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54
JANUARY 2012
|
THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
AFSA NEWS
ACT I VE AFTER ACT I VE- DUTY:
A Bengali Woman’s Art: Cause for Liberation
When I retired from the
Foreign Service in 2008, my
wife, Cathy Stevulak, and I
had ideas about what the
future held. Something with
an international focus, to
be sure. We were open to a
lot of possibilities, but never
thought we would be where
we are today: immersed in
making a documentary flm
about a Bangladeshi Mus-
lim woman who overcomes
social and economic hard-
ships and liberates herself
and hundreds of other
women by creating timeless
works of art.
Cathy and I frst saw
Surayia Rahman’s artwork
when we were posted
in Dhaka. Like many, we
admired the range of sub-
jects and the fne execu-
tion of her “
nakshi kantha”
tapestries. These told vivid
stories of the lives of village
women, the British Raj, and
illustrated works of the great
Bengali poets. Inspired by a
household tradition of Bengal
involving quilting and embroi-
dery, called kantha,
In Dhaka’s vibrant visual
arts scene her work stood
out, not because of promo-
tion or hype, but because
of its clarity of vision and
quality. When a mutual friend
ofered to introduce Cathy
to Surayia she jumped at the
chance. We were both struck
by Surayia’s quiet dignity and
commitment to excellence.
We were not surprised
BY LEONARD HI LL , FORE IGN SERV ICE RET I RED
to learn—much later, for
Surayia was too modest to
tell us this herself—that her
work was in museums as well
as royal, ofcial and private
collections around the world.
We kept in touch with
Surayia after leaving Dhaka.
Knowing that all of her imme-
diate family had immigrated
to Canada, we commissioned
a piece from her and donated
it to the Textile Museum in
Toronto. A few years later she
sent us one of the last pieces
she worked on before health
problems ended her ability.
At that point our involve-
ment in Surayia’s life prob-
ably would have faded, had I
not taken a WAE assignment
in Halifax. An art professor
there who was familiar with
Surayia’s work suggested
that Cathy do something
to document the stories of
these elaborate embroidered
artworks before Surayia died.
The idea kept tugging at
us, and we knew we did not
have a lot to time to decide
if we should start flming or
not. “How hard,” we asked
each other, “could making
a documentary flm about
Surayia and her art be?”
Three years later, with
multiple flming sessions
in Bangladesh and Canada
behind us, we have a better
answer to that question. I still
take When Actually Employed
assignments, but work on
the flm has become an
unexpected full time job for
both of us. Neither of us are
flm school graduates, but we
have brought to the project
experience and skills learned
during our frst careers. We
have also met a lot of inter-
esting new people, many of
whom have mentored us as
we have learned how to get
around in a new and unfa-
miliar landscape, culture and
language—not unlike landing
at a new post.
Most importantly, we have
been able to delve deeper
into Surayia’s remarkable
story and learn more about
the hundreds of destitute
young women who found
a path to economic self-
sufciency for themselves
and their families through
their exquisite work and their
dedication to art.
Telling the story of Surayia
and the women who worked
with her, and being able to
bring the art they created to
a wider audience, is not at all
what Cathy and I expected to
be doing now. But, like our
time in the Foreign Service,
we would not trade the expe-
rience for anything.
n
References:
FilmWeb site, which has a
four-minute trailer for the flm:
kanthathreads.com
International Documentary
Association (a 501(c)3 nonproft)
page for the flm: www.documentary.
org/community/sponsorship/
donate?flm_id=3732
Surayia’s work at the Textile Museum
of Canada: www.textilemuseum.ca/
apps/index.cfm?page=collection.
detail&catid=14041&row=1
Article about Surayia in
Hand/Eye
Magazine
: http://handeyemagazine.
com/content/accidental-saint
Surayia Rahman, center, with some of the women she has mentored
and worked with for more than 25 years. These formerly destitute single
mothers now own land in their own names and have sent their children to
college as a result of the art they created with Surayia.