Director, editor, designer, curator, strategist, artist, businesswoman, developer, collaborator. No one word encompasses the work of Hawa Arsala and Tonia Beglari better than the one they gave themselves: Browntourage.
Hawa Arsala and Tonia Beglari met through an improv and sketch comedy team in college, but like many of the strongest cultural producers of our generation will be able to say: they bonded for real on Tumblr. After graduation, the two would go out partying together in San Fransisco. “We stood out as usually the only Middle Eastern girls in the underground club,” says Tonia. “After waking up from our club-nite-slumber-party fiending to not be orientalized, we decided to start a blog documenting cool brown people stuff.” The pair have been collaborators ever since, starting the magazine and media agency Browntourage, founded on the premise of “general wokeness and solidarity for minorities doin’ it well!”
I first heard about Browntourage around the time I interviewed my old friend Arianna Gil, over a year ago. Gil spoke infectiously, lovingly about Browntourage, this awesome brown girl squad in California, that she had met while she was touring as a bassist with SZA, and how down they were. “They changed my life.” I recognized the name from the story the group published on cultural appropriation v. appreciation in the Interrupt Magazine issue curated by modeling agency Lorde Inc. a few months earlier. Their work kept popping up on my screen, in conversations, and by the time the “Identity Crisis” mix by DJ Haram dropped on their website, me and my friends were hooked on their work.
Hawa, Tonia, and their collaborators across Los Angeles and the Bay Area are a whirlwind, a powerhouse team, bringing together corners of the punk scene, club culture, editorial fashion, web design and development, and video. They gracefully tackle the question ‘to brand or not to brand?’ that seems to have most people too paralyzed to even try to produce stuff. From their clientele to their photoshoots to the mixes they host on their site, everything they do is deeply-rooted in showing love, both professionally and personally, for creatives of color. Browntourage is always on the move, but between their packed-to-the-brim schedules, and because the two are now located in different cities, with Hawa in San Fransisco still, and Tonia “somehow in Los Angeles,” the two met up face-to-face for a photoshoot and had a weekend visit in LA.
Pulling in co-conspirators across disciplines, saying fuck you to normative notions of success, and sorting through the social war within the entertainment, fashion and media industries, the co-founders of Browntourage share their musings on desire and sexual politics, as well as what’s coming up for them.
Your origin story as Tonia describes it is pretty magical. What do you see as the progression and early idea behind the project?
Hawa: When everything we experienced in terms of academia sunk in, we were like “wait, let’s do something about how effed the world is in whatever low key digital way we can,” but then it became quite high key with Browntourage becoming a platform people actually turned to for information.
What are some of your earliest experiences online that you remember?
Tonia: I truly don’t remember life without internet. I remember blessing the lord for Netscape which became AOL. Napster chatrooms in third grade, a/s/l was always a lie.
Hawa: Oh man, I remember when I first got on AOL in like seventh grade. My screen name was Tigerlily666. My first chat was to my cousin in California (I lived in Virginia at the time) and I felt so stoked I called her on the phone to be like “YO THAT WAS SO COOL,” haha.
Tonia: I accidentally cybered because I didn’t know what that meant. Yahoo messenger was way better honestly because it integrated with Yahoo games.
Hawa: I was constantly on AOL Radio discovering new music like Animal Collective, trip hop, and weird industrial music. Electronica was also a thing.
Tonia: Purple moon was my first social media holla. Then Barbie bought it and killed it and I moved on to Neopets where I somehow made friends with the graphic design html bb’s in the fairyworld guilds and rest was history.
Hawa: I had a livejournal that I kept until college! I was a ballerina up until when I started to use the internet actually and was pretty exclusively into ballet, horses, and classical music. I think the internet helped me develop my first real persona outside of that as an “indie rocker.”
What do you think is missing from culture right now?
Tonia: [I think we need] less work focused on being in love/lust with someone and more work focused on community love. Less focus on celebrities and more focus on organizations doing rad things. Multidimensional diversity. Also, less non-token or one dimensional roles that focuses on people solely because of their difference, but just normal actual shine because why not? People with different body types, fat people, differently abled people, people of color, and trans people, with cis-gendered white people as a minority and not as lead.
Hawa: It might be naive to think that anything missing from culture right now will likely show up down the line because of the way the cultural feedback loop works. Subcultures get appropriated and fed back to the masses constantly. Maybe the one thing missing in cultural production is a sense of consciousness, of story, of thoughtfulness and perhaps hesitation in the way we create asymmetrical power dynamics. I think that’s something myself and Tonia aim to incorporate in our process, though it’s not always perfect or easy.
Who do you think is doing the coolest shit right now?
Tonia: I’m always the worst with this question like it’s hard because no one person can do everything but shoutout to Little Simz, Amandla Stenberg, Octavia Butler (even beyond death tbh), Virgie Tovar, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos lol. In terms of interactive media I love dys4ia by Anna Anthropy, Never Alone which is an Alaska Native game slash documentary, Es Devlin, a stage design from Kanye to Opera. I’m kind of a dork.
Hawa: Ugh yeah, this is so tough! I’m a fan of Swedish pop artist Zhala, interactive architectural fashion designer Behnaz Farahi, virtual reality projects that document refugee crises like this one, artist Hajra Waheed whose work I saw in Berlin and could not stop fan-girling over during a Q&A she did. I just found out the Oakland Unified School District has the country’s first Office of African American Male Achievement to introduce peer mentoring, leadership, entrepreneurship, and courses on deconstructing dominant lenses on black males #blackmindsmatter. In terms of fashion, I think Grace Wales Bonner is so next level. I’ve been listening to Berlin based producer, Mehmet Aslan a lot lately too – feeling his vibe as I venture into a synth heavy phase in life. Love jamming to his Boiler Room set. And an ancestral shoutout to Mariam Ghani, an NYC based Afghani artist whose work – in photography, text, video, installation – is in like all the major institutions.
Our theme this month surrounds sex-negativity, the politics of desirability, and other matters of sex and not-sex. How would you all describe our current sexual paradigm?
Tonia: It is very tied with my thoughts on culture in general. Sex is so weird for me. It’s unclear how its “supposed” to be thought about like, whether tied to lust or to built up appreciation and love and how does physical appearance tie into that? And how do oppressive regimes of thought dictate our “types” and “preferences”? How much can be learned or practiced? I think people should do whatever they want and mostly just explicitly ask for consent every time. As much as American culture is obsessed with showing sexual imagery for advertising and in movies and TV, I feel like we need to see as much sexualizing of all types of people- not just “hot” people. How many generations would it take to change a beauty standard?
Hawa: I have to start with my personal relationship with the topic. I grew up in a Muslim household, so the expectation to save oneself for marriage just got passed down in mental brainwaves and wasn’t ever spoken aloud. Just the utmost avoidance of the topic, and in a society where we are bombarded with sexual imagery (this ain’t the motherland) I had to navigate it all by myself. I think our current paradigm, in the context of the states, is very vanilla. I also consider power relations connected to sexual and sex paradigms and desires, and how that shit can really make it or break it in the bedroom. To take it back to Browntourage, the reason the name became a thing is because a dude at some after hours asked us to be in his “harem.” Our response was “No, we’ll be your Browntourage.” We literally had to flip a situation in which we were exotified in order to set ourselves up in a position of power. People so many times thought we were groupies because all they saw us as were our physical bodies! It’s so shitty we often find ourselves essentially masking so as to move in the world the way we want to move – up and on top.
Browntourage is especially exciting because it seems to be redefining, reconfiguring what we see as “success” for cultural producers. For each of you personally, and for Browntourage as a collective project, what do you see as markers of success?
Tonia: We really realized that we could not wait for people to give us opportunities, or be sad that we weren’t getting them. Starting with self love and self worth, success is feeling capable to create opportunities for yourself little by little to accomplish your goals. The best goals also empower others. It’s not about stockpiling likes or stashing money but collabing with someone and making something better than either of you all could dream of alone, staying in contact, and watching your collaborators grow and building a feedback loop of success #shinetheory. This flow outlasts the likes or money. Oh, and know that you should always learn new things. Browntourage taught me video production, editing, interactive media art, event production, and now I’m in grad school and Hawa’s working as a creative manager in arts academia.
Hawa: I remember when we first started out as a crew rolling to a lot of nightlife scenes, we’d constantly compliment other women (mostly strangers) who would either react super positive and surprised or really skeptical. Both reactions to me were an indication of how shitty we can be conditioned to detach from community, putting other people on, lack of self worth and so on. It’s super important to us to view success as not just a personal endeavor but a collective effort that generates momentum so that non-hegemonic paths to success are validated socially, economically, politically, and so on. And with that comes the utmost confidence in your personal values and philosophies because they will absolutely be challenged – sometimes low key trolling, other times more institutional, and on the rare, and unfortunate occasion, from allies too. It’s important to keep learning and building up my tool kit to stay agile in a world that doesn’t set me up for success from the get. I feel blessed to have a dope full-time job and also be fielding freelance requests pretty regularly knowing that I’m pretty direct about my personal politics – I want to be able to pass on the moves that helped me get here to the next gen.
What’s on the horizon for the group?
Tonia: February 19th we are virtually presenting at Theorizing the Net conference at Georgia State University at 2:30pm Eastern for titled The Internet: Bodies, Aesthetics, and Power in the Age of Information. As far as yet-to-be released projects, I’m making a game that’s kind of like net art meets apples to apples meets getting woke on economic literacy but like...in a fun way. That may or may not be at a table at LA Zine Fest along with some fun digital experiences March sixth.
Hawa: I’m helping a friend with her art and tech salon series that is focused on putting artists and tech giants on the same panel to foster dialogue around how we can bring the human back into the search for advancing human potential. I just got invited to be on a panel called “The Hustle” at a museum in a couple months talking about making it as an artist in the Bay. Aside from that, I’m slowly building up a digital concept shop selling a lot of designer and vintage clothes and objects where I’ll be able to exercise my creative direction chops and generally channel present inspirations.
All photos by Jasmine Safaeian.