In 2020, we told you about Salbhi Sumaiya, a Toronto-based Bangladeshi conceptual and visual artist who had immigrated to Canada a few years back, but her hearing impairment had made it challenging to find employment. She eventually enrolled in CCS’ Language Instruction for Newcomers Program (LINC) and took English classes for over a year. During this time, her reading and writing skills became stronger and her speaking ability steadily improved.

She had also enrolled in CCS’s Small Business Support Project that helps low language newcomers learn business basics and explore self-employment opportunities via information sessions, workshops and coaching. Sandra Wong, a Small Business Support Project Worker, began tailoring a personalized plan for Salbhi, liaising with her speech therapist to understand where she was at, and then began working one-on-one with her, establishing goals and setting up a feasible action plan.

Salbhi’s passion is art. She had started painting at the age of seven. As a hard of hearing (HOH) individual, she was drawn to the visual arts naturally because of its accessibility to her as a visual art form. Painting was an instinctive way for her to express her ideas and creativity. She had held workshops for children and staged exhibitions back in Bangladesh and was hoping to start a career in Canada as an artist and return to painting.

It was also around this time Salbhi expressed keen interest in starting her own business. So, Sandra began exploring opportunities available through various local and provincial arts councils. The research led to the Toronto Arts Foundation which provided application support funding to help Salbhi apply for the RBC Arts Access Award, an award designed to support newcomer artists with the creation of new work, as well as defraying costs associated with projects, such as fees, art supplies, equipment or space rentals with micro-awards up to $1500.

The rest, as they say, is history. In December 2019, Salbhi was announced as one of seventeen winners of the RBC award and her achievement was recognized at a reception at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto in February, 2020.

But less than a month later, as we know, COVID took North America by storm.

Since then, Salbhi has been painting steadily, sold more than fifteen pieces, and was commissioned to paint other artwork. She’s been interviewed by a leading Bangladeshi lifestyle magazine, Showcase, The Business Standard newspaper, and featured on Canadian Art Daily’s Instagram page; she’s also been busily creating promotional material and curating her collection, while steadily expanding her footprint in the art world, including displaying her work online at the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair in 2020.

We caught up to her virtually recently to hear what this CCS client, artist, and budding entrepreneur thinks about contemporary art, what inspires her and what’s next.

First, tell us a little about your background?

While I would like to think I have a pallet of skills, my focus mainly remains in Fine Arts which I majored in, completing an Honours degree in graphic design & multimedia in Dhaka. I managed to land jobs at some of the most prestigious advertising firms in Bangladesh as a graphic designer.

What motivated you the most to tread on the path of art?

Since as far as I can remember, the cousins and I would get together right before every Eid to put Henna on our hands and I was fascinated by the limitless patterns and designs you could create. Ever since, I would incorporate those intricate patterns and designs in my paintings, while keeping a style of my own.

I believe that every artist has different ambitions and motivations when it comes to creating art. For me, the same can be divided into a few categories.

First, I am driven by an innate and compulsive desire to create art. I get a huge amount of satisfaction from creating things. Pablo Picasso was famous for his prodigious output; by some estimates, the Spanish master created up to 250,000 works. While such productivity is far from ordinary, it illustrates the type of work ethic and dedication required to become a successful artist in the ultra-competitive contemporary art world.

Secondly, the desire to socialize is important to me. It’s well known that the art world has always had a very strong social undercurrent. My career path forces me to interact with people of different ethnic and social backgrounds and mindsets, which in turn provides me with the opportunity to think differently. It also allows me to create work unique to my taste and inspiration. But it’s not all fun and games. Aside from the hustling and networking required to build a legitimate career, it is essential to have a close-knit social group to lean on when times get tough (which inevitably they will) and to be in touch with a community and network of peers and colleagues that support one another and that is what gets you through.

Next, financial success is a driver. It is rare and surprising to hear artists openly admit that money is a motivating factor behind becoming an artist, primarily because for the vast majority of artists, it isn’t a lucrative career path. But it is also important to remember wealth and broader success often go hand-in-hand, however, and since wealth is an indicator of success, to be successful is often to be wealthy.

Lastly the freedom that the artist’s lifestyle affords is significant. While it’s definitely risky to choose the arts as a career path — given there is a high chance of financial uncertainty and a nomadic lifestyle — the reason I don’t mind it is because I’m escaping the man’s usual fate, because being an artist is the antithesis of the typical 9-to-5 office job. Artists have a great deal of personal freedom to experience the world, allowing them to channel those experiences into great artwork.

What is your medium of choice?

While oil on canvas remains my utmost favorite media to work on, charcoal sketching remains a close second. Although, due to consumer demand, I tend to stay occupied with oil painting more.

What is your forte? What are your favourite subjects to depict?

My main focus is on wildlife; most of my projects are based on it and its going to be so for awhile. I would like to think of myself as a conduit for social and environmental change through my art and a voice for those who don’t have a voice themselves.

Most of the themes I explore are usually based on raising awareness on various contemporary issues, such as the mass extinction of animals caused by human interference and the calamities faced by Myanmar’s Rohingya population. The themes have been determined by my belief in my moral obligation towards the world and all its living beings. Via some of my paintings, I try to convey how the world has turned from a safe haven for animals — in other words, a sanctuary — to facing the sixth mass extinction due to habitat loss, fragmentation of ecosystems, climate change, pollution, etc. My overall artistic vision is to continue to create art that celebrates the natural world, builds awareness about environmental concerns, animal rights and reminds people of our role as the most conscious being and the immediate need to take care of the planet.

What are your thoughts on the contemporary art world?

There are various reasons why contemporary art is important to society. It acts as a means to express oneself, as it is a way to provide social and cultural commentary on today’s world and society. It is often about providing opportunities to reflect on ideas and concerns, rather than solely just the aesthetic of things and beings. It is part of a cultural dialogue that concerns larger contextual frameworks such as identity, family, community, nationality, wildlife, etc. It can include depicting literally or figuratively any views on anything and everything — from politics to pop culture.

One of the biggest benefits contemporary art possesses is its aesthetic value and its capacity to elicit a sense of pleasure. Although, what is considered pleasing to the eye may vary from viewer to viewer, given the wide variety of mediums and methods for this style of art, there is likely to be some form that will appeal to each person. Just as the making of art is a personal expression, so is the selection and display of art in someone’s office or home décor. By selecting art pieces that are pleasing personally, a person can exercise their own choice and express elements of their own mind and thoughts, even if they have no personal artistic talent or interest in making art.

I understand you sold a painting recently — how did it feel?

Yes. I sold my painting to an Australian Bengali buyer. It was a “destiny painting” about predestination — destiny or fate as a predetermined course of events. My message through the painting was to take it easy in life, not to stress on everything beyond our control, because there’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you are meant to be.

It was a nice feeling that my painting had found a new home.

How do you want to represent Bangladesh in Canada and the world with your artistic ventures?

I tend to portray both the negatives and positives through my work. I have portrayed the negative impacts of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population in Myanmar via one of my exhibitions in South Africa and Bangladesh. Similarly, in one of my upcoming planned projects in Canada, I will try to represent the beauty of the wildlife population in Bangladesh — and threats too. Little is known about this beyond the Bangladesh borders and there is a lack of preservation and conservation. Through my painting and my specific selection of the endangered animals in Bangladesh, I would try to bring attention to these pressing concerns.

What is the current state and status of South Asian artists living in Toronto?

Canada, to me, is a very welcoming country. Canadians truly try to support newcomers. However, you do not see enough South Asian artists taking advantage of this welcoming inclination. Artists are supported with a wide range of resources — such as grants and mentors — to aid them financially or otherwise. Artists are also assisted in setting up their own business, or start-up project, and are supported with solo and group exhibitions too.

How difficult it is for the artists of a diaspora community to find a place in the mainstream Canadian art scene?

Despite the numerous contributions of the South Asian diaspora community to Toronto in the cultural field, it is still a challenge. The community is so vibrant that one cannot imagine anything without them. All major art institutions and galleries in Canada are rooted in colonialism, so naturally there remains a distinct hegemony in regard to solo exhibitions, media coverage and career development. But this is being reduced to a great extent through government and NGO support in bringing the immigrant population into the mainstream. The main obstacle, however, remains a lack of recognition of home country work experience and credentials.

How does it feel to be getting paid for doing what you love and following your passion? Some would say you are living the dream!

Yes, I have a dream! I want to be a successful artist at home and abroad — and have a beautiful life and be independent.

In terms of the CCS services you received, what supports helped you the most, or you found most valuable?

CCS has played a major role in my development in Canada in more ways than one. Moreover, Ms. Sandra Wong (Small Business Support Project Lead) has played an integral role in this development. Her caring attitude and personalized efforts helped me immensely in getting around the hardships of moving to a completely new country. She went beyond the line of duty. I’m immensely grateful to CCS and all the employees for this contribution.

So, what do you have in the pipeline and what’s next?

Last year, I participated in Canada’s most competitive & biggest art festival, known as the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair, as one of the 120 fine art finalists selected from across Canada. I’m planning to participate virtually again this year. I also have a few more projects in the pipeline with the Toronto Art Council and Ontario Art Council, to name a few. The virtual space is attracting new clients via its mass reach to people who would typically not be interested in visiting art exhibitions physically, or to those who never knew they had a knack for art. During the pandemic, I’ve managed to sell most of my paintings via virtual platforms and have surpassed my expectations. Therefore, I am planning to hold more themed online exhibitions in the near future.

Any memorable moments from your artistic career you’d like to share?

Sometimes the smallest things can have the biggest effect on one’s life. Similarly, for me, was one drawing, randomly drawn on a blackboard at 5 years young.

The painting was of an aeroplane, leaving my parents astonished by the detailing for a child my age. They subsequently enrolled me into a renowned art school in Dhaka. Who would have known, fast-forwarding 30 years, I would be still holding a brush and also making a living out of it! It is an immense sense of self-achievement when your work is about doing what you love and loving what you do.