Photograph by Grace Gelder.

This story was originally published in 2018 in the “Utopias” issue of Eye on Design magazine.

 

Surrounded by biryani restaurants and betting shops in the North East London borough of Newham sits a quaint terracotta-colored building. A library in a former life, the building was transformed in recent years into a Risograph print studio. Walking into Rabbits Road Press (RRP) on a Wednesday afternoon is like happening upon a secret party: friends collage letters together on tables, art students design prints, and siblings help one another lay their work onto the printer beds. Always standing nearby are Sofia Niazi, Rose Nordin, and Heiba Lamara, the co-creators of publishing collective One of My Kind (OOMK), and the founders of this space. Their open access sessions offer the community a chance to learn Risograph printing for free, and they’re specially designed to make the press as accessible as possible.

It was during my final year studying graphic design that I first began to appreciate the beauty of this resource. My art school hadn’t yet caught on to the possibilities of Risograph printing, so many students would make the weekly trek to Manor Park to take advantage of RRP’s facilities. In a time often referred to as the Risograph Renaissance, when the art world’s demand for these printers has soared and the practice can feel like it’s becoming somewhat elitist, RRP is a breath of fresh air. It taps into the machine’s egalitarian spirit, its original function as a cheap, simple printing device used by schools, churches, prisons, and political groups in order to quickly and efficiently spread their messages.

Since 2014, when OOMK first formed, publishing as community-building has been at the heart of the collective’s practice. Its eponymous OOMK Zine centers on “the imaginations, creativity, and spirituality of women,” and its RRP has existed since 2016 when it was commissioned by Create London. In recent years, OOMK undertook a residency at the central London artists’ workspace Somerset House Studios, where it curated the zine fair PROCESS!, and has worked with institutes including London College of Fashion, Kingston University, and the Peabody Foundation. Niazi also co-curates DIY Cultures, an annual independent publishing fair in the UK, focused on marginalized voices and histories. On a hot day when sunlight coyly peeked out from behind the clouds, I took the 25 bus out to Manor Park to discover more about the world that Niazi, Nordin, and Lamara have built for their community.

Anoushka Khandwala: How did you all meet?

Rose Nordin: I came across one of Sofia’s zines when she was at SOAS University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies), and then I encountered her at a zine fair. I knew it was her immediately because she looked exactly like her drawings! 

Sofia Niazi: I was part of a zine collective called Walrus Zines at the time, which I started with my best friend Sabba Khan. Rose is Muslim and we were like, “Cool, we’re also Muslim.” We decided to make a zine about significant Muslim women throughout history, but it very quickly became clear that none of us knew about history… so in 2012 we decided to make a zine about creative women instead, with Muslim women as a major focus. How Muslim women are written about and depicted in mainstream media is very prescriptive, and we wanted to bypass all of that and ask: “Who would we be if we didn’t have to create work in response to this weird narrative?”

Heiba Lamara: I came to the launch of the first issue of OOMK completely by accident and met Sofia and Rose. There was an opening to be involved in the OOMK collective, and they asked me to join.

SN: We were based in this really crappy studio in South Kilburn, which we got for free. The owners said that in order to have the studio we needed to take on a trainee from the local area. We weren’t actually looking for an extra person, we were trying to tick this box…

HL: Oh thanks! [All laugh]

SN: You were a wonderful surprise that we did not bank on. Heiba came in and she was just above and beyond amazing. She kind of kept me and Rose in check.

AK: Tell me a bit more about your individual practices. You’re all multidisciplinary, but perhaps Sofia is more of an illustrator, Rose a designer, and Heiba a writer? Would you align with those labels?

SN: I’m deeply cynical about the art world, so my profession is teaching. I’m a primary school teacher, and off the back of that security I was able to do an M.A. in illustration. I would probably still label myself as an artist though, as it allows more flexibility in terms of what you can produce.

RN: I consider myself a graphic designer. We often use “artist” as an overarching term so we can fit into different spaces. But my work has always had an emphasis on books: I’m interested in the book as an object and as a force to participate in activism, conversation, and education.

HL: I studied English at university and when I left, there wasn’t a clear trajectory as to what to do. So I began working as a part-time volunteer at the George Padmore Institute, which is an archive with a bookshop called New Beacon Books, and was a radical Black publishing house in the ’60s and ’70s. I became interested in archives, and a lot of my work is related to archiving or excavating.

AK: It sounds like OOMK began organically, rather than you all setting out with the specific intention to start a zine.

SN: Yeah. We had some core values that we shared: We all have the same set of rules and religion, we have trust, and we take risks together. There are a lot of things we’re on the same page about, so we’re able to put our relationship as friends and people at the center of what we do. I remember early on in 2014 we were approached by this very business-y, corporate person about transforming our zine to make it more “clickbait-y,” and he was like, “You need to make content every week, you need to make a video.” 

RN: He kept talking about a campaign, and we were like, “For what? What would we possibly make a campaign about?”

SN: It was all influencer BS. It was really apparent that if we took that route, we would destroy our friendship completely because we’d be putting so much pressure on each other. We’d probably get 100k followers, but what would we be getting from that? At the time, I wanted there to be much more content online. And Heiba and Rose were like, “Why?” [All laugh]

In hindsight, I’m so glad we didn’t go through with that Instagram-post-every-day route, because there’s no end to it. And there’s also not really any long-lasting benefit in terms of people nurturing creative practices, creating places that are warm, and creating relationships that are meaningful.

HL: It’s the nature of zine culture as well, in that it’s a real-life community and your focus is equally on creating work and nurturing all your relationships around it. For each issue of OOMK, we decide on a theme, and then we invite everyone down, so that readers can create the issue with us. There’s a much wider OOMK collective of people who’ve been there from the beginning, and who have supported events and contributed stuff to the zine.

There are a lot of things we’re on the same page about, so we’re able to put our relationship as friends and people at the center of what we do.

AK: Why did you choose to call it “One of My Kind”?

RN: That was a reference to a Conor Oberst song, which has references to Cain and Abel and various other brotherhood stories. It just felt like it had a nice ring to it. It also has a sense of collectivity, but also individuality. You’re a “one” but also a part of a larger “kind.” I also like to say “OOMK” in full (ew-mm-ke), as it’s just a fun sound. 

AK: I can sense that sentiment through your work, how you don’t take yourselves too seriously.

SN: It’s true! I think we have a really good balance of cute times and dark times. There must be, otherwise it just gets too bad. For us this has been an escape from other serious stuff, like having to be a serious person in the world, and having to deal with all of the horrible things going on.

HL: It’s a cute, safe space. 

AK: Why is publishing a good medium for community-building? 

RN: Because it occupies physical spaces. It’s a route to community that makes sense, because you can put yourself in unusual and unexpected places, or meet people in a way that’s not planned by an algorithm.

SN: You publish because you have something to say. We currently live in such a statement culture, where people are just saying statements to each other all the time. There’s not much room for discussion. With print publishing, you’re saying something, and you know that it’ll be received in a way that someone is actually going to listen to it. And financially, it doesn’t cost a lot to publish on a small scale, so you’re able to create a space where people are able to take risks. A physical press can give people a little bit of security, through the knowledge that the space will be a constant and that it will allow them to really develop something over time. 

AK: Were there any collectives or publishing practices that you were inspired by?

HL: I was really inspired by New Beacon Books, and a lot of the publishing houses that were around in the ’60s and ’70s like Bogle-L’Ouverture. It embodied that do-it-yourself culture, but it was completely international in terms of its reach, from South America to East Africa. It had writers from everywhere. It was putting out work that involved really intense community projects in London, about black and brown people in the UK that were linked across the diaspora.

RN: I know that when we started, the Tumblr Girls Get Busy was really important to the kind of culture that we were into. It was such an education. It informed so much of my wider understanding of identity politics, which is more common now. A lot of Beth’s (founder of GGB) content was submission-based, similar to ours, but it was a lot more immediate in that it was just photocopied on really beautiful, fun paper in these very tropey white girl feminist aesthetics, but it wasn’t done to death at that point.

AK: It seems like for you a publishing practice and a printing press go hand-in-hand, so what particularly interests you about Risograph?

RN: I interned and worked at London’s Hato Press for a while. Seeing Risograph as a way of art-making and graphic design was really exciting to me. Before that, I encountered it in more of an activist context, where it was more about immediacy.

The history of Risograph as being so pivotal in campaigns and activism aligned with what we were interested in, and also it was genuinely easy to use and it was attainable. We were inspired by screen-printing collectives like the See Red Women’s Workshop, but it’s so hard to get a screen exposed and set up. While our Riso machines always break, there’s something a little bit more solid about the piece of machinery. It feels like activism just putting your image on the bed and having something come out, even if it’s just on a nice shade of pink paper.

HL: We never had a plan to open a Riso studio or anything like that. Sophie Chapman, who worked for Create London, set up a meeting between us and the project’s curator, who was looking for a new collective to be residents at Old Manor Park library. We applied to do a community printing press pilot project, with open access afternoons at the core of the project. We wanted something like an open house, or a kitchen where people sort of gather around—those spaces that crop up and become little catalysts for other things to happen. Then we were learning on the job with the people we were meant to be teaching. They’d have a problem and would be like, “How do I do it?” And we’d be like, “I dunno!” And then we’d google it together.

AK: I heard about Rabbits Road Press because I didn’t have a Risograph machine at university and then I found out about your open access afternoons. You started these free sessions so that locals could learn about Risograph. The afternoons were of great value to me and so many other students, although at times I worried that I was using facilities that were intended for the community.

HL: Well, art students turn up because we’ve gone to universities and given talks. Also at some point, those art students will leave university and no longer have access to facilities. At the same time, people who come here, whoever they are, they’re paying for printing costs that always go back into the press, and Newham residents are always able to access the press at subsidized rates. So the students are helping sustain an ecosystem that local people eventually benefit from.

SN: Their presence also adds to the seriousness of the space as an art school space, and not only a community art project, which is always seen as second grade, tokenistic, etc. So I think it’s really valuable that a lot of students and tutors use the space. I’m not invested in us being in an “us vs. them” scenario. 

HL: Yeah, when you say open access, it means open access.

SN: We don’t want to dictate who the public are. We have a set structure in place, and we know it will take time for people who don’t feel entitled to be in this space to come. We make extra efforts to go to primary schools and to invite specific groups into the space outside of open access times to do private workshops. It’s everybody’s right to have access to public services and to arts provision.

AK: Do you think spreading awareness of the press is integral to the work you do?

SN: Sometimes I think, what if Dazed or i-D did a big feature on us? It would be really bad. [All laugh]

RN: It’s just been natural, hasn’t it? Because people tell their friends. 

HL: It’s a nice place for people to mix, from the kid who comes with their little brother to someone who just wants to spend a nice evening with a friend. Or there are people with full-time jobs who are not professional artists, but hobbyists. Everyone helps each other as conversations get started.

SN: We’re in an old library, so there’s a feeling of familiarity to local people. There’s this sense of belonging that would be really difficult to forge if it was a new build, white gallery space.

HL: We still get people knocking on the door like, “Is there Zumba or English language classes here?” which are down the road now.

RN: Or trying to return books!

HL: They’re like, “I’ve had it for three years.” I’m like, “It’s not a library anymore.”

SN: We’re blessed by the fact that we’re not in trendy East London, because this project would be so different. The fact that it’s in Manor Park means you’ve got to make an effort.

AK: What happens if Manor Park becomes the new Shoreditch?

HL: Oh, it probably will at some point. But we’re not that invested in being here forever. RRP is not going to turn into an institution: We’re here until the lease is up, or until the project ends, or if we run out of money. There is gentrification creeping in heavily, coming in from Stratford, from everywhere.

We talk about that a lot: Are we some trojan horse in this big arts ecosystem to gentrify Newham? At the same time, I really like the idea of not blowing up the place on the way out, but just for whatever time we have to use this space, invite as many people to use it for their own needs as possible, including housing groups, local charities, etc. Whatever’s in our capacity to offer, we’ll offer it.

SN: Part of our ethos is to make local people independent within their art practice. So if that’s been successful, then that’s what we’re giving them. If they learn to use Riso, then they can go to other places to print after using this place. We were happy to get paid a little bit less than our day rates to be at RRP, because we get a lot from the project that is not financial. We’re really interested in thinking outside of capitalism, and not letting it dictate our demands or our expectations. We value other things beyond money, like people and relationships.

AK: In activist work, it can often feel futile to create a space, particularly for women and ethnic minorities, in a world that’s constantly against us. What would your feminist antiracist utopia look like? And what do you think of this word “utopia”?

RN: I feel like we use that word when we write our Arts Council application, and we’ve got this vision of how we want our press to be. I feel like it’s our little vision of our utopia in our own world and space. I don’t feel like it’s a goal to be achieved in a wider world, but it’s a safe space that we’re making for ourselves and our own practice. It’s about having this inner, personal utopia in your own work as a drive and allowing people to come in through open access, but I think maybe we’re all…

HL: Cynical?

SN: I think we’re being realistic!

RN: There’s a term “radical skepticism,” which I heard in a talk about Stuart Hall that I went to recently. I like the term because it implies that it’s not negative to be skeptical. There’s a sense of rationale and strategizing how to navigate the world by having radical skepticism and questioning institutions or opinions. Maybe it’s not about working towards utopia, but just about challenging the things we’re struggling with.

SN: We don’t subscribe to this idea of heaven on earth, which I think is another way of saying “utopia.” And even if we were able to achieve heaven on earth in a small area, the fact that overall it’s not heaven on earth negates that, like it’s not going to be good for everyone, so it doesn’t seem honest to try to create one. More and more, I’m thinking about this idea of sitting with your blessings instead of trying to smash and change things all the time. Things like racism are there to waste your time, and part of wasting your time is just having a miserable life and complaining about all the things that are bad, instead of claiming the things that you have that are good.

I went to a talk with Faith Ringgold the other day and she was saying how her autobiography wasn’t welcomed with open arms by her publishers. She said, “It’s because my life is not a horror, and that’s what people want to hear.” I was thinking that our life is not a horror. I have a nice life, and sometimes it’s not nice, but we’re going to get through it together, and that’s quite a radical thing because it allows you to be where you are, instead of running towards this utopian future that will never arrive.

AK: Do you feel that a lot of people try to project pain onto your life?

SN: I think that the horror narrative is people trying to simplify others by saying, “Ah! You have a sad life,” or “You are persecuted.” And we know we’re part of this suspect community, but we’re also kind of fun, cool people who have a nice time.

HL: I subscribe to the idea of “cute times/dark times.” I have actually felt horror when I’ve experienced immigration courts and stuff like that. That’s a particular kind of terrifying, where you feel like this process could kill you very slowly, so you need to come up with a way to live in response to that. How do you live having known horror? How do you create something that is equally as healing or beautiful?

The three members of OOMK standing around a Risograph printer in their studio.
Photography by Grace Gelder.

AK: What do you think about the label “people of color”? A lot of people find solace and identity with the label, but at the same time feel it can inhibit them in some ways.

RN: I found that term difficult at first. I remember Sofia explained it to me, that it’s about unity. I felt conflicted about it because of being young and described as “colored” by my white relatives. It feels so othering, but I also like that it includes the word “people.” It’s collective. I do feel like those labels have been useful as a shorthand for…

HL: Non-white people. 

RN: Yeah, or to white people, to institutions.

HL: Calling us all the same thing doesn’t make sense all of the time, because it completely flattens that inter-community experience in relation to white people, as if we all experience it in the same way, and that’s not the case.

SN: I think it’s a signalling thing. Like, “Look over here;” like a friendly flag.

HL: Yeah, like, “One of my kind, come join us.”

AK: When you’re trying to create change, is it effective to integrate into and diversify existing structures, for example places like Somerset House, which is already a big name in the art world? Or is it best to create something of your own that will always have your values?

SN: It’s really contradictory the way that big institutions want to change, and they want to take on people of color to help them change, or appear as if they’re changing, but it’s a bit like gentrification. People see something that they like, and then they flock to it and destroy it. The fact that we’re different is why people come to us, and the fact that RRP is independent and we have our own identity is what people like. But if I stopped working here and went on a payroll at Tate or something, they wouldn’t be interested in me anymore. I’d just become like them. We do work across lots of different institutions, but we work in a freelance capacity, which means we still have freedom.

HL: We’re not going to change those institutions, which are part of an oppressive structure. It’s on others to change that, not me. And no amount of hiring artists for one day to put on a show is going to change that. With RRP, we have somewhere to retreat to, and we have our own world here, which is not going to change.

SN: We’re trying to build our own world, with assets like the Riso machines. We want to operate independently so we have security. We’re happy to be visible in those institutions. And we’re very conscious about what we’re giving and what we’re taking. We realize that it looks good for galleries to be working with people of color, but we also realize that it’s good for our press to have lots of money. We’re happy to exchange. You know, we’re not operating within this idea of purity, and that we can’t touch anything that isn’t grassroots. Rather, we’re just recognizing the world as it is.