Artist Spotlight: Sadiq Ali
10 October 2023
Blueprint Artist Sadiq Ali on telling queer narratives through circus
Sadiq Ali is a Scottish-born mixed heritage circus artist.
His first experiences of circus began in a youth circus in Edinburgh before he pursued an early career in participation and human rights work. Working for Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People Sadiq has always promoted the importance of play and human/children’s rights in different aspects of his work.
Rediscovering his own sense of play at the age of 21, Sadiq undertook a short introductory course in aerial circus at Greentop Circus in Sheffield and then auditioned for the London based National Centre for Circus Arts. Having no real experience of the arts prior to this, Sadiq found the opportunity and place to express himself through his circus work and graduated with a BA (Hons) in Circus Arts.
Working professionally since then, his theatrical circus art portrays issue-based narratives that stem largely from his life experiences, the challenging intersections of class, religion, identity and sexuality.
I stumbled into Circus later in life. After working largely in social work scenarios and as a Participation and Outreach worker for Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, I found myself with a summer of little to do. At the age of 21, I decided to do an intensive introduction to Circus (for fun) at Greentop Circus in Sheffield and haven’t looked back since. It’s become my passion, my life, and my career.
I went on to graduate from London’s National Centre for Circus Arts in 2017 and since then I have been on a journey working with other companies and individuals which have given me beautiful, insightful opportunities and experiences in the world of Circus both at home and abroad.
For me though I always felt like something was missing. I love bringing people’s visions to life and enabling stories to be told, but where was mine? Where were the narratives that connected to my life and my own experience? The experience of the people around me, my friends, and my community?
I identify as a queer circus artist, a performer of colour, a creative from a disadvantaged background, neurodivergent, whatever you want to call me I’m probably it. I’ve found that I tick many of the boxes that our current arts climate is looking to support. Sometimes that can be quite heavy as it feels like I have to re-enact, strengthen, and embed the ‘victim’ within those labels to succeed, to be taken seriously and given a chance. However, within that, there is power. A power of opportunities I may not have had otherwise. These opportunities allow me to create stories I haven’t seen before in the circus world – but I feel need to be seen. The stories that I identify with and on a larger scale I feel are currently missing within my art form.
The first of these was born out of the pandemic. A tough time, a strange time for many but for me a change of pace and direction, a repurposing of my career, a choice.
Amid that uncertainty, I found the clarity I needed to craft something deeply personal and socially relevant. The Chosen Haram, my first full-length work, emerged as a queer circus show, unraveling the complex stories of two gay men navigating faith, sexuality, and addiction. Its success at the Edinburgh Fringe was nothing short of magical and proved to me that a story rooted in authenticity can captivate hearts beyond its intended audience.
It was a surreal and wild experience and at that moment I realised that I’d created something that was visibly queer within the circus – a tragic love story between two men – and yet managed to connect to those outside of the direct path of the subject matter.
I remember one audience member telling me that the concepts they felt throughout the work, of love and loss, of overcoming obstacles and connection, were so universal that it didn’t matter whether you were queer or not; watching this work touched your soul, and ever since this has driven me.
I, with an incredibly supportive team, began to carve a space out in mainstream theatre spaces for queer circus work, programmed alongside anything else and our houses were such a beautiful mix of queers, allies, and those just engaged and interested in the story we were telling. I’ve had the joy of traveling the world, from New Zealand and Australia to all over Europe; The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Malta, and Slovenia for example. We’re currently even in talks with Canada.
While this first show is still on the road I’ve been thinking what’s next? Can we do the same outdoors? Can we carve out a space for a queer narrative with authenticity, tell our stories, and speak to everyone that needs to hear it? How would this look outside of the confines of a traditional theatre space and how does taking up space as queer people look in the outdoor arts sector?
Tell Me is in the early stages of creating a circus work that explores the narrative of an HIV diagnosis and the stigma attached to it; to try and bring into public space a work that touches on something a little different than pure spectacle, but is still visually and performatively engaging, entertaining and sensitive. It’s an opportunity to update the narrative around HIV through performance, and as our government is committed to a plan of no new diagnosis by 2030, what part can I play in that? Where does it need to be seen? Who is not currently known for their testing or thinks that the issue isn’t relevant to them?
While training to be a circus artist I was diagnosed with HIV. This was in January 2014 – I remember it clearly. I was in my first year of university and the students alongside me quickly found out. I told a couple of people and the news spread quickly, as gossip will do in a student setting. With that came fear. People began to distance themselves from me. Students were scared to work in close proximity to me. After sharing a drink with me I heard one person panic that they might contract the virus.
We know all this to be ridiculous, but it’s what I lived. The lesson in that is that even if we have come a long, long way from the narrative of HIV within the height of the 80’s epidemic, ignorance and a lack of knowledge still exist. This creates a stigma that negatively affects people newly diagnosed with the virus, and it’s wholly unnecessary.
Working alongside these students, choosing to be open about my diagnosis, and learning alongside each other meant that I could harness this narrative. I began to work in activism and HIV campaigns with companies like the Terrence Higgins Trust. I was quite outspoken about the issue and within a couple of years we had rewritten our school’s Blood Borne Virus policy and created an institution whose students were up to speed, would support me, and defend me (when necessary). On one occasion when I bled all over a studio from a cut while spinning in the air (it is circus after all) they came together to help me dress my wounds and clean up the blood. It was a momentous point where I saw the journey we had been on together, from ignorance and stigma to full acceptance, kindness, and support. I want to use my skills as a performance maker and creative to help others skip the journey we went on, knowing that this endgame can be the starting point.
It’s early days yet, but we’ve started.
If you’ve made it this far – please take a few minutes to watch the video we’ve made, to get a feel of how our time in the rooms really went.
Image credits: © Sadiq Ali