Words and interview by Lizzy Vartanian Collier
Images: Corinna Koch//Kunstverein Jesteburg
This article is part of the “Hopefully Tomorrow” issue

Betul Shayma Kupeli and Seba Kayan created Oriental Futurism – an art and music project inspired by their Kurdish heritage – in 2020. A female duo living in Vienna, they use spoken word, sound poetry and electro-acoustic music as an expression of rage, resistance and cultural healing, combining different art forms into one space. As women of colour who experience intersectional discrimination in what they describe as a racist society, they bundle their anger in a fusion of Dengbej – a historically Kurdish form of music and storytelling – Anatolian sounds and techno, house, acid and trap. Not just musicians, Oriental Futurism has a theoretic and an aesthetic aspect too, weaving in sources of inspiration from poetry to old archival sounds to carve out a space to be heard within society, in a mission transform the patriarchal, predominantly white gaze that they feel they have been subjected to. If you watch the duo performing online, you will notice how they weave in historical sources from their culture, while blending singing, spoken word and techno all into one space. The performance is both musical, artistic and educational, with lyrics sung in English and Kurdish, with explanations about the music form of Dengbej incorporated amongst electronic sound. My Kali sat down for a Zoom conversation with Shayma and Seba in a call from London to Vienna to discuss how they came together, how they define “Oriental Futurism” and their multifaceted ambitions for the future. 

Images: Corinna Koch//Kunstverein Jesteburg

My Kali: How did you both meet?
Betul Shayma Kupeli and Seba Kayan: We worked on an artistic project together. We are a singer (Shayma) and a DJ (Seba). We’re both Kurdish and like each other’s work, so we decided to start working together. We bring our history and our ancestors together. It’s actually funny that we didn’t meet earlier. 

It’s not so easy to meet people who are also politically and artistically on the same wavelength. There was no female Kurdish music duo in Austria or Europe, so we wanted to create a project like this to create a new path for other women. We started really quickly. We’ve been working together since May 2020, so it’s really fresh. Although it feels like we’ve known each other for years as we work really intensely. 

My Kali: And how have people responded to your performances?
S&S: They love it. We’ve had a really positive response. People say that it’s really unique and fresh. The combination of Kurdish and techno with Shayma´s voice is really unique and interesting for people from Europe. And also for Middle Eastern people too, they hear old Kurdish and Turkish music in a new light. It’s a hybrid sound, mixing it together and working with archival material in a conceptual way. We try to move elements together from our ancestors and from archival music, but also to add our own individual take on sound.

My Kali: And how do your families and older relatives feel about the way you’re taking your heritage as inspiration and moving it in a new direction?
S&S: We use Dengbej and my parents are really proud. Everybody is really touched. In fact, my 18 year old niece who came to a performance was really impressed because nobody else is doing this. She thought it was really cool. 

Dengbej is a part of us, not only our history but a collective history. It’s a form of storytelling. It’s oral history with really sorrowful songs, but it also has a screamy, revealing aspect to it, historically with what was happening in Turkey with the Kurds. 

The history behind Dengbej is that Kurdish people were not allowed to use the Kurdish language. Our grandparents sang Dengbej and we grew up with it. When I was younger, Dengbej touched me on an emotional basis. It oppressed me emotionally. But we said we don’t want this folkloric aspect, so we take elements of it and put it into techno and it gets a new vibe. Shayma is singing it so it becomes a hybrid form of Dengbej which we interpret as the next generation of young female Kurdish artists. 

Images: Corinna Koch//Kunstverein Jesteburg

My Kali: You’ve described your work as an expression of rage, expression and cultural healing. Can you tell us about that?
SS: We had a performance last year in a performance art space where we dealt with the intense emotion of anger, and the importance of anger as a political vehicle. 

Anger is theoretical and aesthetic too, with Sarah Ahmed, with Audre Lorde…with women who really work with anger as a medium. We find a way to bring anger together with feminism and Dengbej as an aesthetic concept. As a way to bring it out, to scream it, to be loud. The name of our project back at Brut Vienna was „A plea to anger“. We also question why anger is seen as such a bad thing in society today. We use spoken word, poetry and electronic acoustic music to express this feeling. We’re always searching for sound, even old vinyls. We see our music as forensic, political and metaphorical. 

My Kali: And what does Oriental Futurism mean to you?
S&S: It is for sure inspired by Afrofuturism. It’s an attempt to find a way to create a new future. We are living in Vienna in Europe, you are living in the UK, we really understand this world as plural. So futurism, Oriental Futurism, is an attempt to create a utopian future. Not to be nostalgic, but in a strategic way to work with archival material, to search, to write a new knowledge. Everything is very male or very white, everything else is non-Europe, or non-white. 

We use “oriental” in many forms. It’s not easy because there’s a tension between reproducing the oriental cliches, this patriarchal and white male gaze, as well as an empowerment to say we are understanding “oriental” not only as geographical, but we’re also in this theoretical discourse.

So we are playing with cliches but also the dissolution of them at the same time. We manipulate the projection on us. We take all these projections and try to make something new. We transform this patriarchal, white gaze. We know that people are looking at us from this perspective, but we don’t want to get distracted from it. We want to have another future, that’s why we call it Oriental Future.

My Kali: Definitely. So where do you want the future of this project to go?
S&S: We want to go deeper in the material and in archival music, to bring genres together. We are artists. We study art and we make art, we bring visuals and are always thinking in a conceptual way. Let’s see what happens. 

Our identities are also changing all the time. Identities are fluid and in process, and so is our music. Making an album is the next step.