By imbuing her paper sculptures with powerful symbolism, artist and stylist Karina Sharif brings strength to a delicate form — which ignites a meaningful conversation around Black feminine grace and power. Transforming the weight of paper visually and symbolically, Sharif’s magnificent work explores what it means to take up space and navigate the world for Black women from all walks of life. I recently had a chance to glimpse a bit into Sharif’s brilliance and to understand what has factored into her artful depictions of divinity and womanhood.
In conversation, her inclusive ethos and worldview are made clear. “When I state my work is here to represent and serve Black women, this statement includes trans and non-binary women as well,” the New York-based artist told NBGA. Sharif’s sculptures are glorious, ethereal pieces to study as art and be adorned in. But in a much larger context, the artwork speaks for itself by serving as armor for the wearer. Read on for our conversation.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
NBGA: There’s something so poetic about your paper sculptures as they beautifully transcend their medium. How did you begin crafting this type of work regarding paper sculptures specifically?
Karina Sharif: For years, I did styling. Then I decided that I wanted to get into still life work, which I didn’t realize was going to be perfect for me. I used to do sculpture work; doing still life led me to this place where I realized how much I missed working with my hands. One day, somebody wanted to work with me on a project and they wanted me to style. I said “Clothes are great, but I’m just not feeling clothing.” I referred back to when I came to New York to go to Pratt Institute years ago. I remember that my friends would have these assignments in the foundation year. It might be “Make something out of paper or make a painting of a flower, but find ten ways to do that painting.” So I turned the shoot into a study for myself. I brought in newspapers and other papers of interest and I just went in a night or two before.
I found that it was really empowering for me. Because at that time, I was working in a lot of positions where I felt like it was great to be making money. But I didn’t feel as a Black woman that I was really being challenged in the ways that made my soul happy. Most of the time, I was doing lead styling but I was also doing some assisting work — I felt like all of these positions kind of required me to be smaller than I knew I wanted to be. I had no idea that doing the paper was going to bring forward this new era of my spirit. I’ll always still enjoy styling to a degree. But [paper] took me back to my designing roots through sculpture. From there, I was pretty much hooked on exploring the new medium of paper.
That is so exciting, just to be able to embark on something new and find passion within it. It also seems therapeutic.
KS: It’s very therapeutic, actually! I consider it like an art therapy, but centered around Black women and our own healing and mental health. Working on it and deciding to take it seriously has required me to also do my own soul searching and looking at myself. I’m always challenging myself and when working with individuals, once I craft the pieces and then I show up to set, I think that’s therapy as well.
On a more technical note, what is the process like to apply the sculptures for wear?
KS: That’s been a major trial and error session. To start, I remember my first shoot. I was just placing it on people and hoping it would stay [by] using a lot of double sided tape because that was what I was used to using as a stylist. Also, I think working in props really served me because now, sometimes I’ll use fishing line or invisible string to hold it and allow the model to move a little bit more. So that’s been really great to discover. I’m interested now in finding out more ways to make the work a little bit more wearable, but also maintaining its medium. It’s an ever-changing discovery process.
You’re a shining example of a multi-hyphenate artist — a stylist, visual artist, designer of an up-cycled denim line (We Are LOV’D). What other disciplines do you work within and are there any you look forward to exploring further?
KS: I also do creative direction, because I really love to come up with an entire experience when creating imagery with my pieces. I’ve done some still life photography, which has been really interesting for me to get into taking images of my own work. And I’d like to explore that a little bit more actually; I’m curious to see what that could entail. In terms of the denim line, I’m taking a bit of a break from it. As much as I enjoy working on the denim, I feel like the paper is something that speaks to me in such a way that I have to devote all of myself to it.
Over quarantine, I started doing liquid dance. I don’t quite know where this is going to take me, but it’s been really fun. I’ve been combining it with some of my paper pieces. I’ve done a few projects where I do movement and have the paper in the background or I’m wearing the paper. I’m really interested to see what I can turn that into.
It seems like a lot of the things that you do are very well integrated, like it just seems so natural.
KS: I appreciate that. I think it’s that I don’t just view one element. When I’m working on something. I’m always like, okay, what’s the big picture? What’s the entire story? How can we explore it in multiple different directions? “How can we make a new world?” is really what my work is about.
How do you personally define taking up space, especially as a woman of the African diaspora?
KS: Recently, I’ve been doing a lot more reading. I’m obsessed with Octavia Butler because she creates these new worlds for me to exist in or imagine us existing in. Also, I recently watched documentaries on HBO — one was Tina Turner’s and the other was Aretha Franklin’s — and what they were able to display within their own gifts that they have brought forward in their lifetimes is just really not shying away from your brilliance. That’s a big aspect of what I’m trying to do with my work is just to compliment the brilliance of Black women. It’s also showing the strength and beauty in your light, as well as in your depths and in the darkness too. I personally feel like when you are able to take note of the many experiences that you’ve had in your life — both the things that have been hard and the things that have been absolutely incredible — that is a really powerful mode of self-expression.
Another part of what the paper has embodied? It’s really been about deciding that the world has no idea of the grandiosity of a Black woman’s spirit. Taking up space is about deciding to burst outside of whatever parameters have been set in place — if you’re able to recognize that none of that is actually true about you. Taking up space does not always have to look like a huge amount of energy. You can just rest and take up space. I think that moving through this world, Black women have figured out how to take up a lot of space, actually. We are the creators of so much on this planet and so much that we see before us. So, it’s also just about knowing that your being is absolutely right.
You mentioned that your work is about showing the brilliance of Black women, which addresses one of my questions regarding divinity. Something about you showing divinity is almost like you’re radiating that out and then you’re holding a mirror to show other people that it’s within them as well.
KS: Absolutely, that’s exactly my goal. It’s kind of like what we say with manifesting [about] stating things as true for yourself. I think part of that is also imagery. For me, a huge power within this world is mass media. We get to see more diversity on TV now, but it’s still not in my opinion where it needs to be. As a young child, I really did not see my likeness at all. I loved looking through fashion magazines, but didn’t see anyone that looked like me. I grew up watching a ton of TV and didn’t see anyone really that looked like me. If I did, the roles played were not empowering often.
This work is about creating a new world, well, how do we start that? Let’s start with imagery. Let’s start with something where I know that it can resonate with a young girl, as well as an elder, right? How do we work together to redefine what we’re seeing and make sure that it’s serving us?
The recent photos of you and the other models by Carolyne Loreé are absolutely stunning and live rent-free in my head. How did you determine the fabulous femmes to feature in this work about divinity?
KS: Some of them I already knew and had worked with. For example, Shereen [Mohammad], she was the first to be placed and dressed in my paper pieces — my very first shoot. Carolyne had connected with her previously and let her and Neyon know that she’d be working with me. So they were excited about it. With Eboni, I had actually worked with her prior and I really wanted to continue working with her because she’s just so beautiful. As a darker complexioned woman, I wanted to have more darker complexioned women and then go from there. It’s really that I want to display every woman I can, like I want to get to compliment every woman. But it started with Eboni and Roseline [Lawrence].
I knew I wanted to have a mother and daughter moment and I was really interested in Enzie and Enga [Domingue]. Carolyne had a connection with them as well, so we reached out together. They were both extremely excited, which was really sweet and wonderful. For me, that was really important because my mom’s not here. I wanted to see, even if this isn’t an experience I can have with my mother, what does it look like to give this to somebody else? Theirs was the first day of shooting and I feel like we all cried a little bit. I was definitely very touched. I had another day where I had Imani [Randolph], who was so brilliant and gorgeous. We did it in segments because of COVID; we had to place them and then put them all together in the end.
I love that you’re also represented within the work. It’s so beautiful.
KS: That was my own personal challenge; I appreciate that it makes a difference. Sometimes I’m a little shy, but I feel like it’s actually really important for me to reflect as much as I can on what it feels like to be putting the work on myself. So that when I’m working with other women, I’m aware of how it may feel.
Your imagery and sculptures are so captivating and there’s a very visceral softness that’s felt, even through screens. Yet, there’s a subtle juxtaposition within the concept that these are protective armor sculptures. What is the personal significance of owning this sense of softness within your art and life in general?
KS: Softness is really important because Black women have always been defined as strong, which we are. But I think that it’s important for us to get to be soft, too. The paper is a really great way for me to explore that because it’s extremely delicate. Even when working with it, I have to be gentle. It’s a lot of respecting the medium and understanding what it can do. Or if I want it to do something else, what are the ways that I can work with it to achieve what I’m going after? Personally, that’s important to me, because I think I have always thought of myself as really strong since I was really little. I’m a Taurus — it could be that I’m a bull and that’s just who I am. I used to want to be like Pippi Longstocking and Supergirl when I was little because I love the idea of being able to pick up a car and I used to challenge men to arm wrestles all the time, which I think is great and that’ll always be in me.
But when I think of my mother or the many women in my family, I didn’t really get to see them be soft. And I think that that’s part of the constant dialogue that Black women are strong. It creates an environment where we’re not allowed to be soft. Maybe we’re not allowed to rest as much because everyone’s like, “Well, you’re strong, you can handle it.” And no, actually like I can’t and I’d like to take a break. Also, there’s this reference to all of those Renaissance paintings of reclining Venuses that are white, relaxing, and enjoying their environments — being nude with this beautiful space, even having others waiting on them hand and foot. What does it look like to decide that we get to be our own reclining Venuses? We get to be in our bath houses relaxing and enjoying the scent in the air, enjoying the moment, enjoying one another. I really want to create work that embodies and displays that for us as well.
Could you elaborate on how these pieces function as armor?
KS: So like you said earlier how it feels like it’s a therapy? I think that the pieces do cover and reveal aspects of the woman wearing them. I know when I’ve worn the pieces that it really does feel like an armor. Let’s say I’m interviewing someone and I’m asking them questions that could be hard to discuss. They have this sort of protective barrier there. So I see the work providing a sense of armor in that way — as in it’s beautifully constructed for you, it’s working with you, it’s able to maneuver in ways to make you feel safe. That’s the aspect of armor that I want to bring forward with the work. It’s also so delicate that it can be crumpled in a second. But I like that in that moment, it’s standing up for and standing with the woman that’s wearing it. It’s a way of creating space.
How do you cultivate and find stillness in your life and routines?
KS: When I started this work, I didn’t fully realize how much it was gonna ask me to make sure I have stillness in my life. Most recently, what’s been really lovely for me is being pretty diligent about meditating in the morning, which I’ve never been good at. I’ve always aspired, but life happens. Now, I get up very early at 5:30 or 6 A.M. I do my meditation work, affirmations, and journaling. All of those things get me set for the day; it’s the repetition of having the constant that I think provides stillness. Along with that, I recently purchased some hematite and tourmaline. I sleep with them [and] I carry them around. I feel like those have really helped me feel grounded and in my body.
Whenever I feel very clearly in my body or clear that my spirit gets to use like this body and this mind, I feel very still. Aside from that, I do like to be active. I think that’s like an important part of giving me room to actually be still, because I think stillness is not just about like literally being still — it’s still in your mind. When I’m doing some kind of activity, whether it’s biking around the park or doing a workout outside, if there’s any anxieties or feelings that are looking to get out, that helps me to find some relaxation.
What inspires you as of late?
KS: All the things that I mentioned prior, specifically working with my stones and the meditation work, because it always leads me back to self. So when I’m able to do that, I feel like I have a fresher perspective of what’s going on outside of me. I’ve been deciding to read a little bit more of Black psychology and history, because I want to incorporate a little more of that into my work as I continue to grow it. I’ve been reading Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston and Black Skin, White Masks by [Frantz] Fanon.
I really love right now exploring how my mind likes to take in information and honoring that. Those are the things that inspire me most. And just Blackness: Black women, Black experiences. I’m really trying right now to give myself the room to just be a vessel where I can take in as much information and siphon it through and say, “Well, what can I take from this?” It doesn’t only have to be an experience that I can relate to. How is it that these stories that I’m watching, hearing about, learning from another person — how do they all influence me and what I want to share through my work?
What brings you joy?
KS: All of those things bring me joy. Also I love being goofy; my mother was a very goofy person. I didn’t fully appreciate it as a kid because I was always embarrassed. But now, I love just being with friends and being as free and wild as whatever is needed in the moment. I love also being vulnerable and I like being in spaces where I’m able to do that fully. I love nature. Being somewhere where I can like put my feet on grass or on earth is really important to me. It just makes me remember how precious the world is. I’m really glad that it’s getting warm, so I can bring myself out a little more — maybe get away a little bit and just sit in spaces where I can tell how precious life is.
Last but not least, what makes you feel beautiful? I really enjoyed reading those responses from the other models included in your series.
KS: I think when I started the work, maybe I would have had different answers. But now, well, what makes me feel beautiful? I’m definitely resting in my power. It’s really important to me, which does require me to take my time in my life — then that translates to my work. I feel very beautiful when I’m taking my time in the morning to do my meditation or to think or journal about what matters to me. I have a major thing for lighting and ambiance. I really love a nice, dim, warm light— that makes me feel really beautiful. When I’m in spaces and around people where I can fully show what’s on my mind, even if it’s that I don’t really want to say much. I feel really beautiful when I’m in spaces where I can tell that that’s just right.
Someone over the quarantine period sent images of my mom from years ago. She was very young and they were images I’ve never seen before. It made me feel really beautiful viewing them because I could see how much we look just alike. That was amazing. I think a lot about when she was alive; we didn’t always say “Oh we’re twins, we look just alike.” But now, she’s been gone for 14 years and I was looking like “We really are! I can see myself right there.” It was really a beautiful moment for me.
That is so powerful. Thank you for sharing that. Anything else you’d like to add? About you, your art, your passions?
KS: This is just the beginning and I’m so incredibly excited for how much more will come from it. I’m excited to feature more women in the work and also to work with alternative mediums. Not necessarily shifting the actual paper, but be in company with other mediums. I think that that would be really exciting.