For as long as I can remember, art has been my lifeline. My parents laugh about how, when I was little, there were always paint stains on my Children’s Place shirts and marker scribbles on my cheeks. In elementary school, I was known for my fascination with patterns and prints and my growing curiosity for the arts. I believed art was a realm of magic, pain, beauty, and emotions that couldn’t be defined through words. As I yearned for a community that appreciated the art world like I did, my teachers and family members encouraged me to apply to a specialized middle school that was known for its art curriculum.
When I started at this middle school, I was jittery with excitement. I was finally going to be surrounded by people who shared my passion and to learn even more! But instead, the feeling I started to get from looking at, making, and talking about art became unfamiliar. A stranger. It was no longer one of love and comfort. The same passion that made me view life through a kaleidoscope, that felt like a neverending sugar rush, was no more. The thought of looking at another painting or even drawing a line made me nauseous.
At the time, I couldn’t understand why art had started to make me feel so out of place. I understand now that it’s because I started associating art with something I couldn’t relate to at all: whiteness. I was attending a school where most students were white, and that made me feel embarrassed by my Bangladeshi heritage and brown skin. The thing I had loved the most now made me feel even more alienated. When I went to museums, I was surrounded by paintings, sculptures, and artists that were concerned with depicting whiteness alone. I looked at countless paintings of women with milky skin, pink breasts, long golden hair, and flushed red faces. Every art department I went to, whether at school or the public library, held endless shelves of books about the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and Catholicism. It all became so dull. Every painting started to merge into one another. My teacher chittered with exhilaration about a painting, while I struggled to keep my eyes open. My white peers looked at the paintings of Vincent van Gogh and Leonardo da Vinci with the same excitement that I once had. Their eyes sparkled and their fingers recreated the same techniques of these great artists, generating even more portraits of whiteness.
The spark inside of me was long gone. I started to believe that art was not meant for me to enjoy since I couldn’t see myself in it. I became envious of everyone else’s enthusiasm and started putting less effort into my assignments. I scribbled whatever I could without giving it any thought and handed it in for an average grade. But deep down, I didn’t feel that careless or indifferent. Without my passion for art, I felt completely lost in the world.
This feeling bled out to other parts of my life. Growing up, I saw every type of sexuality other than straight as a “white thing.” I couldn’t imagine a person of color being gay. Not that I thought it was bad or weird; I just thought it wasn’t possible. None of the images or words presented to me from childhood to teenagehood imparted that a South Asian Muslim like myself could be gay.
Queerness and art weren’t the only things I saw as exclusively white. Whenever I went shopping, I started to admire a garment only to leave it on the rack. This dress isn’t for me, I would think to myself. It’s for shada manush. It’s only for white people. I heard my cousins and siblings mutter the same thing while we searched through piles and piles of clothing, picking the dark-colored ones that made us look blob-like–clothes made for people who wanted to hide. Clothes that were trendy at the time, like a Hollister shirt or a pair of Converse sneakers, felt off-limits. It was as if there was a chart in my brain: one side was a list of what white people were permitted to do/wear/like, and the next side was for the “others” like me.
After I graduated middle school, I completely locked away my art aspirations. I put my sketchbooks in the back of my closet with all my other junk and told myself not to dedicate any more time to my creations. I focused instead on applying to college, where I would pursue a more realistic career.
But one day during my junior year of high school, I was scrolling through my Tumblr dashboard, procrastinating a homework assignment, and came across something that changed my life forever. It was a portrait of a woman. A black monkey and a cat clung to her shoulders. Green leaves bowed over in the background. Fireflies surrounded her while two butterflies rested on her hair. The woman stared right at me, her eyes filled with both pain and hope. Her unibrow furrowed together, echoing the authority of her pursed red lips. A cosmic wave of warmth and happiness moved through my body. I immediately looked up who this woman was and spent the rest of the night learning about Frida Kahlo’s life and allowing her paintings to swallow me whole. A new world opened up. Reading about Kahlo led me to other artists of color, like Yayoi Kusama, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bhupen Khakhar, and Amrita Sher-Gil. Artists I had never heard of in my life. They were all queer, and had their own unique identities and styles. I remember thinking to myself, So it’s possible? To look like me and create art and dress the way I want to? I was astonished that people like them even existed.
I’ve wondered how much my life would’ve changed if someone had shown me at least one artist of color at an earlier age. Learning about these artists created an immediate shift inside of me. I could now grow into the person I’d always wanted to become. I felt every part of myself change drastically. I was more liberated, passionate, and open. Whenever I went shopping, I would reach for anything my heart was set on, with no hesitations. I wanted to create again, and at 18 years old, embarked on my most ambitious project yet: Sorjo, an online magazine for and by the unconventional. I knew I wasn’t the only one who shared this mixed relationship to the art world, so I wanted to create a platform where every gender identity, race, ethnicity, body type, and sexual identity was included. This was the community that I’d always yearned for. The artistic identity I was trying to uncover was within myself all along. Like the artists I admired, I became my own role model, but thanks to Sorjo, I didn’t have to struggle or carve out my own space all alone.
For years, I unconsciously believed that I didn’t deserve to be my true self because of my ethnicity. But the problem wasn’t me; it was white supremacy. Whenever people think of white supremacy, they picture hate groups and extremists, but it is actually deeply rooted inside me. It is pervasive enough to affect anyone—white or not, well-intentioned or not—who is a product of their environment. Through the artists I look up to and the community I have cultivated, I now know that I am enough. I am worthy. Not only is it possible to be Bengali, queer, and the beautiful, artistic person I want to be; but my ethnicity and sexuality are inherent to the person I want to be. ♦