University puts you on a pedestal, giving the impression that you can take on the world. The reality was far from it. Creative higher education as with many, left us navigating the sector on our own. This needed to stop.''
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Sassify Zine - PRIDE 2020
Meet the London based creative Ajay Pabial, the managing director of Art Clubbers. Art Clubbers provides underrepresented young Londoners access into the creative sector with emphasis on embedding diversity and inclusion. We caught up with Ajay to discuss his LGBTQ+ journey, art and sassiness.
Could you tell us about your Queer journey so far…
I should start off by identifying myself, I am a gay, cis-gendered British Indian man.
I’m a born and bred East London guy. Both my parents are Hindu Punjabis who were born in India and moved over to the UK in the early to mid 20’s, making myself and my siblings 1st generation British-Indians. In most South Asian households, sexuality has never been a conversation, like even the sex talk can be conversation that gets brushed under the carpet with ease.
I had always known to be a little different but never could really put my finger on it. You see growing up, the word ‘gay’ has always carried a negative connotation - alien, embarrassing, stupid, or wrong. I guess I had always been more emotional and effeminate and would have commented on my ‘gayness’ for it. I wish I could say this was just friends but always continuously heard this from family growing up. I mean it’s stereotypical but even the fact I had a passion for art instantly meant I was gay (coincidently this is a fact in my case!).
These feelings intensified as I grew up and finally became ‘real’ at the age of 24. I came out to one of my closest friends on a park bench in London during her lunch break and had lined our stomachs with subway sandwiches! I came out as bi-sexual at first to her and many after, looking back I’m not entirely sure what the plan was or if I even had one, I guess I was testing the waters a bit to see how people would react to the idea of me liking guys? I remember a really tough conversation with one my best friends who wasn't having none of it and assured me that I should be true to myself that my sexual preference would never change our relationship, it was then I had finally accepted being gay and good god did it feel great to finally say those words out loud.
It’ll be two years since I started coming out. I’ve come out to my siblings, friends, colleagues and some of my closest cousins and relatives, with my parents still the last to know. I’m still on a journey to live my true authentic self to date openly and not have to sneak off to Prides in secret. Living in a household with half your family knowing your true self and the other completely in the dark has been like walking on eggshells. As much as I have wanted to just listen to little gay heart and just should, I’m gay. My Capricorn self has been taking a more strategic approach. Financial security is probably one of the biggest priorities when we come out. We want to know that no matter the outcome, we can support ourselves. With COVID-19 taking over our world and locking us up indoors, it has put my intentions of finally having that conversation but positively thinking this period has allowed me to put myself in a positive financial position and really spend time with my family should the outcome be challenging.
Wish me luck!
Have you always been creative?
If I can remember, I’ve always been the little artist of the family. Drawing, paintings and making is something naturally I geared towards - I still have me drawings from pre-school! I’m not entirely sure where my creativity comes from, being one of the youngest out of my extended family, I’ve grown up with uncles, aunts and cousins who have taken more traditional academic routes, studying and pursuing careers in law, finances and medical titles. I was the first out of my family to study Art at a degree level, instantly becoming the black sheep of the family - totally loving it!
I’m a practising artist who focuses around portraiture, making work in exhibitions and shows in and around London. My paintings have been described as “Renaissance meets Andy Warhol, pulling portraiture to the 21st Century.” - graphical, structural and interdimensional. I have always been fascinated by the masters such as Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Thomas Gainsborough and Peter Paul Rubens but equally mesmerized by the vibrant colours of my Indian Hindu heritage. My work is the harmonious embrace when East meets West.
What was the inspiration behind starting Art Clubbers?
After graduating from university with a BA in Fine Art, I had found myself hitting a brick wall when trying to find work within the sector. I found that with many art graduates, University puts you on a pedestal, giving the impression that you can take on the world, now prepared for what the future may hold with a paper scroll in hand. The reality was far from it. Creative higher education, as with many, left us navigating the sector on our own. This needed to stop.
The curriculum of creative degrees was outdated and repetitive, having spoken to Alumni before and after, it was clear that we needed to embed content around navigating the sector, equipping graduates with employability skills and tools to establish themselves as artists, designers and makers. I believe that by creating a creative community we can address and bring reform to how creative education can align themselves with the sector and embedding practical skills through their courses.
In 2018, I set up Art Clubbers CIC, a not-for-profit Arts Organisation which acts as stepping stone into the industry, providing opportunities and support to allow young Creative's the chance to develop and build their skills and portfolios as well as put in to practice their talents in community focused activities and projects.
By working with budding talents, we aim to tap into the creativity, innovation and ambition these individuals have to hold and carry out new and exciting community projects in partnership with local authorities, other creative organisations, award-winning housing regeneration associations and creative youth space. Many of these have been prestigiously funded by creative placemaker Foundations for Future London and The City of London Corporation, the governing body of the Square Mile and the financial district and historic centre of London. Together we promote dialogue and conversation to create a new emerging community of up-coming talent.
With a welcoming and supportive environment, we want Art Clubbers CIC to be exemplary in its accessibility to local communities and beyond. It is through projects and events that we aim to engage those with little or no experience of art.
Have you found yourself immersing in queer art culture in this time of crisis and isolation?
Definitely!! I’ve found myself really engaging with queer culture. It’s been great to see and discover so many fantastic organisations doing all sorts of amazing work to either support members of our community during this period or give us creative things to be engaging with. There’s sooo many but here’s a couple to name a few;
Recently I signed up for a story-telling workshop for QPOC run by the amazing Dee (@wearecolourfull). It was an incredible hour-long workshop that delved deeply into the power of how we tell our stories as QPOC, how that visibility is crucial, and we can appreciate ourselves for being QPOC. I met some wonderful creative people through the workshop and am looking forward to collaborating with once things are back to some normality.
If you haven’t already, you need to check out queer publication A Bundle of Sticks (@abundleofsticks). John Furno, who is just a superstar, has collated coming-out stories from LGBT+ members from all over the world. Reading through the stories feels so authentic and real, you connect with these people on a deeper level and start to see parallels between your own story and theirs.
Dominic Evans, who is most famously known as DOM&INK (@domandink), has launched their own Colouring In Club, where they provide printable pages in their well-known illustrations, ranging from themes around supporting our NHS and Key Workers, which you can colour in and stick in your windows to show your support!
Do you think art can transform lives?
Art has the power to transform lives! Through our Art Clubbers we continuously work with local communities, groups and individuals to bring art and culture to them in a new way making it more accessible. Early this year we worked with international award-winning street artists Rosie Woods on delivering a cross-generational piece of artwork in the heart of Poplar as part of our project Poplar Paints. Working with a variety of ages and local families, we successfully changed the perspective of street art as a form of vandalism.
It’s no secret that tech and the digital is the new normal and is constantly evolving and shaping our lives. Futurecity are doing some amazing work to investigate the idea of Digital Place shaping: a place where the physical world and the virtual world conjoin.
Accessibility has and has always been a priority for many creatives, finding innovative ways to engage a wider audience to share and promote ourselves and each other's work. Digital Prides are a great way to bring our LGBT+ siblings together in one space albeit virtual. The yearly Pride in London has made sure to provide support to deaf and disabled people attending the parade and main stage activities by providing audio guides and shuttle buses for wheelchair users. However, we may sometimes forget about those from low-socio-economic backgrounds; for example, those who don’t live in or around London may find it difficult to seek affordable accommodation to attend Pride in London.
Digital Prides cater for those additional needs, allowing us to all to share a similar experience from the comfort of our own homes. We do need to think about those who aren’t fully out to friends or family that they live with or surround themselves with people they may not necessarily be comfortable with being their authentic selves. Do they have the space and opportunity to log on without hesitation or even fear? Pride parades and festivals can be for many a form of escapism from their daily lives where they can dance, sing and embrace their true selves.
Pride has and always been about self-affirmation, equality and increased visibility for the LGBT+ community. It’s a time to commemorate our history as well as look forward to a rainbow-filled future. I look forward to see how digital Prides embodies this.
Has Art Clubbers transformed you and what is its lasting legacy?
This is such a deep question! I honestly do think Art Clubbers has transformed me. I have grown very much since its inception. I never anticipated the organisation to grow as quickly as it has over the last 2 years. I started the organisation after a tough period - I was coming to terms with my sexuality and battled with myself which resulted in negative thinking and quitting my job at the time. This sounds weird but having Art Clubbers pulled me out of that all, I regrew my self-confidence stronger and bolder than before. It allowed me to take on different experiences and stretch my comfort zone to the max!
With the support of my team, we’ve delivered high quality projects in partnership with cool organisations. One of the projects struck a personal chord with me and with Art Clubbers I have been able to elevate my own practise as an artist.
In 2019, we teamed with Jason Bruges Studios and Wildstone Capital to deliver an exciting outdoor exhibition to the station in the heart of Shoreditch. Art In Sight was a project that turned the urban city area into a gallery by bringing art to the masses using technology and existing sites.
We took over the board, which is usually used for marketing for a whole month! We recruited 7 artists, designers, illustrators and organisations such as Sassify Zine to take part. The works showcased a variety of photography, painting and digital art. We wanted to reflect the creative diversity London has to offer. It was vital that the artists selected reflected that diversity and were able to represent underrepresented creatives from BAME and LGBT+ communities.
Who inspires you?
I really had to think about this one, not because a name didn't come to mind but in fact there’s so many that I didn’t know where to begin! It’s a bit cliché for me to say this but I truly believe that we have been inspired by many people on our journeys, many of which have shaped our lives or directed us into being who we are today.
Like my portraits, people in general inspire me! I have a wonderful community of creatives - queer and straight alike - who continue to approach me with their ideas, dreams and future ambitions. It is awe-inspiring to see their incredible sky-high aspirations; I definitely believe we need big thinkers like them.
And finally, but not lastly, I would say my parents. My parents moved from India to the UK for a better and prosperous life. They worked extremely hard to get to not only provide from themselves but also me and my siblings as well as extended family. My dad is a testament to hard work and incredible resilience, it’s probably where I get my self-awareness to do better and for causes bigger than myself.
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