Nazia Andaleeb Preema is one of the most prolific and prominent visual artists of Bangladesh with a career spanning 25 years. She received her Master’s in ‘Drawing and Painting’ from University of Dhaka in 2000 and has worked deeply with women’s representation in society in an artistic manner and expression through her canvases. She had represented Bangladesh in various international exhibitions including the 58th La Biennale de Venezia in 2019. She has had over 20 solo expositions worldwide, participated in 5 Asian Art Biennales, art residencies, festivals and workshops. She has received numerous national and international accolades for her work, particularly surrounding women. She is the Founder of Women in Leadership (WIL) and its initiatives, President of Bangladesh Creative Forum (BCF), and Creative Director of Bangladesh Brand Forum furthering her passion and mission to empower women.
As this year’s WIL Fest commences, Bangladesh Brand Forum discussed this year’s initiative taking place virtually, and the impact Preema and her works and initiatives has created and will create over time.
BBF: Your vision has given birth to one of the biggest platforms for women, Women in Leadership (WIL). What is the motive and inspiration behind it?
Nazia Andaleeb Preema: I always like to say that “WIL triggers”. What does it mean? It means that when women take the leadership, it triggers the society and community. It is very important that we realize the power and the in-depth capability of women – something that we see in our mothers. Look at how our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers were the core component that led the family for years. They are the trigger that built the family. How does it happen? It is the intrinsic leadership quality, but we don’t recognize it because it comes so naturally. Despite this, we don’t give them the power or tell them how strong they are. Women can sense their capability but they are unable to apply it often due to constraints from society.
This is where the WIL platform tries to trigger women to take charge and that is what we are trying to build.
What is the theme for this year’s WIL Fest and why are you focusing on that area?
This is going to be the third iteration of WIL Fest. Through this festival, we bring women together to make it a success. Men are also an integral part of WIL Fest. Bangladesh is a festive nation, as the saying goes, “Thirteen festivals in twelve months”. WIL Fest is also a celebration for women. That is because women in leadership is a concept that has not been applied properly. There’s a lot of talk surrounding women but there’s little in the way of strategic implementation to empower women to take on leadership roles. This is where WIL Fest is operating.
WIL Fest has multiple components that make up its body and soul in the same way our body parts and soul come together to make one whole. I believe this allows us to penetrate the very core of the problem properly. Through WIL Fest, we organize trainings, magazines, sessions, and accolades, thus connecting the dots in the process of leadership building. Women in Leadership is a process which is a festival of women’s visibility.
You have been focusing on the concept of women’s visibility for quite some time. How do you see the concept ‘visibility’ and what makes it difficult for women to be more visible?
When you look at my paintings, you can see that they are visible. An artist uses their form and color to bring to life their expression. That is their visual element. If you can’t see or visualize something, you have a hard time believing it. Why do people go to art museums? We all know that artists like Picasso, Cezanne, Zainul Abedin or Quamrul Hassan were phenomenal during their time, but we crave to see their work first-hand to get a feel for it. From that philosophy I derive that women must be visible to feel that they exist. Now you can tell me that women are visually represented, but they are in limited and stereotyped scopes. A mother holding her child is just as visible as a woman flying a plane, but they strike different chords. Picture a woman going to war which is a visual representation of her power. So visibility to me is portraying women in all their thoughts, capabilities, and powers.
The concept of visibility is influenced in and by your art. How do you connect the concept to your art?
As an artist, I want to be very visible, not only by my art but also my body. My body is a very core part of my art. Art is not a standalone entity and the body makes it possible. I do performance art because if I cannot touch my art, I can’t feel it. Even when I’m viewing art in museums, I crave the touch to feel the expression of the artist but I’m not allowed to do so. I find it amusing because if we can’t touch it, how will we feel the love from the art? If you want to feel the core essence of something, you have to be visible, and likewise if you want to be visible you have to have presence. In my art, I portray so many women but why aren’t they as visible in real life as they are in my art? This creates a discourse that the visible women that we talk about or paint are nothing but a myth. We have to turn that myth into a reality.
My work connects with my art so well that I paint with my imagination and reflect it in reality and that is in itself a mission that is impossible. None of the artists could have done this before. When you make art a revolution, that is a great power itself. Art is a revolution like Renowned artist, Quamrul Hassan’s ‘Desh Aj Bishwa Behayar Khoppore’. Art is a movement but we seldom see it. We need to perfectly connect to it to tap into how our visibility can make it happen in the society.
Art connoisseurs term you as the courageous artist who creates and destroys art to create again and that requires courage. As a courageous artist, do you see a lack of courage around you? Is that prominent for you as a woman?
When I destroy my own style and creation, I provoke my new sensation. If I’m in love with the same style, it means that I am a narcissist since I cannot break my own self. Therefore, breaking one’s own style is a very courageous movement. If one makes a set of art with a certain style and the work garners a lot of fame and money, they may be tempted to stick to that same style. But that’s not how I work. Throughout my 25-year career, I have had seven unique styles and nobody could fathom how an artist could equip so many styles over a career. However, when I sit at my studio and look at all the work I’ve done so far, it becomes clear to me that each style led me towards uncovering the next. In fact, this journey had taken me deeper and therein I have found simplicity. There’s a saying that the greatest human being is one who is simple, because they gain the simplicity through a complex journey. Why are people like Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman so simple? Rabindranath Tagore in a poem said that simple words are not so simple to utter.
Similarly, as WIL continues to break the norms of leadership perceived by society, it will continue to shape leadership towards pinpoint accuracy and simplicity. Take for example the qualities of motherhood. Do we see mothers branding themselves repeatedly that way? She is such a powerful entity that she does not require branding. A mother breaks and rebuilds herself so many times that she ultimately reaches that ultimate level of simplicity. This is why we need the courage to break ourselves and to ultimately make ourselves.
What drives Nazia Andaleeb Preema to do what she does?
The reality is that life is short. But how can we become immortal? Through our actions, beliefs, and what we give to the world. Me, as a person, what I believe is what I want to give and what I give has to be sustainable to change the people’s lives. I give for the greater purpose, for the world, and for the universe. I am an entity and not just a person. I am a belief and not just a painting. I am a notion that nobody can ignore. That is what I am and that is what drives me.
Does our education system validate leadership?
No it does not. Our education system will take some time to shift. When I was a student, I went to Holy Cross School and I was impressed by the inclusive environment that had been created. But in other institutions, including our leading universities, they objectify the subject. That baffled me. For versatile students enrolled in a subject, they are not governed by the vastness of the subject. We need to shape up the system. Students are the leaders which is why WIL’s Inspiring Women Leaders recognizes young women leaders. Similarly, the system needs to validate the students who will become leaders of the future.
What advice do you want to give to the new generation of women who will shape Bangladesh in the next 50 years?
My only advice for young women will be to “open up”. Do not wear so many clothes. This is a metaphor. We wear so many clothes that we become closed. Be naked. By naked, I mean you must give in to your soul to open up. What you want, you ask for it. What you want to be, you go ahead and be. There is no limit for a human being to grow. So grow and shine and be the best of who you are. Shape the world. Become the peacock showing all your feathers for the world to see. Women have to come out of everything. There is a Sufi quote that I love to say. What you seek is seeking you. If you seek me but go to someone else, you’ll get the wrong learning. You have to decide who you choose as your mentor. Your mentor is hidden in plain sight.