What does it mean to be a woman in the modern world? This is the question Rokeya Sultana has asked time and again in her artworks throughout her entire career.
Rokeya is a distinguished name in the contemporary art scene of Bangladesh. She is a Professor at the Department of Printmaking, Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka, a former Chairperson of the department and a prolific artist whose artworks have been exhibited around the world.
She studied the disciplines of printmaking, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka, and Master of Fine Arts from Vishwa Bharati University, Shantiniketan, India. Her works are often marked by strong narratives, sensual exploration, and abstract compositions.
Rokeya's artworks celebrate the female form, and she expresses the joys and struggles of womanhood; evident in her series Madonna, Bonobibi and Flaming Desire.
Her latest solo exhibition 'An Ode to Joy' at Edge Gallery is an amalgamation of all of her life's experiences. It includes artworks of all the aforementioned series, as well as her unique pressure print series 'Fata Morgana'.
"Being a woman is not always easy, it is very easy to overlook us," said Rokeya. "Society does not always recognise the accomplishments of a woman. Despite my hard work, awards or achievements, there were many instances in my life where situations were made difficult for me just because of my gender."
Rokeya's Madonna series portrays the struggles of a mother and daughter in the city. Madonna is a middle-class woman – always dressed in a saree – and depicted in crowded urban settings, either running errands, commuting, or taking care of her daughter. She is always on the move, trying to balance all the pressures of life.
As the artist explained, "Madonna is me, she is my mother and she is my daughter."
An Ode to Joy highlights how Rokeya's art and narratives have evolved over time. Madonna's life was always depicted in the city in past works, but two of her latest additions to the series have taken the mother and daughter away from urban life and into nature.
"I had shown Madonna in an urban setting because I have grown up in the city myself. But as of late I have felt a deep connection with nature, and like Rabindranath's poem Phiriyea Dao Shei Aranya, I have portrayed the mother and daughter surrounded by greenery."
Rokeya's works cannot simply be defined as feminine. Her artworks make deeper commentaries on gender, community, and inclusivity. The past is portrayed through her memories, and struggle and conflict are common themes in her works.
In her series 'Fata Morgana', Rokeya chose to borrow techniques of letterhead printing onto her etching press. The reimagining of this technique is remarkable, adding a dimension to her printmaking that is truly unique.
A striking quality of all of Rokeya's artworks is her use of colour. Her works are almost always vibrant and uplifting. She explained, "Bangladesh is bright and sunny. We experience six seasons here, during which we see so much colour. It would be a shame not to include them in my works."
Rokeya Sultana is a prolific printmaker, but – as she explained – her artistic vision is difficult to confine within just a single media. Her paintings don't always rely on the traditional techniques and use of colour.
"I am the kind of person who needs to work constantly. I studied printmaking as a student but, even then, I envied my peers who used to paint. I envied the vibrancy of their works. Painting is a direct medium where you can instantly see results. Printmaking, however, is very technical and requires a lot of tools. So when I ventured into the realm of painting, I relied on my own styles and techniques. That is why they tend to appear different when compared to the works of traditional painters."
An Ode to Joy explores the wants and desires of women, and questions a woman's place in society and the universe. The exhibition is open to all from 10 AM to 8 PM, every day, until 17 September, at Edge Gallery in Gulshan.
TBS Picks: A selection of artworks from the show with a description from the artist
Fata Morgana 1, unique pressure print, 2014
We sit in this posture when speaking to God. This is a woman in the middle of a prayer. The woman is praying to her God about her wants, desires and aspirations.
Madonna 1, tempera on canvas, 2018
This is a mother with her two daughters. I did not make it clear where they are or where they are going. It could be that they are walking somewhere on the road. The mother is also gazing up into the sky. it could also be that they are drifting off into the unknown.
Desire 2, tempera on canvas, 2022
This is an abstract portrait of me during my adolescence. Even though the painting is called Desire, this is a depiction of my dreams, fears and wants as a girl.