On Saturday, March 12, Wellesley Association for South Asian Cultures (WASAC) and Bangladeshi Students Association (BSA) co-hosted a lecture by Syeda Mahbub, an emerging Bangladeshi American digital artist, to discuss how their culture has informed their art. The talk was followed by a viewing of Mahbub’s pieces on display and prints that were available for purchase.
During their presentation, Mahbub described growing up in Bangladesh surrounded by an artistically rich culture and family who encouraged them to pursue creative endeavors. Mahbub noted their mother’s particular appreciation for art and credited this, along with their background, as having a formative impact on their love of art.
Mahbub’s family immigrated to America when they were 11, and they recalled how their family’s priorities had to shift into “survival mode” and figure out how to get by day-to-day in America. For the time, art had to take a backseat.
But Mahbub’s creative wheels were still turning as they took in other artists’ work. Mahbub notes New Delhi-based photographer Gauri Gillas as one inspiration in particular. They recalled visiting the MoMA on a whim and finding Gill’s 2018 Acts of Appearance series, a collaboration with locals in the Jawhar district of Maharashtra, India, to produce pictures of people engaged in everyday tasks wearing papier-mâché masks. In that same year, Mahbub decided to start creating their own artwork.
Armed with their fingers and a drawing app on their phone, Mahbub produced their first piece. Even though they “cringed to see it now,” Mahbub described the importance of “recognizing where [they] came from, artistically,” as an essential part of their creative journey and continued growth.
Mahbub highlighted important moments in their own journey, including falling into the trap of what they like to call “samosa art.” Mahbub explained it as work that panders to Western audiences, that superimposes a caricatured narrative over South Asian culture, highlighting material aspects in a way that devalues the nuance and reality of South Asian people and their cultures. They noted that part of the allure of “samosa art” is that it gets recognition and attention, although it comes at the cost of artistic integrity.
In 2021, Mahbub stopped creating for a full year, taking the time to reflect on their vision for their work and what they actually wanted to create. To preserve the authenticity of the source of their work, Mahbub has decided not to produce digital art for a living. They remain in the creative realm professionally, currently working as a Design Intern at Fantasy, New York.
As a self-described “spring baby,” Mahbub finds themself drawn to lots of bright colors, which shine through in their richly saturated pieces. Most of Mahbub’s work features feminine presenting South Asian subjects, often highlighting non-Western features, traditions and practices.
All the pieces shown at the event featured an accompanying poem that combined with the piece to produce a narrative. Mahbub’s personal favorite is a piece entitled, “I dream about brown fairies with big bellies,” and the accompanying poem concludes with the lines, “So I spend each day building/A future for brown fairies that look like you and me.”