In the L.A. of my dreams self-preservation looks like curiosity toward difference

Zehra Ahmed, curator of Womxn in Windows, photographed outside the building of the exhibition in Downtown L.A.
(Damon Casarez / For The Times)
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This story is part of Image issue 7, “Survival,” a collective vision for the L.A. of our dreams. See the full package here.

Dear Los Angeles,

I had no plan for what this was going to be; I just knew I really wanted to do this. The very beginning of Womxn in Windows was to share the perspectives of women-identifying artists on identity, culture and society with wider audiences in public spaces — audiences who would rarely otherwise encounter these thoughts and ideas. I just felt like it needed to happen.

I was attending a lot of conversations, talks and panels around women of color, but I didn’t feel like I belonged to any of them. It also seemed like these things were happening in isolation, whereas I felt that women of color should be speaking to one another — not just outward but inward.

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Zehra Ahmed, curator of Womxn in Windows, photographed outside the building of the exhibition in Downtown L.A.
(Damon Casarez)

I really feel that we need to be more respectful toward each other. And by that, I mean being conscious and intentional about how our words, our actions and our decisions ultimately impact the lives of many other people. We are not singular, and we’re not on our own. This has always been a really important belief of mine.

These letters are part of Image issue 7, “Survival,” a collective vision for the L.A. of our dreams.

Curiosity is so important. On social media, we’re constantly consuming, consuming, consuming, but we’re losing our sense of curiosity toward difference. I think what it comes down to is listening. Listening to women-identifying or nonbinary people is really important. Building human connection is a physical thing. But holding space also means the body, mind and soul need to be open to hearing women out. It means giving them a part of your intellect — your mental space.

The problem I have encountered is that the individualistic thinking that currently exists doesn’t allow society to function as we imagine society should. I think the questions we’re asking when it comes to building community are wrong at times. Everyone is looking out for themselves, yet everyone continues to talk about community.

A sign for Womxn in Windows in the building of the exhibition, curated by Zehra Ahmed.
(Damon Casarez)
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One conversation I have with myself a lot is about the line between self-preservation and selfishness. I went through a really weird phase in my life when I got to Los Angeles. It was the first time I had to deal with myself. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t have people who I could just meet up with because I didn’t really know anybody. I was like, What do I do? I feel so insane. I had to just deal with myself, something I had never done before. From that point, I realized that I need structure — something I had spent much of my 20s denying myself. So I started creating that structure. Meeting up with people is self-preservation for me. It’s what fuels me; it’s what gets me excited. It gets my mind going with ideas — these connections with other human beings.

Intentionally or unintentionally, that’s where Womxn in Windows came from. It was me trying to create connections amongst women and those who identify that way, curate a world I didn’t see enough of, and share it with others. It was me reaching out to people who I thought were exploring interesting ideas about our societies and sharing their insights. It is about human connection.

Zehra Ahmed, curator of Womxn in Windows, photographed in the building of the exhibition in Downtown L.A.
(Damon Casarez)

A lot of what I’m trying to channel through Womxn in Windows now is a reaction to the very binary world that we’re currently living in. I don’t believe that binaries are actually going to move or change society for the better. Ultimately, what I would love is for us to come together and embrace our differences — not seeing these differences in a negative way. It’s OK not to agree with some perspectives, and we should hold space for perspectives we don’t agree with. This is how our attitudes, opinions and beliefs will grow and evolve.

With love and gratitude,

Zehra

Zehra Ahmed, raised in Karachi, Pakistan, is based in Los Angeles. She is the curator and founder of Womxn in Windows and has more than a decade’s worth of experience in art, architecture and design.

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