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Event Review – ‘The Things That Shape Us’ by Soofiya

Earlier this month, artist, illustrator and creative, Soofiya, officially opened the doors to ‘The Things That Shape Us’ – a brand new solo show that serves as a radical exploration of self-image and existing in public as a brown, visibly gender non-conforming person in Britain today. Open throughout April, Britain Uncovered provides a look at what visitors can expect.


Artist, illustrator and creative, Soofiya, posing outside the ONCA Gallery in Brighton in April 2022
Soofiya posing outside the ONCA Gallery in Brighton on opening day. Image credit: Éloïse Armary

Soofiya’s art practice and writings have always offered a fascinating commentary on gender, race, politics and bodies, and The Things That Shape Us – the artist’s latest exhibition currently taking place in Brighton – further cements this notion by challenging people to consider their relationships with bodies: not just their own, but their perception of other bodies likewise.


The overall concept for the new solo show is for Soofiya to explore what it means to be brown and visibly gender non-conforming in Britain today through design and illustration, and via a series of self-portraits, illustrations, manuscripts and other interactive elements, the exhibition encourages attendees to turn inwards and contemplate the various ways we interpret the human body.


Soofiya's self-portraits are featured alongside important questions about the body. Image credit: Éloïse Armary

Speaking about the concept behind the exhibition, Soofiya explains, “Existing in public and spaces when you are visibly gender-non-conforming can often be violent, scary and filled with harassment. Every time I step out of the house I risk and experience varying degrees of harassment… to constantly be watched, judged and questioned because of the way you look is an agonising way of navigating the world and spaces.


“I believe all work carries therapeutic value and what it means to give this space to my body. With every painting and drawing my intention is to try to make this body feel like home, and this show is also an opportunity and invitation for you to do the same with your body.”


The new exhibition deservedly generated a significant amount of interest online in the days leading up to the event, and on April 8th, Soofiya officially opened the doors of the ONCA Gallery in Brighton city centre for a special private view of this unique and uplifting show. With the opening coinciding with Soofiya’s birthday, there was rightfully cause for celebration, and as visitors poured in shortly after the 4pm, we could definitely feel an air of positivity and jubilation throughout the gallery – which set the tone perfectly and made for an incredibly warm and supportive environment throughout our visit.


The exterior of the ONCA Gallery on the day of Soofiya's private viewing. Image credit: Éloïse Armary

Greeted by Soofiya upon arrival with the warmest of welcomes (along with a glass of mini Party Rings which we unashamedly devoured in no time at all), we were instantly enamored with the quantity, diversity and sheer colourfulness of the artwork adorning the venue’s walls – and at first glance, we couldn’t help but just admire the warmth and loveliness of these beautiful illustrations. But shortly thereafter, and on closer inspection, we discovered that much of the art was accompanied by some incredibly important body-related questions such as: “When do you feel most at home in your body”?, “How has your body shaped you”? And “What kind of bodies do you want to make space for”? It was at this stage that the introspection began in earnest, and each and every thought-provoking question we stumbled on resulted in more than a moment or two of self-reflection and contemplation.


Discussing how the self-portraits align with the questions being raised, Soofiya tells us, “The Things That Shape Us showcases a series of self-portraits, and in each one I’m trying to find ways to hold space for the realities of my body and its changes beyond my control. With every painting and drawing, my intention is to try to make this body feel like home.


“As you make your way around the space, take time to reflect on the questions asked. The power of using self-portraiture is a means to subvert an often hostile ‘cisgender gaze’. This show invites you to share this space of living in my liminal body.


“Here we can grieve and share anxiety, but also celebrate and build community through universal human experience around body image. At its core, this work honours and affirms gender non-conformity and the ways in which a body can and does challenge eurocentricity.”


"Who do you normally see on gallery walls?" Image credit: Éloïse Armary

In many ways, the exhibition raised more questions that we necessarily had answers for (in the best possible sense), and days after attending, we still find ourselves reflecting on many of these important questions and contemplating our perspectives of the body; and it was such a pleasure getting to speak in-depth with Soofiya and exchanging many of our thoughts and feelings about several of these important topics also.


The self-portraits, combined with these questions about the body, all make for a really powerful space that was hugely thought-provoking – and in addition to conjuring up opinions in your own mind’s eye, visitors also have the opportunity to note down their thoughts on some of the questions posed and can submit their responses in a dedicated area of the exhibition. A selection will end up being displayed throughout the course of the show, which adds to the interactive nature of the event and helps further the conversations taking place within the gallery’s four walls.


Meanwhile, in a smaller section of the gallery downstairs, a pop-up cinema area plays a video Soofiya has created that features a self-narrated testimonial about the artist’s body, which almost serves as a love letter to the body in many respects. Featuring original artwork designed specifically for the video, the clip perfectly complements everything hung on the walls upstairs but digs deeper, providing an open, honest and unique insight that I'm sure many people (ourselves included) can relate to.


Soofiya speaking with a visitor during the launch of the artist's exhibition in Brighton. Image credit: Éloïse Armary

All in all, The Things That Shape Us is an incredibly provocative and thought-provoking exhibition that offers so much food for thought, and any space that encourages us to consider our attitudes towards the ways we perceive bodies is always welcome and so incredibly important. Although it was the questions and discussion points that really stood out to us, Soofiya’s fantastic artwork alongside these conversation-starters perfectly complements the questions being presented – and together, it results in an exceptional exhibition that we can’t recommend highly enough. Be sure to visit before the show closes its doors at the end of the month!


The following is a list of questions that were posed at the exhibition, all of which were designed to encourage us to think about our relationships with our bodies. If you’re unable to attend the show, we’d definitely encourage you to take time to contemplate the following:


What do you love about your body?

What do you struggle with around your body?

What liminal spaces do you belong to?

What makes you feel at home?

Who makes you feel at home?

What changes has your body experienced over time?

What does your body hold?

How can you celebrate your body today?

What makes you cry?

What hurts?

When do you feel loved?

What kind of people do you usually see on gallery walls?

What kind of bodies do you want to make space for?

What is different about you?

Who are you beyond your body?

Do you judge this body?

Do you judge your own body?

What’s the kindest thing anyone has ever said to you?

What’s the kindest thing you have said to yourself?

How have you grown?

What do you wish for yourself

How do you see yourself?

Who do you see?


- The Things That Shape Us is taking place at the ONCA Gallery in Brighton, and will remain open until April 30th. The exhibition is open from Wednesdays through to Saturdays, and full timings – along with everything else you need to know ahead of your visit – can be found by clicking here.


About Soofiya


Soofiya’s design practice centres around illustration, visual identity and book design, with most clients tending to be in the arts, cultural and activist sector. Soofiya’s art practice and writings aim to articulate a commentary on gender, race, politics and bodies through a DIY and therapeutically informed approach.


Soofiya has worked as a lecturer in design and arts at universities and higher education institutions nationally and internationally in the UK and Xiamen, China. Soofiya is currently an associate lecture at UAL on their MA Internet Equalities course, and is also a sessional lecturer at Ravensbourne and Brighton University.


Part of Soofiya’s work includes consultancy and corporate facilitation, and Soofiya’s writing has also been in a handful of books – including Can We All Be Feminists, which was published internationally – as well as independent magazines and newspapers, both online and in print.


For more information, please visit www.soofiya.com and be sure to follow the artist on Instagram and Twitter.

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