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The Zeitgeist of Shukri Lawrence

Most young people use Instagram to post selfies or live-document parties. Shukri Lawrence uses the social platform to shatter stereotypes and change worldwide perceptions. One glance at his resume and you’d expect it to belong to someone in the mid to late stages of their career, not someone in their early 20s. But by the time Lawrence celebrated his 18th birthday, he had already launched a viral Instagram page (@wifirider) and a full-fledged fashion line. But that’s not all. As the creative director of queer political fashion line Trashy Clothing, Lawrence is a one-person movement subverting misconceptions about Palestinian and Arabic culture from every possible angle.

Filmmaker Roxy Rezvany’s short documentary “Wifi Rider,” which is part of Roger Ross Williams’s series with Topic, “One Story Up,” offers an intimate glimpse into Lawrence’s creative process. In the film, he reflects on growing up in East Jerusalem, amid war and occupation, and how it’s defined him as an artist. Everything he does, from Trashy Clothing to the music videos he directs, is done with the aim of challenging Western notions of Arabic identity and destroying any stigma surrounding it. Lawrence is living proof that young people in the Arab diaspora, and everywhere, don’t have to tap into the Western zeitgeist to be part of something exciting; they can create their own.

Topic had the chance to chat with the multi-hyphenate artist-designer-photographer-director about the digital world he’s created.

Watch “Wifi Rider” here.

I love that the resonating takeaway of this film is that you don’t always have to search for the world where you belong; you can create it wherever you are. Can you tell me more about the process of creating that world and community? And how it led to the birth of Wifi Rider and Trashy Clothing?

Growing up in Palestine with 24/7 surveillance and control on our freedom of movement, you’d have to be creative with the way you live. In order to transcend these limitations I saw the internet as a tool to bring the outside world that could be hard to reach into my room. I was able to meet and collaborate with different artists from around the world by creating my own circle online. Through that came Wifi Rider. When I met Omar Braika through Instagram we were able to also helm Trashy Clothing. Until today all the collaborations and projects we’ve worked on have relied heavily on the online world and community.

Did you know from a young age that you were destined for a creative vocation?

Definitely! Growing up, I was so mesmerized by the creative world, especially music videos. It felt like an escape through fashion, music, and film at once. I always wanted to be part of that world, but eventually I realized it was fashion that was the core inspiration I felt I was able to express myself best in. To be able to express myself through the clothing I would wear publicly is beautiful, taking the world it lived in film to the street.

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How do you think your life would have been different if you had moved to Paris like you wanted to when you were 17?

I would say Trashy Clothing might have not existed as I wouldn’t have met Omar. Not sure what else would have happened or what I would’ve created in Paris, but I’m glad I came to Jordan and was able to consume my culture outside an occupation. It was always the right decision, I think.

You started Wifi Rider and Trashy Clothing to challenge Western misconceptions of Arabic culture and help destigmatize it. Have you seen or experienced the impact of your mission?

When we presented our SS18 collection runway show in Berlin in 2018, we built the occupation wall on one side of the runway, similar to the one around the West Bank in Palestine. The audience on that side of the runway weren’t able to view the show due to the wall; it was a way to bring performance art into fashion and have the audience experience a part of living in Palestine in a fashion show. Most of the people behind the wall moved from their seats to the other side during the show, as they couldn’t handle being behind it. After the show ended, they asked about the wall and were shocked to realize there was a physical real one in Palestine.

Who are some of your biggest influences, both inside and outside the fashion industry?

I would consider M.I.A and Naji Al-Ali as inspirations. They both used political satire in their work, which I admire.

What are some other issues that you’d like to shed light on through your art and voice?

As a queer Palestinian I have two struggles to fight for: a liberated Palestine and queer liberation in Palestine. In order to achieve queer liberation, you’d need a liberated Palestine. So I aim to shed light on the queer community, whether through my own work or the work I create with Omar in Trashy Clothing.

Roxy called you a “pioneer” in her Q&A with Roger Ross Williams. Were you aware that you were blazing new trails with Wifi Rider and Trashy Clothing? And what’s next? Any new frontiers you’d like to explore or boundaries you’d like to push?

It definitely felt exciting to create the past few years. We recently started Cyber Fashion Week, an international, sustainable, and accessible digital fashion week showcasing on digital platforms. It combines the crossroads and intersections of fashion, music, photography, art, and performance. As the world recently moved to the digital world, it felt like the world that felt like a second home is expanding, so there’s definitely more plans of diving deep into the digital world that started it all.

What words of advice would you give to other young people in the Arab diaspora, or any diaspora, who are struggling to feel like they belong?

Consume our culture in all its forms. There’s so much in our films, music, and literature that is undiscovered that can inspire you to contribute or connect with other Arab people back home or in the diaspora.

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