PHOTOGRAPHY JORI KOMULAINEN @jorikomulainen
INTERVIEW JESPER GUDBERGSEN @yessirjesper
Tell me about your background – where and how did you grow up? How did that shape your path in life?
I was born and raised in East London to South Asian immigrant parents. My background is the typical tale of any immigrant diaspora. I always had a foot in two different worlds growing up. On one hand, I was making friends from all walks of life at school, exploring, and expressing myself alongside them during the day. I was figuring things out like any other kid would, but at home, there was this other side to my otherwise “normal” London-kid experience. My parents were, and are still, quite conservative. It wasn’t always easy, but I think I can now kindly appreciate the way they approach life with the typical immigrant-slash-survival mentality. We’ve come here to keep our heads down, make a good life for ourselves, make a better life for our children. It’s the typical grinder mentality. Their expectations were basic: focus on your grades so you can get a good degree, a good job, and settle down comfortably in a good marriage, with a decent house and family. Having that at home, and also having this explorative side inside you, was very hard to balance at least for me anyway. I brought that exploratory, experimental phase into my family home which was a difficult process to be spearheading.
My mother doesn’t really wear makeup, so I think my first interaction with that world was in secondary school. I was in observation mode, watching the girls around me starting to explore makeup, which was of course prompted to try and impress the boys. For a while, I definitely thought it wasn’t for me at all. My mind was racing, wondering whether I was too boyish to tag along to the beauty counter. Maybe I was somehow too rough? Naturally, I succumbed to peer pressure around fourteen, starting with a little mascara and lipgloss. My peers and I then progressed to going totally overboard with kohl, just blacking ourselves out with it. I was not delicate or light handed with it at all. It was literally like black marker in the eyeball, which we all so embarrassingly thought was SO cute. As I grew more confident with blushes and eyeshadows, I felt like this was a way of breaking free from being under my parents’ thumb in a sense. I learned that there was in fact something for me in makeup. I was always an artsy kid drawn to any number of arts and drama, and I realized there was a fun and artistic element to makeup. I actually could have fun and experiment with it, I didn’t have to do what everyone else was doing. I almost developed into a sort of moth or a butterfly – whatever it is that’s attracted to bright colors – I was just so drawn to all the colors, doing really bright eyes or wildly colored lips, and started exploring a lot more.
Tell me about the beginnings of your platform, Urgalsal. How did you discover your particular niche and when was a moment where you realized you were on to something?
I was posting without much fanfare for a minute, and my social media hadn’t really gotten public attention until MUA Katie Jane Hughes posted some of my work. That was a real moment of validation for me; to have a well known, established makeup artist hype my work. Little old me with no followers, being blasted like that, made me feel like I was doing something right. There was also a moment a few years into being on social media, where I realized that I had never had any trolls. I don’t really receive negative comments, which makes me believe that people truly enjoy what I am sharing. I feel very thankful for that and think it’s unusual, especially since people weren’t used to seeing the type of thing I’m into, from someone who looks like I do.
What is your earliest memory of beauty?
There are two things that come up when I hear that question. The first is not feeling beautiful. I remember this time when my whole family was in New York for a wedding. My cousin who is the same age as me was also there, and as with any other South Asian family, the competition was rife so I was compared to her a lot. She was your typical girly-girl who always wanted to look pretty: she was soft spoken, well-dressed, her hair was always impeccable. She was all the things that were completely opposite to me: the curly haired tomboy running around doing my own thing, being very bold and brash. This question makes me think of a moment on this trip when my mom said to me during the wedding procession: “look at your cousin, she’s sitting down, she’s being pretty, why can’t you be like that?” It was the first moment I can remember questioning myself as a child…considering whether I should try and change to be more like her. In the end I didn’t choose to go down that path, but it’s something that stuck with me and came up when everyone around me started wearing makeup. I thought that it wasn’t something for me, because I was thinking about beauty in a conventional sense and just didn’t think it would work on me. The second answer would be a time in uni where I had done what I at the time thought was a very weird eyeliner. It was nothing at all like the kind of weird we are doing today of course, but at the time it felt very funky. I wore it to school, people were looking at me and all the doubt came showering down, until a friend told me how sick she thought it looked and asked me if I could show her how I’d done it.. It was a really sweet moment, because it was one of the first times I had really tried to push myself with a look, and it helped me flip the switch in my head. I realized that the looks people were giving me could actually be complimentary, as opposed to just looks of horror.
What do you hope to accomplish in your work (beauty and otherwise), and what are some things you’re looking forward to ?
It’s interesting you ask because I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that lately. Instagram started for me as a hobby. It was a place to simply document what I was exploring with makeup. Even when it grew traction, it did so organically without me trying to steer it in that direction. Right now, I’m in quite a tough place of figuring out where I want to go with this. Now that people are paying attention, I’ve started thinking about making a career out of doing ‘just’ this. I’m trying to not worry too much about it though because I’m afraid to start thinking along those lines and lose the fun of creation. The pressure to create can become hard.
I have a law degree and it will always be part of me, there’s an intellectual challenge with law that I find really fascinating and really engaging. But I also have this creative side that wants to take precedence and expand. I am floating, and have been so for god knows how long, because I am too interested in too many things. I do struggle with finding a creative identity. I do beauty content and I do makeup, but that’s only a single facet of who I am. I don’t want those things to be the identifiers for who I am, so it’s hard for me to present myself as this one easily digestible thing. Social media was never the place for me to live, I know that in my soul. I don’t think the concept of social media and myself get along too well. What I have learned along the way though, is that I am a community-driven person and like things that uplift the community. I love beauty and somehow I’m always going to integrate it in my work.
I like talking about makeup, but I prefer talking about having fun with it. For me, makeup is not there to make you look pretty or aesthetically pleasing, it’s here as a tool to have fun. By the time this interview is out, I will have done my first makeup course for the British Library in London. I’d love to do more things like that. I like to regard myself as a Beauty Director as opposed to a makeup artist, and I’d love to work towards defining that more clearly. Creating looks that turn into full artworks on a person’s face and working with makeup artists to bring that to life is super exciting, but I would have a hard time singling that out as my profession and never being hands on and doing the makeup myself. It’s all fluid here on this side of the street.
Is sustainability part of your beauty routine? What are some changes you are implementing to become more conscious ?
I view this from a point of consumption. I like to not consume as much makeup as I am being told I should, for me that’s one facet of being sustainable. I obviously look at the labels to see what ingredients are in there, if it’s being ethically made, the packaging is recyclable and so on. Those are fantastic things, but if you’re not using them until they’re empty and instead move on to the next thing too quickly, it’s a problem
The market is saturated with makeup, so I find that it’s the most obvious conscious choice for me to make: I don’t purchase anything unless I absolutely need to. You may find it surprising, but I don’t purchase more makeup than a regular person does. As a makeup artist and beauty content creator, of course I have a kit, but in my personal life I don’t purchase as much as someone would assume. I make use with what I have, and I use that until it finishes. Ethically, I think that’s where we are right now as consumers, we are consuming excessively because we are being fed so much content, and it’s a vicious circle. We keep asking for more, so the big companies don’t have time to slow down and for instance rethink their packaging to be more eco conscious. I try hard to work with smaller companies who are making better decisions about their products and packaging, but that all exists in my echo chamber, that’s because I have sought them out. On a larger scale, people are still consuming increasingly larger amounts of beauty products and the train is not stopping.
What does religion mean to you? How does it make its mark on your everyday life and how does your Islamic faith reflect it’s beauty in your work?
Islam for me is very beautiful religion. I think it perpetuates a really great focus on my community and on being a good person. Islam enocurages you to be openminded, understanding and patient and encapsulates these characteristics that help you navigate the space that is life. The religion itself lives within me and comes out in the way I interact with people. I’m a muslim, I wear a hijab and I paint my face for the world to see. Somehow, the work I share online has a way of moving people and gives them the strength to reach out via DMs and confide in me. The only thing these people know about me is my work, but that alone has allowed me to create a safe space for many people, where they share with me how beauty has helped them through personal issues and trauma. I feel like this in itself is a great reflection of how faith influences my work.
Unfortunately, we have to accept that there are certain stereotypes of muslim women and while it’s a tired narrative, it’s still true that many people see Islam as a religion that is binding it’s followers to a dogma that’s very rigid, doesn’t allow self-expression and exists to keep you in your lane until you meet God. Actually, Islam is the complete opposite, there’s so much talk of constant gratitude and that is something I take with me in my work. A lot of people are incredibly talented, but don’t have the courage to engage in their talent, so for me Islam helps me to be grateful that I am. Expressing myself creatively is basically something that’s in my DNA, it’s written in my journey and my path, and that’s how Islam is infused in my work also. When people view Islam as a religion that is oppressive to women, I hope that by me just being here, doing my thing, I can show the world how the concept of this culturally oppressed Muslim woman doesn’t exist, it’s just a narrative people have built because it’s easier to digest. You can be muslim and do this sort of stuff, you can be muslim and also be creative
This feels like a natural place to speak a bit about Bluem Collective. Tell me about how you came about creating this creative space for muslim womxn, how do you define it and where would you like to see it go?
One of my biggest accomplishments to date was when I got asked to do a spread for Hunger Magazine. As part of the process of preparing the spread, I wanted to connect with other Muslim creatives, which I found was practically impossible. I put out a call on instagram and Mona Haider was one of only a few people who reached out – which was crazy to me, but I am so happy she did. I partnered with her as a stylist and we had such a great time doing that project together
During our work for the shoot we had a conversation about how there was such a lack of presence for muslim creatives, and especially muslim female creatives of color. We thought that was a real shame, because everyone deserves to have a platform, and the opportunity to experience and engage with their creativity. We created this space, Bluem, which primarily focuses on womxn creatives of color. Essentially, the word “creative” is used loosely, it’s for all womxn of color to tap into their creativity, however that may express itself. If you’re a tangible artist, come through, you have found your art and we want to help you curate that and support you in your growth, but more importantly we wanted to open a space for your average person who may do biomedicine by day, but has always had an interest in something in a creative field, but didn’t feel they had a space for it. The creative community can be incredibly competitive and insular at times, so we wanted to create this equalizing space where everyone can come together, mingle, and create a sisterhood where we can all learn from each other, learn skills, make friends and so on. It’s still small, but we’ve created a real sense of community already, and we’re really hoping for it to grow into a connecting platform, where people can reach out amongst ourselves and find the teams for a project, instead of outsourcing the jobs to people who are already established within their fields. I’d rather bring opportunities to my own community, to uplift and help these womxn get valuable experiences and build their portfolios . Helping them, help each other, to help all of us.
Sal’s Pearls (IG Stories where Salwa answers questions) is something I’ve personally gone back to quite a few times. There is a lot of wisdom in there. Is that something you will continue doing? It’s fascinating how you’ve gone from an unconventional makeup account to self care advice…
I think this ties into the aspect of community, and I hope to continue doing them. I like to think that I can give pretty sound advice, and it’s an immense honor to give people a space where they can ask questions they might not be able to ask someone IRL. I speak a lot about my experience growing up in an immigrant household. When it comes to my experimentation with makeup for instance, for the longest time I hid it from my parents. In the beginning of getting booked on makeup jobs, I would just lie and say I had to go to work, never really specifying what type of work it actually was. The creative field is not a 9-5, sometimes you’re on set for twelve hours straight or more, and to not be able to share that within my own household was rough, man. It started to really take a toll on me to not be completely honest.
A few times I would have a car sent to my house to pick me up for work, and my parents were baffled, I didn’t tell them because I didn’t think they would understand. We all lie because it’s easier for us to not have to engage in something emotionally, and for me it just got to a point where I had to slowly start telling them. My sister is my buffer and was so instrumental in explaining a lot of it to them, breaking down what Instagram was, how a photo shoot works, all those things. She knew that it was a better solution than to keep lying or excluding them. My mom was very frustrated, she didn’t think social media was safe or that doing this type of work was acceptable. For those who are not familiar, in many cultures including Islam, there’s the concept of the Evil Eye, people’s bad intentions being super tangible, so my mom was very worried that I as putting myself out there like that. There was a lot of fear about how I was maintaining my image as a muslim, because you just don’t see it much; a muslim woman putting herself out there. Slowly, as with every ethnic parent, she started to understand it better when she learned that I was actually getting paid to do it. How else do you think I’m paying for groceries, mum? As soon as they realized there is also a financial aspect to the creative field, it became more acceptable and aligned with their survivalist mentality.
The second aspect was more visual, my mom would look at me like I was crazy when she would see some of my looks. She loves to say I either look like a clown, or that I am ruining the beautiful face God gave me. She’s evolving though, slowly but surely. The day of the shoot I did for this interview, I had to do my makeup at home and get in the Uber with a full beat and I was actually really surprised at her reaction. I had this wacky look on my face and was expecting her to be outraged. She just looked at me and said, “so, what’s this meant to be? It looks like you’re wearing tusks or is it more like a mustache? Don’t forget to tell the driver you can’t wear a mask, it will ruin your makeup for the shoot ” That was a clear sign, you just have to normalize this behavior and be open, and discuss it. It was a sweet moment.