Women artists deconstructing patriarchal tradition


Breaking the shackle of the millennia-old male dominance, women artists of Bangladesh asserted themselves as the protagonist in the art history of Bangladesh. Dipa Mahbuba Yasmin, reflecting on this history writes about the way women have deconstructed the portrayal of women in stereotypical roles, devoid of their lived experience.

'Marry My Egg' by Nazia Andaleeb Preema

‘Marry My Egg’ by Nazia Andaleeb Preema

The discussion about ‘women and art’ is in fact focused on three chapters — ‘women in art’, ‘art created by women’ and ‘art for women’. Women’s role in the history of art, not only that it was never in the center of male-dominated cultural sphere, has also never been considered as significant rather a secluded subject. In the last few millennia of patriarchy, men were synonymous to creator. According to recorded history, all the scriptures are written by males, arts are created by males and so on. In this sense, women have remained mere objects in the eyes of the men just like the creators. In the hands of painters or poets, women have become poetry, epics or even flawless sculptures. As if, women cannot write, cannot create art, are unable to create beauty. In this male dominated-written history, women poets, artists, sculptors have remained in the margin. However, in recent history, the trend has dramatically changed. In lieu to this change, with the introduction and popularity of post-modernity, multi-culturalism and cultural studies, contexualising women’s contribution in constructing aesthetical forms can be re-interpreted. In this re-interpretation, demolishing women figure created by men, and to reconstruct a woman’s image, female participation in the re-creation process is a must. In this re-construction, the contribution of the male artists and historians who have managed to break free from the male-chauvinistic mentality need to be recognised as well.



In the early history of fine arts in Bangladesh, Zainul Abedin has canonical status. In his art, women are not portrayed as an object of desire, but like anyone else in the society, he portrayed them as an embodiment of virtue, patience and innocence. Then, there is artist Kamrul Hasan, he saw women in many avatars — breast giver, dancing women, woman in front of a mirror gazing and more. His famous painting ‘three women’ portrays women in their stereotypical — wife, mother and daughter — roles.


Finally, legendary artist S M Sultan, he has initiated a fresh new perspective to view women in our art. All the subjects of his arts, both men and women, are busy working. He portrays, with mastery, the ancient song of everyday labour and work. His subjects do not belong to contemporary world, rather they represent the age long labour process of human history. They do not hold the same senses and stigmas as today’s modern men/women are subjected to. Muscular figures of both men and women, in his arts, in fact, fuel the innate attraction, over and over again. Scrutinising his arts, Sultan has never considered women as the weaker race. In his artworks, alike Michelangelo, women are attributed with muscular body. This only translates to one thing — women are not as weak as we think of them.



Among the major women artists in Bangladesh, Novera Ahmed, pathfinder of modern art in post-Pakistan era, is a prominent name. She emerges as an artist in the early 50s, from a Bengali Muslim family. She is a modernist, in her art and in her life style. Her exceptional sculptures depicting single woman, women and child, father and child, male and cow et cetera are oozing with her characteristic style. Her own style of art, has reached a height during her time. She is certainly an era-defining artist in our art history. Apart from her, Shamim Shikder, Ferdousi Priyabhashini, Lalarukh Selim, Mitu Haque are some of the prominent women sculptors of our country.

In the arts created during 80s and 90s, subjects like discrimination against women, their marginalisation, self-dependency and craving for freedom slowly gained prominence. Generally, art about women were heavily centred on the idea of motherhood and its relation with women. This portrayal can also be decoded as construction of idealism. Even though, since the 1960s onwards, women are making their presence felt and asserting themselves as protagonists in the art history of Bangladesh, women were still predominantly seen as object of art rather than artists.



Different unexplainable experiences of female existence as well as their diversified understanding of the world around them became major subjects of Nazlee Laila Mansur’s artworks. Most of her works, spontaneously, express the existing class-discrimination, injustices in society and violence against the weak. In her works, feminisim is nothing different from these injustices, rather, this idea is incorporated within these subject matters. Artist Naima Haque, Nasreen Begum, Kanakchapa Chakma, Gulshan Hossain are other noteworthy female artists.

Works of Tayeba Begum Lipi

Works of Tayeba Begum Lipi

Post-modernist artist Dilara Begum Jolly has played an important role in Bangladeshi art. Through her art works, peasant industry workers’ sorrow, injustices towards them and the discriminatory system became evident.

Artist Tayeba Begum Lipi is another artist who likes to work with unusual choice of materials. Safety-pins, used razor blades are her colour and brush. With recurring use of these metal scraps, she has created women attire, under garments, hand-bags or stiletto shoes. She, in fact, wants to portray the path of women in this male dominated society which is sharp and rough.

Among the modern, performance artist Sumana Akhter has managed to question the traditional perspective of the society to view women and their roles. She started her career with a performance called ‘Droupadi’. She herself becomes Droupadi, but not the character from the epic, Mahavarata, rather a character of her contemporary time, society and culture. In her work ‘Identity Crisis’, she deliberately chooses those colloquial discriminatory curse words towards women. It is worth mentioning here that those curse words are based on feminine identity. Her performances have become a memoir of feminine experiences in this male dominated society which imposes different notions of purity, truth and beauty on women. In protesting rape and sexual assaults, she demonstrated another performance in Dhaka’s Sahbagh. She purchased 50 roses, distributed them among some people and started eating rest of the flowers. This symbolises the male notion of feminine beauty and how it’s being devoured.

The artist who played a key role in the formation of women in contemporary art is Nazia Andaleeb Preema. Preema’s featured video performances include ‘Munajat’, ‘And Star Continues’, ‘Marry My Egg’, ‘Monologue with Light’, ‘Isolation’, and many others. Preema has countered the mother branding by her video work titled ‘Marry My Egg’.  She claims, the society is actually feeding women’s eggs to women. Among other promising contemporary women artists are Reetu Sattar, Yeasmin Zahan Nupur, Nazmun Nahar Keya, Dipti Dutt, Kehkasha, Swarnali MItra Rini, Meherun Nahar Shumi.

In order to break the image of women created by the male and their society, women’s participation is pivotal, to re-construct the complex image of femininity and their experience of the society and world. However, this needs to be mentioned that by creating only positive arts will not break the stereotypical image in this socio-economic scenario.


Dipa Mahbuba Yasmin is a young film maker.




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