Exhibition charts story of Bangladeshis in Newham

Rights of Light by Saif Osmani

Rights of Light by Saif Osmani - Credit: Archant

Natural disasters, war, poverty and dreams of a new life prompted tens of thousands of Bangladeshis to move to Britain in the 1970s.

Refugees by Saif Osmani

Refugees by Saif Osmani - Credit: Archant

Largely coming from the subtropical city of Sylhet, the new arrivals famously showed a preference for Tower Hamlets – but some also moved to Newham.

In the 1980s and 1990s, many members of the community headed east – swapping Stepney for Stratford and Mile End for Manor Park – for the chance of a more spacious home, and perhaps even a garden.

This history – and its projection into the future – has inspired artist Saif Osmani to design an exhibition looking at east London’s Bengalis.

“There’s been a big shift eastwards – but we really need to make sure we know about their history before it disappears,” said Saif, 35, whose parents moved to Whitechapel from Sylhet in the early 1970s before heading to Newham in the 1980s.

Saif Osmani

Saif Osmani - Credit: Archant

“And the difference between the two boroughs – Tower Hamlets and Newham – is so huge that it needs to be understood.”

His exhibition, titled Amra Zaga (Our Place), began on October 24 and ends on November 20, at Stratford Library in The Grove.

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Organised with the help of the Bengali East End Heritage Society, it features many of his own paintings – each of which is intended to represent part of the history and present of the community in Newham.

One, Rights of Light, is a reflection of the way in which the built environment has changed.

Saif Osmani with his grandfather, Arshad Ullah

Saif Osmani with his grandfather, Arshad Ullah - Credit: Archant

“There are so many huge buildings going up in Newham, especially in Stratford,” said Saif, who studied at University of the Arts London and has a decade of experience in architecture.

“The skyline is changing – the light is being blocked out.”

Another painting, Mega-mosque Site, relates to the failed attempt to build a 9,000-capacity mosque in West Ham.

“The mosque could have been great – a very unique, cutting edge design,” Saif said of the complex, which was officially rejected by the government a year ago.

Saif Osmani as a boy

Saif Osmani as a boy - Credit: Archant

“I think that was an important moment, because there’s not really a central place in Newham for Muslims – and it’s really not fair if they have to use the internet or whatever instead.”

The mosque, Saif said, represents a major difference between Tower Hamlets and Newham.

“It feels in Newham it’s less about your culture or your religion and more about you as a citizen of the borough,” he said.

“We don’t really have melting pots in England – it’s more like a salad bowl – but if we ever did, I think Newham could be one.”

He added: “In Tower Hamlets, each culture is given its own space and independence.”

But Saif, who grew up in Thorngrave Road, Upton Park after moving there aged five, is worried about the country’s trajectory.

“There are hundreds of gated communities in England now,” the former Upton Cross Primary pupil said.

“That’s what I wanted to get across with the Refugees painting – we are turning into ‘Fortress Europe’ a bit.”

There will be a special closing ceremony next Wednesday at 6pm in Stratford Library.