In recent years, ‘multidisciplinary artist’ has become somewhat of a buzzword, used by many as a catch-all term meant to help redefine what can really be described as the act of blindly dabbling in everything. As a result, many of us have forgotten what it truly is like to be a multidisciplinary artist in 2021’s digital age, as well as the amount of work, planning and creativity it takes to gracefully mix digital with real-life art. Fear no more, because we managed to speak to one of the real ones out there, writer, director, and performer Alejandra Smits, about publishing her second poetry book while simultaneously maintaining her already impressive career in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smits’ second poetry book, titled Poetry Scam, initially started as “a very traditional poetry book,” only to then shift into a mix of what can only be described as ‘Instagram poetry’. “I started working on it three years ago, then slowly, as I started editing it and thinking about its layout with my team of designers, we felt like I wasn’t really portraying myself in it, so we decided to add my own memes, which I usually share through my Instagram Stories,” Smits explained about the concept behind Poetry Scam.
The book consists of a compilation of poems and images by the artist, containing both English and Spanish editions. “In the middle part that divides the Spanish version from the English version, there’s a whole chapter of memes separated into different chapters. It started as just poems and then quickly evolved into a piece of art, more than just a book.”
Through Poetry Scam, Smits’ first intention was to create a play out of the book—bringing her own words and images to life, in a way. But then, you know what I’m about to say: COVID came. The show had to be cancelled after the performer had already found a location to present it. Speaking about potentially turning the play into a video performance, which Smits has a fair amount of experience with, she shared herself that “I was also getting into that idea but now, everything is so difficult when it comes to managing artists—because I had a lot of collaborators who wanted to interpret the poems I wrote—but I’m simply not a producer, I’m an artist, and I’m terrible at managing other people.”
As a result, Smits decided to lay this idea to rest, at least for now.
You only need to look up Smits’ Instagram account to notice that the artist has an influential presence on the platform. With more than 45,000 followers to her credit, the artist admits to finding it hard to block out the dependency that comes with social media influence. “I’m super addicted to my phone, and I’m a bit worried about that relationship because it doesn’t allow me to be in the present moment. I’ll be watching a movie and constantly checking my phone at the same time, just because I’ll have this sort of anxiety.”
After realising that she was going through what most of us can probably relate to—those who actually don’t feel the need to check their phone during a movie are one of the few lucky ones—Smits decided to take a well-needed break from all of it. “Yesterday actually, I disabled all of my notifications as I’m trying not to check my phone as often. If something is urgent I’ll get an email or a call instead. Right now, I’m trying to go into a detox with Instagram.”
But fighting a habit can be hard, especially if there’s an army of behaviour scientists, data analysts and constantly evolving algorithms working against you and your newly found resolution. Ever since our conversation, Smits has posted a few times on Instagram, with one of those posts receiving more than 10,900 likes.
Of course, my aim is not to criticise the artist’s relationship with social media, but more to highlight the presence and role that social media play in her life, as well as in her career. Insta detox put aside, it simply cannot be ignored that Smits’ way of approaching the digital world is as ‘down with the kids’ as it can be.
Instagram has become, without a doubt, an important tool for artists like Smits to promote their work and get cast for different kinds of projects by brands. “I get a lot of jobs thanks to my Instagram so I want to be grateful towards the app but I just feel like I need to change my relationship with it in order to not get so wrapped up in it.”
On the app, Smits’ feed is a mix of her art—from poems and memes to videos of her performances—as well as pictures of her modelling for some of Instagram’s trendiest brands such as La Manso, Miista, Paloma Wool, and more.
Although Smits does admit to modelling for many brands, including some that she doesn’t feel the need to post about on her own feed, she didn’t plan on getting involved in the fashion industry at first, “It happened by mistake almost, I actually started modelling for Paloma Wool a couple of years ago, maybe 3 years ago and I was working with one of my best friends, Carlota Guerrero, who’s a photographer. She took me in for a couple of campaigns and after that everything snowballed. My agency, which is from London, contacted me and I said ‘yes of course’. I quickly realised that it was an easy job to have on the side because it gave me a lot of freedom and it’s lucrative.”
But Smits never planned to go down that route when it comes to her career, and faced an internal dilemma knowing that she played a part in the fashion industry, therefore in all the sustainability and human rights issues it represents too. “I’m also trying to shift into a different source of income,” she explains, “in order to stop modelling in a couple of years or so.”
With modelling comes almost instantly the discussion of body positivity and the vulnerability that it involves. As a performer, Smits’ body is a very important medium used in her art, and so is vulnerability: “I grew up thinking that I should be smaller, because my friends were super skinny and I had a lot of insecurities about my body and my curves. Even nowadays, I still feel insecure sometimes although I love my body. It’s a really long journey to loving your body completely, and I’m still on it.”
For Smits, using her body as the main element of some of her artwork is not about finding self-love, but more about getting an understanding of her strengths and weaknesses in order to overcome them. “Knowing that, no matter what, when I overcome them, I’m fine, that’s what the process is about with my body and my work. When I do a performance and I’m exposing my body, even though I’m feeling insecure, getting used to that ‘friction’ is what I’m interested in. I feel uncomfortable, but nothing bad is happening. It’s about being comfortable with not being comfortable if that makes sense?”
What she calls ‘friction’ is a strong reminder of what women can go through on a daily basis. At the risk of sounding cheesy, know you what they say, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, right? Her approach to narration, creatively used in more than one medium—through writing, imageries such as memes and Instagram Stories, performances using her own body, film—is what makes Smits such a versatile artist; a multidisciplinary narrator.
By revealing her body as well as other aspects of her life online, Smits acts as a gentle reminder that we’re all, in a way, performing, only the artist uses her whole life as a performative exercise, one she constantly learns from. “I think most people that follow me on Instagram think that I love my body unconditionally but it’s not like that.”
Smits’ work is interlaced with humour—anyone who can’t see that after scrolling through her poems and memes, which could also be qualified as digital poems, is clearly missing the whole point. By exploring existential topics such as death and trauma using digital mediums that were never truly appreciated in the art world until now, the artist offers her audience a type of performance that is both funny and highly relatable.
Now, here comes the million-dollar question: are memes a valid piece of artistic expression? Of course, everything is arguable but in Smits’ case, the conversation could easily be pleaded in her favour. After all, memes are often created to make social or political commentary, just like many other art mediums. As a multidisciplinary storyteller, Smits’ art (be that memes, videos, or written poetry) should therefore be considered as valid pieces of artistic expression.
Through her work as well as her digital presence, Smits has managed to not only make a name for herself as one of the most exciting emerging artists of our generation but also as a highly needed breath of fresh air on both the art and fashion scenes.
On top of Poetry Scam and her on and off Instagram presence, the artist has recently launched her own newsletter called Unsolicited Existence, which focuses on “all things existence.” Whether you’re a multidisciplinary artist yourself trying to navigate the digital world or simply looking to improve your meme-making skills, Smits’ artwork will, without a doubt, have something to offer you. And as the affirmation goes: have fun, take detours, find your (multiple) callings and all in all—exist loudly.
As part of our partnership with Huawei and its global smartphone photography competition Next-Image awards 2020, May Tahmina Akhtar responds to the ‘Faces’ category as she invites us into her world of portraiture and helps us understand what goes on behind the scenes of capturing a captivating portrait using a smartphone.
British-Bengali Akhtar, a Manchester-based creative, content creator and makeup artist, uses her face as a canvas as she experiments with her own history and upbringing—unafraid to show her true self in a whole new way, while unpacking what the Positive Power of Creativity means to her.
“I loved the freedom of the category and being able to express myself. My inspiration was me. I’m really working towards having a type of work that screams me and I really think the look I did is a combination of the overall looks I love doing. It shows technique but also paints a picture of my culture and heritage!”
For Akhtar, photography has become an integral part of her work. By using the Huawei P40 Pro to film and photograph her makeup look, she draws from past experiences to inspire others in finding their own identity and to highlight the power creativity can have. Documenting her styles allows Akhtar to not only better her craft but also share her talent with the world. Using the phone’s camera features, such capturing her images using the 32MP Dual View selfie camera and in the Super Resolution RAW format, Akhtar was able to depict her face and the makeup look she created for her submitted images in a resolution like no other, showcasing the intricate little details that make her face; her identity unique: “I was able to highlight the details that made this look so special for who I am, and for my identity.”
Do you have a powerful portrait to share? Submit pictures of your creations taken on your Huawei smartphone to the Huawei Next-Image awards 2020 for a chance to win a creation fund of up to $10,000 USD.
After dropping out of her integrated masters and while waiting for different courses to start, Akhtar focused her attention on makeup, amassing over 40,000 followers across social media by posting simple and aesthetically pleasing makeup videos and photographs that encouraged more people to reflect on their heritage, their individualism and their creativity in unique ways. Akhtar sent out a clear message to her followers: you can do this too.
Akhtar saw her opportunity to further her approach to makeup while also redefining her British-Bengali origins: “I used to think makeup was boring and everyone did the same thing. But since finding the editorial side of it on social media and seeing the artistry behind it and how different people’s style of makeup was, I began to do simple but graphic liner looks to express my style in a way modest clothing sometimes couldn’t!”
With the power of photography at our fingertips, capturing unique portraits is something each and every one of us can do. As Akhtar says, “Makeup is so free—you can do whatever you feel like doing.”
To achieve and capture makeup looks as cheerful and fun as Akhtar’s, experimentation is key. Faces are unique to each and every one of us, and the real power lies in the ability to celebrate our differences. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes as you can make a look out of it or run it out—it’s not the end of the world!” explains Akhtar. Using the Huawei P40 Pro’s Field-of-view fusion zoom has allowed Akhtar to capture her own interpretation of self-portraiture, adding her own mark on her ideas of faces, beauty and portraiture.
Last tip from the pro? Always remember that, whatever you decide to create, it is by capturing your creativity that you will make it stand out. Whether in makeup or in photography, “use your face as a canvas.”
Akhtar uses makeup to share her culture and heritage through captivating portraits. What will you share about you? We want to know! Create your own narrative using your Huawei smartphone and submit your image to the Huawei Next-Image awards 2020 for a chance to win a creation fund of up to $10,000 USD.