“I believe my living to be my greatest work of art,” Fatima Jamal states with total assurance. “As I grow and change, so does my work.” It’s a sentiment born from an identity containing multitudes, which, in turn, has created a career that’s as varied in breadth and depth as its steward.
A multi-hyphenate in every sense of the word, 28-year-old Jamal is an artist, a dancer, a model, a filmmaker, a writer, and an activist, although she is probably best known for her work as “FatFemme,” her handle on Instagram and in viral circles of the Internet that originated with her ongoing documentary, No Fats No Femmes. In the documentary, the Brooklyn-based artist uses her life and experiences as a black queer femme as both performance art and the platform to explore what it means to not only survive but thrive in a world that others you.
The film project in and of itself is a revolutionary demonstration against exclusionary attitudes in the LGBTQA+ community, stemming specifically the discriminatory usage of the phrase on dating apps like Grindr, where it’s used to promote anti-fat and anti-fem bias. Jamal has experienced this type of prejudice firsthand within the gay community, which is why she’s using No Fats No Femmes to sound off on the consequences of having narrow views of the types of bodies and identities that are idealized and desired.
“I chose to create this because I have a deep desire to investigate and examine the matter of black gay/queer life,” she says, noting that although she formally began the project in 2015, it emerged out of her time as an undergrad student studying music at Morehouse College. “I witnessed and experienced the devastating impact of religious homophobia, patriarchy, and misogyny played out on both an institutional and interpersonal level. I wanted and want to use my voice to push the culture and conversation forward around issues of gender, sexuality, body image, and identity. It’s amazing to witness the project doing so without even being finished.”
At its core, No Fats No Femmes was born out of desire to be seen in ways not celebrated by mainstream culture, something that Jamal has long desired, especially since she’s been a creative and artist from an early age, exercising identity performance in ways that might seem commonplace, but were quite radical: making images and creating selves through virtual reality and technology streams like chat rooms, MySpace and the Sims.
“All of these things produced in me a desire to see myself more and more,” Jamal says. “I will never forget purchasing a disposable camera and turning it around and pointing it towards my face—the first time I took a selfie. This was the beginning of a relationship between me and the camera…I didn’t fully understand the function of those things then but they all paved the road.”
This hunger for visibility is what keeps Jamal motivated and inspired to sustain the work that she’s doing, whether it’s continuing filming and production for No Fats No Femmes or walking the runway and starring in campaigns for achingly cool fashion labels like Gypsy Sport and Telfar. In the next year, she also hopes to tap into her musical roots by releasing an EP and making her debut as a DJ. Through all of her pursuits, however, Jamal steadfastly pays homage to the reason why she began creating art in the first place.
“The importance of my work is to encourage and champion self-determination, autonomy and embodiment,” she says. “I’m doing what I can with what I can. I’m choosing to build in the face of limitation. I do my best to remind myself how life-saving my work is and that emboldens me to tell that ass-splitting truth.”