Arts + Culture
Photo via Haneefa Adam's Instagram page.

The Artist Is Present: Haneefah Adam on Maximizing the Impact Social Media Has on Her Art

The Nigerian artist behind the viral Hijarbie speaks on how spaces like Instagram are a limitless source of inspiration and opportunity.

Haneefah Adam is the Nigerian multimedia visual artist who is taking the world by storm. She proves representation matters with her subtle, yet poignant hat tippings to her faith and daily experiences as a Muslim woman.

Dabbling in painting, photography, digital and food art, Adam has worked with big brands including Maggi, Etisalat Nigeria, Dangote Salt, Dominos and Coldstone. She's garnered quite the following making portraits out of food and launching an Instagram page centered around a version of Barbie dolls donning the hijab and modest fashions of the modern Muslim woman.

Her unconventional mediums paint vivid stories. She's created series using currency as well as numbers and letters. At January's end, she debuted a sculpture installation celebrating femininity at the Lagos creative hub, Angels & Muses.

Read our conversation with her below as we learn about her creative process and what inspires her.

Audrey Lang for OkayAfrica: You started taking the world by storm by posting Barbie with hijab in 2015. Tell me about this and what inspired it.

Haneefah Adam: I was basically scrolling through the Barbie Style page on Instagram. It occurred to me that there is an alternate identity, with a hijab wearing stylish female, as well. Noticing that gap, I got a doll, dressed her up and made her don a hijab and started documenting it. I wanted to provide a positive narrative for the Muslim girl and provide inspiration as there is a lot of that in the Muslim world.

In addition to being a multidimensional creative, you are also a medical scientist?

Ah, yes. I have a masters degree in pharmacology and drug discovery from the Coventry University, U.K. So, by formal training, I was studying in the field of medical science.

How do you balance your workload?

What workload (laughs)? I am a full time artist now, so what I do is create art and develop the stories I have to tell. I can be quite spontaneous in the execution of ideas that occur to me, so If I've already planned to do something else in regards to art and another idea occurs to me, I just focus on the one I feel like doing, it still comes down to what really matters still, creating. I mean, it's just like how everybody's got to do what they've got to do.

How many mediums do you work in? What is your favorite?

I work in mixed media, painting, digital art, sculpting, photography and even food. I do not have a favorite, as I believe I shouldn't be limited to using only one kind of material to tell my stories. The more the merrier.

Your food art is incredible, by the way. It is what drew me to you. How did art in this medium come to you?

I think a lot of process just stems from social media; there is such a sea of information on the internet. I might have started looking into food art when a food artist was featured on an Instagram page, and in my usual fashion of using my own interpretation of art, I started documenting Nigerian food art to celebrate our own rich culture and heritage. There is so much potential and rich resources just waiting to be tapped into.

Walk me through one of your food pieces and what it means.

Let me talk about the one that won me a food art competition by Relle Gallery in 2016, I made a female portrait out of the ingredients of Ogbono soup and it was to celebrate the strength and beauty of the African woman. Choosing to use a 'draw' soup was to use the metaphor of how it stretches and basically doesn't 'break off' during the eating process.

Your work focuses on identity, culture, and representation. Can you touch on how and why?

For as long as I can remember, I've always been in tune with the way I look. As a Muslim woman, I've had to use my hijab since when I was a little girl. My experiences with what people think of the veil range from interesting to flabbergasting. I, also, grew up in a small town that is rich in culture from food to its practices, experiencing all that has shaped the way I think and affects my output.

What's a woman's place in Nigeria, in Islam and in art?

We can say all we want about a woman's place or role in any given society but I really just wish it was something that can be implemented. In Islam, the true place of women comes from a place of strength, respect and a higher status, as I am sure it is for Nigeria and in the arts too—we have so many examples to support this but it is still upsetting when we conveniently forget all these because we do not want to "shake the table."

What is your creative process?

This is usually difficult to describe as I feel I have so many. A lot of times I draw inspiration to create from past or present experiences, even stretching to my immediate environment and happenings. So, it is mostly the birth of an idea, a ruminating stage which varies with each artwork, sometimes it can take months and then when I am ready, I birth it.

What have you been working on lately?

I am sculpting currently and exploring more aspects of various mediums. I recently showed at Angels and Muse, a residency hub in Lagos, with installation of figurative pieces captured in dance movements. I used the basic rules and importance of lines in the process of creating art so they'd be one line minimal sculptures in some way.

What is some work you are most excited about?

I think I am usually excited about all of them, except when I am not. So, there is no way I can pinpoint one, all my creations are special to me in their own way and they have their own different personalities, so I am just appreciative of all the process.

Where do you draw inspiration?

From stories that abound around us. Anything can be material basically.

Can you tell me about an experience that has shaped your career?

I've been making art since I was in primary school; so it has always been part of me and I think contributed to what I am or do today. Usually, when people pursue a career, it is because it can be sustainable. And if it involves something they're very passionate about, it is usually great. My venturing into the arts has a lot to do with the internet and social media and because we are in the very digital age, the attention my works got, which created good freelance opportunities, made it very easy for me to pursue it as a career.

How are people responding to your work?

I'd like to think they respond to it very well. It is different and it is very interesting to note that some people still assume I play with food when they see me use it to make art. A lot of people have their own opinions.

To keep up with Haneefah Adam, follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and check out her website.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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