At summertime barbecues Hasnat Karim can often be found busily painting intricate henna designs onto the hands and feet of his friends. But don’t tell his father. It’s taboo for Bangladeshi men to create or wear henna artwork–only women do it, to celebrate weddings and other occasions. “It’s a cultural thing,” says Karim. “Other than once in their lives when they get married, with a dab on a finger or hand, men don’t do it.”

Being an artist falls short of another Bangladeshi expectation–that middle-class men become doctors or engineers. But as a child, when Karim’s family lived in Qatar, he began collecting seashells, nutshells, and stones. He took a set of Chinese stamps, copied them, and painted their images onto hazelnut shells to make miniature masks. He entered the masks in a seventh-grade craft show and won first prize. After this, his parents hesitantly agreed that he could attend art school in Bangladesh.

In school, Karim got interested in ceramics. In 1993 he moved to New York City to live with his aunt and cousin and enrolled at York College to study further. But the city didn’t live up to his vision of the United States, so he moved to Chicago one year later on the advice of a friend. “All the movies I had seen of the United States from the 60s had all the people talking to you, saying nice things,” Karim says. “New York is not that. My friend recommended Chicago, where he lived, because it is a little bit slower than New York, with nice people, but still a big city.”

In Chicago Karim studied at Truman College and became a studio member at Lill Street Art Center. There he did a workshop with ceramics designer Julia Galloway, whose detailed, utilitarian work heavily influenced Karim, who specializes in soda-fired ceramics. “When I see other people here do ceramics,” he says, “they are really simple, elegant, and nice. But I cannot do it. It’s not how I grew up. Indian traditions are in my blood, so I go overboard on the details.” The delicate, intricate pieces, which are often functional items such as sugar and creamer sets or salt and pepper shakers, are inspired by Mogul castles, plants, Bangladeshi jewelry and henna designs, and Chicago architecture.

“I was really impressed with Chicago architecture when I came here. I noticed very ornate designs on huge buildings in the city,” he says. “I thought about how I could incorporate these things in my art.” He was able to do so by carving details of the building designs onto stamps, which he uses to decorate the work. Lately he’s brought a touch of Bangladesh’s river history into his work in the form of ornate trays inspired by ancient “love boats.” “In the old times,” he says, “the Moguls would tow boats to the middle of the river and kings and queens would spend the night in them. My boats reflect what I imagined the boats to have been like.”

He was recently selected from a field of 700 applicants to present his work in a prestigious biannual show at the University of Minnesota’s Katherine E. Nash Gallery. But, he says wryly, “my dad still hates that I am an artist.”

An exhibit of Karim’s work opens this Saturday, May 12, in the main gallery at Lill Street Art Center, 1021 W. Lill. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 11 AM to 6 PM and Sunday from noon to 5. The opening, which is free, is from 1 to 5 on Saturday. Call 773-477-6185 for more information.

–Dana Wood

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.