Sayeda is a Toronto-based visual artist whose practice includes film, photography, installation, and sound. She is an OCAD University medalist with a BDes degree in Graphic Design with a minor in Integrated Media.
Akbary’s practice focuses on building shared spaces and creating immersive experiences that aim to reset the boundaries dividing the “developing countries” from the western world.
Sayeda currently works as an AV Support Specialist as well as serves as the VP of Marketing for a non-profit organization called APO.
MultiplicityTO: What did you like about graphic design that led you to pursue it in higher education?
Sayeda Akbary: I think the best thing about graphic design is that you can take it in so many different directions. For instance, you can express and execute ideas using illustration, or advertising, or photography, film, video, print — in all sorts of ways. You could literally do anything using graphic design. I look at the concept of it as something where you use your skill set and tools to execute your work that utilizes smell, touch, sound, even food - I used all of these different things in my thesis because I could use it as a form of graphic design.
MTO: You attended York University before OCAD, what did you pursue at York and what made you take that transition into OCAD?
SA: I come from a Middle Eastern family and my parents were always telling me, “You become a doctor, or engineer, or lawyer.” I think in high school, I had the mentality that I was going to be a doctor because I just wanted to do something my mom wanted me to do. I got accepted into York for Health Sciences, and at that time we were new to Canada and we had moved very close to York and all my siblings went there and it seemed like we were just meant to go there. I was there for about a year and a half and I absolutely hated it. I like to experience things, build things, and make things. I remember at York, after class I would always go to the computer lab and just spend the whole day playing games or designing stuff or playing around with Photoshop. I was doing terrible in my program and I hated it there because it was all reading and memorizing and I knew it wasn’t for me. So I took a semester off and worked on some portfolio pieces, just enough so I could apply to OCAD. I applied, and loved it every single day after that. It was the best decision I ever made in life.
MTO: Even though you graduated in 2013, you’re still involved at OCAD as an AV Support Specialist. Would you say the work environment, especially in the graduate building, sparks any kind of creativity, especially the links between AV, tech and graphic design?
SA: Oh yeah, for sure. I think one of the main reasons I stayed behind to work at OCAD is because I don’t like print design or working in editorial or a design firm. I’ve always sort of wanted to do my own thing, but not necessarily do the typical graphic design stuff. Working at OCAD, you get ideas from just talking to people and from sharing your work or other people’s work, or just going to exhibitions. Working as a technician at AV and seeing grad students and helping them with their work, and set-ups and presentations, it’s given me ideas in terms of what I want to move into or work on moving forward. I’ve always wanted to do my masters, so it gives me ideas about what I want to do my masters in and also having access to all this equipment. Technology changes, you get new things everyday so it has really helped me in understanding if I were to one day walk out and create a project I’ll know what I need and I’m prepared in those terms.
All that's been said & done.
MTO: Your work doesn’t just focus on graphic design. You have an Integrated Media minor and it’s expressed in your award-winning video installation. Could you tell us more about that, especially how you applied methods of graphic design to an integrated media project.
SA: When I was getting into my third year of graphic design, I kind of knew that I wanted to take a different route. I didn’t want to just focus on doing logos or editorial pieces and all that. I wanted to explore film and video, so I started taking photography courses. I found that to be really fun, so I would start incorporating photography into my projects. Then I wanted to focus on video. I wanted to learn all the cool effects or production and how it’s all done. So I decided to do a minor in Integrated Media and use that as a way to get out of the box and present my graphic design work using digital media - moving images. They helped each other. I wanted to learn the whole film aspect to apply it to my graphic design and I wanted to apply my graphic design skills into film and I think it was a really good decision.
MTO: I think that’s something heavily tied to our theme of multiplicity — we are going beyond this idea of disciplines, and that we have to adhere to just one. That’s something we find really fascinating.
SA: That’s exactly the thing that I was going with and it came to a point where I had to convince my program to accept the courses that I had taken in different programs. I just had to explain that I used ‘that’ to create ‘this’ and up until today I use all those different skill sets to create. I’m like a one-stop-shop, which is why I always encourage others to do that as well.
"I just wanted them to experience something of us so that they know there is no “high” and “low”. We’re all the same, nobody is above each other."
MTO: We describe our concept of multiplicity as living, working or being in more than one form and to transgress these boundaries that exist within our identities — cultural, professional or otherwise. How do you relate to this concept?
SA: I would explain my field or my project in the same way because that’s exactly where my focus is. The whole reason why my work was based off Afghanistan and shared here and things from here were shared there was to sort of multiply this experimental space; build spaces there that they could enjoy and bring their spaces and share it here so that I could create a shareable space for people here and for people there. I wanted people to get a sense of each other or find a connection with the other side through different means, rather than just what they hear and see on media. I think building that space and multiplying their space was important. I set it up as two full-wall projections meant to serve as windows. You’d be sitting in the room and you feel like you’re looking through this window - seeing their dining room, seeing their kitchen and people are talking, but you don’t understand, and there are people around you and you’re just surrounded by it all. A lot of people really got that feel from it, of a space being shared and multiplied. The whole idea is to continue that; to keep taking the project back and forth and to multiply it even more and more and to share more and more experiences.
MTO: Would you say that in showcasing your home, specifically your village, it was difficult to try and fuse the two worlds together? Especially in terms of your professional practice and trying to explain it to family and friends back home?
SA: No, I don’t think it was difficult at all. If anything, they were very welcoming to the idea. First of all they were happy. I was born there, but I never lived there, I wasn’t raised there. I’ve only been back as an adult. Going there, you’re very welcomed. The hospitality is just above and beyond. They want to lift you up make sure you’re happy and you have everything. So all of that they took very well. Just being there, they were happy to be a part of this project, but at the same time they were more excited to see what I had for them. During my stay there, I would do Facetime calls with my friends and my siblings here [Canada] and I would let my little cousins or my family or all the kids in the village just talk. They didn’t even speak English and they would imitate my English or my friend’s English and just laugh at it. For them, it made them feel very comfortable. My stay there started with kids staying away from me because they didn’t want to intrude my space. They think when you come from the ‘West’ you’re perfect; no one should touch you or do anything. But in showing them my side, it made them feel really relaxed and they welcomed us to their side. It was received very well on both ends.
MTO: It’s just great because with this project we’re really able to see the perceptions of an artist’s home or community receiving their work and how they respond to it.
SA: A lot of footage that I have from the kids over there shows how much they’re trying to adapt to my “culture” — my body language and my style of dealing with them. That’s exactly what I wanted. I just wanted them to experience something of us so that they know there is no “high” and “low.” We’re all the same, nobody is above each other.
MTO: In a previous interview, you talk about the concept of “Us” and “Them.” (Us being Western society and Them being Third World countries). Do you have any thoughts about today’s political climate, specifically in North America, in regards to immigration?
SA: The whole “Us and Them” part is to put the two different sides into perspective. Everything that’s done on both ends is not so much to compare, but rather to share experiences and spaces and expand on that and build more shareable spaces. I think with the whole immigration thing, in a way, just us being immigrants in North America is already us sharing that space. Growing up, I’ve always been an immigrant because when I was born my family moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan and we were raised there, and we then came to Canada. So, it’s always been that immigrant life for me. And the positive side that I see is the fact that I’ve lived different lives in different places rather than just being in my homeland. I’m still thankful and grateful for everything that I’ve shared because through that I was able to learn and give back. Living as an immigrant in Pakistan with absolutely no income and living through the help of others and my dad doing whatever he could, then moving to Canada and growing up here it kind of made me really look back on my childhood, especially after what I saw in Afghanistan when I went. That’s the whole reason why this project sparked. My life as a refugee is what made me realize that I need to share these experiences with people back home and people here. The way I want to continue this project and branch off of it is to visit new refugees here and share that idea or concept with them and then maybe go back and share it with people who are away. Going back and forth to see how much has changed through what is being shared in order to foster understanding.
The first time I went to Afghanistan was when I was a teenager. Before coming to Canada, we went for a few days to say goodbye to my dad’s family, and that was when Taliban were there. It was a really weird, strange experience because that was when I was a teenager and it was very weird for me to see something in ruins. We came to Canada, and I didn’t go back for 12 years.
MTO: How old were you when you came to Canada?
SA: Thirteen. I went back as an adult in 2011. 12 years later I had grown so much and I had accepted this new life, culture and society, and I feel like I had grown a lot kinder to people all because of the life that we had left and the life that we had to live here as newcomers. We started working right away, so we became grown responsible adults when we were just teens. I saw my childhood in my little cousins in Afghanistan when I went in 2011 and that’s what really sparked up this whole idea; to create something to help them see what I couldn’t see or what I couldn’t have.
MTO: You had all of these different worlds and experiences and it’s really great that you involved kids in this because it really helps to mediate the experience when you don’t have the resources to. When you’re young, it’s really hard to mediate how you feel and express your experiences and filter through what’s happening. Especially if it’s something like going back home and seeing the Taliban rule there, you’re confused and everyone’s angry and you’re thinking, “Should I be angry? How do I mediate these feelings and I how do I process them?” So it’s really great that you’re able to go back and just have them involved in creating.
SA: That’s all I’ve wanted to do. The whole reason I came to OCAD is because I want to work with a children’s hospital or just give back to kids. That’s all I want to focus on and it really worked out the way I wanted it to and it made me happy. I still look back at my work and I try to create other little things from it just for myself.
All that's been said & done
MTO: What are you up to now?
SA: I wanted to continue this research work, but it was really hard to focus on multiple things at the same time when you’re working full-time, it gets so busy. But lately, over the past year, year and a half, I’ve been going back through all my research, and writings, and all my content to start building smaller projects off of the content I already have. I still have a lot of video and audio files I hadn’t used. The next thing I want to work is an audio piece, an installation. I think that sound and smell are also very strong ways of connecting. Throughout my thesis exhibition, I had food being served and every time there were shots of the kitchen or people eating on the floor, the smell of the food created this environment as though you were in that kitchen or sitting in that dining room. And again sound; the fact that I didn’t add subtitles or dub anything in the videos really helped create that real and strong feeling of being in that space and sharing that space. So I want to create a sound installation and possibly something with smell to get people lost in a space and figure out where they are or completely lose themselves and forget where they actually are.