There is a certain kind of blissful madness in the chaos art can create. To be able to stand in front of it, let it speak to you as though their color and your tongue speak the same language, is power. And it takes a certain kind of madness, as an artist, to relay such a message so eloquently, evoking chaos on the mind of the person absorbing the art.
That is how Rohena Alam Khan relays her message through her paintings — colors, chaos, from the streets of her home in Dhaka, to politics of gun violence and immigration here in her current home in the U.S.
Rohena, based in Seattle, WA, has held numerous exhibitions from Dhaka to Seattle. The proud daughter of a freedom fighter in Bangladesh’s War of Liberation, she currently shares her work on her Instagram handle: Artby1971. In a month filled with celebrations of Bangladesh’s victory in 1971, we caught up with her.
Some of her answers have been edited for clarity purposes.
- What inspired the name 1971?
Coming from an advertising background, I take branding very seriously. When I was brainstorming about what makes me me, what stood out is my history. My dad’s role in the creation of Bangladesh from 1962–1971 and especially during our liberation war as a Dhaka city commander, his guerrilla warfare operations, bravery, patriotism, progressive thinking, sacrifices and struggles inspire me deeply. So much so that I feel like the story of 1971 is a story I want to tell people about on a world platform. It is not only the story of Bangladesh but also a huge part of my personal story.
1971 is also apt as my art brand because of the things I talk about in my art, highly controversial topics that ask important questions, and the search for ultimate liberation.
2. When and why did you start your craft?
My parents encouraged my drawing and painting since my childhood. I always had private art tutors who were Charukola students. Through them, I saw a different map of Bangladesh, one that I was otherwise not exposed to in my life in my community in Dhaka.
3. What inspires you to continue your artwork?
My art has evolved from different levels of training: from high school board exams to double majoring in Journalism and Fine Art at Winthrop University in South Carolina, to a degree in Graphic Design from Raffles International College Bangkok. Now I am finally able to explore and find myself through my work. I am able to introspect on struggles of humanity, sometimes of my own life, that I would not be able to navigate without art. It is how I heal my trans-generational trauma. At the same time, it’s how the legacy of my family lives on: one I commemorate by depicting wars, struggles of immigration, multiculturalism, nationalism, politics, news, and bravery.
4. You cover a lot of politics — Emma Gonzalez to Dr. Ford. What do you hope to achieve through this?
Politics is in my blood and it is also my passion. News and art are two things I cannot live without. I don’t create art to sell, I do it to tell important stories and ask questions that either others are not asking or others may not be capable of visually depicting. When an important political event is presented in a simple visual form, it becomes more accessible to the common man.
Historical relevance is also important to me. The people and issues I portray in my art are those I want people to remember long after I am gone, like the kind of bravery it takes for someone to stand up against the world, like Colin Kaepernik or Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. I don’t create as much art about Bangladeshi politics as I want to/should. The challenge of making art about any topic is the amount of immersion I require to totally understand the subject and do the topic justice. Living abroad, I am missing that level of immersion but I hope as I spend more time in Dhaka over the next year, I will be making a lot more political art especially about the Bangladesh election of 2018. There are also other issues to consider like the lack of freedom of speech in Bangladesh and general intolerance of people. Art cannot happen when barriers are placed on the artist.
In America I have painted Donald Trump where his head is an ashtray and I collaged cigarettes made with Bengali newspapers onto his head. Things like that can be considered highly offensive in Bangladesh especially if I depict anyone from the ruling party.
5. What kind of support did you get from family or friends when you began your craft?
Art is not an acceptable profession in Bangladesh. Artists are treated very poorly by the society. In my case, my parents did not want me to solely focus on art and rather encouraged a separate profession to depend on for my income. This is why my day job is in writing and designing ads.
In Bangladesh, my friends have become more supportive but there are very few who absolutely grasp my abilities or what I do. I find endless support in my friends in the West.
6. As an artist in the Bangladeshi diaspora, do you feel represented in the larger art community?
I have found POC artists are given preference to their Caucasian counterparts in Seattle/Washington State. However, my experience was different in South Carolina or Thailand, where Caucasians were largely represented. Of course there is a void of Bangladeshi artists in the world, we don’t encourage our children to become world famous artists. We press them to becomes engineers and scientists, but still there are artists from Bangladesh who have become world renowned like Monirul Islam, Preema Nazia Andaleeb, Tayeba Begum Lipi.
7. What advice would you give to your younger self about your art or to new artists coming into the larger art community?
I am often in awe of my younger self because I challenged more things back then. Now I would just tell my younger self to relax and just be me instead of wanting to fit in or belong.
My advice to new artists would be to recognize your craziest idea and pursue it. As in write it down (so that you don’t forget it), think about it for a few days, discuss it with your like-minded friends — it’s very important to surround yourself with those who will encourage you and not haters who will discourage you, plan it and execute it. Don’t let anything stop you — but please be safe.