Sofia Karim interview: The Jameel Prize nominee on her Turbine Bagh project and why activism is lonely

·7-min read
Sofia Karim with her samosa packets  (Matt Writtle)
Sofia Karim with her samosa packets (Matt Writtle)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that in 2018, Sofia Karim’s world fell apart. Her uncle, the photojournalist, activist and teacher Shahidul Alam, had been arrested in his home country of Bangladesh. He was charged with “tarnishing the image of the nation” by making “provocative comments” in an Al-Jazeera interview.

“He was abducted on August the 5th,” Karim, an architect, artist and, increasingly since her uncle’s arrest, activist, tells me. “The next time I saw him was the following day on TV, where he was being taken to court. He shouted out in front of the press: ‘I was beaten, they washed my blood stained panjabi and made me wear it again. I was denied legal representation.’ And then at that point, the policeman put his hand over his mouth and we realised, OK, he’s been hurt. We could see he was limping. And then he was jailed and denied bail multiple times.” Alam was kept in prison for 107 days.

Karim is incredibly close to her uncle - her eyes light up when she speaks about him. Something sparked in her that day, and her awakening has led, eventually, to the reason we’re talking in her studio in her parents’ house in Ealing - her cross-legged on the floor, me perched on a stool scoffing French toast lovingly provided by her mother. Karim is the only British artist on the shortlist for this year’s £25,000 Jameel Prize, the world’s leading award for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition. An exhibition presenting all eight of the shortlisted artists’ work opens at the V&A on September 18.

Karim is shortlisted for her Turbine Bagh project, unusual in a lot of ways but especially because it hasn’t, in a physical sense at least, actually happened. It was originally intended to be a sit-in protest staged at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, inspired by and in support of the extraordinary, peaceful, women-led mass protests held in December 2019 in the Delhi neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh, against the Indian government’s Citizenship Amendment Act (the act offers amnesty to immigrants from three neighbouring countries to India, but excludes Muslims – part of an insidious increase in Islamophobic legislation in India and a general rise in Hindu nationalism).

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The majority of the women leading the protests in Delhi were Muslim, “and they were fighting for a secular constitution,” she says. “Shaheen Bagh was one of the largest women’s resistance movements of our time. And I very quickly realised that hardly anyone in the UK had even heard of it. And if these women had been fighting for Sharia law, you’d damn well have heard about it.”

Among other things, Karim intended that participants in the Turbine Bagh event would create samosa packets illustrated with images and slogans in support of the Shaheen Bagh movement - an idea Karim first hit upon in the wake of her uncle’s imprisonment.

Samosa packets in Bangladesh are essentially equivalent to the paper that wrapped British fish and chips before we got all health and safety about it - a highly visible packaging to a ubiquitous item consumed by every social class, made out of discarded newspaper and other scrap. Karim shows me images of some made from tattered children’s textbooks.

“Most of the media [in Bangladesh] is basically in the pocket of the government now, and if you read the stuff in the kids textbooks, a lot of it is nationalist propaganda,” she explains. “Collectively, these things are giving a portrait of the country.”

It struck her that she could use the packets to disseminate what was really going on, to raise awareness of her uncle’s case and other injustices, by designing and making her own.

She started posting them on a Turbine Bagh account on Instagram, and also did a call-out to other artists across the region. “I said, ‘we’re doing this thing at Tate Modern, send your art’. And so they started sending them, and I was posting photos of them on Instagram and more people were sending - and then everything went into lockdown,” Karim says.

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Covid put paid to the physical protest, but the Instagram account started to pick up its own momentum. Karim heard about a photojournalist, Kajol, in Bangladesh being disappeared. Bored to tears by homeschooling, Karim encouraged her then-seven-year-old daughter to make a samosa packet about him. “We made a really simple packet and we wrote “Where is Kajol?” and we posted it on Instagram. And then I got this direct message from a boy and he said, that’s my father, Kajol is my father’. He couldn’t campaign because everything was in lockdown and mass gatherings were banned.”

The young man (he was 20 years old) had an idea of creating a digital human chain, with people posting pictures in support - so Karim opened up the Turbine Bagh account. “And all these artists who’d been doing work on India were really great because suddenly they mobilised for someone in Bangladesh,” she says. They kept pushing, “trying to get as much international attention as possible, and eventually, I think after about 53 days, Kajol was ‘found’ on the Bangladesh Indian border. He was found blindfolded and handcuffed, and subsequently, he was jailed. But even the fact that he was found alive was a really big deal, because most people who are disappeared, you never see again.”

Since then Turbine Bagh, in its digital form as a platform for political art and activism, has grown exponentially, to become its own online movement - it has since campaigned over the case of a Dalit woman gang raped, murdered and forcibly cremated by police in Hathras, India; over Black Lives Matter and, most recently, the plight of women in Afghanistan.

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Karim admits that her political awakening has taken its toll. “It’s a way of living, it affects so many things.” It even seeps into her work as an architect - after working for corporates (she spent nine years on and off with the starchitect Norman Foster’s firm) she now works freelance. She shows me a design for a summerhouse and garden and explains that the concept behind it incorporates her thinking about the BK 16, 16 human rights activists and intellectuals imprisoned in India (oh, and the frescoes of Fra Angelico). To me, it just looks like a lovely garden. For her, her activist thinking is now inescapable, and inseparable from her day to day life.

“Sometimes people ask me, ‘what’s it like, being an activist?’ And actually, in many ways, it’s really lonely. It’s not only the state that will punish you for it; it’s also friends, family and society because it’s quite hard living with someone who’s an activist,” she says. “You’ve chosen to live a life with your eyes open all the time, and to make sacrifices. And they would rather you didn’t. It’s exhausting.”

Happily her immediate family is tight and supportive - she lives just around the corner from her parents, with her journalist husband, whom she met at Edinburgh university, and two young children.

“The thing that you need the most is love around you, and I just thank God that I have the love of my husband, my family, my children, because I’ve seen many activists where they don’t have that, or it goes, and that’s what breaks them,” she tells me. As I leave, waving goodbye to Karim’s kids and greeting on the way her sister, bouncing a new baby in her parents’ kitchen, it feels like she’ll be able to keep going for a while yet.

The Jameel Prize: poetry to politics is at the V&A from September 18. vam.ac.uk

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