New Delhi: Last week, the 63-year-old international award-winning Bangladeshi artist Rokeya Sultana was ready for a solo art exhibition in India from October 23 to December 11. The exhibition, planned as a joint collaboration between the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Dhaka-based non-profit Bengal Foundation, was intended to show 120 to 130 pieces of the artist’s work.
A graphic artist and painter, Sultana also serves as chair of the Faculty of Arts at Dhaka University.
However, in light of Durga Puja’s municipal violence in Bangladesh against the country’s Hindu minority, the Indian government decided to postpone her exhibition indefinitely, ThePrint reported earlier this week.
Although Sultana has exhibited in India before, the now-canceled event was meant to show the full breadth of her work through 40 years. The cancellation of the exhibition has come as a shock to her peers at Dhaka University as well as other prominent figures in the country’s art scene.
Talks to ThePrint, the Bangladeshi photographer Abir Abdullah, whose work has been published in publications such as New York Times, The mirror and The Guardian, responded by saying, “This is certainly shocking to hear. No artist from any country should be restricted from showing their works or exercising freedom of expression. Why should they be blamed for the misdeeds of others?”
Meanwhile, Shishir Bhattacharjee, professor of art at Dhaka University, had a more pragmatic view. Rokeya, nicknamed ‘Lovely’ by some of us at university, is a talented artist. “But sometimes the consequences of political unrest and foreign relations are beyond the control of an artist,” he told ThePrint.
He explained that Bangladeshi artists have long faced restrictions in their own country. “I used to draw political comics for newspapers, but I stopped after 2017, when broad media laws were introduced in Bangladesh. Artists have been oppressed because of laws like section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act.
Many journalists, artists and activists have been exposed to the bulk of ICT law, including the famous photographer Shahidul Alam, whose arrest in 2019 for commenting on student protests triggered global outrage.
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Sultana is best known for playing with themes of femininity, sensuality and feminism. Her character series ‘Madonna’ and ‘Relations’ are the most popular, as well as the print series ‘Fata Morgana’.
In the ‘Madonna’ series, named after the American pop legend, Sultana portrays the everyday woman navigating the world. She had once explained, in an interview to Daily star, that the woman in her work is always in magenta sari to show that she is traditional but rebellious downstairs.
“The color, magenta, is a symbol of transforming negativity through the feminine psyche. Magenta is on the verge of being an aggressive form of red, but it is softer, more playful and more positive,” Sultana explained. girl and any woman “.
The ‘Fata Morgana’ series – which comes from the word denoting a type of sea reflection – contained 40 abstract and semi-abstract works of art. Unlike the ‘Madonna’ series, which had a clear story, this one toyed with the idea of distortions. It involved several colorful multilayer prints obtained through a dull woodcut and pressure point technique.
She has exhibited her works across countries such as Denmark, Egypt, Turkey, Taiwan, Nepal, Korea, France, Iran, Jordan and Pakistan at centers such as Australia’s Blacktown Arts Center and Bangladesh’s Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts.
Sultana has won numerous awards and scholarships, including a prestigious Fullbright scholarship in 2012 for a 9-month artist residency at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It was there that she learned the printing technique used in the ‘Fata Morgana’ series.
In the past, Sultana’s works have been sold at auctions with prices ranging from approximately Rs 9,000 to Rs 80,000 ($ 122 – $ 1,162). She continues to be an influential figure in Bangladesh’s art scene. “I have never missed her exhibitions. They were so different and unique, ”Abdullah told ThePrint.
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Grew up in political unrest
Sultana was born in Chittagong in 1958 at a time when the country was still considered East Pakistan. It would not gain independence until thirteen years later in 1971. She was “influenced by the 1971 tumultuous revolution that created Bangladesh,” according to the Bengal Foundation.
Sultana graduated from Bangladesh College of Arts and Crafts in Dhaka in 1980 and received a master’s degree in graphics from Visva Bharati, Santiniketan in India three years later. Legendary artists Safiuddin Ahmed and Mohammad Kibria were among her mentors.
She is married to former Bangladeshi cricketer Omar Khaled Rumi and flocks between her studies in Sydney and Dhaka. Rumi was, in addition to being one of Bangladesh’s best percussionists, also a musician at one point in his career.
Together, the couple has a daughter named Fariba, who is also a musician. In an interview from 2007 to Daily star, Fariba recalls that she composed a song that her mother had written in memory of her deceased mother. “My grandmother died last year  and I know how painful it was for my mother to write this song. When she asked me to compose it, I was very nervous and spent a long time working on this particular number, ”said Fariba.
On October 7 this year, Sultana’s works were launched at an exhibition at the Indian Cultural Center, Gulshan in Dhaka. The event was intended to raise the curtain for her first independent show in India, which has now been canceled.
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