Soofiya : The Things That Shape Us

Exhibition review by Ishtar Parrish Wain

Soofiya’s first solo exhibition, held at ONCA in April 2022, was a radical exploration of gender nonconformity and a vivid celebration of subverting an (often hostile) cis-gender gaze.

The Things That Shape Us is a series of self-portraits by artist and designer Soofiya, in which we are invited to witness their experience of trying to make their body feel like home as a brown, visibly gender non-conforming person in Britain today.  With work showcased globally at institutions such as the Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Parsons School of Design in New York and Muca-Roma in Mexico City, Soofiya’s creative practice offers respite from a damaging Eurocentric, binary bias. 

Through illustration, animation, poetry and painting, Soofiya’s work encourages us to self-reflect: who are we beyond the bodies we have?

Image credit: Éloïse Armary, 2022. Image description: A close-up photograph of a shelf in the exhibition. On the shelf are 5 illustrations, 4 of them framed. Next to the illustrations is a small pilea plant in a yellow pot. To the left of the shelf is a round yellow sticker on the wall that reads ‘Make a promise to yourself and your body’. Dotted around the wall are more colourful illustrations.

The Things That Shape Us showcases a selection of Soofiya’s work, with large multimedia acetate prints hung from the ceiling, colourful sketchbooks and illustrations plastering the walls, and a message board with pens and paper with which guests are welcomed to peg thoughts and self-reflections in response to questions around the gallery. Downstairs, a recording of a poem read aloud by the artist plays alongside a looped animation, and bean bags create soft nooks in which to immerse yourself in the visual and auditory experience. The animation and poem also play on a small screen on the gallery’s ground floor for those who may have difficulty accessing the basement. Plants and cushions scattered throughout the space foster a feeling of comfort, ease and welcome, with Soofiya often sitting in the window – drawing, writing, or talking to visitors about how they relate to the work. The artist writes,

‘I believe all work carries therapeutic value and this show explores 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. This show is also an opportunity and invitation for you to do the same with your body. As you make your way around the space, take time to reflect on the questions asked.’

Image credit: Éloïse Armary, 2022. Image description: A white room with hanging colourful acetate paintings strung around, and drawings on different colour paper stuck to the walls. In the middle of the photograph is the back of somebody’s head. They have short curly brown hair and are wearing yellow, green and pink overalls. Soofiya stands facing them, with one hand on their chest, gesturing.

The playfulness with which Soofiya’s striking, colourful work interacts with the bright gallery space cultivates a lightness to what can often be experienced as heavy subject matter. Holding space for both the complexities and difficulties attached to living in a marginalised body, alongside the relief of community, creativity and refuge when communication is made possible, The Things That Shape Us positively rejects conventionality. 

Love Is, a digital illustration on show as part of the exhibition, expresses: ‘Love is boundaries’, ‘Love is decolonising’, ‘Love is anti-capitalist’. Identification, positive redefinition and reclamation are at the heart of much of Soofiya’s work. It is through these principles that the visibility and representation within their work bears witness to those who sit outside  narrow and potentially damaging societal expectations. Soofiya writes,

‘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.’

Image credit: Éloïse Armary, 2022. Image description: A close up photograph inside the exhibition. On the right hand side is a self-portrait painting with text behind on acetate. Through the acetate, on the left hand side a wall can be seen displaying a black and white illustration of the artist standing in a book. In the middle is a yellow round wall sticker, which reads: ‘How has your body shaped you?’


What do you love about your body ? What kind of people do you usually see on gallery walls?
What do you struggle with around your body? What kind of bodies do you want to make space for?
What liminal spaces do you belong to? What is different about you?
What makes you feel at home? Who are you beyond your body?
Who makes you feel at home? Do you judge this body?
What changes has your body experienced over time? Do you judge your own body?
What does your body hold? What’s the kindest thing anyone has ever said to you?
How can you celebrate your body today? What’s the kindest thing you have said to yourself?
What makes you cry? What do you wish for yourself?
Who do you see?


Image credit: Éloïse Armary, 2022. Image description: A small blue plastic crate with Soofiya’s brightly coloured published books inside for sale. The book at the front is called Aloo I Love You, and the one behind it reads Nikhil and Jay : The Star Birthday. On the front of the crate is a cardboard yellow star with ‘Aloo Books £5’ written on it in pen. An orange star next to it reads ‘Nikhil and Jay £8’ In the forefront of the photo, out of focus, is a pilea plant in a yellow pot.

Within the exhibition Soofiya’s zines, prints, cut-out activities and published books are available to buy, alongside ‘genderless, gelatinious talisman’, Soof The Floof, and an option to buy the artist a Bueno, or some treats for their beloved cat companion, Aloo. 


Image credit: Éloïse Armary, 2022. Image description: An A-board is with ‘Soof’s Private View Tonight’ written on it with colourful capital letters. Behind it is ONCA Gallery – the front of which is made of one pane of glass with a large blue person drawn in the middle of it in whiteboard pens. On the person’s chest is written ‘A Body Called Home’, with pink and yellow squiggles coming out in circles from the middle. The door to the gallery is open.


Soofiya is an artist and designer whose work explores ideas around race, gender and bodies. Soofiya’s work holds space for often difficult, complex and nuanced subjects through a colourful, playful and often illustration approach. Their client list includes BBC, Nike, Tate Modern, gal-dem, Greenpeace, the Barbican and more. 

* Please note : Soofiya only uses their first name. Please use either no pronouns, and only refer to Soofiya by first name, or on occasions this is impossible please use they/them pronouns.