Creative Lives — “I always made art and one day I started getting paid for it”: artist Sofia Niazi
After studying for an MA in illustration, artist Sofia Niazi went on the dole. “My dad advised me to do that so I could feel secure while looking for a job,” she tells us. “I’m glad I did, it gave me some breathing room.” By taking risks, overlooking the stigma and exploring her interests with full flexibility, Sofia was able to find her path. Now working collaboratively as part of OOMK – an art collective and biannual publication that focuses on women, art and activism – she also dabbles in various freelance projects for clients such as the Barbican, The Guardian and Museum of London, and runs a community Risograph print studio in Newham, London. We speak with Sofia as she reflects on her path, the struggles with attributing a price to your job and the importance of being yourself.
Freelance Artist and Project Manager
London and Birmingham
Serpentine Galleries, The Guardian, Kew Gardens and the Museum of London
Kingston University (2011-2014)
Sofia at work
How would you describe what you do?
I work collaboratively on education and publishing projects as part of OOMK (One of My Kind) with Rose Nordin and Heiba Lamara. I like to work on projects that I think are interesting, fun, important or easy. The easy ones never end up being easy but I sign up for them because they look like they will be. I’m still trying to work out how to predict if something will be a good work or life experience, or if it will result in a 3am nervous breakdown (I wonder if a flow chart for this exists).
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I’m currently doing a fellowship at Birmingham School of Art, which means I get to focus on developing my own work. This is an absolute dream come true because my own work mainly involves sitting in Café Nero reading books and drinking sugar-syrup coffee. I have a vague routine: I wake up early to do my morning prayer, eat breakfast, dilly dally (with emails or company accounts) and head to my studio. If it’s Wednesday, I’ve got to be at my studio at 8am for a morning crit club with my friends. During the day, I go on the internet for ‘research-based art practice’ and then have to do at least four hours of offline exhibition-related work because I proper slacked off for the past seven months.
“I’m still trying to work out how to predict if something will be a good work or life experience.”
How collaborative is your role?
I have a few different roles as a freelancer and nearly all of them involve working collaboratively – except keeping track of accounts; that’s a lonely job that I do with my glasses on and in silence. My personal work is collaborative too, but the only difference is that I don’t have to do what anyone has suggested. I’m the main administrator person at Rabbits Road Press – a community and education-focused Risograph print studio in Newham that we (OOMK) set up in 2017. I love working with everyone there to try and ensure that the project stays alive, healthy and wholesome.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The best thing about my job is that I get to be myself nearly all the time. I think that so much of the exhaustion I felt from my previous jobs was to do with playing a role; I’m not good at pretending, so it took a lot of effort to smile at customers and help them to decide which useless product to buy. The least enjoyable aspect of my work is when I’m working on something I’ve never done before and I can’t do it, and I have a deadline.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I worked with Rosalie Scheweiker to plan and deliver Print and Matter, a summer school inspired by our favourites, artist Corita Kent and [feminist poster group] See Red Women’s Workshop. We hosted a week long art escape at Rabbits Road Press in July and invited some excellent people to lead workshops and sessions. It was very special and the kind of thing I’d like to do more of.
Sofia’s project Printed Matter, in collaboration with Rosalie Scheweiker
Sofia’s project Printed Matter, in collaboration with Rosalie Scheweiker
Sofia’s ongoing project, Sermons, in collaboration with Abbas Zahedi
Sofia is part of the biannual publication OOMK
Are you currently working on any personal projects?
I’ve been exploring the visual culture of the housing market and I’m currently getting work together for a solo show at Eastside Projects – held at Unreal Estate on September 27th. I also have an ongoing project with Abbas Zahedi called Sermons, where we invite artists to write the sermons they feel are needed today.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Recently I’ve started making rugs, so I’m using a lot of wool from Poundland. The shop has a limited colour option which helps with the decision making, but the downside is that it discontinues colours all of a sudden – it took two calls to the head office and seven trips to different stores to track down a pink I was using. I also use InDesign and I’d like to say I use Photoshop and Illustrator (since I pay for them), but I normally default to GIMP because it’s free and it’s what I got fluent in when I couldn’t afford or comprehend Adobe elite gear.
How I Got Here
Do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
I’m not sure. I guess I developed creative habits early on – I used to get ‘step-by-step’ art and craft books from the library with my best friend when we were kids, so I got a lot of practice. My parents helped me find the different materials and junk I needed to make stuff. I’m one of many children, so I think a healthy dose of neglect allowed me to get on with things and make mistakes without too much attention. I’ve sort of fallen into my career, I always made art and one day I started getting paid for it.
Do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
I did an MA in Illustration and, although it helped my practice develop, I think the most useful education for my job was a Foundation in Art and Design. It was so engaging and exciting – it gave me a sense of what a creative life could look like.
“I managed to get a job within a month or two – not from the Job Centre though, has anyone ever found a job through the Job Centre?”
Inside Sofia’s studio
What were your initial steps after graduating?
I went on the dole. My dad advised me to do that so I could feel secure while looking for a job. I’m glad I did, it gave me some breathing room. I know there’s stigma attached to being on the dole and it can be depressing, but I don’t believe in suffering unnecessarily. I managed to get a job within a month or two – not from the Job Centre though; has anyone ever found a job through the Job Centre?
I then worked as an art teacher in a small secondary school and set up OOMK with my friends Sabba Khan and Rose Nordin. All the creative work I did back then was self-initiated or with friends, it wasn’t a source of income so I was free to explore genuine interests and learn without getting fired or forced to work in a particular style. We learned how to fill in application forms for grants and started up our own projects. I did an MA in Illustration later and ended up working on a project about the lives of women affected by the War on Terror – I learned a lot about the role of art in, and I developed a more reliable and reflective approach to working on creative projects.
Some of Sofia’s work for the Unreal Estate exhibition
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
So many, all the time. I think about good and bad luck in terms of blessings and trials. I feel really grateful that I’m able to do work that I enjoy with people who I really like, and I believe that all the good opportunities and people have come from God and prayers – those of my own and of others.
How important would you say social media is?
I think if you can’t use it well then, in terms of making your best work, it’s probably better not to use it much. It’s very tempting to make work that is more and more likeable but very quickly you’ll realise that the only question you’re asking in your work is ‘do you like this?’ – which is pretty flat.
How important is self-promotion in your work?
I’m used to promoting OOMK and Rabbits Road Press – they both have a profile, so I feel like we haven’t had to promote ourselves individually to get the kind of work we want.
“Very quickly you’ll realise that the only question you’re asking is ‘do you like this?’ – which is pretty flat.”
‘Still no News’, from Sofia’s final MA project
What have been your biggest learnings with making money as a creative?
I worked as a teacher before I started working as an artist, so I already had a sense of what I was worth in terms of a day rate. I think a lot of artists struggle to attribute a sum of money to their often difficult-to-describe job. Websites which offer benchmarks for artists are really helpful, like Artists Union England or A-n. I’ve always been happy to have different jobs as long as I’m covering all my costs – even now, being a full-time paid artist seems like a weird concept to me.
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
Work is work, as long as no one dies and I have some form of employment. I can’t say my biggest challenges come from work. In fact, that has been the biggest challenge: refusing to live through work.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative getting into a similar line of work?
Set your own measures for success early on and work towards those. Find good friends. Be grateful for what you have and hopefully more will follow. Learn to sit with your blessings so that you don’t miss the good bit rushing for the next thing.