Artist Arti Ishak: “We’re Not Artists First, We’re Humans First” — FannBoy Friday

Artist Arti Ishak: “We’re Not Artists First, We’re Humans First” — FannBoy Friday

FannBoy Friday is a weekly column from Shahjehan Khan that highlights American Muslim creatives.

A biracial, non-binary Muslim American, Arti Ishak has often felt the pressure to simplify their existence for the comfort of others, and the loneliness that comes from never getting to see their whole identity reflected in art and media. The inability to fit into one neat little box has inspired their interdisciplinary art practice as an actor, writer, director, educator and community advocate (adapted from www.artiishak.com).

I met Arti through the Pillars Muslim Artist Database as part of my outreach for Rifelion and ISF’s Writers Access Initiative. They were kind enough to agree to talk to me for longer than the 15 minutes we had originally scheduled, and I’m so glad to have been able to do this interview.

 I think that while some of my colleagues would prefer that we just applaud the representation we have, I actually think that it is a privilege to be able to celebrate and hold up a critical lens

– Arti Ishak

(Arti’s interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


Shahjehan: What are you most excited about for 2023?

Arti: I just finished directing two shows back to back, so the beginning of my 2023 was pretty packed. I was in a little directing showcase where I had a 30-minute play that ran in rep with two other kind of emerging directors. And then I had my directing debut of “Hatefuck” by Rehana Lew Mirza which is a story about Muslim representation, and I was so excited to get to bring that to Chicago for my debut. I’ve got a short film called “bā lā” that I directed that’s going through the festival circuit right now. So I’ll be out in LA for the Micheaux Film Festival coming up next month. A short play of mine is going up at Golden Thread Theater in the Bay Area as part of their reorient festival in the fall. … 

I’m trying to be more conscious about the projects I take — make sure they are stuff that I really love — because I do think that [one can] get into this little hamster wheel and then you burn out the well of creativity and happiness that you have for life that is a source of all inspiration. So I think taking time to be bored, taking time between projects, is a good thing.

Shahjehan: I agree. I was thinking about the same thing. I just came off of a month-long tour with a band and Rifelion began an onsite podcast production. I’m just curious, are you someone who thrives in the madness a little bit? What do you think about this whole “balance” thing as an artist? 

Arti: I think we should try and reframe the idea of balance too, as not a place you arrive, but a thing you constantly strive for. I think that also helps balance be a wider and more achievable type of ideal as an artist. And honestly, the pandemic was such a gift to me in my own personal life because it forced me to slow down and really reevaluate. I was a rise and grind person before the pandemic, [and] I was like, “Let’s do it. Let’s do everything we can. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” 

Because I have goals and I want to accomplish them. I’ve [got] high aspirations and wanting to change the way the industry functions is something that can consume you, if you’re only looking at it like a problem to be solved. But after the pandemic hit and we were forced to slow down, I kind of had a little mini breakdown where I was like, “Oh my God I don’t think I’m happy. I don’t think that doing these things is making me happy. I don’t think I really know who I am or what I want. All I’m doing is spinning in this hamster wheel, being told by the industry what I could do to get ahead. And I’m just like listening to the external voices tell me how to live my life.” 

It wasn’t until the forced shutdown where I was like, “Oh, let me cultivate what is the internal voice? What do I actually want to do? What projects are actually meaningful to me? Not because someone told me it should be. But because I really feel that way. I think sometimes as artists who have identities that can be commodified by the industry, people will try to force you into a box where they’re like yeah, you should really fight for your cultural representation. And some people really get bored of that. [The] pandemic was when I realized … I love being a part of art that centers culture and Islam and people who participate in those cultures. And then we get to see how it interacts on the sidelines. That is what I want to do. … 

I made a lot of promises to myself during [the] pandemic that I’m trying really hard to keep. One of them is not seeing any shows or seeing any art that I don’t actually wanna see but feel obligated to out of a sense of networking or tit for tat, pay your favors. I realized I was spending so much money and so much time consuming art that wasn’t making me a better person, wasn’t challenging me, wasn’t really serving me. It wasn’t what I wanted to do with my time. And then I depleted all of this time that I might have had to take care of myself to do basic things like grocery shop and prep cook and go to the gym. 

As you mentioned I think that when we spend our time in a rise and grind mindset, we forget that we’re not artists first. We’re humans first. And that in order to be a good artist, I need to take care of this in all of its realms, like emotionally, physically, mentally. I think that I have definitely not kept all of the promises I’ve made to myself about protecting my time. But the really big ones for me have been making sure I have a day off and making sure that there’s planned rest …  planning time to be lazy, planning time to play video games, which is something I would feel so guilty about pre-pandemic, right? Like,
how lame is it that you’re an adult being like, “I’ve blocked off six hours to play the new Legend of Zelda.” But that’s what recharges me and it’s another art form that I don’t have to participate in for work. So I actually really quite enjoy video games as a way to decompress and still participate in art. 

Shahjehan: Can you tell me about the first time you ever did something artistic and you were like, “Oh man, I think I wanna do this”? 

Arti: I think a lot of [my journey to be an actor] was driven by people telling me that I couldn’t, that I would never make it. … The reason I did theater when I was a kid is because it was a free afterschool program and growing up we were really poor, so it was one of the only things that I could participate in. And so I wasn’t growing up being like, “I want to be an actor.” And then it got to, “What are we going to do for college?” And a bunch of people were trying out for programs and I got passed over and the teacher was like “You don’t really need to do that because it’ll probably never happen.” And granted, this was a while ago, to be kind and generous to him. He probably had never seen someone like me becoming a successful actor and was just trying to “look out for his student”. 

And then that kind of pattern continued through college. I wasn’t the one that my undergrad teachers invested in. I wasn’t the one that got leads. I wasn’t the one that they bet on. And so when I left college, I was like, “I’m doing this.” And I think the constant doubt built a level of determination that a lot of my counterparts didn’t have because they were constantly being praised for their natural talents. So I did feel like I had to work harder, take extra classes, show up early, do all the extra things in order to be considered on the same level as my peers, but I think that long term it made me really resilient. And a lot of older actors in the industry that I look up to will tell you that what makes a career actor is resilience because the reason people stop acting is they leave to do other things. They get married, they have kids, whatever. 

It wasn’t until the pandemic where I was like, “Okay, I’ve been doing this out of spite for so long, but that doesn’t necessarily inspire joyful creation.” And so the whole pause gave me a chance to be like okay, instead of creating to respond to somebody, what happens if you just wanted to create from nothing? Like what fills the void? And for me it was the realization that growing up as someone who’s biracial and Muslim and American and queer, it was hard to find representation that was all of those things at once but no trauma — and maybe it’s a half hour sitcom and something goofy’s happening. That to me is the dream where it was just a person who looks like you is doing this seemingly mundane thing. Why can’t … we just have mediocre art? We don’t have to knock it out of the park every single time. 

I didn’t know that you could have worth not be tied to your career. And I actually don’t think a lot of people know that.

That’s when I started to really hone in on what do you wanna do? How do you start to create? And a lot of things just started to fall into place. And even if I wasn’t working as frequently I just feel better about life in general. I didn’t know that you could have worth not be tied to your career. And I actually don’t think a lot of people know that. And I think that learning that is a huge help with longevity if you are gonna stay in this tough industry for a long time, your worth cannot be determined by your bookings, by your resume. …

Shahjehan: When was the first time you felt safe to finally be your whole self, whatever that means to you?

Actually I took an acting class in 2019 at Black Box Acting, where now I am an instructor. It was the first time I took a class. I think that as an actor, we’re constantly told, “Could you be a little bit more of this? Could you be a little bit more of that? Could you actually be a little bit more neutral so that we can put whatever we want on top of you?” But the basis of the training at Black Box is the idea that you are so unique as an individual and everyone is unique in that way that you will bring what you bring to the role. And what’ll help you stand out is being yourself, owning your opinions, doing what you want to do. Follow your impulses. Your voice should be loudest in your head about what to do next. And you can take advice from people, but only you know what’s right for you. It was just … really life-changing.

Your voice should be loudest in your head about what to do next.

Shahjehan: You touched on this a little bit already, but when it comes to this whole representation thing, where do you think we are? Where have we come in the last five to 10 years? Where would you like to see it go in the future? What are your thoughts on where that conversation is now?

Arti: I think that we have spent all this time since 9/11 kind of refuting this terrorist trope that Muslims get boxed into. And recently we’ve gotten a chance to break out of that, so instead of always being a response to discrimination, there are a lot of awesome shows featuring Muslims, plays, featuring Muslims that shed us in a different light and that are completely and wholly unrelated to terrorism, which I really love. 

But on the flip side of that, if you want to come at it from an anti-racist lens, whose voices are still being platformed? Predominantly it’s men, white passing Arab Muslims who get the microphone, who are featured as the role models of our community or what people think of when they think of Muslims. We’re one of the most diverse religions in the world. 25% of the world is Muslim, but 1% of episodic TV characters are Muslim in 2019. That’s wild. And so when you look at the race and class connotations to who gets platformed, who are missing in America? Predominantly Black Muslims, we’re missing Muslim converts, we’re missing East Asian Muslims and Southeast Asian Muslims. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, but it’s never seen, mentioned or centered in Muslim representation.

So I think that while some of my colleagues would prefer that we just applaud the representation we have, I actually think that it is a privilege to be able to celebrate and hold up a critical lens to say, “Yeah, but we want better. We deserve more. We deserve to constantly be getting better, and that doesn’t take away from what’s happening now.” If we don’t constantly look at what is being made through a hypercritical, racial gender biased lens then what will continue to get made are things that align with the status quo. And unfortunately, in the United States, the status quo is white supremacy. So when people argue about being like, “Oh, I’m just trying to make art. I’m not really trying to make anti-racist art, I just wanna make art that features people like you and I.” I’m like, “That’s cool.” But we also don’t have that luxury. We don’t always have that privilege. And if you don’t wanna contribute to the problem, you have to be active in trying to unlearn it, unfortunately. 

 I would love for people to think Islam and think any race. Because that is actually true of our religion

I think that’s where we are right now. We’re steeped in Muslim representation that is extremely siloed and it favors the few. And where I hope it goes in the next 10 years is that we do start to see more independent and varied Muslim creators platformed. I would love for people to think Islam and think any race. Because that is actually true of our religion. And I would love specifically to see more Muslim stories with Muslim creators in it. I’m seeing a lot of productions, not just necessarily TV, but also theater, where it’s one Muslim creator and then no one else is on the team. I really think that part of the lack of representation is that we need to be reaching a hand back to other people and ensuring that, whether or not somebody has the shiniest resume or the most “experience” or education, …  we are adding Muslim voices to the process, that we’re creating mentorship paths for Muslims so that we can have a wide industry where I hope that there’s so many of us that we get to have mediocre art. We get to disagree. We get to fight each other, but then we all get to go make our own art anyways. That’s honestly the dream. I would love it to be so full of Muslim artists that people have so much to choose from.

Shahjehan: Last question. Who are a handful of other American Muslim creatives that inspire you?

Arti: I know everyone says this, but Riz Ahmed is definitely up there. I think he’s incredible, not only as an artist, but again, the way that he’s cultivated community, the way he’s been instrumental in using his visibility to give back, to create structure like The Riz Test, which helps people who may not be familiar with Islam and its tropes figure out whether or not to produce this piece of art, whether it’ll be hurtful or harmful to the community. So I really admire him, and it’s also really cool that he’s never in the paparazzi, you ever notice that? Nobody has anything bad to say about Riz Ahmed. Nobody can talk shit. And I’m like, yeah, that’s perfect. Somebody who wields their power and visibility for good and then just disappears the whole time. That’s definitely career goals.

I would say another Muslim artist who I really love and I don’t think gets a lot of shine is Guz Khan…

Shahjehan: Ahhh! “Man Like Mobeen” is one of my favorite shows of all time! When that show started I was like, “Where has this been my whole life?!”

Arti: Yes. I was so into how complex and messed up they were, the non-perfect Muslims [characters]. … And I’m like, “What do we gotta do? How many times do I gotta say your name in order to get you more than four episodes?” Because I will tell anyone that show is amazing. It’s exactly what I was talking about when I was like,” we deserve joy and frivolity, but still to be seen within our identities.” It doesn’t have to be one or the other. And if you’re [reading] this, go binge all of it on Netflix. Double thumbs up. Tell the algorithm Gods we need more.


Arti Ishak’s short play “Closure” will be featured at the 2023 ReOrient Short Play Festival in San Francisco this October and November. You can find them on Instagram @artiishak.

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Arti Ishak (@artiishak) • Instagram photos and videos

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