Shefali: Seeking closure from spectres of the past

Shefali RantheSaiful Islam

Her attire is as colourful as her art. She talks, laughs and is as candid as can be. But an inner anguish surfaces in her eyes time and again. Shefali is yet to find the closure she seeks. This is artist Shefali Ranthe from Denmark, from Bangladesh. Hers is a long a story of raw pain and resilience.

Born in Bangladesh to a poor fisherman’s family in Chattogram, she lost her mother as a child, was sent to an orphanage and then adopted by a Danish couple. There too she faced abandonment and struggled on. But she has fought against all odds and established herself as an artist of worth.

She expresses her angst and aspirations in her paintings, in a riot of colour on canvas. While in Dhaka to participate in the 19th Asian Art Biennale, she shares some of her thoughts and perceptions in an interview with Prothom Alo’s Ayesha Kabir.

Q :

So what brings you to Dhaka, Shefali?

I am here because of the Asian Art Biennale held every second year. Last time I was here was 2018. That was my first biennale. This one is my second. The dates were changed several times so I was not planning to be here this time. I sent them just one piece of art. If I knew I would be here, I would have sent two. Dhaka and the Shilpakala Academy, where the Art Biennale is being held, are amazing. They have amazing artists here in Bangladesh. And I love being here because this is my country. And last time when I came, they accepted me as their sister who has come home. I have travelled the whole world, but never had such a welcome.

Q :

What do you think of the Bangladesh art scene?

The art here is of high standard. There are so many amazing artists. In fact I have met many of them in different parts of the world, Beijing, Venice, all over. We have our own group and we follow each other, finding out who is going where and so on. And during Covid times, we sent each other invitations because we had made online exhibitions so as not to forget ourselves. It is so nice to know everyone is around each other.

One of my good friends told me, start painting. I said, no, I cannot paint. She said, yes you can. Then I met an Iranian guy who was an artist and he gave me the chance to become an artist. He taught me how to use colours, drawing and so on

Q :

How did you get into art?

Art has always been with me. I am from the streets of Chittagong. I remember, perhaps it was in the village, how we would draw in the sand, how we would use plants to make colours. I have always been creative. In Bangladesh, I learnt how to dance and sing in the orphanage. I always have one song in my head. I don't know the words well, but I sing it 'la-la-la-la' in the tune. I was adopted and the first time I came back to Bangladesh was in 1996. I found my orphanage and I sung this song to them without the words, and they told me, yes, this was from that home. I still don't what it is about, besides it being about flowers. I still sing it for my kids.

Art came later. I have always been drawing somehow and I remember a teacher in Grade 7 in Denmark. I am not academic. I found school work very difficult. I would always have music in my head and in another world where no one could say I was good or not good. So I was drawing in the local church and one of my teachers told me at that time, I would be a great artist. But at that time I didn't know what he meant. What was an artist?

I was educated as a graphic designer. In the crash of 2000, our company closed down and I lost my job. One of my good friends told me, start painting. I said, no, I cannot paint. She said, yes you can. Then I met an Iranian artist and he gave me the chance to become an artist. He taught me how to use colours, drawing and so on. So that was a new universe I hadn't known about. And from that time I knew I would be an artist. But still in Denmark, it was only hobby-based. I was jumping from one style to another, but was never inspired there. Around 2002, I decided I wanted to be inspired by India, Bangladesh, Pakistan because these were the same family. I was actually stuck. It would be easy to be inspired in Africa or Japan, but this part of the world was difficult. It should have been easy because it was me, but I stuck. I tried to make a street picture, but it didn't seem to be India-inspired or Bangladesh-inspired at all.

In 2003 in Africa, I was actually pregnant though I didn't know it at the time. I painted a pregnant woman with her stomach. At the end of the curve, I left one piece of the collage and that was a girl inside me. At the time I didn't know the gender, but it was a girl. So this painting belonged to my daughter. I decided that whatever it takes, I want to be inspired by my roots.

But something was blocked for me. Maybe it was my childhood because I don't want to be reminded of what happened that time. When I walked today and we passed a pond, I felt compelled to stop. I had to see it. Something reminded me of the past. I know am not from this area, I am from Chittagong, but the smell of the pond brought memories. Last time I was here I had a fruit, not a pear but a different fruit, but the smell and taste was very sweet and reminded me of my childhood. To be honest, something from the street has blocked my memories. I don't want to be reminded of the sadness. I am afraid when I walk there.

Even when I came last time to Bangladesh, I texted the people first saying, remember to pick me up. I sent them my pictures. I didn't want to come out before they came. I said, “You have to carry the name 'Shefali' so I know it's me.” I was desperate to know there would be someone to take care of me as soon as I landed. My trauma was from the airport in 1996 when someone took my suitcase and ran away and I shouted after him. But it was just a boy who wanted to help me. I didn't know at the time, and the picture stayed with me. I didn't want it to happen again. This time I was fine.

When I came in 2018, the welcome I got was like a sister returning home. Everyone was so kind. I felt, this is my home. This time I had no trauma. I feel at home here. Next time I have to go to Chittagong because I have a lot of trauma from there. But I want to overcome that. I will visit my orphanage and feel the street.

This time I will be interviewing street kids because I know the feeling of being outside, being lost, being helpless.

Q :

Do you feel at home in Denmark?

No. The thing is, in Denmark I speak the language, but I am not white. And in Denmark also sometimes they can be racist. I can actually feel it, not some much in the capital city, but when you go outside, it's like that. But I have lived in Dubai for many years and that is a global city. Everyone is in the same boat. The family is left behind and far away, so we only have each other. So everyone is welcome to the city. Actually there I was home. I was more at home in Dubai. I will not be home here, I think. Denmark is my home, but I feel sometimes like a stranger walking around. I speak the language and can handle everything, but still, friendships and connections can be very hard even if you are one of them.

Shefali Ranthe
Saiful Islam

Q :

What were you doing in Dubai?

We were busy in Denmark. I had finished my education. My husband was a bit stressed over his IT company and my daughter still had two years before she would start public school. So we were thinking to take out two years just to relax and then go back. But my career as an artist started looking up there. Just three weeks after I arrived there, someone told me, this painting is amazing. We can do an exhibition with you. And from that time my career took off. I had my own art school there. I was teaching women and at a special needs centre and was mentor and creator in many different ways. It was amazing because Dubai is open for all people.

Q :

So many young people aspire to be artists, but not everybody really can make it. Do you have any message for them?

I believe as artists you shouldn’t paint for selling. You should do it because you have to paint. Every day you want it, it is your life, you love it. I had to struggle because Denmark is quite expensive. Dubai was easier because people would buy whatever they want. In Denmark you have to pay high taxes, everything is very expensive. So art comes second. Success will come when you paint without thinking about money. In fact, most of my art is not for sale.

Young talented people have the talent inside, but they have to believe in themselves. In the beginning it can be very difficult to be accepted. I see also in Europe, the competition is really high. For me, I will never see the art scene as a competition. It is a platform where we are all equal. I do my style, you do your style, they do their style. It should not be a competition because when you do that, then you cannot do it from your heart. You feel, I have to be better than you and then maybe I can sell it. But different people have different styles and tastes and we can say, okay, I know someone who will like your style of painting rather than mine. So when you have an exhibition like the biennale, we are all in the same boat. Some of them are just beginners and some have been there always. Just because you are an experienced artist, doesn’t necessarily mean you are the best. There are absolutely great new artists.

Q :

Your art is very colourful. Does that have any significance?

That is me. I have always been very colourful. Happiness is very important to me. It is not that I am happy all of the time, but I want to express it in art. Being positive and happy is most important.

Q :

So when are you coming back to Bangladesh again?

Next time if I am selected, in two years time maybe! They try to hold the biennale every two years, so hopefully I'll be back then.