Art in a Suitcase featured in Bangladeshi paper Samakal
* originally posted on Facebook
Below please find an English translation of the questions on which a recent article about Art in a Suitcase in the Bangladesh paper Samakal is based,
TELL US ABOUT THIS PROJECT BRIEFLY, PLEASE.
Art in a Suitcase is a global education initiative that encourages children from around the world to get to know one another through art.
WHY IS IT NAMED ‘ART IN A SUITCASE’?
The name derived from our first global interaction. The idea was to collect art supplies from my son’s school, Ethical Culture Fieldston, prioritizing ecologically-friendly materials and that were normally not used by Bangladeshi children. We wanted to collect enough supplies that we could fit into one suitcase and hence the name Art in a Suitcase. Once we brought the supplies to Bangladesh, we would gift them to the school and children would then create art to share and gift to the children’s school in the United States.
WHEN AND HOW DID YOU CONCEPTUALIZE IT?
The idea behind Art in a Suitcase was formalized in 2011. After 17 years working as an educator guiding first generation, low-income children through the university application process, I wanted to make a greater contribution in children’s lives. After a thoughtful conversation with my wife and attempting to combine my heartfelt concern for children, my earnest love for art, the great importance of education, and the life-changing effects of understanding, we concluded that perhaps bridging communication between children from different countries would be a meaningful way to dedicate my life.
HOW WAS IT STARTED?
Once the concept of Art in a Suitcase was concretized, we reached out to UBINIG’s Nayakrishi Andolan. They had children in two schools, one at their site in Tangail and the other in Chittagong. Logistically, it made more sense to begin with the school in Tangail which we did. Once it agreed, we reached out to my son’s school, and specifically second grade teacher, to gauge interest — she was very much interested and we initiated our first global communication through collecting and sharing art and having the children learn about one another’s respective countries.
WHAT ARE THE POTENTIALITIES AND CHALLENGES?
This past year, I have been living in Bangladesh with the plan to grow Art in a Suitcase. After coordinating two additional art shares over two years between Ethical Culture Fieldston and Nayakrishi Andolan Tangail, it was now time to add a more formal structure to sustain the organization. After a successful fundraising Kickstarter campaign, through family and friends, I was able to raise enough money to hire three art educators to maintain the global art shares when I returned to the United States. After many conversations with artists, visits to galleries, I was fortunate enough to involve and hire three art educators.
Art is essential to the soul, and we first noticed this when, on a whim, and after a week of fun activities that involved not only art, but also dancing and running, the children at Nayakrishi Andolan Ishwardi, expressed an interest in long-term art classes. This occurred in 2013, and with this in mind, we promised to have something in place for them within a year’s time.
While in Bangladesh, this past year, I was able to formalize a third site with the Mohammadi Group’s Sharaf Pathshala. While the work at Nayakrishi Andolan is centered on rural children that are the sons and daughters of weavers, farmers, and fishermen, Sharaf’s Pathshala is a free urban school for the children of garment factory workers.
There is immense potential in Art in a Suitcase because of the children, their enthusiasm, excitement, and curiosity. They want to learn not only about art, but also about the world as they navigate their place within it. Similarly, children in the United States have so many questions and look forward to learning from their newfound friends in Bangladesh.
While the work is exciting, it is not without its challenges. My major challenge is how to make sure that I have the most thoughtful and committed teachers in place that are not only going to teach proper art techniques, but most importantly are sensitized to using the children’s natural environment to express their realities. There are no mistakes in art and I want to ensure that the teachers cultivate the children’s interests and innate curiosity. I think I have found that in the art educators.
Funding is another major concern. Many funders do not see the value and the transformative aspect of art and, in particular, as it relates to children. In fact, studies show that more art in children’s lives help with their social-emotional development, academic success, and creative ingenuity.
I SAW THAT CHILDREN IN BANGLADESH ARE HAPPY TO BE A PART OF THIS PROJECT. WHAT ABOUT AT THE OTHER SIDE OF THE GLOBE? WHAT’S THEIR IMPRESSION?
It brings me great joy to see the Bangladeshi children excited about art and learning about others in the United States. Similarly, the American children, are quite moved by the connection and were so eager to know more that they incorporated an art lesson focused on learning how to make fish out of strips of paper. This lesson was based on how Bangladeshi children made fish and other creations from palm and jute. The interest is so immense that I had one school in Illinois contact me to work together and another in Mississippi to do the same. In particular, there is more and more interest in preserving the environment and culture while creating art. As in Bangladesh, in the United States, there is great interest in protecting our environment through making natural dyes from fruit and vegetables in order to paint. We have already done this with our site in Khilkhet when they shared with their partner in Illinois. Both groups of children created beautiful work with their natural dyes.
WE KNOW YOU ARE A SON-IN-LAW OF A BANGLADESHI FAMILY. IT IS A RELATIONSHIP WITH MANY RITUALS AND CULTURES; IT IS A FORM OF ‘SOCIAL ART’. WHAT HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE BEEN LIKE?
This is my fifth visit to Bangladesh and it has been wonderful to have had the opportunity to live in Bangladesh for the year. Every interaction encountered, friendship established has been a learning experience. There are two experiences that nicely summarize my relationship with Bangladesh. I recall when I first came, my son called cows “vaca” which is Spanish for cows (my ancestry is from the Dominican Republic which once was a Spanish colony and hence I speak fluent Spanish and teach it to my children). This was a pretty funny experience because my understanding is that “vaca” means “crooked” in Bangla and in the village where we were staying, the community was at first perplexed by my son’s use of the word, then amused to the extent that they too began to use the word. Perhaps as I write, there are Bangla boys and girls that are calling cows “vaca” because of this global interaction. My second experience has centered on religion. After asking my name, many ask my religion, which I respond Catholic. I understand that they were asking in order to find ways to better connect with me. However, over time, they realized that it really didn’t matter because our closeness was more greatly determined by our common humanity.