Posted by:  Cathy and Len

The Textile Museum of Canada  in Toronto has an exhibition, “Telling Stories,” that includes one of Surayia’s works, Georgian Times.  Curated by Roxanne Shaughnessy, the exhibition will run until mid-April, 2014, so please go see it if you are in the area.  You can view an image of Georgian Times from the Textile Museum’s collection at this link.

Here’s the description from the Museum’s website:

“The art of storytelling extends beyond the written word, encompassing a myriad of forms. Whether through the illustration of a myth or legend, or the recitation of an epic poem or song, cultures have devised inventive and elaborate methods of recording and depicting their rich histories through the centuries. In this exhibition of artifacts from the permanent collection of the Textile Museum of Canada, textiles perform as instruments of communication, offering narratives that unfold in the making and materiality of each textile. …. Telling Stories presents extraordinary materials of everyday lives that reflect the inordinate richness of cultural histories as well as the human impulse to capture real and imagined experiences.”

Thank you, Roxanne, for a beautiful and timely exhibition.



Posted by:  Cathy and Len
One of the fascinating stories that Surayia has told us is about Sarah, from Iowa, USA.  Sarah was staying in Dhaka while her husband worked on a contract to build grain elevators in the late 1960s in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).  Sarah appreciated Surayia’s painted ceramics and silk scrolls which she discovered at the shop of the Women’s Voluntary Association in Dhaka.
A scroll painting by Surayia Rahman:  Water Carriers.  Photo courtesy of: F. Rigon

A scroll painting by Surayia Rahman: Water Carriers. Photo courtesy of F. Rigon

Sarah would send her driver to pick Surayia up and bring her to the hotel where she was staying, and over time they became friends.  Sarah was particularly interested in Surayia’s hand-painted silk scrolls that showed lives of village women collecting water in pots at the riverside.   She asked Surayia to make scroll paintings to be sold at the museum shop of the Des Moines Art Center.  To this day, Surayia can recite the address in Des Moines where she mailed the scroll paintings – such an important memory this was!  The money she received for the paintings came at a critical time: Surayia was struggling as the breadwinner of her young family.  As she tells us: “I built my house with that scroll money.”

Through research and luck we were able to find Sarah’s son, and to tell him about how his mother had helped an artist from a distant country.

We were pleasantly surprised recently to hear from several Iowans who had learned of Surayia from Sarah’s son and were interested in visiting her while they were on a trip to Dhaka.  We put them together, and they had an opportunity to meet and talk.  Surayia always enjoys opportunities to re-connect with people from her past and to have a chance to think back on her days of painting.   Despite her many hardships, art connected and uplifted her.

Surayia’s art is now found in many private collections and museums throughout the world.   But, forty years ago, when Sarah reached out to Surayia in friendship and recognized talent when opportunities for women artists were few … it changed Surayia’s world.  Surayia then went on to share her skills with others, creating ways for young women to help themselves and their families to a much better future.

Do you have a story of threads of connection between Iowa and Bangladesh? 

Surayia with visitors.  Photo used with permission.

Surayia with visitors. Photo used with permission.

Posted by:  Cathy and Len

How many lawyers and rhinos are there in Surayia’s work “The Raj?”  The answer is:  One … and two, depending on when the piece was designed.

The original "Raj" with one lawyer.

The original “Raj” with one lawyer.

In recent weeks we have had several fascinating conversations with Andreas, a friend of Surayia’s who encouraged her to design a nakshi kantha tapestry based on her experience as a witness to the last days of British rule in Calcutta.  Surayia mentioned Andreas to us some months ago, saying that we should get in touch with him.  Asked where he was and how to contact him, she said: “Oh it shouldn’t be hard to find him, he’s a German man.  Ask in Germany.  He gave me a leather book once.  Ask at the bookshops, they will know his address.”   Fortunately for us, an internet search turned up contact information for a man who seemed to be a match, and an e-mail to him asking if he might be the person Surayia mentioned brought a quick and gracious reply.


The updated "Raj" with a second lawyer.

The updated “Raj” with a second lawyer.

Surayia tells us that, when she was encouraged by Andreas to design the tapestry that she called “The Raj,” it had a hunting scene with one rhinoceros, and a courtroom scene with one lawyer.  This design was produced under the auspices of the Skills Development for Underprivileged Women project.  Surayia later was let go from SDUW.  The project retained her original designs and applied to the Copyright Board for ownership.  When some of the women from the Skills Development project came to ask her to help them, Surayia formed her own organization Arshi, and needed to re-create the designs.  With the copyright proceedings looming, Surayia tells us that she was advised to make her designs with a difference.  So … the single rhino is the hunting scene became two rhinos.  And the single lawyer in the courtroom gained a colleague.  As she tells us in one of the interviews that Mishuk Munier filmed in Dhaka:  “I never saw a courtroom before but I did a perfect courtroom scene, with two lawyers.”

For thirty years and continuing today, Surayia’s designs in both versions are the center of livelihoods for many artisans of Bangladesh.    The Threads film is a story that goes well beyond ‘one’ or ‘two’…it is a story of how one person, with creativity and sharing skills, can impact the lives of communities for generations.   The artwork is not the only legacy; it is the children who are schooled, the women who are empowered to buy their own land, and those who are teaching others to stitch beauty for a future.

"Raj" with one rhino.

“Raj” with one rhino.

"Raj" with two rhinos.

“Raj” with two rhinos.











Photos by Tino Sieland.  Used with kind permission of the owner.


Posted by: Len

Nakshi kantha tapestry commissioned for the opening of the US Embassy in Dhaka, 1989.  Surayia Rahman design.  Photo: Anil Advani.

Nakshi kantha tapestry commissioned for the opening of the US Embassy in Dhaka, 1989. Surayia Rahman design. Photo: Anil Advani.

The May edition of State Magazine was posted online today, and it was a pleasure to see Surayia and the women of Arshi in two places: the table of contents (page 3) and in an article I wrote for the magazine on page 32.  Anil Advani’s iconic photo of Surayia in the midst of her “girls” says so much with a single image.

It is gratifying that both the Foreign Service Journal and State have found the film project interesting enough to publish articles.  Members of the Foreign Service community — from the U.S., Canada, and other countries as well — have always been strong supporters of Surayia and her art.  The Canadian High Commission in Dhaka gave the first small grant that got Skills Development for Unprivileged Women going; the U.S. Embassy commissioned Surayia to do work that now hangs in the Embassy; three U.S. Ambassadors that we know of have and display Surayia’s work in their homes, as do many other current and retired Foreign Service members.




Posted by: Len

Surayia and some of the women of Arshi.  Photo copyright Anil Advani and Kantha Productions LLC.

Surayia and some of the women of Arshi. Photo copyright Anil Advani and Kantha Productions LLC.

International Women’s Day is the perfect time to reflect on the example set by Surayia and the women of Arshi.  Talent, creativity, and lots of dedication and hard work allowed them to build much better futures for themselves and their families.  Artisan enterprises like Arshi employ significant numbers of people — primarily women — around the world, and are an important source of income that permits self-sufficiency.

It is good to see that my former employer, the U.S. State Department, has joined with other like-minded institutions to establish the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise.  I hope this initiative helps to focus attention on artisans worldwide, today and during Women’s History Month, and also that it helps convince people to support living artists and to buy the handmade goods that they produce.