Sofia Karim on Diaspora Activism
Creating Artistic Resilience: Voices of Asia
Listen to UK-based Bangladeshi artist and activist Sofia Karim share her thoughts on how art helps articulate dissent in South Asia. Karim discusses the current challenges facing the creative community in the region, such as the effect of laws such as the Digital Security Act in Bangladesh, and the impact that diaspora and international solidarity can have on social justice movements in India and Bangladesh.
This episode is from Creating Artistic Resilience: Voices of Asia, a limited-run podcast brought to you by ARC, in partnership with the Mekong Cultural Hub and FORUM-ASIA. Throughout this series, ARC’s Asia Regional Representative, Manojna Yeluri, will speak with artists and cultural rights defenders about their experiences engaging with artistic freedom in their countries.
MANOJNA - Thank you so much for joining us today, Sofia. I think it would be really good to start with understanding what made you immerse yourself in the landscape of human rights. You went from being an architect to an artist-activist. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
SOFIA - August 2018 was a huge turning point in my life. I got a phone call on that day from my parents in Bangladesh saying that your uncle has disappeared. As far as we know, he was abducted, and we don't know where he is. A few hours before he was abducted, he had done an Al Jazeera interview, where he spoke about the student protests that had gripped the country at that time.
He’s a photojournalist named Shaidul Alam. He was reporting on the student protests and he did Facebook live posts and this Al Jazeera interview. It then emerged that he'd been abducted by around 30 plain-clothes officers from his flat. And he was then arrested and tortured and held in custody. And then he was incarcerated for 107 days under the - it was called the I. C. T. Act - which was the predecessor to the Digital Security Act that Bangladesh now has.
From that point on, I began campaigning along with many others all over the world. It was centered around Bangladesh. It was a real grassroot campaign -- students, activists -- but it became global. I was based in the U.K. and campaigned very hard. And I continued until his release. That’s when everything shifted for me in terms of the way I live in the world and the way I want to live in the world, and what I want to do with my work.
MANOJNA - That sounds like an incredibly emotionally challenging time. It’s very interesting to hear how a very personal experience has helped to contextualize things and look beyond the experiences of your uncle, yourself and your own family.
SOFIA - When you’re campaigning for someone in your family or for someone you love, you go into survival instinct. It's very traumatic and harrowing, and you have to take on an authoritarian government - something huge and terrifying - and you have to just stare it in the eye and get into the eye of the storm.
You do that, and you just keep growing. When you succeed, you get that sensory experience of seeing someone that you fought again. When you're fighting, you have no option but to win. There's just no other option because you can't imagine your life in a scenario where you don't win. And then when you do win, this flood of joy and emotion comes from the very sensory experience of your family member coming back. You can touch them and hug them and everyone's very joyous. But then my question is that, if you only take that, what happens to the struggle? What happens to all the other people who are there that don’t have any exposure?
What we were doing for my uncle was never just about him. They offered him a statement, right at the beginning, and they said if you sign this and promise to keep silent, this will all go away. We’ll take you home and it’ll go away. And he took the decision not to do that because this was not about him - it was about everything, it's about the struggle. And so, the fact that he - I wouldn't call it a sacrifice - but the fact that he did that for us, to then just abandon the struggle once he came out would be a betrayal of that act that he had taken to stay in there and endure what he endured, and what many endure but don't come out.
“When you’re campaigning for someone in your family or for someone you love, you go into survival instinct. It's very traumatic and harrowing, and you have to take on an authoritarian government - something huge and terrifying - and you have to just stare it in the eye and get into the eye of the storm. ”
MANOJNA - So much of your work actually locates itself in the struggles of Asia, particularly South Asia. My curiosity really stems from this idea that you have made it seem that geographical location isn’t as essential to the intention of actually challenging the status quo. I wonder if you could help unpack that.
SOFIA - Back when I was campaigning for my uncle, I realized that I could do that sitting in the U. K. and, in fact, there were many things I could do from here which I probably couldn't have done back in Bangladesh. Both are really important. You have to have on-ground campaigns and activism - and the struggle is located on the ground. But then you can back that up being in the U. K. or wherever.
Every civil rights movement has always used whatever tools they had at any given time. And it just happens to be that social media is the tool. But it's not just activists who are using social media. Everyone's using social media - that's just the environment we're in. I's anyone's duty to challenge the status quo. If you care about injustice in any way and you see it, it's your duty to challenge the status quo. But you can do that with any tool you have - and it happens to be that the two I use are art and social media.
MANOJNA - Could you tell us about your project Turbine Bagh and how that started?
SOFIA - Turbine Bagh started at the beginning of 2020. This protest was going to be in solidarity with Shaheen Bagh. We read that food was very important in Shaheen Bagh. So we were going to make protest art in the form of Samosa Packets. And we were going to send those Samosa packets to Shaheen Bagh afterwards. We were also going to have a chorus of activists and audience people who were going to sing protest songs that were being sung in the India protests.
So basically the Turbine Hall, we were going to turn it into our Shaheen Bagh for the day. It was going to be a place for peaceful protest. At that point, I did a call-out on Instagram to artists across India and Bangladesh, and not only India and Bangladesh, but from anywhere - because it's important to connect these struggles. And obviously right wing nationalism is rising everywhere. There was Trump at the time, and here we had Brexit and Boris Johnson. I said, “Can you send me your art and I'm going to print them on the Samosa packets - they’ll be at the demonstration and they will go to Shaheen Bagh afterwards.” So many artists, writers, poets, filmmakers, thinkers, began sending their work and I began printing them on these Samosa packets. And that was how Turbine Bagh started. Unfortunately, about 3 days before the protest was due to happen, the museum shut for COVID and everything had shut down globally by then. And then Shaheen Bagh itself was shut down. So the physical protest didn’t happen. But by now it was still going on Instagram, so Shaheen Bagh continued and has been involved in campaigns like the farmer’s protest and campaigns for political prisoners.
MANOJNA - It's an incredible trajectory to see the origins of Turbine Bagh and then how it sort of evolved into its digital avatar. But as much as it has been an opportunity for you to engage with the wider community, I wonder if there have been certain challenges and pushback that you've also faced, with Turbine Bagh and different forms of digital and social media activism?
SOFIA - Yes, there are challenges. For instance, just before the day of protest, Turbine Bagh was blocked by Instagram. I had to get a journalist - they said that the functions would be blocked for 3 weeks. In the bio it gave the date of the protests - knowing that that would basically kill that protest. We wouldn't be able to make it happen. And it was very difficult for me to lift that block, and it was only when I got journalistic intervention and an inquiry into why I'd been blocked that the block was lifted. And then, yes, there are also challenges like shadow-banning. Turbine Bagh has also been trolled a few times.
MANOJNA - Something that we're noticing is that throughout Asia and throughout the world - and perhaps more specifically throughout Asia - there are different efforts that are being made to introduce some kind of regulation and even censorship - I would go so far as to say into social media and into different formats and mediums of social media. Bangladesh has its infamous Digital Securities Act. You've campaigned for political prisoners and for artists in particular who have unfortunately fallen victim to this particular legislative instrument. Can you share with us regarding the Digital Securities Act, and what you’ve been seeing as an activist?
SOFIA - Authoritarian regimes have realized that this Digital Space is the one weak link in their chain now because they've pretty much co-opted most organs of the state, such as the judiciary, the police and the mainstream media. They've got them in their pocket now. The one space left which is out of their control is the digital space. And that's a space of mass mobilization - because you now have two arenas for mass mobilization - one is the physical space, the street protests and street gatherings, and the other is the virtual world of the digital space where people can mass mobilize.
That's a threat and it's out of their control, and it's a space where they can be criticized or scrutinized, which they don't want. Acts like the Digital Security Act are introduced. Artists, singers, activists, journalists, have all been victims of this Act. But it's so far-reaching and almost terrifying. It targets you for online content -- you always had laws like sedition laws anyway -- but now online content which is regarded as tarnishing the image of the nation, or seditious in some form, is struck with the Digital Security Act.
The way these wars work is that even for liking certain Facebook posts you can be jailed under the Digital Security Act. This includes, in Bangladesh, even certain minors - very young teenagers have been jailed for liking certain Facebook posts. There are countless cases, and it got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic where there have been many cases of people who are incarcerated under the Digital Security Act, because they criticized the government's handling of the COVID pandemic or exposed corruption. And this is basically the weapon of a thin-skinned, paranoid government that cannot tolerate any criticism - forget about criticism, even any scrutiny - which under a democracy is the norm. You're supposed to be able to scrutinize the government under a democracy, but they just can't tolerate it. So acts like the Digital Security Act signify the collapse of democracy effectively in our era.
MANOJNA - I think that you actually summed that up very well. As I mentioned, there are different variations of these social media or internet regulation laws that are cropping up. They're all cropping up with the same intention of attempting to safeguard the sovereignty of the countries that they have been enacted in. The definitions in these legislative instruments are very vague. They use words like ‘dangerous,’ for instance, without actually defining what that means. I'm sure invariably that leads to so much uncertainty. It’s possible to like a Facebook post and it's open to interpretation that this is now a dangerous act.
SOFIA - Yes, that's right. And what usually happens is that this Act - like most of these laws - are weaponized against the more vulnerable in society who are oppressed, so they often work in tandem with other kinds of laws. I don't know if India has a digital security act yet, it probably will have its equivalent. But for instance, the UAPA Law, which very much weaponized against oppressed castes. So you have groups of people who, in order to rise from the shackles of that bondage, of their centuries long oppression, need to mobilize. That's always happened. It happened with the Black liberation movement in America and similarly there, during the Civil Rights Movement, the police would come down hard on those groups of people who were trying to rise. The same thing is happening here now. The UAPA law and India’s are used very much against oppressed castes -- when they try to rise from the shackles of that bondage, they’re labeled as terrorists and sent to the dungeons. And they are used against whole classes of people in order to maintain social suppression that acts already in society.
MANOJNA - What still surprises me is how incredibly immersed you are in exactly what's happening in South Asia, in Bangladesh, and India despite the fact that you are quite far away geographically speaking. How do you see the international community and the diaspora being of help - can they be of help?
SOFIA - Yes, I think they have to be of help. There are several facets to this. Diaspora solidarity is essential and frankly there's just not enough of it. The space for dissent - what's happening in India and Bangladesh is absolutely terrifying - we are now at a precipice. If this is where we are now and the trajectory continues, the consequences will be imponderable. Part of that is that the spaces for dissent have very much shrunk in both those countries. Whereas for us based in the UK or the diaspora, wherever they are, fortunately at this stage, we have the relative privilege of safety. The way I see it is that artists back in our motherlands are taking those huge risks, so we really have no excuse. We’re in the comfort of our safety by not doing anything.
That's one side of it. But also what's really important with diaspora solidarity is that for me, what I do is as much about raising awareness amongst the U. K. population and that's because our own U. K. governments are complicit - very much so. And I want to get the message out and all of the U. K. followers who follow me have mentioned that their eyes have opened somewhat by this. I want to get the message out that whilst our own governments might provide us with a certain level of civil liberties here, they very much endorse fascist regimes elsewhere. This is not clean. Just because they're giving us the civil liberties here, what about the fact that they're endorsing fascism elsewhere? And sometimes people in the U. K. who follow Turbine Bagh say, “you know, now I know I see what's happening in India and Bangladesh, I didn't realize - What can we do to help?” And I say the main thing you can do to help is to hold your own governments to account. Listen to the different narratives and hypocritical narratives that they give and the double standards they put. Why do they talk about Russia and Iran but not about India? Look at the narratives in terms of what they define as extremism. Islamic extremism is seen as an existential threat. Hindu supremacy, they're obviously hunky dory with that - not a problem. Look at the kinds of military campaigns that they impose on others. This is really important in terms of diaspora solidarity and activist groups who operated here, for instance, a South Asia solidarity group who I work with, they've been active for over 30 years and they've always campaigned on both what's happening over there in India and Bangladesh but also against racism, imperialism and war on terror or Islamophobia here - because these things are intertwined. Our countries have common enemies. You know Trump, Johnson, they not going to say much about Hindutva because they have the common enemy of Islam.
“I want to get the message out that whilst our own governments might provide us with a certain level of civil liberties here, they very much endorse fascist regimes elsewhere. ”
The last thing I'll say on diaspora solidarity is the reason I did Turbine Bagh was to also raise awareness of the resistance movements that are happening in our parts of the world. For instance, Shaheen Bagh, in that case. However bleak things are, the resistance is incredibly vibrant and inspiring, and actually much more progressive than anything that's happening in the West.
In Bangladesh, the student movement is really strong. Whereas here, there is virtually no student movement to talk of. In India, in terms of the resistance, you're looking at strong organizations of women, you're looking at a progressive form of Islam which is uniting with the Dalits, Adivasis and oppressed castes, uniting with farmers laborers. They are against corporations, they deal with things like environmental campaigning, gender violence, and women's rights in a much much more progressive way than anything I'm seeing in the West.
Shaheen Bagh was the greatest women's resistance movement of our time, yet hardly anyone in the U. K. even knew about it. For all their talk of them being ahead in terms of women's rights, while we're sitting in a Burqa with no agency apparently.
Shaheen Bagh was a movement that was led mainly, but not only, by Muslim women. It challenged not only patriarchy but also Western stereotypes about women. And I didn't see any equivalent movements like that against Trump or Johnson in the West. Lots of saying all of this is really bad and very worrying, but I didn't see that kind of movement. I wanted the U. K. audiences to see the vibrancy of movements like Shaheen Bagh and what they look like so I think they have a lot to learn.
MANOJNA - Do you find that artists themselves are creative when it comes to different forms of resistance? Because there is the idea of using art to resist, but then do you feel that the artist community itself is responsible for creating and innovating different forms of resistance and dissent?
SOFIA - Yes, I do. Art and activism have become buzz words in the art market. They are actually trying to market it now as they always do - they want to commodify certain movements or revolutions in art. And at the moment they are very much seeing this as a kind of revolution which they're trying to commodify and sell us something new - but actually it's nothing new. I know of no civil rights resistance movement that didn't use the art of dissent and that's not only in visual art -- that's poetry, literature, music. It's nothing new because it's part of life. Art is a reflection of the human spirit and the pain and suffering of humanity. There's always going to be the art of dissent. I think artists continue to make that and because it resonates with people, and it gets the message across, it's seen as a real threat to governments. As we're seeing a rise of authoritarianism, we're also seeing a crushing of art which comes with that territory.
MANOJNA - We could definitely have a much longer conversation about this, but as as we wrap up,I do wonder if there's something that you would like to share to those who are listening with respect to how the creative community can continue to be hopeful in these times.I think that we could all we could all use a little bit of hope to help us build ourselves up and stay resilient.
“Art is a reflection of the human spirit and the pain and suffering of humanity. There's always going to be the art of dissent. I think artists continue to make that and because it resonates with people, and it gets the message across, it's seen as a real threat to governments. ”
SOFIA - Yes, in terms of Turbine Bagh - So the word Turbine, comes from the Greek word ‘Vortex’. It's a machine for producing continuous power. And Turning energy into useful work. And I think that's what Turbine Bagh is, it just tries to do useful work but part of that is just getting to know the other fellow artists as friends. A lot of the time you think about campaigning and activism. A lot of the time it's not that. I might just be messaging my fellow artists about some art put up which isn't even to do with politics or activism, and so I really like just talking about art, talking about family, talking about friends. And really acting as a family and as a community because this is an interesting moment in history where my fellow friends are living under an era of fascism and authoritarianism. That's a very very difficult year to be living under with huge stresses. And what happened with COVID, they're living under immense stress and it's just about acting like a friend and a fellow human being. If you're not looking out for the people around you, then what kind of an activist are you, really? I’ve got to know many people, many fellow artists and we just talk about art, how are you, sometimes venting about their families because their family may be supporting the government or opposing their activism.
One aspect of activism that people don't consider is that it actually can be really lonely and very difficult. What ends up happening is that you can lose friendships and can lose love and support from your family, and it's really hard to do what you do without love.
Love is a really crucial part of it. You can fight and you can fight but once you've kind of lost love and support from people around you, that's when you are the most vulnerable as an activist.
MANOJNA - Thank you so much for sharing all this information, sharing your insights and really sharing space, whether it's through Turbine Bagh or whether it's through conversations like these. We really appreciate having you in this series.
SOFIA - Thank you so much for inviting me and stay well!
To learn more about Sofia and engage with her activism, visit her website and follow her on social media.