Witnessing Multi-Hyphenated Identities with Znali
Interview by Ushbah Al-Ain
Photographs provided by Zain Ali
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In a world that is becoming increasingly chaotic, I often turn to visual therapy. Choosing to spend time viewing images that stir joy within me and perhaps allow me to rest my eyes in a time gone by. One space where I am always able to do so is by perusing British-Pakistani artist Zain Ali’s work as primarily made available through his Instagram account.
I first came across Ali’s work almost two years ago and have been a constant admirer of his vision in the face of increasing uncertainty and crisis. As a Punjabi-Pakistani born and raised in the Middle East, I have always been made aware of all the ways I am not quite it. Not quite Punjabi, not quite Pakistani, not quite Desi, not quite Khaleeji.
Seeing the @Znali posts of anda paratha and chai, of rose petals on Lahore’s rooftops reminds me of when I would visit the motherland as a child. Each trip would be a sensory overload of scents, tastes, colors, and textures. An image of him wrapped up in motia reminds me of the sense of magic and wonder that accompanied many wedding seasons. Seeing sepia-toned pictures of his beautiful aunties in their brocade finery and paiso waala haar reminds me of the folktales I grew up with.
As a result, I found myself inquiring my elders about their history (and fashion choices) as preserved in old photographs. The deep sense of familiarity as a Pakistani in Ali’s visual curation has helped me facilitate a sense of my own cultural heritage as it singularly exists within me — whilst also experiencing a sense of resonance and reflection externally.
Earlier in January this year, I was able to meet up with Zain Ali in Dubai — a transient melting pot of a city, that reflects so much of our hybrid histories and cultures. It was such a joy to be able to witness the human behind the visuals that offer me and many others such respite. He was dressed in his own beautiful Znali.co trousers and shirt in a cream beige, mirroring the color palette of traditional Dubai architecture we found ourselves in.
During our conversation, I found out that we both are fruits of a diasporic dream which often leaves us existing in liminal spaces. Ali grew up in Lancashire, in a tight-knit British-Pakistani community, where he often found himself wrapped up in a silence that allowed him to develop a keen sense of observation. This practice of witnessing now transmutes into the work he chooses to create and curate. It also means having an ongoing relationship with nuance in a world that otherwise insists on sticker labels and categories.
We both have spent our last decade reclaiming the multi-hyphenated aspects of ourselves on all fronts — those visible and invisible. At one point he mentioned how him having lost his Northerner-British accent made him somewhat sad because it is as much part of his personal heritage as is being something that may be more obvious to an outsider. I could see how he has worked to intentionally claim all that is the makeup of him across geographies and cultures.
It also turns out that we both are survivors of the rigorous (and notoriously difficult) Graduate Diploma in Law — a yearlong legal conversion course offered in the UK. And almost as an antidote to the overbearing technicality of studying the English legal system, we both gravitated to our choice of abstract and creative mediums on our own terms. We also feel grateful for having lost and found ourselves in London during our early twenties, in a manner that allows for authenticity in the present day.
A quietly revolutionary element of Ali’s work is his cultivation of the tenderness and softness that exists within the masculine expression in South Asia. Without the aid of words, he makes tangible an archetypal image that has always been known to South-Asians in history, arts, and poetry over the centuries. Through Ali’s work, I can meditate on the expressions of boyhood and manhood choosing to manifest as beautiful and multidimensional regardless of socio-economic markers such as class, caste, gender, and race.
Ali’s curation also reminds viewers of all the many ways Pakistani and Desi men exist in daily life that are so easily forgotten. This is important in the light of the past few years where Pakistanis have become increasingly aware of the ongoing violence against women and minorities, often divided at extremes, unable to see the humanity on each side. By choosing to frame soft curls, close-ups of radiant smiles, Ali’s vision speaks of intimacy and brotherhood that can be consciously practiced. Images and gestures have always characterized the bonds of love that we grew up seeing in our Abu, Chachas, and Mamus.
Ali’s work is as expansive laterally as it is vertical. He curates, researches archives, photographs, stylizes, and designs. He has to date worked with some of the foremost pioneering names in the global fashion industry, some names being Raw Mango, Mahira Khan, Ali Sethi, Sonam Kapoor, Nimish Shift, Riz Ahmed, and more. Simultaneously world-renown artists exploring their own multi-hyphenated identities are often seen flaunting Znali.co designs: be it in metropolises framed for Vogue’s street style or the British GQ Cover.
Ali’s inspiration is not just limited to Pakistan, he forages and pulls visuals throughout the subcontinent in the days of the old where Iqbal Bano would sing to us draped in red silk, Malika-e-Tarannum Noor Jahan would move squad deep, Shabana Azmi as a stunning bride in Anjuman, Shah Rukh Khan was heartbroken in Dil Se, and Silsila stills showing Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha ji in love. All that Ali chooses to share can be a reminder of possibilities that are not always championed on a collective scale but can be a worthwhile exploration.
Ali’s forte is the visual medium itself unfolding in the eyes of the beholder, instead of him choosing to bind it all up in the specificity of words. Seeing his audience find their own stories, patterns, and narratives in his work, at times catches him by surprise and joy.
In a world where it is a norm for artists and designers to appropriate elements from cultures for seasonal collections, only to erase the community and its collective struggles, Ali’s work stands apart. Ultimately, he makes the choice to pay homage to heritage and tradition without fetishizing them. As such seeing through Ali’s eyes reminds us of an existence steeped in tenderness, affection, and visual poetry.