Mētra Saberova: on being an artist and working in retail

I try to make sure that I’m polite to the customer service workers at whatever shop I attend, as I am one of them. Five days a week I am there in my uniform and the rest of the time I continue my practice of creating comical narratives about the problems of the restrictive sexed body and reproductive futurism, based on the performative orchestrated medical operations I have undergone, to question these societal, cultural and political constructions. At least that is what I try to do on those two days off when I escape from the crowds at the wonderful empty paradise of the studio. It’s especially nice during the night when I’m half asleep smoking outside and a fox runs by and I think ‘oh yes, this is the life.’ In a good sense. Because it is much more cool to think that sacrificing sleep to maximize the time at the studio for an upcoming exhibition shows some extremely romantic passion towards art and stuff instead of feeling even more guilty for not having done enough to put myself in a better position.

Metra Saberova, stills from Putty. [Autortehnika], animated video, 5 min, 2018

Holding on to the artistic sense of self might seem hard at first when working a money job in retail or in a similar non-art-related environment. You start a new job, have to meet and greet all the new colleagues in a real friendly manner, and introduce yourself in a couple of concise sentences in between generic yet personal customer service interactions. It gets easier after some time, though, because it just turns to be impossible to remember that artist’s ego at all. Working four days in a row? No-one around knows about my contribution to the feminist consciousness in my home country. But I did fold those shirts real nice and uniform-like tonight! Maybe my smiling was consistent and strong enough to be noticed for an inscription in the excellent service book to feel proud about.

These dual priority concerns are up for reflection in-between not working-art making or working working-money making. It isagainst my morals to condemn the working class for their lacklustre life especially when attacking the class system is my beloved to-go angry complaint. Nevertheless, I need to believe I’m something more than what they see when happily yet nervously declining to bin customer’s rubbish because the store’s one is recycling and that half eaten sandwich is not. But at the same time I could take this as an excellent life lesson to turn down my anger and understand that I am not the centre of the universe. As if being nice however fake would not make me a better person. Sure, I can surely fit these moral concerns within my socially critical artistic practice and unapologetic use of my own body that has been deemed ”radical” by no-one who I will meet in the next 9 hours.

Metra Saberova, stills from Putty. [Autortehnika], animated video, 5 min, 2018

I’m pretty settled now, but from time to time a conversation comes up where I kind of have to mention that I’m an artist. Which I’m excited about, but then again saying you’re an artist sounds just pure stupid, so I usually start by saying I recently graduated from an MA in Fine Art but then get annoyed with myself because an art degree doesn’t necessarily mean anything,  but recounting my CV will also not prove a non-existent artistic career. This situation is pretty similar to establishing yourself as an artist in a strictly cultural setting, until you get to the question of ‘what art do you make?’ Ughh: I want to tell about my performative medical operations because dammit, I’m proud of my stuff, and encouraging discussions about the cultural, political and social meanings assigned to the female body is one of my goals. However, I am really not sure whether getting heated in my monologue about my hardships of getting a tubal ligation procedure is what the nearby customers or supervisors would consider appropriate content for the workplace. So I censor myself and my radical artist persona is portrayed as a stuttering and disorganised sequence of sentences mentioning feminism and video and operations in such a speed that nothing can get a follow up question and I am kind of happy about that. As long as I know my secret superhero identity. That I might remember on my lunch break on facebook timeline.

The conversation might also take a turn towards ‘why don’t you work in something related to art?’ Thank god I don’t have to start feeling depressed about my lack of qualifications when trying to explain the reasons I would never get a high position in a gallery, because this time the friendly advice is just about some galleries having occasional job openings. That I myself as a self-proclaimed professional artist, having art as another full time job next to this one, would obviously not be already aware of! At least this seems an easy fix with the answer that I cannot afford to go from one seasonal job to another with the unpaid gaps in between in comparison to the economic safety the permanent job offers. Especially in terms of planning expenses for current and future art projects. On the other hand, after saying that you work in retail to an actual worker from the cultural world, their reply sometimes is just begging to be slapped away from their face. I do not want anyone’s pity while I wish for the recognition of my determination. Which is completely silly in the light of actual hardships people go through around the world or very nearby. Just as it is silly reminding myself I’m more than a retail assistant when walking down the tube because there is nothing wrong with being a retail assistant…Unless it makes me completely unhappy and chanting ‘I’m an artist, I’m special special special’ is all I have got to make it through.

Mētra Saberova is one of the recipients of the 2018 Lifeboat Residency. Lifeboat is a year-long studio residency, peer mentoring and career development award for MA postgraduates from University of the Arts London.  The artists selected for the 2018 award are Sabrina FullerDavide Meneghello, and  Jojo Taylor. The residency is funded by ArtsTemps and supported by ACAVA.

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