Nilufa Yeasmin is a New York based visual artist born in Dhaka, Bangladesh and is a recent graduate of the Arts Conservatory at SUNY Purchase. She immigrated to New York City at the age of five. Not knowing English prevented her from socializing as a kid and forced her to really navigate her location and language. She felt like an outcast and needed something to make her feel safe, so drawing became that safe space for her. She says “My initial interest in fine arts started immediately after watching my older brother sketch a photo of Ash and Pikachu. My five-year-old self couldn’t fathom the sorcery that had played out in front of me.”
After relocating to New York, she continued traveling back to Dhaka during summer vacations, never completely belonging to one space or the other. Her work is heavily influenced by these travels between spaces which she calls her home. She catalogues the nouns that relate to these spaces, and depending on what she finds the most compelling, she shifts the degree in which she abstracts them helping her establish a visual hierarchy. She says although a bulk of her research consists of banal subjects, she tries to invite the viewer to experience these nouns the same way she does.
We asked her what she wants someone to take away from her work, especially those who are Bengali and she answered: “I want them to linger and to wonder if something is falling apart or weaving itself together. I want them to feel like time collapsed on itself.I want a Bangladeshi person to feel nostalgic and get hungry for something that is on the other side of the world when they look at a piece that is focused on Bangladesh.” Her work doesn’t strongly focus on Bengali culture but tries to casually present elements of it. She says “I’m beginning to take ownership of it and incorporate it with much more intention. Thats because when I do utilize it, it feels much more specific to me and has a tendency to resonate with more people who view my work. Since Bangladeshi culture is present in my New York apartment it often enters my work subconsciously. Back when my mom was alive she would wear colorful salwar-kamees’, decorate the room with curtains adorned with floral patterns, cook traditional Bangladeshi food, and pray on beautiful prayer mats while wearing long sparkly chadors. When I was a child she would plant seeds in parks to save time and money.The plants would range from cucumber to lalashaag and fuishaag and while she would do this I stood around waiting in utter embarrassment because whenever people passed by the crime scene they would just stare at her. Nowadays I find myself in her shoes, collecting materials such as disposed bottle caps from the streets of New York and dead leaves from local parks for projects.”
We asked her who her favorite Bangladeshi artist/creative was and she answered “I’m ashamed to say I don’t have one because I don’t really know any. When I attended various Art History classes there were no Bangladeshi artists that the professor lectured on. During these lectures I was taught about approximately 85% White artists, 10% of Black artists and 5% of Hispanic artists. The only reason the percentage for Black artists is so high is because I took African Art and Film…At SUNY Purchase we had a 4% Asian population. Out of that 4% I didn’t encounter even one Bengali throughout the four years I attended. In Dhaka, Bengalis’ surrounded me as far as the eye can see but I couldn’t find any artists. If there were a better network of Bangladeshi artists I would be overjoyed. I would love to be a part of a “global” Bangladeshi creative community. There would be much less insecurity in exploring subject matters regarding our Bangladeshi culture because a space for conversation would be established between people with similar lived experiences.”
Feeling insecure about being Bengali isn’t an uncommon feeling among the diaspora. We find it hard to associate with the culture in every way possible. A lot of us hide under our insecurities for a long time and hope one day maybe things will be different. We sometimes carry our insecurities throughout our life. Nilufa says “Before my arranged marriage I don’t think I would have strongly associated myself with Bangladeshi culture. In terms of attire I used to wear jeans, shirts and on occasion dresses. Now my wardrobe consists of mostly traditional salwar-kameez. Alcohol plays a much smaller role in my life now. I cover my head with an orna when I visit Bangladesh. I listen to Hindi songs on purpose sometimes. I’d also like to think I speak Bangla much better now. As of right now I’m conflicted as to whether or not I want to move away or get closer to Bangladeshi culture because often times religion gets into the mix and it’s hard to differentiate between the two. With that follows a decade worth of existential questions resurfacing that I need to untangle.”