polachek’s Parachute.
You’re still very young, but what piece of advice would you give to your younger self now?
Usually, your own instincts are the best, don’t be swayed by other people’s opinions. Studying a degree in Fine Art made me create work that could exist in a white gallery space, which made me confused and unhappy. Just do what makes you happy and stop trying to be something you’re not! Just put love into your work and not expectations.
Recent exhibitions of your work include Dozakh at Steinsland Berliner Gallery (2019), A Moment That Will Never Happen at Tate Modern (2018) and Seeking Thistles Get Pickles (2018). Or your collaborations with people such as Kate Moss and David LaChapelle. You’re young but already making a name for yourself. What are some of the professional goals you’ve set for yourself?
I’m currently finishing my final year at university, so life is quite hectic trying to balance my schoolwork whilst continuing my practice in set design and image making. I’m currently working towards the biggest installation to date; I’m trying to build a multi-sensory garden that harnesses the power of technology and nature. I want to invite in performers, singers and members of my Islamic and queer community.
The Dozakh show in Stockholm was such an important milestone for me as I had a chance to connect with artists for the first time in my life, and we’ve created bonds forever. I got a chance to root myself back into the art world in a way that worked for me, and this is something I want to continue to work on. I’m continuing to work with Nadia Tehran and take Dozakh to the next stage. Professionally, I hope to permanently move to Los Angeles in the next year to set up a studio and work between London and LA as I love the contrast between both places. Right now, I want to continue working with musicians and artists creating large-scale installations and sets for live events.