Spotlight: Saif Osmani
I have known Sylheti-Bangladeshi artist Saif Osmani for several years. He has a dark and dangerous sense of humour, a sweet tooth, he cannot dance and is a terrible flirt. Saif is great fun and, although we have often had frustrating conversations about class struggle and meritocracy, I have never actually seen him angry. Until now.
Saif was born to working-class parents in what was then one of the most impoverished parts of London: 1980s Whitechapel. Now, the main street in the area, Brick Lane, is the hub of what is known as ‘Bangla Town’. The hard work of his elders – he describes them as ‘intrepid explorers’ seeking a new life in Britain – gave rise to a highly educated second and third generation. (Osmani himself gained a degree in Architecture and a masters in Architecture & Historic Urban Environments.) Now, with its uber-cool clubs, eateries and avant garde galleries, the East End is arguably the hippest district in the capital.
Saif walks around the café where we are doing this interview in a gap between lockdowns. ‘Look at this place! It’s all corporate art and fusion food! Do we have to use a knife and fork or can we eat with our hands?’
And this is why he is so angry.
‘I am furious about the gentrification of “ethnic” quarters in major cities. The street markets and small community cafés are being replaced by shopping plazas and generic restaurant chains. When they first arrived in the UK, our parents were housed in what were, essentially, slums. Their toil in the leather factories, curry houses and street markets made the East End what it is today. Tourists from across the globe, wanting to see “the real London”, come here.’
He’s right – and there is rising tension, a class war, because so many British Asians whose families worked to create this neighbourhood are no longer really neighbours. Their children cannot afford to buy houses or even flats here, as well-heeled white newcomers wanting to live in a cool, multicultural borough are able and willing to pay more for the privilege.
‘This is happening across Europe,’ says Saif. ‘Just look at France or Germany! Hipster places like Marseilles Skate Park were once cheap for migrants and artists to occupy. The areas around the Berlin Wall are being surrounded by tall towers and hotels which rely on the creative culture that attracts people there in the first place. And then suddenly the area changes due to fast money coming in – it’s not good for culture formation.’
A practising Sufi who meditates daily, for Saif religion and culture play a huge part in creativity. He says he is fighting his own personal ‘art jihad’.
‘Art Jihad refers to my own struggle to address important social issues of our time through art. My creativity is informed by community activism. I find inspiration in people and places, where the inhabitants have created their own cultural scenes, like Brick Lane before the hipsters arrived. Places of encounter, where there are clashes of different cultures. I like picking up on untold stories from migration, sometimes painting buildings that speak of where public policies have disastrous effects on communities.’
As I write, Saif is in the final stages of an exhibition, charting the quest for decent housing by new immigrants from the 1970s to the present day, called ‘The Struggle for Community Housing’. He uses a mixture of current interviews and archive material collated by the Spitalfields Housing Association, which he incorporates into his artwork. The project has given him a chance to interview an entire generation of Bangladeshi elders in the East End who are the ‘knowledge holders’ in the community.
‘They shared stories of how they fought structural racism, mobilized the community and secured housing, sometimes under squatters’ rights. Some of their early experiences of living in squalor are harrowing.’
He laments Britain’s exit from the European Union, arguing that membership afforded the struggling arts sector an essential channel of funding. ‘If the government cared about the creative industries as much as it cares about arms and oil, there is no way we would have left.
The arts have always struggled, but support from the EU has been a lifeline with collaborations and group exhibitions like A Europe for all, by all. Since Brexit, future collaborations have been put on hold and artists are being directly impacted by incompetent national leadership in the UK. I mean, here we are, in the grip of the worst global pandemic since 1918, desperate for access to the arts for our own mental health, and what does the government do? It cuts that lifeline.’