Interview: Sofia Karim

FreeShahidul protest at Tate Modern, Turbine Hall, October 2018.
Photo by José Carlos Mariategui

In my last post, I detoured away from art to ask why the Indian Government was locking up students. Since then I’ve spoken to Sofia Karim, a Bangladeshi artist who has a few answers.

“When I speak to people in the UK most people don’t even know what’s happening in India,” she says, “and they can’t even compute such a thing as fundamentalist Hinduism exists”.

An architect by training, Karim became an artist activist by necessity. In August 2018, the Bangladesh government arrested her uncle, prominent photojournalist Shahidul Alam, and he spent 102 days in prison for drawing the world’s attention to the repressive violence of India’s neighbour. Tate Modern was instrumental in his release; when a friend contacted Tania Bruguera, the Cuban artist agreed to accommodate a Free Shahidul protest within the wider performance piece taking place in the Turbine Hall (her response to the 2018 Hyundai Commission).

Karim talks with evident gratitude about the hands-off support an international museum such as Tate could offer. “Those institutions weren’t places that were for us, until then. I grew up in an Asian household where there was really nothing for me in those institutions but that experience changed my whole relationship with Tate and I love the way that they didn’t interfere as well.” She now speaks with a mixture of authority and urgency about the plight of dissenters in India. She is tireless in her activities on social media and fearless in opposition to the systemic racism of the Citizen’s Amendment Act (CAA).

Karim finds it ludicrous that the young female students accused of inciting a riot could have done so. And is clear what the state calls a riot, was in fact a pogrom which targeted Delhi’s muslims. Perhaps more likely to blame were inflammatory political rallies, hate speeches, and terrifying racist lynch mobs.

“What once was ostensibly the world’s largest democracy has steadily turned into a Brahminical Hindu-suprematist fascist state, with relative ease,” Karim points out. “The West,” she says, “is generally okay with Hindu fundamentalism because they have a common enemy, which is Islam”. Thought experiment: imagine if the nascent superpower in South Asia was Islamic.

The artworld has nothing to say about caste oppression or the blood on the streets of Delhi, because thanks to sky high profits and culture washing, “they are part of the system of power”. But a more radical form of art – art as activism – could be found on the streets of Delhi, as part of a women’s occupy movement in the southern neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh.

Shaheen Bagh should by now be shorthand for the largest political women’s movement of our time. It especially interests Karim because most of the protestors are muslim women. In the West, few would expect to find this demographic on the cutting edge of art and activism. You know the stereotype, Karim tells me: “muslim women just sit in the hijab at home cooking for their husbands”. So another compelling facet to events in Shaheen Bagh is the creation of libraries, painting areas for children, and reading spaces for children. Karim: “They’ve created this safe zone for themselves in a very, very dangerous climate and it was just completely revolutionary, the kind of art that was being produced there. “

Forgive the confusion around grammatical tenses: the movement from Shaheen Bagh is alive, but, thanks to Covid-19 and lockdown, the occupation has melted away; Karim’s plans for an art event in solidarity with Shaheen Bagh are also very much alive, but thanks to the virus, she is waiting for Tate Modern to reopen and the time to ripen. Her return to the fray and to the Turbine Hall is imminent as a result, as Karim plans to stage Turbine Bagh, a collective artwork and performance piece designed to highlight the growing fascist element in Indian politics and the violence suffered by dalits, dissenters and muslims alike.

The Turbine Hall may be imposing and vast but Karim plans to make the message immediate and even festive. Her intervention will include choral music, dance, and a decorative ring of rice on the concrete floor. She explains: “There’s this very traditional form of South Asian art called the Rangoli or the Alpona.”  The circular designs are made in the morning and swept away in the evening, according to ritual, and usually by women. In Chennai, the making of a recent rice paste Rangoli, together with a few slogans opposing the CAA, occasioned eight arrests. She will also be printing work by a network of activist artists onto samosa bags, the type that are very commonly made out of newspaper or magazines throughout South Asia. The idea came to her when she found herself eating out of a list of court cases pertaining to unfortunate individuals against the Bangladeshi state.

Supporting her in the Turbine Hall will be members of South Asia Solidarity Group UK, South Asia Students Against Fascism UK, and SOAS India group. The diaspora members, including Karim, are determined to use their privilege of safety to speak out for their homelands.

“It’s very important to us; It’s life or death,” Karim says. “Our spaces for dissent have shrunk there. We’re at huge risk. So international solidarity is crucial for us.”

I asked Karim who she’d most like to design a samosa packet for the project. “When my uncle was in jail,” she tells me, “I was just desperate to get a letter from him. I just used to imagine that world he was in. In my other work, I built architectural models based on my imagination and his memory. I used to imagine myself in that prison and seeing the lives of all those people. So I think I’d love to see a samosa packet with drawings of what life is like in that prison and what they’re are all going through.”

The Indian government may be locking up students, but the guilt is squarely with those who would persecute muslims and oppressed classes: the writing is on the FB wall, the Insta feed, and a consignment of samosa bags soon to be found at Tate.

For updates on Turbine Bagh and events in India, you can follow Sofia Karim on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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