Syeda Mahbub on How Her Artwork Are Making South Asians Finally Feel Seen

by Priya Uddin

I remember finding myself on the search for art that centers around my Bangladeshi identity, with also the various layers of living in the diaspora in America, and my queerness. However, I always got stuck. I never felt an instant connection to any of the South Asian artwork around me. As someone who’s life revolves around art, there was a longing inside of me wishing I can find that beautiful bond with paintings just like how my white peers did in every art class. 

That’s when it felt like kismet. I cam across Syeda Mahbub on Instagram. A 20-year-old Bangladeshi-American artist whose work combined the different layers of my “complicated” identity. The intersections intertwined so beautifully together in each of her artwork. In one, you’ll see a mother in a salwar kameez sitting on the steps outside her house, lovingly watching her children in the city streets. I imagined my mother watching me ride my scooter around, my braids flapping in the wind. 


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Sorjo spoke to Syeda about her art and her inspiration behind it: 

When did you start becoming interested in art and illustrating? 

My passion for art began at a young age and my mother, who was an architect in Bangladesh at the time and had a strong passion for the arts herself, quickly enrolled me in various art programs around Dhaka. At the age of ten, I was fortunate enough to have an art tutor come to our home, and that is when I first learned the traditional mediums (painting, sketching, collage, etc.). After moving to the US, I lacked the resources initially to continue making art. In retrospect, I had also internalized the immigrant mindset that I needed to work hard in school rather than focus on my “lesser meaningful hobby”. It wasn’t until the end of high school that I truly admitted to myself, and to a close friend, that there was creativity in me that I didn’t know how to express but also could no longer suppress. I thought that because I had stopped making art years before that my opportunity and skills were gone for good. College had changed that for me because for the first time I had the freedom to feel like I could do just about anything, and that is when I began sharing my work on my with others. 


How does being a Bangladeshi-American play a role in your work? 

Much of my childhood years were spent in Bangladesh so naturally, that plays a big part in the art I create. Since I also began my art journey in the motherland, I was most familiar with illustrating brown faces and brown lives before all else. But I also take a lot of my inspiration from being a New Yorker because this city is also home to me. So being able to combine the two together and watching desi lives unfold in my artworks is a really wonderful experience.


What is “our desi canvas” and what does it mean to you? 

Our Desi Canvas, to me, is first and foremost a safe, community space for the desi diaspora. Hence the emphasis on “our”, because even though I am the artist behind the illustrations, I want it to be a place where all my desis can feel seen. In the future, I plan to expand Our Desi Canvas far beyond what it is today and I am currently in the process of creating Our Desi Journal, a digital platform for desi stories and creativity.


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Your work explores all types of identities from being a South Asian woman, men expressing feminity to sexuality. Why do you think it’s important to explore all different identities besides your own in your artwork? 

When I began posting artworks on topics like queer desi identity and colorism, many people reached out to me saying that my art made them feel seen, some for the very first time. I believe it is crucial that as humans we always strive to not only speak up for ourselves, but also those around us, and I apply that philosophy to my craft as well. I have spent much of my short existence so far watching these identities within the desi community be erased and stripped of value and I want my art to be an inclusive experience where we all feel seen. 


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How and why do you use your artwork to make a statement about various social justice issues? Why is it important to do so? 

I believe all art makes some form of a political or social statement to a certain degree. Even the absence of any is a statement within itself. So the question for me was “what kind of statement do I want to make with my art?” And I make those decisions based on my observations of society, the desi community and parts of my identity and experience. For example, topics such as colorism, immigration, and sexuality are not only necessary to discuss in the desi community but are also subjects near and dear to my heart. And I think it is important to shed light on these using art because art can be one of the most powerful ways to make a statement on society and it has always been a medium that has resonated with me the most.


I noticed that you combine different mediums in your artwork like drawing illustrations on top of photos. Is there a meaning behind this and what inspired you to start this? 

Before I began sharing my work on social media, a lot of my art dabbled with the idea of combining small illustrations with photographs and I noticed that that piqued my creative senses the most. Now, I have moved onto combining photographs of places around New York City with my illustrations of desi people and I do so to reinforce the idea that desi lives are everywhere around us. Being desi in America can sometimes make one feel invisible. Possibly the only times our identities are recognized in the mainstream are when our brown bodies need to be tokenized for a bad joke or “more culture.” By placing my illustrations in the real world, I want to portray the everyday, complex, nuanced desi. We are everywhere. Our lives don’t simply revolve around bindis, and sarees and spicy food. Our lives have depth and impact society in every which way and we deserve to be shown in that light. 


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What do you hope people feel when they see your artwork?

My artworks mainly involve a sense of childhood nostalgia mixed with the possibilities of a progressive, inclusive future. I hope people are able to relate to the stories I strive to portray and that they can see themselves in them. But in the same light, I hope they are able to see that we as desis are capable and deserving of change, and that if we put in the work we can break away from the oppressive, colonial traditions that we have been conditioned to our entire lives. 

What advice do you have for other artists that are struggling to find their own unique style?

My advice is to simply start somewhere and to trust your intuition. It can be easy to fall down a rabbit hole of figuring out the right aesthetic or style, but I believe that it’s all about trial and error! And style is something that changes and develops over time just like the artist. There is simply no rush so trust your instincts and your craft, keep practicing, and it will all come together with time.

Syeda’s prints are now available! You can check them out here

Sorjo Magazine


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