Señora Zahra guarded her sanity with the same rigour she applied to her athletic regime. When she went for her daily run around Peckham Rye Park she was a blur of blues, yellows and greens, her body jangling with jewellery from Mexico and Mali. After she finished running she would stretch out her calves and hamstrings and shake the sweat from her zebra-striped dreadlocks. People would stare at her, and she would morph into a porcupine, all spikes, until she had returned to the cocoon of her studio, where she was greeted by the smell of safety.
If her studio was a temple she was a monk, praying at the altar of her own imagination. She painted the walls guava-green, used butterfly stickers as blinds, built a treasure chest for her jewellery, hung her cravats on clotheslines. She slept on a sky-blue bed, and above the headboard were pinned postcards of people she admired: Josephine Baker, Hawo Tako, Audre Lorde, Anacaona, Sade. There were Polaroids of her former girlfriend Pelagia astride her neon-pink scooter. There were portraits of her mother, Ahdia, looking imperious and chic. There were faded photos of herself as a child, riding a horse at the Aberdare Country Club in Kenya. Though she had left everyone in her past behind, she maintained her memories, believing that what was once painful had the potential to reform itself into something poignant.
Like most temples there were candles everywhere. These candles smelt of kiwi and cocoa butter. On the walls were the Señora’s paintings – of mermaids and sylphs, santeras smoking marijuana, cherubs straddling seahorses. Each painting was created with the kinds of craft-based materials that children use in art class: glitter, glow-in-the-dark glue, denim dye, puffy paint, stickers and temporary tattoos. She used jewels to accentuate each piece, and these might be silver pendants, Swarovski crystals or something more extravagant like emeralds. She had no difficulty letting go of the most intimate relationships in her life but her paintings were a different matter. This thinking had seeped into her bones, and she learnt to cull any bond that betrayed the slightest hint of a sell-by date. Where people were a disappointment art was a delight, which made cherishing it much easier. Sometimes, when she was lying in bed having a spliff, she tried to recall the faces of everyone she had once loved. Their features swirled in her mind like smoke before evaporating into the ether.
Señora Zahra was a stickler for structure. She woke up at 4 am every weekday, and after breakfast and a bath she was at her desk by 5 am. There she worked on a painting until 9 am. Afterwards she went for her morning run and returned home by 11. She cleaned her space for an hour, making sure every surface was spotless. She usually had a soup or salad for lunch, followed by another bath. Once she had dried herself off she used moisturizers that smelt of strawberries on her skin, before starting an hour-long weight-training session. A sedentary lifestyle threatened to create a sense of abstraction from the body that deviated from Señora Zahra’s perception of what it meant to be human. For her, a human being’s primal instinct was to exert oneself physically and resist existing wholly inside one’s own head. She used the internet for exactly fifteen minutes a day to answer work-related emails and rarely picked up the phone. No longer willing to date or fuck around, she respected her robust sexual appetite by investing in bespoke sex toys and enjoying her body for an hour every evening before having another bath and going to bed at 9 pm. Dinner was usually linguine, salmon, paella or steak ragu with pappardelle. Her life had its own rhythm, its own rotation, and she never looked outside herself for answers as to whether her choices were right or not.
She had created an earth-deep interiority that enriched her external reality. When she painted she became so immersed in her work that she slipped into a meditative state. Every paste-up possessed its own cadence, and the cumulative effect created a disturbing evocation of her most intimate desires and fears. In those moments she tapped into the parts of herself that were not self-policed. In those moments she stared directly into the eyes of God, which is to say she was at the pinnacle of her own capabilities.
Her practice permeated every aspect of her life. Solitude was an iceman she had learnt to tango with a long time ago. She had felt the freezing temperatures of a solitary life and she liked the frostnip. Every part of her being was a fortress, and she guarded the gates with the fierceness of a gargoyle. But something extraordinary happened every day when she went for her morning run. The grass turned into strands of gold and the trees drooped with ruby fruit. The Dalmatians and dachshunds dripped patterns instead of poo. The Japanese Garden in the park was loaded with cherry blossoms fashioned from paper. Her bungalow, the neighbourhood shops, the bus stops sprouted beanstalks. She didn’t interrogate her visions. She understood that her mind needed to convert the quotidian into a succession of small miracles. She knew the difference between the dream-world and daily living, but she relished her magical thinking too much to alter her mentality. She needed to mess with reality in order to make sense of it.
Even when she ate M&Ms she considered them edible buttons that tasted of peanut butter. The Señora had a sweet tooth. Every Sunday she went to her local supermarket and spent a fortune on liquorice, toffee, nougat, chocolate, chewing gum, cookies and cupcakes. She would go through this assortment of treats within a week, usually whilst rereading Great Expectations or The Silent Woman, a glass of vodka and Sprite in one hand, a spliff in the other.
Señora Zahra’s current favourite writer was Janet Malcolm. Her prose was a delicious onyx-black. The Señora had digested all of Malcolm’s books but the one that sparked her imagination most was The Silent Woman, Malcolm’s dissection of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’ lives. The biography possessed the pulse of a thriller, each note contributing to a dissonant symphony, whether it was the animal smell of Sylvia Plath’s hair shortly before she died or the fact that Olwyn Hughes, Ted Hughes’ sister and Sylvia Plath’s nemesis, eventually became the executor of Plath’s estate.
Señora Zahra knew what would happen to her own estate if it ever fell into the hands of her family: they would destroy her work. She had drawn up a will that excluded them after a traumatic trip to Nairobi seven years ago. She hadn’t seen or heard from them since. Buried in the wreckage in Kenya were the remains of her relationship with her former lover Pelagia. Señora Zahra had remained single since.
The Señora relished singlehood the way one savoured a lollipop. The beauty of living in London was that you had license to lose yourself in a vast menu of art, music and nightlife, which allowed for anonymity and an edacious cultural appetite. Every Saturday she treated herself to something – a burlesque show, a ballet recital, a bebop session.
She always dressed up for these adventures. Talon nails, septum rings, ear-cuffs, lips the colour of cassiterite, a lime-green leather jacket and velvet brogues. She would catch the bass players at the Vortex jazz club in Dalston heating up the venue until the air crackled with the spirit of St. Louis. She would return home drunk on distilled bass-lines; semiquavers and stars in her eyes. She would sleep for six hours and surface from her cocoon eager to eat the world.
She found the package outside her door on a Sunday, which was strange. She had just been for her morning run. There was no stamp or return address, and the sender had written For Señora Zahra elegantly on the black metallic envelope. Gold filigree adorned the edges of this envelope. At first she thought it might contain a bomb, but then immediately checked her paranoia. Who would go to this much trouble to blow her up? She opened the envelope and, without reaching in, tossed the contents onto the floor. She half-expected to find a cluster of dead spiders or something similarly creepy, but was relieved to see instead a blue origami rose and a letter. She picked up the origami rose and inspected it. It was folded with architectural precision, and embellished with saltwater pearls, fairy charms, and sorcerer-shaped cut-outs that had been stitched into the paper. She set it on the mantelpiece, picked up the letter and read it.
My name is Anissa Rouhani and I’m a seventeen-year-old student based in East Dulwich. At the risk of gushing my guts out to you, I wanted to say that I admire your work tremendously. I live with my uncle and his husband, Miika, and they introduced me to your art. I read somewhere that you’re based in Peckham, which is quite close to where I live, and I wanted to give you this origami rose as a thank you for being such an inspiration. They’re called kusudamas and I like making them because they require a certain level of logic and concentration that makes the world go away.
I was too nervous to present this to you in person but I would like to correct this by inviting you for tea or coffee. If you’re up for this, I go to Le Chandelier on Lordship Lane in East Dulwich most days after school. They have the most amazing scones. I would love to meet you. I’m the brown-skinned girl with the pink eyebrows and eyelashes, wearing a hijab and biker boots.
Señora Zahra read the letter again, marvelling at the moxy of this young girl. She rolled herself a spliff and sparked it. As she smoked, the curious sentimentalist within her kicked in, and she decided that she would meet Anissa the next day. When the time to set out arrived, however, butterflies swarmed inside her belly. Defying them, she painted her lips purple, Daxed her dreadlocks, strapped on her sneakers and walked fast to Dulwich.
Le Chandelier was a cosy café filled with yummy mummies. Upper-middle-class white women with an air of beigeness about them, theirs was a world of delicate floral prints, Pilates classes, designer strollers and helicopter parenting. Their favourite adjective was ‘subtle’ and anything with a spark was dismissed as ‘brash’. Señora Zahra peered in through the café window, searching for signs of Anissa. She saw her seated in the corner scribbling in a leather journal, a punk hijabi in a pleated skirt, striped socks and biker boots. She had a peach moonstone complexion and strong Somali features – the long nose, the high cheekbones, the full lips – along with thick Middle-Eastern eyebrows and lashes dyed candyfloss pink. Her fingers were festooned with henna filigrees. Anissa looked up from her journal and saw Señora Zahra through the window. She smiled and waved. Señora Zahra blenched. She wanted to sprint back home. She shouldn’t have come.
As she turned to leave, the door to the café opened and Anissa was standing there.
‘Señora, come on in,’ she said. ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’
Señora Zahra took a breath, slipped her hands into her pockets, and stepped cautiously into the café.
Sometimes Anissa Rouhani’s heart would grow wings, so soaring was her joy. Other times she imagined the ground she walked on was peppered with thinly-crusted cavities that would drop her all the way to the earth’s core. In those moments she guided herself gently out of despair. She learnt to eat her fear.
Water kept her afloat. She swam for two hours every morning before class. Her school, which was private, had an indoor pool, and it was here that she had conquered her phobia of drowning. As she swam each lap she imagined that she was a mermaid who had made a Faustian pact and had now forgotten how to breathe underwater. She imagined that her mermaid self was being chased by sea wasps as she swam to safety. She imagined trying to save her mother from drowning, and this time succeeding. Energised by this fantasy of restoration she would finish her swimming session feeling relieved, forgetting until she hit the showers that she was not a mermaid, that her mother had in fact drowned, that the heartbreaking humdrumness of the day awaited her.
Colours made her feel cooler than a fan. She wore Donald Duck underwear and yolk-yellow bras. She donned candy-striped leggings underneath her skirts. But the most striking thing about her was her hair. It was flamingo-pink, and when she removed her hijab, feathery curls cascaded down to her buttocks. The boys in her class suspected that she was a bad girl, someone whose seductive mystery made them nervous but hungry for a lick, a bite. The girls saw her as a threat, disliking her perceived superciliousness and punishing her for it by excluding her. They were paradoxically drawn to her demeanour – a Rubik’s Cube they couldn’t solve – but this only calcified their contempt for her.
She had no friends. During lunch-breaks she ate alone in the library, and constructed origami roses of such kaleidoscopic tinctures that the librarian, Mrs. Collins, offered to buy some from her. When she created these kusudamas she forgot all about the day. She forgot about everything she had lost. She forgot to grasp her gains. The moment was all that mattered.
Even on the bus home from school she remained submerged in her work, folding paper with the reflexive familiarity of someone who had been tightening her technique for years. She stitched and appliquéd, placed tiny pearls onto the paper with dots of glue, until the bus reached her stop. She made her way home holding the paper roses lightly in her palms, considering what tones and textures she could add in order to transform each rose into something unexpected. She knew she could create stunning work but felt stymied by the limits of her own imaginative scope.
These ripples of self-doubt washed over her regularly but she was determined to succeed. The seed of a solution took root one night while her uncle Farhan and his husband Miika were making dinner. Farhan was playing nineties R&B on the sound-system, a genre of music that always made Anissa melancholy. It had been her mother Hira’s favourite music, and it was also the only music that Farhan, Hira’s older brother, liked. Miika, or Mr. Ngom as Anissa often called him in playful deference, enjoyed everything from Ethiopian jazz to electronic sounds from Siberia, but Farhan hogged the stereo during mealtimes. Enter muziki à la Whitney Houston: lots of Whitney Houston, and a boatload of Boyz II Men. Farhan couldn’t get enough of Boyz II Men. He belted their songs in the bathroom, during breakfast, even when he fed their overweight tabby, Phat Kat.
‘Darling, have you heard of Señora Zahra?’ Farhan asked Anissa as they sat down for dinner.
‘No,’ said Anissa. ‘Why?’
‘She’s this Somali artist whose work is incredibly beautiful. I think you’d be into her.’
‘She’s very good,’ said Miika as he tucked into his meal. ‘Didn’t she have a nervous breakdown or something?’
‘Who the hell is Señora Zahra?’ said Anissa. ‘And if she’s Somali, why does she call herself ‘Señora’?’
‘She was this artist who came up in the nineties,’ said Farhan, passing her the salad. ‘Completely crazy, but she was on the cover of Time Out and The Face. She even posed nude for Dazed and Confused. And then, just like that, she disappeared. Pulled a Greta Garbo. Stopped making art, stopped doing interviews. I heard she joined a cult.’
‘She lives locally, you know,’ said Miika. ‘Just up the road in Peckham. I saw her once in the Review Bookshop. God, how old must she be now? Forty, I figure.’
‘You say that like she’s ancient,’ said Farhan.
‘She was wearing this yellow fur coat and her dreadlocks were dyed like zebra stripes.’
‘I don’t think she likes people very much,’ said Farhan.
‘How do you know all this?’ asked Anissa as she ate.
‘How much do we ever know about the private lives of public figures?’ said Miika. ‘She could have become a stay-at-home mum.’
‘I highly doubt that,’ said Farhan. ‘Wasn’t she the one that said she would rather slash her wrists than have babies?’
‘She was probably exaggerating for effect,’ said Miika.
‘If she’s such a mess, why do you want me to check her out?’ asked Anissa.
‘Because she’s punk and her work is unusual,’ said Farhan. ‘Plus she’s a Somali artist. How many female Somali artists are there that produce your kind of work?’
‘Why do you guys constantly keep pushing me towards Somali culture?’ said Anissa. ‘I’m half-Iranian too.’
‘Iranian art is everywhere,’ said Farhan. ‘They’ve got a shitload of filmmakers, painters and poets constantly winning on the international stage. We Somalis need to big ourselves up whenever we can.’
‘I love you too, Uncle,’ smiled Anissa, getting up from the table and blowing him a kiss.
Farhan snatched her air kiss and pressed it to his heart. He turned to Miika and said Yoda-ishly, ‘The Somali is strong in zees one.’
Anissa picked up Phat Kat, almost buckling under his weight as she carried him to her bedroom. What are we feeding this cat? she wondered as she heaved Phat Kat onto her bed. He settled and began to purr. The room smelt of incense, Farhan’s hint that she should spruce up her space. Copies of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Joan Didion’s Slouching towards Bethlehem and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria lay on the floor next to records by FKA Twigs, Konono No. 1, X-Ray Spex and the Ramones. The walls, however, were plastered with nothing but posters of Patti Smith. Anissa seemed to own every LP, every photo-book, every piece of poetry Patti Smith had ever produced.
‘Your devotion to Patti Smith seems deeper than your devotion to Allah,’ Farhan once teased her.
‘Take that back,’ said Anissa seriously.
‘Are you afraid He’s going to smite you in your sleep?’
‘Now you’re just taking the piss,’ she said – even though she was petrified that Allah was indeed going to smite her at some point for her almost religious passion for Patti Smith. ‘I’m just a fan.’
‘I’m sure you’re not just a fan in His eyes,’ said Farhan, enjoying himself. ‘You worship her.’
Anissa chased him from her room with a pillow. ‘And stay out,’ she shouted.
‘Not when I pay the bills, honey.’
Anissa felt that God had already decided to punish her. Many nights she dreamt that drops of water budded and dribbled from her ceiling. She dreamt that these drops developed into a small pool that soon mutated into rising seawater. She dreamt that her vinyl collection, kusudamas, clothes – everything – became submerged. In her dreams the sea inside her room bubbled with soap suds. Dread built in her. She always saw her mother’s hand rising out of the water, reaching for her. She would grab her mother’s hand, try to pull her out, try to save her. Instead it would drag her into the water and drown her in a sea of memories. She always woke up sweating, Farhan and Miika by her side, reminding her that she was not only safe but wanted, needed.
She no longer cried in her sleep. She feared she had forgotten how to love; that she was too complicated, too congealed inside to merit love. She cradled her cat and closed her eyes.
The next morning she searched online for the Somali artist Farhan and Miika had mentioned. She found a Vanity Fair article written in 1998 with a photo of Señora Zahra sprawled semi-naked on a crimson carpet, dreadlocks fanned out on the floor. She looked like she was in her early twenties. She stared directly at the camera, her baby-blue bra-strap slipping off her left shoulder, almost obscuring an Arabic tattoo on her arm.
VF: ‘What does this tattoo mean?’
SZ: It means ‘I am my own home’.’
VF: ‘Would you care to elaborate?’
SZ: ‘There’s no need to.’
As the interviewer followed her around South London, commenting on the way she drove her car like a deranged teenage boy, the Señora seemed aloof, hostile even, declining to answer questions that she deemed too dim-witted. So the interviewer resorted to asking her art dealer and acquaintances what they thought of her. The general impression was of an uncompromising workaholic who preferred her own company and rarely attended parties, even ones thrown in her honour. Some basic facts emerged. She came from a rich Somali family that lived in Nairobi, Kenya. Her father owned a textile company and her mother had been an economics lecturer at Yale. She was – at the time of the interview – living with an Italian woman called Pelagia Schiaffini, a literary translator who specialized in the works of Flaubert, Woolf and Kafka, in a converted warehouse in Peckham, South London. Her art dealer, an Englishman called Wilfred Edelstein who specialized in African art, was also her spokesperson. The majority of the piece was constructed around conjectures and opinions that other people had formed of Señora Zahra. An unnamed source claimed that she was snobbish and entitled, a sentiment shared by several other anonymous commentators. Against this, Edelstein remarked:
‘The thing about the Señora that most people don’t know is that she gives a huge percentage of the proceeds from her art to organizations helping Somali refugees, particularly women and children. The Somali community has not been supportive of her work because they feel she represents the height – or depths – of Western decadence. But she quietly supports the very community that has publicly denounced her. I think, more than anything else, that’s what she craves: approval from her community. But on her own terms.’
There was an equally intriguing Q&A in Harper’s Bazaar, accompanied by a photo of the Señora in a demure silk shirt, dreadlocks wound round into a crown encrusted with Swarovski crystals.
Q: ‘Why do you call yourself Señora Zahra as opposed to Zahra Ahmed?’
A: ‘I left home when I was very young. I was born in Nairobi and the place embodied these dark memories for me. I wanted to divorce myself from my past and dream new dreams. I gravitated towards London. I had no money even though I came from money. I made my way in the world and I wanted my name to be mine. Not my father’s or my grandfather’s or the many men that came before them. I wanted to give birth to myself and so I did. The term ‘Señora’ has elegance to it, a sense of seniority. My name is a reflection of that.’
Q: ‘Talk us through your art. There’s a sexuality rippling through your work even though you use children’s art materials to make it.’
A: ‘The paintings have an Afrofuturistic slant and the goal is to deconstruct misleading and often dangerous fairy-tale concepts and how they apply in particular to women of colour. I use children’s art materials because it’s fun to try and reconfigure such destructive narratives using rudimentary tools. As Audre Lorde noted, using the master’s tools to demolish his house is an impossible task. But I’m sure as hell going to have fun trying.’
Anissa searched out some of Señora Zahra’s paintings online. Here was Alice as a young Oya with an afro built from bloodstones, lashing the Queen of Cards with a whip constructed from lightning. Here was Rapunzel, a Budweiser in one hand, a ludicrously long wig in the other, bald head marbled with specks of diamond. Here was the little mermaid, skin obsidian, hair a braided sculpture, mirror in hand, thighs apart, awed more by the contours of her new clit than by her new legs. There was a collage of Sleeping Beauty, hands cuffed to the headboard, wearing nothing but spiky stilettos – composed entirely of newspaper clippings of rape reports in English, Italian, Kiswahili.
Anissa spent her weekend researching everything related to Señora Zahra. By Sunday night she had a full-blown crush on her. She went to bed determined to meet this mama and charm her into becoming her mentor. They would drink espresso and discuss art. When she went to sleep that night, it was the first time in months that she didn’t dream of drowning.
Closing track: 'Gloria' by PATTI SMITH