Heiba, Sofia & Rose
As the founders of OOMK (One of My Kind) a highly celebrated publication that explores creativity and spirituality, Heiba Lamara, Sofia Niazi and Rose are doing radical things in the realm of print. Not only is their magazine in its fifth issue, they also co-curate zine festival DIY Cultures and recently launched Rabbits Road Press, an open-access risograph print studio and press based in Newham. Taking bigger steps each year, the trio have travelled to Berlin, Chicago and Malaysia and have worked with some of the UK’s most established organisations from Tate Modern to Book Works. Muses to many in the art/activist/zine scene, what these three women have achieved is beyond remarkable. Whether it’s platforming the voices of muslim women, taking up shelf space or creating their own thriving community, Heiba, Sofia and Rose are the image of hard-working women. Visiting their studio in what used to be Old Manor Park Library, we talk to the three friends about faith, activism and why the creative process can add value to anyone’s life.
Words by Kadish Morris & Photography by Dunja Opalko
Who does what in the team?
Sofia: We all work on OOMK. Me and Heiba work on the editorial side of things and Rose works on the design. At Rabbits Road Press, we tend to divide the jobs but it’s always an equal amount of work.
Rose: With OOMK, our roles are more separate and defined. At Rabbits Road Press, we all act as technicians. We all conduct the workshops and the open access sessions.
So how did the idea for Rabbits Road Press come about?
Rose: An organisation called Create London run a residency every 18 months. They approached us to reimagine this space to engage with the community, and also be become apart of our practice so that we would get a mutually benefiting creative space. We came up with risograph printing, because it means we can build up content for the space and engage with practical skills too. There’s a very hands-on, un-intimidating approach and vibe here. People can just drop in and it feels quite open. The doors are open on Tuesdays and people are quite comfortable and will just come in and take ownership of the space and process.
It’s such a great idea. There aren’t many places where people can easily learn new skills and try out ideas outside of formal education. What you are doing here is really necessary. Would you say that you got everything you needed from University?
Sofia: I did an art foundation and then I did a language degree. I did an MA in illustration after my degree. I think I got a lot out of studying but the most valuable thing is probably the people you are working with and also having physical space, mind space and time to work on projects. I think what we’re trying to do here with Rabbits Road Press is recreate successful parts of our own education while trying to fill in the gaps that were not so successful. We want Rabbits Road Press to be consistent which is why we had the whole idea of having an open access day. We want it to be a nice space where people enjoy working and for there to be facilities.
Do you think that young people should seek work or work on their own projects?
Sofia: It’s hard to say. I think whatever you’re doing, just make sure there’s some space in your life to do creative things. That’s the point of our open access days. Whatever you’re doing, you can do an evening course or you can come here on Tuesdays. The creative process can add value to anyone’s life.
Heiba: It’s useful to question your aims and goals. For example. If you want to be the editor-in-chief at a big magazine, but you haven’t written your first article yet. Where does your dream come from? How do you know you’ll enjoy it? Could you find an equal sense of achievement or accomplishment in working on an immediate project like your own zine that you can then develop a readership or audience for? Working on your own projects can help you figure out what gives you fulfilment and subsequently, a clearer sense of purpose.
Rose: From my experience, it has been about doing both and seeing where they overlap and what this develops into. I think separating your identity from your job role is a difficult but an important thing to consider if you are working towards finding some kind of sense of self in the work that you produce.
“Working on your own projects can help you figure out what gives you fulfilment and subsequently, a clearer sense of purpose.”
You guys have been apart of the zine world for a while now. What’s your opinion on the interest and resurgence in zine-making?
Sofia: I think the social scene attached to zines is a big draw and lots of zines are popping up all over the place. It feels like each zine is attached to a social event and this need to interact with people and to create and collaborate with people. In that sense, it’s not a renaissance. It’s a completely new thing. There’s a gap for people to hang out and maybe that’s what people used to do in record shops. Find a tribe. Find their identity. I think it’s really related to socialising.
Rose: There’s a weird renaissance that sort of fetishises magazines. I like that we see a lot, but then sometimes I wonder, do we need anymore? Do we need another magazine that’s doing the same thing as another magazine? Is it just like a vanity project? I really like zines that don’t necessarily have an audience. You can make them because you want to. Magazines feel sort of different. You’re putting energy into distribution. This glossy brand. If it’s not necessary for the world, don’t do it.
How is an issue of OOMK made?
Heiba: We decide on the theme for the issue and then make a public call out for contributions. As a team, we also reach out directly to people we’d really like to interview or commission. In between all of this is a really important step – a public “think-in” or brainstorming session, where we invite readers, potential contributors or anyone interested to come down and help plan out the next issue. The meeting has varied year to year in terms of size and location but it has been massively important in making connections, hearing feedback and breaking down how the magazine is made for anyone interested in learning. After we go through a selection and editing phase of all the submissions. We hand over the content to Rose, who works her dark arts on it all. There are usually several draft stages where we play around with layout, order or review illustrations and try to catch any typos without upsetting the typesetting too much. Once the final proof-read is done, its off to the printer. If we have time we always get a sample first, but there have been times where we’ve gone straight to print. OOMK is currently not-for-profit so it doesn’t make any extra money. We don’t have advertising and we sell it at the lowest price possible to make it as widely accessible as we can. Everything we make goes into the next print run so it’s definitely a labour of love for everyone involved from contributors to editors.
Rose: We want to create a publication that occupies a space somewhere between a zine and a magazine. Physically, the size and type elements of OOMK reference an old handmade zine aesthetic. We also want to produce something that is substantial and having a perfect bound spine pushes us into the magazine world.
“I think struggle is really integral. It should be a bit hard. If I took that away from the work, it would lose its value for me anyway. I trust things more if they’re difficult.”
How do you think OOMK has benefited you professionally?
Rose: I think it just means more creative control. It’s nice that we are working in a team and as friends. We have the same mindset and we want the same clients. I recommend it.
Heiba: I definitely think that being outside of a publishing house or an office, I’ve learnt things a lot faster and some things, the hard way. But it’s been good. You gain a lot of confidence in your own skills and in what you’re doing.
Sofia: People have taken us really seriously.
Heiba: I’m so surprised by that!
Sofia: Our work is our portfolio. It’s not like when you work for a company and it’s just about aesthetics. Our values are embedded in the work that we do. We get more work that we’re interested in and that we like doing. The downside is that we didn’t get paid for any of the work we did for the first few years.
Heiba: We don’t have a pension [Laughs].
I guess you swap those traditional benefits for the freedom to choose what you do and how you do it…
Sofia: But we only got to this point because we did jobs that we didn’t enjoy as much. I don’t want people to think that you just go to art school, dedicate your life to painting circles and everything is going to work out fine! I’m a teacher, Rose is a designer and Heiba has done all sorts of jobs from documentary film research to archiving. Art can be something that you do in the evenings or weekends. You can do isolated projects. There’s so much pressure in the art world to make it and be successful and that translates into being a full-time artist that gets paid all the time and is able to afford a house. I don’t think that’s realistic and it doesn’t really mean you get to produce the work that you want to produce. You just ending up taking on work to pay the bills. It’s much better if you have and income or a fall back plan which allows you to pursue what you actually want to do.
But a lot of people feel guilty for not being full-time artists…
Sofia: You have to be able to define success for yourself.
Rose: I think the struggle is really integral. It should be a bit hard. If I took that away from the work, it would lose its value for me anyway. I think the nature of the modern world is that if something is easy and comfortable, then it’s probably unethical. So I trust things more if they’re difficult.
Do you get to travel much? Where’s the furthest place you’ve been?
Sofia: We went to Malaysia this summer.
How was it?
Sofia: Partly tropical. Partly traumatising [Laughs].
Heiba: I don’t know If I’d do well there. I’d get heat stroke!
I read A Study of Publishing in Malaysia, the publication you made as a result of this trip. It was really exciting learning about a publishing scene that I didn’t even know existed! How was the experience?
Heiba: It was really good. It was nice to throw yourself into a place you don’t really know and see what’s been made there and talk to them about how they do it.
How did that whole project come about?
Rose: We were considering this particular funding stream for a while. Our connections to Malaysian magazine Odd One Out developed into a larger interest in the scene there and we were keen to generate this into a wider project.
Sofia: We’ve never done a working trip before and we were shocked by how tiring and how demanding it was.
Heiba: Doing interviews each day and then having to travel between cities.
Rose: And just finding the places on top of that!
Heiba: Also knowing that you have to leave and wondering whether you have gathered all of the content that you need because as we’re interviewing people, the research is happening but we have no clue what the publication is going to look like. We didn’t know if we would have enough content.
What is the creative scene like there?
Heiba: From what we gathered there’s a poetry scene. A music subculture. Some of them are inter connected through cities, but not as much. A-lot of them don’t mix or overlap with each other.
Rose: There are very noticeable divides between genres and cultures in the publishing scene. It differs to the London scene as we are familiar with a larger sense of community and momentum. You have to work a little harder to discover the many pockets of work being produced in Malaysia but discovering these was really rewarding.
“I think activism can be about resistance and living in the face of various forms of discrimination. Just living and getting on with it and not letting those things stop you.”
What do you think constitutes as activism?
Rose: Activism is reacting to what is going on around you and being critical and producing anything in your medium as a response to it. Even though I don’t know if I count myself as an activist, our work is in response to the world around us.
Heiba: A lot that falls under radical culture and as activism is appropriated language and performance that comes from the culture of direct political action, to the point of redundancy. A lot of what passes as activism is very performative and visual. It’s not concrete in any kind of real way. It has its uses but it only goes so far. We’ve always been aware of that and where we might fall on that spectrum.
Sofia: It takes so much labour to be informed. I think activism can be about resistance and living in the face of various forms of discrimination. Just living and getting on with it and not letting those things stop you. Activism is different depending on your situation. Are you affected by this issue? Is being alive and being well a form of resistance? Being OK is hard work for a lot of people.
That’s true. Just being well can be such a powerful act…
Sofia: I think being fine and trying to encourage your family and friends to be healthy and stable is a good thing.
Heiba: Taking care of your immediate needs and the immediate needs of people around you. Even if people don’t regard them as being important, you know what’s important for you to be able to stay stable.
What is the last thing you read that changed your thinking?
Sofia: I’m reading a book called Delete and it’s about the internet and human memory. It’s really interesting. There’s a really interesting thing about how important it is to forget, in terms of coming up with new ideas and how we don’t let ourselves forget things with social media because we keep reminding ourselves of things all the time and how long term that must be really damaging for us to have new ideas and explore new avenues.
Rose: I’m reading this book called the the A Politics of Listening in 4 acts – about the value of silence. It’s transcripts of religious sermon about silence.
Heiba: Last book I read is called The Disappearance of Light. It’s about light pollution and our relationship to natural light. It talks about how light pollution is affecting our relationship with the stars and the moon because you can no longer see them. The thing that really stood out was about how Paris is lit very specifically in certain ways. The street lamps are further apart and lower and dimmer. All the buildings in Paris are lit very specifically by this guy who is a consultant expert in lighting and it’s all to create an atmosphere and it blew my mind that atmospheres are all artificially created. Someone sat down and planned it.
Do you ever feel like you have to be the spokespeople for muslims?
Heiba: No. Not at all. I’m really suspicious of anyone who is a spokesperson [Laughs] We want to be able to reach out to other Muslims through the media, but at the same time, not be caught up in being spokespeople in any way.
Sofia: When we first started out, we’d get really excited when reputable people in media approached us and we’d be keen to do interviews. We’ve become a lot more critical now and tend to question whether it’s useful for us to be doing them and what the intention is behind the article.
Heiba: In the beginning. We’d get loads of emails asking us to respond to different political events happening because we were muslim. These soundbites and quotes that people needed for their article…
Rose: Some of those would be so offensive. Something would come up in the news and they’d be like ‘Hey, do you want to give us an opinion on FGM?’.
Heiba: Or people trying to mine our network, like ‘Can you give us a list of people who are muslim and brown’.
What makes you feel the most connected to your faith?
Heiba: Praying. I’ve always struggled to get up for the earliest one which is at dawn. Whenever I get up for that one, it feels like I’m making a physical effort. Islam generally places so much importance on intention but also actions and worship is through action so it could just be through good actions. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the mandatory acts of worship but I do feel like wherever possible, physical acts really make a difference.
Rose: I think learning. Whenever I’m reading and feeling connected to a person who is exploring a relationship with a concept of a creator, that really encourages me.
“It’s radical to be making stuff and taking yourself into a different mind space. You learn so much. It’s time spent not refreshing your browser.”
Is being creative in any way spiritual?
Sofia: When I was younger, I thought that being religious meant having no personality and stripping yourself of everything that was unnecessary. But then, practising more and more, I realised that most things are allowed in Islam. I think being creative is quite a natural thing.
Why do you think the print process has such value?
Heiba: The internet is great because if you are from a marginalised group or if you are outside of publishing in some way, you can have your voice heard. On the internet, you can be very loud and very vocal. There seems to be a lot of progress made on the internet that doesn’t really reflect progress made in real life. But in terms of the industry, going through the print process and taking up space on a shelf and having to go through distributors and magazine shops. You’re kind of pushing a way in that you wouldn’t be doing if you were just online.
Sofia: I think it’s really important for us to be engaging in the entire process of creating a physical product and also, encouraging people to be ambitious and to go through long processes too. It’s radical to be making stuff and taking yourself into a different mind space. You learn so much. It’s time spent not refreshing your browser.
Do you think you’ve made it?
Rose: We have two risograph printers. I think we’ve made it [Laughs].
Heiba: I feel like things are stable. I don’t know if we’ve made it but I’m really happy with what we’ve achieved.