Tag Archives: performance art

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 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 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 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: 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.

Phil Collins, dűnya dinlemiyor (2005)

Dűnya dinlemiyor is Turkish for The World Won’t Listen, which as you may know is a 1987 compilation album by The Smiths. At the time of release, the world was listening. The album was a chart hit.

And that was just in the UK. As this work by artist Phil Collins reveals, the sentiment and the message of the album reverberated all the way from Columbia to Indonesia via Turkey.

The Turkish installation of this epic project was filmed over several days in an Istanbul nightclub, to which fans of The Smiths were invited to sing along with a karaoke backing to the 18 track album.

Thanks to the efforts of these volunteers, 30 years on, the audience for this work will be able to listen more closely to an album which Morrissey appeared to predict the world would ignore.

He was loved him all the more for it. And his imitable persona has made the 2,000 mile journey from Manchester for this hour long film. A local, for example, performs with a back pocketful of flowers.

More interesting than the inevitable Moz impersonators, are the millennials who take part in this exercise with good cheer. There Is A Light That Never Goes is joyous, rather than maudlin.

In a similar vein, we have a hard rocking version of London and a version of Half A Person which is equally good for a giggle. It’s comedic to be a Turk singing about Euston station or the YWCA.

When it’s not being funny or being awkward, dűnya dinlemiyor is a moving reprisal of a collection of songs that take one back to the 1980s, via this highly circuitous cultural route.

The final track on the album, Rubber Ring, features a warning that until now was buried in time: “Don’t forget the songs that made you laugh and the songs that made you cry.”

The singer is a middle aged goth who gives her all to the final performance of this artwork. Either she can’t let go of the music of The Smiths, or she has moved on and felt the consequences.

This work can be seen in Now, Today, Tomorrow and Always at Towner, Eastbourne, until October 8 2017. The show is an Arts Council Collection National Partner Exhibition.

Marcus Coates & Henry Montes, A Question of Movement (2011)

coates movement2

The less seriously he takes himself, the more his audience appear willing to suspend disbelief. This – it seems to me – is the peculiar genius of artist, and sometime shaman, Marcus Coates.

His East London gallery is currently showing a four-year-old film in which he visits ‘ordinary’ people in their homes or workplaces and, prompted by a question they’ve prepared, dances for them.

No music comes between the artist and his private audience. Coates will remove his glasses, as if to put a check on his intellect. But this is his only concession to costume.

He takes the locations as he finds them. There are unwashed dishes in the kitchen and discarded beer cans in the bedroom. There is an everyday drabness about the office.

And no matter how comic you might find in the notion of answering questions through the medium of contemporary dance, Coates plays these performances quite straight.

The only comedy comes within the terms of the dance, as he flings himself on the floor, stampedes on the bed, convulses on the carpet, headstands against the kitchen counter.

His audience don’t laugh and neither do we laugh at them. It is to their unending credit that they take this project seriously and express their reactions and insights with great respect.

And so Coates and collaborator Henry Montes (a dancer who has presumably coached the artist) bring out the best in their audience and demonstrate how open minded people can be.

There is a sense that this experience has been at worst merely interesting and at best genuinely useful to the three participants, who face problems ranging from distractibility to indecision.

Coates reminds us that dance is a primal activity. But there is a quietness to the way he presents it here, which implies that putting on a wild improvisation is the most natural thing in the world.

(Whether your scene is a nightclub or a wedding disco, maybe take along one or two live issues to your next dancefloor. The first problem can no longer be, Do I look stupid right now?)

A Question of Movement was commissioned by Siobhan Davies Dance and can be seen at Kate MacGarry, London, until 24 October 2015.

Johanna Billing, Pulheim Jam Session (2015)

billing2

To be fair, all years have some groundbreaking music to recommend them. But 1975 was a good year for both jazz and urban planning in Germany. Who knew the two could go together?

In Köln, Keith Jarrett played an improvised concert, the recording of which was to become the best-selling solo piano album of all time. Note the quibbling over genre, which can be found elsewhere.

Meanwhile to the North West of the city, a communal reform pronounced 12 nearby villages to have become a single municipal entity. Pulheim was born and in 1981 became a city.

Now, thanks to a new 23 minute film by Swedish artist Billing, improvisation and infrastructure have been married up again: a pianist plays in a barn, while 50 cars stage a tailback on a one-lane road.

Applying herself to the baby grand is artist and musician Edda Magnason. She offers a soundtrack to the traffic situation which begins with some tentative vamping and builds to an insistent riff.

The camera loves her instrument, the workings of which are juxtaposed with the engines of the cars, as, when the queue gets moving again, one driver helps another with a jump start.

But this is one jam you might not want to end, even if it takes place in a landscape as monotonous as it is continental, with fields of sleeping corn and power lines hung like staves from pylons.

It is only once the cars grind to a halt that their occupants come to life. Passengers play with dice. A father reads to his children. Dogs are let out to chase sticks. It’s all action in a major key.

Back in the barn, we encounter film crew, lighting rig and the impossible sight of men loading the Bechstein onto a removal truck belonging to ‘Piano Express’. Easy on the ears, the music plays on.

Plenty more sounds find their way in; the road users provide ambient noise. And Magnason takes regular breaks, allowing you to think about what you see just as much as what you hear.

But ultimately, if you give it time, this film will sweep you away. It is at once totally mundane and yet life-affirming. Billing finds music in every visual detail, from smokestacks to litter in the kerb.

Pulheim Jam Session enjoys its premiere at Hollybush Gardens, London, until 25 April. Read my 2009 interview with the artist here.