Artist and architect Sofia Karim was born in 1970s Liverpool, in the North West of England, to Bangladeshi parents. Her parents – both doctors – relocated the family to Libya for work when Karim, the middle of three sisters, was an infant. They returned to the UK when she was seven years old.
Karim describes her first experience of racism, at the hands of an English schoolteacher: ‘She tore up my artwork and frightened me so much that I wet myself in front of the entire class… it was a total shock to my system, suddenly realizing that not everyone has equal rights.’
The memory of that injustice was seared into Karim’s memory, galvanizing her in her work today, as she mellifluously blends her architectural training and artistic leanings with political activism.
When did you first ‘discover’ art?
Being medics my parents had little interest in art, but one day they bought me a boxset of books on Rembrandt and Michelangelo. I think it was on offer at a discount store. I looked at those books for hours. When I was unhappy or distressed, I would take them and hide behind the red velvet curtains in the living room. The images spoke to me of tenderness and loneliness.
Those curtains are still there in that house and they have Velcro blood pressure instrument bands as curtain ties!
You began your career training under well-known British architect Norman Foster, working on notable structures including London’s former City Hall and corporate workspaces in Tower Bridge. It all sounds pretty swanky. How did that experience bring you to this point where you spend your time advocating for prisoners and campaigning for freedom of speech and civil rights?
I was working on the Al Faisaliah Tower in Riyadh. It was Saudi Arabia’s first skyscraper. Photos would come back from site depicting Bangladeshi migrant workers dressed in overalls installing golden cladding on the dome. Something inside me stirred. This was when my first conflicts with neoliberal architecture, and its iconic emblems of corporate wealth, began to arise. The clinical passivity of most of the structures in our built environment – one can hardly call them architecture – terrifies me. They are a reflection of the passivity of the creators and the society they inhabit.
What sparked your diversification into sculpture and fine art?
I became increasingly troubled about the world of corporate architecture and its ethics – or lack of. I tried alternatives, including avant-garde studios like Peter Eisenman’s in New York. No cure to be found there either. The problem is the systems of reality we find ourselves trapped in, and systems of power. After over 20 years I had to ask myself: ‘Whose interests have I served and at whose expense?’
In 2018 my dear uncle Shahidul Alam was jailed by the Bangladeshi government after reporting on student protests and giving a critical interview to Al Jazeera. As part of the campaign to release him I staged an exhibition at the Turbine Hall, [at the] Tate Modern in London.
Battered and bruised, my uncle was released on bail after 107 days, holding a defiant fist in the air. This was the catalyst for my work Architecture of Disappearance. It is a dynamic body of work in which I explore the stories of prisoners that I campaign for through architectural space, sometimes in designs for actual building projects. It is a testament to the global struggle against authoritarianism, fascism, Hindu-nationalism and caste-oppression and has been shown in Germany, Chile, Argentina, Sweden and the US.
Then, in late 2019, mass protests led by Muslim women at Shaheen Bagh, India erupted over the Indian government’s Citizenship Amendment Act. I was campaigning against this with activists including South Asia Solidarity Group, here in London. I decided to approach Turbine Hall again. The idea was simple enough: working in collaboration with artists from across the globe, we created samosa packets out of recycled paper, bearing messages of resistance as protest art in solidarity with the women of Shaheen Bagh. Turbine Bagh has since evolved into a platform for political art and activism, including campaigns for the release of political prisoners.
On human rights, what do you have to say about Bangladesh?
Bangladesh’s slide towards authoritarianism is terribly bleak. Torture, extra-judicial killings and disappearances are commonplace, alongside serious allegations of vote-rigging in elections. Countless journalists have been arrested under the Digital Security Act in an effort to stifle criticism. This is symptomatic of a regime that seeks to hold power by force. A regime that is thin-skinned and paranoid.
Right now journalist Shamsuzzaman Shams, who was accused and jailed for perpetrating ‘fake news’ about rising food prices, has still not had justice, and he is one of the lucky ones having been granted bail. Like so many others who dared challenge prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s government, he lives in fear of being re-arrested as he awaits trial. I keep thinking about the distress he and his family must be feeling because of [this] government’s shameless, naked power.
As we speak, there are anti-establishment, pro-democracy protests ongoing throughout the world, including in the Czech Republic and France. Could it be argued that here in the UK, we are ‘armchair activists’ rather than active activists?
Countries including Bangladesh have a strong tradition of organized student politics and protest. Britain doesn’t have that tradition yet but the climate emergency and movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo are shifting ground, though I think it will take time before we see anything as organized as what we are seeing in Bangladesh.
Anything else you’d like to add, a parting shot?
Find out more about Sofia Karim’s work at sofiakarim.co.uk