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Award-winning visual artist and filmmaker Estabrak creates new Sea themed work

[Estabrak, 'See the remains between' © Estabrak for Invisible Dust 2019]

Estabrak is an award winning Visual Artist & Filmmaker. She is originally from Iraq, born in Iran and raised in London, after having come to the UK with her family as a child refugee. Amongst other accolades, her prize-winning series ‘Omanis Under Water’ has been exhibited at The Royal Academy of the Arts Summer Exhibition in 2016. She features in the 2018 BBC podcast ‘Pursuit of Beauty: Art Beneath the Waves’ which identifies her as one of the ‘five incredible underwater artists’ working today.

Her new photographic installationSea; the remains between commissioned by award winning art-science organisation Invisible Dust captures underwater worlds -  reflecting ongoing conversations around identity, place and loss, and the impact of humans on the environment.

In ‘Sea; the remains between’ participants are photographed individually or in groups, sometimes accompanied by objects or natural forms. Their heads remain above water, outside the picture, meaning that their identity is not revealed. The mysterious presence of their bodies immersed in the aquatic realm is at once poetic and haunting, poignant, balletic and unsettling. In denying easy access to identifying the people portrayed, Estabrak forces us to look more closely at who and what is represented in the pictures.

She explains: “Photographing individuals through this lens not only visualises environmental impacts on our bodies, but also helps represent our own impacts on our environments and each other. It also highlights social traditions and behaviours that usually go unnoticed, and realities people may not openly talk about in public.”

Watch the making of film:

The exhibition explores the lived experiences of communities across Hull and highlights the impact of humans on our waters; informed by current research into contamination caused by pharmaceuticals, plastics and other toxins led by Jeanette Rotchell, Professor of Aquatic Toxicology at the University of Hull. Rotchell explains:

“While my work aims to raise awareness of the impacts of various chemical contaminants that we produce in our everyday lives in our seas, Estabrak, very effectively, makes that visual and emotional connection for us all. We tend to focus on communicating facts but that can lack emotion and the Blue Planet has shown that appealing to people's emotions, making personal connections, can be an extremely effective way to bring about behaviour change.”

Invisible Dust’s mission is to enable creative collaborations between world-leading scientists and artists in order to create artworks that explore, communicate and engage the public in critical issues around our environment; climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, and the neuroscience around behaviour change. Over the last 10+ years Invisible Dust has worked with hundreds of scientists and artists from across the UK and worldwide.

Q&A with Estabrak:
What first interested you in capturing people from an underwater view point?
Anonymity was one of the main reasons. At the time I started my pilot project – Omanis Under Water 2014+, I was in a country where a lot of the times women did not want to be photographed and in general in the Middle East – freedom of speech is not the most accessible of concepts. Although Oman is very diverse in its being, there was a huge lack of representation on so many levels. People were generally in uniforms on a daily basis, assigned to either heteronormative genders, to where you are from, sometimes even what your salary may look like and I found this a really interesting process in uniting people through conformity but ultimately taking away much individual identity. The process actually started as a visual experimentation, in trying to connect human relationships with ourselves, each other, our environments, love, and understanding.
It very quickly became a visual metaphor for how we often live our lives. On top of the surface being one thing and underneath it - an entirely different experience. And that was very much my experience of Oman. Diplomacy looks like something on the surface, but really underneath looking like something entirely different. And I really wanted to start visualising things which seemed invisible.. Whether that be personal behaviour, choices or even responsibilities. Really trying to visualise artificial and human impact on our environments and each other and in doing so, creating a safe space to have conversations with others. Yes – a safe space in a body of water – the sea – which is unpredictable!   
Water has always been a form of cleansing material in most cultures and religions. It's also near water that any civilisation has been able to exist including thriving wildlife. So the element of water has always been of importance to us as people and to me really. Coming from where I am from, living and experiencing life in this body, it can often feel like my daily life and those viewpoints around me impose uncomfortable limitations which restrict so much. Often with detrimental implications.

[Estabrak, Sea the remains between - 'Who's That Fella' © Estabrak for Invisible Dust 2019]
Can you tell us about your experience of working with communities across Hull?
The four main communities I looked into were the Fishing, Sierra Leonean, Refugee & Asylum and Migrant, in particular Jewish communities. I laced that in with the scientific research going on at the University of Hull which was really interesting to understand and explore, especially at such a time of Brexit as all the funding for the research being lead by Prof Jeanette Rotchell including all her PhD students, comes from the EU! And this is research that affects our lives right here in the UK!
Hull also has a lot of water access and the river Humber which runs through it hosts almost 25% of England's sewage and so you can really tell a lot about our human behaviour on land by looking at this river and filtering through its elements. What I can say is that local scientists, ones in which I have been working with like Prof Jeanette Rotchell, are finding traces of human toxic chemicals almost everywhere they search on inland waterways, including the Humber. To the point that we're even finding medication there! Why? Sewage!
There used to be a lot of fish in this River, and Hulls port was one of the largest and busiest fishing ports at one point. This industry no longer exists but its industry traces are very much still prominent. Many locals in Hull are affected directly by the industry and many come from the understanding that Brexit means somehow gaining 'back' some kind of fishing industry to this region.
It's really an interesting place if you are into looking at social behaviour, politics and human relationships. It's also in East Riding and so it's proximity to the sea is massive. Ultimately the humber runs into the North Sea waters and so really, all this is effecting one and other.
When you're from bigger cities, you often forget about the realities of others outside those borders. To me, Hull is a place which often feels forgotten. It's also a place that many migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and people on the move have either come through or ended up being placed in to call home.
If you can believe it, Hull is officially a 'twin city' with 'Freetown' in Sierra Leone. This for me was one of the most interesting and challenging realities to get to know more because it really dictates so much on British politics and how manipulated they are. In regards to communities, there is a lot more diversity here than what's on the surface. Even historically, much migration has made Hull the place it is today including their beloved fishing industry – It has always brought in fish from 'elsewhere'!
How do you feel about the climate crisis - do you think there is hope?
When we start to value all human lives as equal, maybe then we can start to value our environments in the ways we actually need to. But as we are living in such a divided and individualistic world, it's hard to believe in current global politics.
In my opinion – As long as the majority of the world’s leaders are men, non indigenous to their lands, predominantly white, then I don't think there is much hope for change. We are at this stage for a reason and in order to counteract it we need radical social and political change.
Climate crisis is not just to do with plastic and flights and consumerism in regards to high streets, it’s also about how we have continued to take away natural environments in order to build absolutely every single building, road, and artificial item on this earth. Often the West praises itself for 'development'. But this development has come at a cost, not just of human lives in which we are impacting for our daily needs, but also to the world's natural resources and environments.
Indigenous methods often use materials of that land that can be easily recycled back into it. If we took leadership from Indigenous methods relevant to each land, we wouldn't be where we are now.  Just look at Brazil as an example of this – the Amazon has predominantly been safe in Indigenous hands since the beginning of time really. Look what their president is doing atm, and look how it's affecting the whole world and ecosystem. It's important to note that here in the west, we talk more about the climate crisis than the human crisis.
As a person whose underwater work is a tool to bring back convos of environmental issues to human and relationship issues (as they are all interrelated), it's really important for me to make sure I point these things out when I have the platform. Whilst the world has been heartbroken by eradicated species and burnt down homes in recent bushfires in Australia, very few media channels and platforms have been highlighting the huge loss to Indigenous peoples lives this was. Insurance won't bring back their loss. Insurance won't value their ways of existing. No one deserves to go through these things, but it's really heartbreaking to witness the lack of common importance placed on these people's lives in comparison to 'Australian' lives or their animals. It's times like these where for me, as someone who has had world politics forced upon my existence, I am reminded of how little the 'other' is respected.  

[Estabrak, Sea; the remains between - 'What was, what is' © Estabrak for Invisible Dust 2019]
What is the role of artists in the tumult of today?
I think it was in the 60's where Nina Simone said 'An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.” And I strongly believe in this.
If you could photograph anyone, anywhere, who/what would it be?

Can I pick a living thing rather than a person? The Mangroves in Brazil.

There was this time in 2018 where I was location scouting and just exploring the coast of the Island of Itaparica in Bahia, Brazil. I did an underwater shoot that day with locals who came from the candomblé religion and it was a really powerful, exciting and experimental experience. The fishermen on the boat suggested that I take me to an area where I could potentially walk back to when the tide was low and swim back when the tide was high. I love a challenge so I was all for it.

It started to make me look into Mangroves and what they mean and how they are used and actually they have a huge significance in regards to Brazilian Culture and the environment too. Much like mussels and shellfish, they act as filtration systems for the sea, but they are protectors of coastal wetlands  too. Some locals also used Mangroves in sacred Camdomblé practices.
Finally, is there one item you are never without?

I have a necklace I gifted myself in 2014 when I started my underwater series and committed to it full time. On one side it says HOPE. On the other it says FATE. Maybe that can answer your question about hope also.

Invisible Dust: invisibledust.com | Twitter | Instagram

Estabrak: estabrak.org

'Sea; the remains between' was commissioned by Invisible Dust in partnership with the Ferens Art Gallery for Surroundings, a three-year project focusing on environmental themes, produced by the Humber Museums Partnership in partnership with Invisible Dust. It is funded by Arts Council England through Ambition for Excellence, and the Wellcome Trust’s Sustaining Excellence. It is on Ferens Art Gallery, Queen Victoria Square, Hull, HU1 3RA until 23rd February 2020.

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