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A Story about Art in the Time of Covid - Inji Darwish

We had just finished an incredible four-day weekend for Spirit Fest in Capetown's mystic mountain county of Swellendam. I was spoilt with compliments, hugs, genuine friends and it felt like a path that I had been chasing was finally becoming clear, having a market in South Africa.


Almost four years in the making, I felt my art and tarot life was finally going where my heart was pointing to this entire time. With this newfound fire, I wanted to race home to Kuala Lumpur and start grinding myself to the bone so I can taste this elusive idea: going global.


However, life had other plans.


The borders were slowly closing down globally. Being the sensible adult that I am, I rang the airline early so I could get some insight into what I needed to do and where I should head next. For four days, there was a complete customer blockade. Every day I waited, a border would close or an airport was suspended and slowly the weight of uncertainty was like an elephant sitting on my chest. Eventually, I got through to the airline and managed to get myself on the next flight out. I guess this was the taster of what was to come.


I initially got cleared to come home from Johannesburg. Relieved, I threw myself onto the plane thinking ‘“what a lucky break”. So utterly grateful to be on the way to my transit airport.


I arrived to a swirl of chaos and teary eyed passengers as most of the world had closed their borders. The transfer desk was howling with angry travellers trying to get to their families, children separated from their parents because of their different nationalities, mixed-raced married couples unable to go to their homes together because one of them was not a national.


I knew then: "I ain’t going anywhere." My turn came to see what my eventual fate had in store. The lady behind the desk tried to get me to a place I knew. The humiliation started to pierce me. Every time she got on the phone with immigration:


"I am afraid they won’t allow you back home.”

"Yes, she is a resident –– why can’t she be allowed in?”


Four borders - All with a resounding no.


There were staff in the background throwing blame and shame around like confetti at my decision to even travel. In the end, when someone takes your cold hard cash and throws it into the fire, I strongly suggest that you do it yourself in advance as an exercise in self-loathing.


I had to go somewhere, anywhere. Twenty eight hours later, I find myself on the last flight to the East African Island of the Seychelles.


Tired and disoriented, I got to immigration only to find out that my hotel booking was cancelled due to race. A resounding gasp from the airport staff, they took pity and found me a little B&B in a sleepy seaside town.


The shock of the ordeal only started to hit on Day 3. I guess I am adding a new trauma to my repertoire of terrible experiences and it wasn’t due to the incident above, but because of some off-colour and deeply insensitive comments that followed.


"You got lucky. You don’t have to be home with your family.”

"You have fresh air and beach, I’m so jealous!"

"We have home cooked meals every night, I miss take outs."

"I would love to be alone than in self-isolation with my roommates."


(The above is heavily edited and paraphrased, some were brutally dismissive)


There is nothing remotely romantic nor idyllic about this situation I find myself in. And after all that rejection, I would gladly swim the Indian Ocean to get a hug from my mum. Or even find the mental peace of comfort that even in self-quarantine, she is only a 40-minute drive from me.


I get it too. Anything else other than the reality that we find ourselves in is a seriously sexy option. Let us dot the I’s and cross the T’s here in a rapid fire recap:

  1. I am not here by choice

  2. I like my family

  3. I am super thankful, grateful that I have shelter, access to food and a good wifi connection

  4. This burns through half a year's wages

  5. Free yourself of the terror that is comparison. 22 hours of self isolation is the same all across the globe; having a deserted island as a backdrop does not make a lick of difference.

  6. This is a pandemic. People have passed on and were buried without the final respect and goodbye from their families.

  7. This is not a time to glorify your successes of “Killin’ it in Quarantine”.

  8. We are at home. Not at the frontlines. Not risking it everyday to keep our mamaks open to feed ourselves despite incredible risk of infection.

  9. If you have to waste your breath on commentary, please make it count towards the people who you can actually help and make a difference to. There is a someone, somewhere on a ventilator that will not make it by the time you finish reading this.


Moving on.


In the time of Covid, the semblance of boring everyday life outside is mourned globally. Dinners hosted by Zoom, Instagram live coffee sessions, WhatsApp group calls will never replace touch, nor secret smiles shared over dinner or even the ordinary joy of bumping into a friend at the supermarket. I miss looking up and seeing someone I know and explode with joy that they too love blackseed oil with everything.


With that deep grief that we all share, and the unique characteristics of my situation, a Zoom call with my mentor, Liesel moved me. We chatted and laughed and doodled. The first relief of soul I had experienced in days and I was compelled to share this. I decided to go live on my art account.


Much like echoing into the void, I started to make my zine with my followers.


Everyday and twice a day since, I open my sketchbook and find a reason to seek peace sharing it with whoever needs company on Instagram.


With perhaps the ill-fated twists, xenophobia, and shallow commentary that this story has, making a tiny dent of hope via art is a ripple of faith that we won't be as alone or shy with our sadness.


I share mine with you: "I am made up of the ugliest moments of my life".



Artist Inji Darwish of Human Sketchbook is the creator of the Qūn oracle deck.

An intuitive adventurer who through her evocative illustrations and finely honed sensibilities, makes it her calling to help other seekers find their own guiding light to illuminate their life’s path. 


Inji's work is often a surreal expression of real life experiences through colours, symbols and dreams. She has exhibited her work in the UK, U.A.E, Japan, South Africa as well as Malaysia.

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