Born in Wales with Yemeni and Bangladeshi heritage, Karimah Hassan has an expressive, bold aesthetic and is heralded for "taking stories of community gatekeepers full circle, from the canvas to the streets." Karimah creates live paintings at performance events across London and New York to highlight the importance of communities in the city.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER:
Welcome to This Being Human…I’m your host Abdul Rehman-Malik. On this podcast from the Aga Khan Museum I talk to extraordinary people from all over the world whose life, ideas and art are shaped by Muslim culture.
There's a new generation that has a very unique perspective to how they see themselves as young Muslims in the modern world.
TANYA MUNEERA WILLIAMS:
I am this wide eyed girl. I'm like, I want it all, I want to experience it all.
Everyone has a story. Sometimes you just have to find out what it is.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER:
Like the poem that inspires this podcast, The Guest House, by Sufi poet Jallaludin Rumi, we’re talking to people who seek meaning and joy in work and life…regardless of what the day brings.
I first met Karimah Hassan earlier this year in London - at the home of one of our previous guests, my beloved friend Nadir Nahdi.
As someone working at the cutting edge of London’s dynamic arts scene, Karimah carries none of the bravado of young Tracey Emin. Instead, I was struck by how considered, thoughtful and compassionate Karimah was. Challenging in her ideas and open to being challenged about them, Karimah sits at the intersections of many identities and multiple lives.
When I went home, I immediately ordered her book, The Strangers Yearbook. The book is a collection of portraits, gathered in the early days of lockdown. Karimah asked people to send her self-portraits alongside a bit of text about how they were feeling. She then turned those into paintings and posted them online.
The book has become a well-thumbed favourite on my coffee table.
Living through this pandemic has come with an incredible amount of grief and trauma. But seeing how others are feeling can also bring connection and hope, at a time when those things were in short supply.
Building connection is a theme that runs throughout Karimah’s work – as a painter, as well as a poet and a convener of community gatherings.
KARIMAH HASSAN: Growing up, I was totally empathetic and now I'm starting to hone those senses and use my training as an empath to connect in a way that is more sustainable and is more of service than just being a sponge for emotions.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER:
Karimah joined me from her studio in East London, where we talked about that focus on community, as well as ancestry, art, and her recent experiments with NFTs. We began by talking about the genesis of The Strangers Yearbook.
KARIMAH HASSAN: I started just by reaching out to family and friends and just saying, hey, I'm doing this project. Like, let me know how you're feeling and I'll paint you. And it was a very kind of like it was at the perfect kind of olive branch because it was like, let me know how you're feeling when you are ready, when you have the capacity and I love you. Like, here's something I'll give you just don't like. You know how people say like I'll pay you as a no, it's not about that. Just tell me how you're feeling and like and just check in with me. And then I didn't expect to have such resonance with the different stories that came in. Initially, it was just kind of like, I want to give you something. And then when the stories came back to me and then I had this response of overlapping, understanding, like, Oh, I feel good, but I feel bad about feeling good, or, Oh, I feel like that too. And I feel like that. And yeah, I've had days when I felt like that and I've had days when I've felt seven of these stories that it kind of was just like, hey, I should, I should open this up and I should open this up on Instagram because there was something really, really refreshing about how I'd always before that point find Instagram kind of like a bit of a sterile place, like a bit like too considered. And there was something super nice about bringing this feeling of vulnerability and realness through a selfie, which is usually such a token of vanity that it was actually like, wow, I can really flip how I connect to people. And that feels so much more interesting.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: There's such an interesting paradox in the title of what became the book…
KARIMAH HASSAN: Yeah.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: The Strangers Yearbook, because as you're speaking, the paradox is really obvious, right? You solicited this art from people who were strange to you that you didn't know. But actually, not only you as the artist, but us as readers of the book leave the text, leave the pages of the book, no longer being strangers to those who you feature.
KARIMAH HASSAN: And yeah.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: In fact, we kind of get to know them really intimately.
KARIMAH HASSAN: Well like that something – I didn't expect that. So in 2021, as we started to open up, I had the first public exhibition of the portraits. It was when they were shown in real life, right? And that was so beautiful in itself because it took it off Instagram into like tactile territory. But what was so interesting is that as people were coming into the gallery space, which wasn't really like a typical gallery space, it was public. I wanted to be very welcoming and very comfortable and very much open to strangers. So as people were coming in and I- I've forgotten that we'd never met before as I greeted them first person who said like, Hey, so how’s your dad doing, because I know when you submitted, he wasn't very well. I'm like they said, they were like, Oh my gosh, you know my name or like, oh, you remember my story. And it was like, of course, how could I, how could I not? At that point, I was painting your face and more close to you than people in my life because of lockdown. And so you know, like painting is just like it's such a privilege I get to express myself in that way. And I know it's such an honour that I get to do that and spend some of my days in colour, but connection, right? Like it's just so important. And I think that's just my vehicle for connection. And when we have those moments in real life where those strangers come off the street and, they would walk into the gallery, and for them, they're walking in kind of like there's a weird power at play, too, because they walk in almost like I'm going to go and consume and see something and be entertained. And I'm on the other side like I know who you are. And it just again, I love it because it flips everything around about social media. Because that's how we are in social media too, like some people put themselves out there, some people don't. We feel like we have a right to some people's lives, but it's all just like layers of masks and layers of vulnerability. And it's just – it's super interesting.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Was there a story that really stuck with you that you maybe continue to think about a lot even today, now that it's been some time since the project itself completed?
KARIMAH HASSAN: So the things that stay with us are often the ones that have the most emotional intensity, right. They etch the actual pathway in our brain that much deeper. And so when you ask that question, the first ones that came to my mind, I had this flash of like three or four and very different emotions. The first one was about a priest, an Anglican priest, who decided to step further into the faith during lockdown and like that kind of stuck in my head, because I don't know when I would cross paths with an Anglican priest on my day-to-day in East London. And that was like really interesting because their faith journey was quite inspiring in terms of stepping out into that priest realm during lockdown. Another one that kind of stuck out to me was someone, I think her name was Caroline, whose father passed away. And she overcame cancer at the same time. And I just remember thinking, gosh, that strength, the resilience. You know, being tested twice, first by losing a loved one and then by overcoming cancer. And I again, she was a stranger, but I just remember thinking like, there's a special season in life, you know, where you go from being an athlete, where it's not about you being in your body or starting your confidence or ego, and you go into the sage realm of life. And I just remember that her story was like, okay, Karimah, there'll be a point where you really… you're going to have to turn to the sage in a way like, these are the people that paved the way for you for when that time comes. There was a funny one from Joe about how it felt to — there was a crush he had and he kept seeing her and he didn't have the courage to go up to her and speak to her. And then one day he did. I just remember that it's like something so sweet and lovely. And I thought it was, like, such a welcome story because it was just very light-hearted.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: You really do come from a wondrous background. I'm sure there are times when you tell people that I am Yemeni and Bangladeshi and Welsh and they kind of look at you and probably smile, maybe even laugh and say, What is that mean? What is it mean to be Bangladeshi and Yemeni and Welsh?
KARIMAH HASSAN: It’s, you tell me. It's the product of the British Empire. I am the product of the British Empire. You know, like I have a product of the lands that the British Empire colonized and later came back to give work and prosperity and, and a bit of sass, a bit of you created this, so all the times that you repressed my forefathers, I come back to bear that torch of heritage. And, I truly think it is something so British actually, about having these interfaith marriages. And I'm such a product of interfaith marriage, like everyone in my family has a different last name, a different hair texture and again, that feeling of non-belonging. And then you find your own sense of belonging. So yeah, my mum is from Bangladesh. She was born and raised in London. My dad is half Welsh, half Yemeni. I used to feel way more connected to my Yemeni side when I was growing up because my father grew up in the docks and had that Yemen heritage, that I was kind of around the family photos more was around the family stories and I was connected to the Yemeni side of the family more. And so I only started getting more into Bangladeshi side of my identity after coming to London and making friends with Bangladeshi people and seeing like, Oh my gosh, this is where so many of the nuances that my mum had, that's where it came from. Before that, I didn't know that was Bangladeshi, I just naively thought it was my mum. And yeah, London's be really incredible for helping me to find a sense of belonging in terms of finding those pockets of identities. Um, it's, yeah, it's funny.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: At times you've shared Karimah, on your Instagram wall, these kind of incredible pictures of your father's family in Wales, and maintaining the traditions of the Yemen. And even as you said, this story so tied to empire of Yemenis sea merchants arriving in places like Cardiff and taking shore leave and then settling and marrying into Welsh families and marrying Welsh women. And starting these hybrid bi-cultural families. But some of those pictures Karimah are so powerful, of your grandfather leading, you know, celebratory marches on special days like Eid or the birthday of the prophet, through the streets of these Welsh towns, and there's something so -- I just want to-I want to jump into the photograph. I want to- I want to be there. I want to ask questions. I want to know the story because you know, something in our mind goes that belongs somewhere else and not quite in Cardiff, but actually it totally belongs in Cardiff and it totally belongs in the places that those photos were taken because that's where this life was happening.
KARIMAH HASSAN: There's two sides to this story of our connection to our history, my history and I think sometimes we can glorify, we can see so much beauty in that richness of those stories. And I think I'm incredibly lucky to look back and have those photos of my great grandfather leading prayers through Cardiff, so vividly and so beautifully and I think that's why I know that story, because everyone that passed down from that lineage is proud. They were super proud that he came from Yemen and he created the mosque and created the Arabic learning school and he left this huge legacy and I think we're so proud of that, that's why we savor on the the richness of those photos and that history. But I'm also -- as I'm becoming older and I can see things from my mother's perspective and another perspective, I'm seeing, oh, there's a sadness. Now I understand why my mum didn't speak about her family because there was so much pain there. And the reason why I never got the stories I wanted to get was because my mum couldn't go into the stories because they were just too traumatizing and painful. And so I just want to be really careful about that because I'm like, I'm so proud of the love and the gorgeousness of one side and there's this void. But I actually think there's a void because it's too traumatic. And I think that's something that we I want to pay homage to is like sometimes it's really painful to talk about those experiences and when we have that diaspora moving, it's sometimes like -- and our parents are not ready to go into that, into those memories. And, just because we don't necessarily wear that identity and those memories proudly, it doesn't mean they're not part of us, but sometimes we just have to give time to process. No one is better than anyone else because we wear our identity with pride or not with pride. Like sometimes it takes a different emotional journey and I can really see that with the beauty of having my mom, who had maybe like more of a, uh... She kept her personal life and her personal identity secret. Now I'm understanding because there was pain there, and that's why I didn't necessarily know. And my dad's kept it so open and public and proud because there was glory there. And I kind of just want to talk about those two things because not not one is better than the other. But I have the privilege of seeing both sides of that spectrum, you know.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: How has that shaped your work as an artist living between those two profound experiences?
KARIMAH HASSAN: I think I'm a vessel for the truth. And the more that I can clean myself and clean myself of the trauma that's within me and the ego and be like Allah, please use me, please use me, please use me. It's crazy, but I'm actually like, I can literally go into my body and, like, find memories of my grandma that my mum didn't even know. And I'll say, Mum, did you know this about Grandma? What! How do you know? I'm like this in my top shoulder, here. This is crazy. Or be like,
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: That's amazing.
KARIMAH HASSAN: Yeah, it's like my great grandfather. I'd be like, oh, like I was dreaming and he came to me. And I say that because I think that as we can clear ourselves of our own filters, we have this connection to our memories, also our future. That is like it sounds otherworldly, but I think it's just part of the truth. It's connection. And so me being an artist, being able to, it was unparallel with me coming closer to Allah through knowing Allah through love and not through fear. And as I started to open my heart up and release the layers of dirt and hurt, I become more, more connected to something higher than me and more connected to people because I could hold more love and more compassion I think.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER:
Karimah referred to herself as being part of the bridge generation between the pre-internet world and the post-digital frenzy.
And that tension is embedded perfectly in a recent project she’s been working on. Every month, she creates a beautiful golden print of an image and a poem about the moment she is in – using a woodcutting technique called linocut.
She then digitizes those pieces and releases them as NFTs.
KARIMAH HASSAN: The intention was how can I understand more about the NFT world and basically start like let this be a project where it's about me learning about how to create, you know, codes of conduct, very technical, logistical things. My intention was starting this project was, hey, even if it takes me years or even it's just a stepping stone, I'd rather go slow and with this one than it be about like, the glory of the marketing or anything like that. It was just about, let me understand the space. And let me do something where I can create something that I would create I would love anyways. And so every month when I kind of drop into meditation, I think about the message of where the world is at. And I didn't realize I had that within me that this capacity to feel so deep within myself, I can feel the world. But apparently, that's happening. And so that's really cool because I can, you know, create a line of when I printed, I created an NFT with a meditation behind it. But more than that, it was like, okay, this space is getting a lot of talk and hype. But actually, if you create an NFT and it's sold on, when the artwork sold on, I can still make royalties and I can still have a say in, an understanding of where the artwork is sold. Whereas in the real world, when I saw the painting often I don't know whose hands it will go into afterwards, so often artists are actually like undersold. Or when there's been a big markup on their painting, I'm not going to know. I don't know whose hands those go in to. And so I really like the kind of the idea of this kind of like power with movement that the blockchain offers and this kind of like really opening up of transactions, like because of the blockchain, you can see who buys who's work and you can see when some people's work and like they've been buying their own work and you're like, hey, that's kind of corrupt. Like, okay, you basically unravels a lot and it's a lot more transparent. And so I, I'm really enjoying just kind of having a foot in this because I do think it's a future of the art world. who knows where it's going to go. But I do like the idea that there's a lot more like democracy.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Karimah the individual pieces of art are absolutely stunning. Can you just describe the technique because you call it the lino cutting technique? And, can you bring it to life for us? Because I've watched you do it not in person, but I've watched you share videos and content on your page around how you're doing it. And I find it mesmerizing and also really complex. You know, as I'm watching you do it,
KARIMAH HASSAN: Yeah.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: I'm like I'm like, wow, it looks like that. And then it looks like that. And I'm, I'm blown away.
KARIMAH HASSAN: Sure. So I thought it was really interesting to lino cutting stencil wood engraving. And, it's an ancient form of creating art. One of the most ancient forms originates in China, and it's one of the most ancient forms of art you can use, which I find really funny that I want to do that to create an NFT, right? Like the old in the new world. And what it is, you kind of, you have this block, I use Lino and you basically you carve into it with these kind of chiseled tools and the reverse of what you carve is what's printed. Almost like you're making a really beautiful stamp, but on a large scale. And so you have to think that the block that you carve, you cut it in reverse. If you write text, you have to write the text in reverse because it'll be printed on the inverse. So there's a whole other way of using your minds and something like segway. And I really love how I can bridge the left and right hemisphere. So if I can do anything that helps me to shake the idea but the reason why I wanted to lino cutting was because so much of my painting is about being spontaneous and just going with the flow and seeing what kind of comes to me, what colors come to me. To sit down and have something which is much more strategic was a really nice change of using my mind and much more slow. And then on top of that, initially I was actually going to do the prints in black and white. And then I just remember having like this small epiphany and thinking, oh my gosh, they should be in gold because this should only be one printed like they should be just like so limited edition there's only one that exists in the world. And, that, there's something like almost Egyptian about it when it's in gold. And also it symbolizes when you see them in real life, when you see the ink that layers up, you have these shadows. It looks like an old banknote, like it looks super regal. I was like, oh, there's just so many layers of symbolism in terms of currency and what is currency and value and gold and gold print. And it just feels so rich and luxurious that to have that as an NFT is almost like kind of funny, like to play with Egyptian symbolism as an NFT in ancient things NFT is like kind of funny.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: They are truly stunning. The prints themselves. And there's this almost magical process that you sometimes revealed to us through the ‘gram as you actually print the image and as the paper comes off the lino etching and all of a sudden the words that are reverse to the image that are reverse, they all come to life. It's like watching something spiritual happen. Is that part, is that part of your intent?
KARIMAH HASSAN: Totally. Even like just the words that I put on the frames, I'll drop into meditation and then ask like whatever needs to come through me to be put on the floor each month. And that's like a spiritual thing in terms of like just taking the time to print it and to, I don't know, even the process is like, it's like rubbing my hands and like pressing on with my hands and like, like using that and I really using force. And it's a much more like hands-on experience. Yeah. And that's what I do for this next chapter, like the work I created with gold print, I was like, it needs to be spiritual for me to be able to sustain it. Like, if I'm going to do anything on the NFT world, it needs to be related to my spiritual practice because I won't be able to sustain it any other way. There is this poem actually I wrote that like made me think of, of because I, I love Islam is so rich in beauty and love. And I think sometimes, you know, well, many times it's gotten a bad rap. And, I wrote a poem about the role of like almost the new creators, like, you know, like the Da Vincis of the Italian renaissance. Like, what if Islam was having a renaissance in art? Do you wanna hear it?
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Yes, absolutely. I'd love to.
KARIMAH HASSAN: Just like written it. Okay, it's called The Renaissance. "Habibi, do you see me? Do you see the world that we created and the gap between dreams? Thank you for the pain that comes with that beautiful history. Islam is having renaissance. What you call creativity, I call healing. What you commodify, I rectify. We are the new generation. We bring our uniqueness, our queerness, our little bit too muchnesss, all of it. We heal. Seven generations before this body keeps a score. And we build. Seven generations from now, where sky hits the ground. We alchemize the role into creative brilliance. Unconditional love times by 8 billion. Total forgiveness. Pure gold. inside and outside these bones." That’s it.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Karimah Hassan, who or what would you like to welcome into your guest house?
KARIMAH HASSAN: Understanding. Understanding from outside of this plane. A calm observation from above my head that sees the plot behind the film so that I can kind of accept and embrace everything that comes into this, this little scene within an understanding that it's all happening for a bigger plot. That's what I like. Just a gentle understanding.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Karimah I think, through your words, through your artwork, through your sharing of images and story and color, I think you're already offering a space for understanding, understanding you and all the multitudes you contained, but the way you've helped understand us, especially during this pandemic times. Thank you, Karimah for being with me on This Being Human. This was really wonderful.
KARIMAH HASSAN: Oh my god, big smile on my face. Thank you.
ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER:
Thank you for listening to This Being Human. You can see images from the Strangers Yearbook, the Goldprint and more of Karimah Hassan’s work by following the links in the show notes.
This Being Human is produced by Antica in partnership with TVO. Our Senior Producer is Kevin Sexton. Our associate producer is Zana [Zah-nuh] Shammi. Additional editorial support from Lisa Gabriele.
Mixing and sound design by Phil Wilson. Original music by Boombox Sound.
Stuart Coxe is the president of Antica Productions. Katie O’Connor is TVO’s senior producer of podcasts. Laurie Few is the executive for digital at TVO.
This Being Human is generously supported by the Aga Khan Museum, one of the world’s leading institutions that explores the artistic, intellectual and scientific heritage of Muslim civilizations around the world. For more information about the museum go to www.agakhanmuseum.org
The Museum wishes to thank Nadir and Shabin Mohamed for their philanthropic support to develop and produce This Being Human.
Born in Wales with Yemeni and Bangladeshi heritage, Karimah has an expressive, bold aesthetic and is heralded for "taking stories of community gatekeepers full circle, from the canvas to the streets." Karimah creates live paintings at performance events across London and New York to highlight the importance of communities in the city.
In the episode, Karimah Hassan talks about:
"The things that stay with us are often the ones that have the most emotional intensity."
"We can clear ourselves of our own filters, we have this connection to our memories, also our future. It sounds otherworldly, but I think it's just part of the truth. It's connection."
"We feel like we have a right to some people's lives, but it's all just like layers of masks and layers of vulnerability."
"Just because we don't necessarily wear that identity and those memories proudly, it doesn't mean they're not part of us, but sometimes we just have to give time to process."
To learn more about this conversation, visit: