As two of the only people of color in their social circle, Hawa Arsala and Tonia Beglari felt a cultural kinship with a Middle Eastern guy they met at an underground art party in San Francisco, at least until he blithely asked if they could be in his harem. That wasn’t going to fly, but Arsala and Beglari gamely suggested a “browntourage.” “I don’t know what the guy’s intention was. He probably thought it was innocuous, so in the moment, we just treated it that way. But the situation could have felt really oppressive,” Arsala tells The Creators Project.
Innocent or not, the comment spurred Arsala and Beglari to grapple with diversity in the artistic community. “Because we come from an academic background, we’d have a lot of conversations about representation,” Arsala says. “We felt strongly that we wanted to do something, whether that was just posting selfies on a Tumblr, or street style photography, but leaning toward people of color and LGBT folks, because we wanted to imbue the situations we were in with more representation and show our community that you can be cool and still be somewhat socially conscious.”
What started as a blog scaled into videos, interviews, and eventually a platform to showcase collaborations with other artists of color. Today Browntourage is a full blown media agency that is part-curatorial portal, part-new media magazine, and part-event production company. “It's a world that we hope people see has a valid existence in culture, because too often, the people we cover or work with have been underrepresented or misrepresented in mainstream media, so a lot of our efforts are toward providing an alternate reality,” Arsala says.
Their most recent work is a collaboration with Morehshin Allahyari called PRINT your REALITY, an interactive gallery of the artist’s 3D printed works that examines societal and cultural issues in the Middle East. As visitors scroll through the site, which was coded by Beglari, they encounter models of objects banned by the Iranian government and monuments destroyed by ISIS, and they can click on question boxes, stylistically lifted from Mario Kart, to activate a video interview with Allahyari.
PRINT your REALITY is just one of Browntourage’s numerous collaborations, but it exemplifies the symbiosis Arsala and Beglari pursue in their work. When they approach artistic partners, step one is getting a read on top-of-mind issues and ideas from everyone involved. The discussion parlays into a singular theme to explore and iterate on over time, culminating in a mixed-media piece. “I like building something that could only exist through collaboration,” Beglari says. “For Oshun, which was based on Nigerian goddesses, the rapper Queens D. Light created a spoken word monologue, and Hawa concepted an underwater shoot, which jived with this other chick who was exploring goddesses and water. Curating a feedback loop is my ideal.”
Classifying Browntourage is tricky but Arsala and Beglari’s mission is laser focused, though not self-righteous. “It can be emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing, at times, to advocate for something, but for us, it was really important to balance entertainment and the fun factor. We’re approaching people in a way where we’re not bringing them down, we’re lifting them up,” Arsala says. “Mainstream media borrows from subculture constantly, so if we can insert ourselves in the cultural feedback loop, then maybe we can shift the conversation a bit.”
Check out all of Browntourage’s collaborations here.