Why diversity matters and needs places to shine: OUSA Collective

OUSA is an intersectional digital platform that brings together illustration and social change. We create illustrations based on our migrational perspectives, and organise online and offline events that raise awareness of inequity and discrimination by creating new forms of collaboration and sparking creative exchange. Our goal is to disrupt negative narratives around migration and marginalised people. Ana Filipa Maceira & Irem Kurt talked with Ouassima Laabich-Mansour (Superrr Lab) & Markus Overdiek (Ethics of Algorithms, Bertelsmann Stiftung) about it.

How did your project start?

Irem: After separately attending zine and illustration events, we finally went together to illustration fest in Berlin. Even in such an international city, we still noticed a lack of diversity in the creative scene.

So we decided to do illustration-related events of our own. We organised one of Germany’s first migrant, BIPoc and diaspora-led illustration festivals, with illustrators, musicians, authors and organisations from our communities, which was open for everyone to see them shine.

However, because of the pandemic, that was the only in-person event we did. So we decided to focus even more on building a community online.

Filipa: We found that online events were a much more accessible way to showcase a lot of illustrators who are marginalised or identify with being migrant, BPoc, and/or from the diaspora. We were able to approach topics more meaningfully than we first expected for the digital sphere.

Irem: And going online was a chance to connect with illustrators who do not live just in Berlin, but all across the world. It enabled us to reach out to, and hold conversations with, other diasporic or migrant communities with whom we share similar experiences and thoughts.

These are clear advantages in going digital with your work. But were you also able to create feelings of connectedness and belonging digitally?

Filipa: We used a micro approach and had many one-on-one exchanges, aiming at deeper connection with individuals instead of diving in with a lot of people at the same time. Also, working with illustrations that transmit a certain message helps people feel connected and understand topics that are sometimes harder to digest.

Irem: We often do projects with other illustrators and organisations who have similar mindsets, which makes it easier to connect. Not only that, but we open up our work to work with other fields such as writing and research.

We are looking forward to meeting in person and being able to round out the connections we have made online. However, we found that the possibilities of bonding in the digital space are far greater than we initially expected.

So ideally you want to bring together the best of the digital and the analogue world?

Irem: You have your digital persona and your real-life persona. Making a connection to the analogue world is important because you might otherwise get lost in the digital.

Filipa: Technology is there to enhance our lives, which is why we should keep it in check. Maybe this is too utopian, but we might just be able to become this global village that is a real community, inclusive and diverse. The digital space could be where this happens if we use it properly.

Inclusion and accessibility are really important to you — you live by them. From your experiences, what makes people feel safe?

Filipa: This is still a big topic for us. We want to empower people who, like us, identify with being migrant, BPoc and/or people from the diaspora. We want people to have a feeling of belonging and be able to share ideas in the communities that we build: we have their back in situations of discrimination. Our work creates a safer space. Our community is a place where people can express themselves without fear.

Irem: Knowledge sharing is another thing that plays a role here. The first New New workshop on speculative futures is a good example as it brought together people from diverse backgrounds and led them to learn together and share ideas. This is one way of creating such safe spaces.

What future do you aspire to when you think of the next generations who will bear the effects of our actions today? What are the features of this better world?

Filipa: The best way to advance our future is first to take stock of what we have. We need schools to tackle discriminatory ideas before they start to solidify in children’s minds. The educational system can play a key role in preventing discrimination and the digital space can provide teachers with the necessary tools.

Irem: At the same time, we recognise the need to regulate the internet when it comes to hate speech and cyber violence while at the same time preserving the right to free speech — especially when people such as activists are willing to stand up and show their faces.

So the ideal internet of the future would be more value-driven?

Irem: Couldn’t say it better. And for such a value-driven approach, we need more young people at the table when important discussions take place. Today’s young people are more aware of societal issues — just think of Fridays for Future. Their voices should be as valued as the voices of the elderly.

Would you like to show us two of your favourite illustrations and tell us about them?

Image Credit: Irem Kurt

Irem: Nesrin Tanç is an author and literary and cultural scholar who explores the work of writers who emigrated from Turkey, the wider Anatolian region and Iraq to Germany. She asked me to join her research project by creating illustrations. Since guest worker history is something that hardly plays a role in the German curriculum, I saw this as an opportunity to shine a light on the subject.

The illustrations are based on short stories by the Turkish social writer Fakir Baykurt who went into exile in Germany and described the lives of guest workers here. As soon as these people — who came to help rebuild after the second world war — arrived in Germany, they were discriminated against and segregated into ghetto-like buildings. It was crucial for me to find a way to portray guest worker history in a way that it is both accessible and engaging for today’s generations.

Image credit: Mayha Suaysom

Filipa: This illustration was done by Mayha, a migrant from Thailand who has been here for five years now. She illustrates light-hearted stories of being misunderstood as a migrant in Germany. We see it as important that we create space for people like us, who identify with being migrant, BPoc, and/or illustrators from the diaspora. In this space, people don’t have to justify themselves and can let go of the burden of being expected be an intense activist. This comic is called ‘Same, same. But different’ and shows how similar Germany and Thailand are, despite being completely different.

How does the fellowship benefit your work?

Filipa: The first thing that comes to mind is being able to exchange ideas with people who are working on interesting projects with similarities to our own. This is also about learning from how other fellows work and improving our own practices. The fellowship workshops allow us to explore discussions about technology and its societal advantages and disadvantages more deeply, and the Algorithms of Late Capitalism fellows ran an additional workshop that relied on co-creation. These experiences are very empowering and make us believe that OUSA can grow beyond what we originally thought.

Irem: Agreed. Learning in the workshops and networking through them, as well as discovering other opportunities to connect with people as a result of the fellowship, is enormously beneficial to us. We now see far more clearly the directions in which we would like to steer OUSA.

Building inclusive and just digital futures