A Conversation With Bina Sarkar Ellias, Founder of International Gallerie

Janice Sands (JS): Your magazine, International Gallerie, places a lens on art, cultural history, climate, and social commentary with great depth in a way unlike other publication currently available. How did you develop this approach and what has come from introducing your readers/subscribers to other cultures in such a substantial way?

Bina Sarkar Ellias (BSE): Much of my sensibilities arose from direct experiences. Through my student years, I dabbled in drawing and painting. However, I found more joy in viewing and celebrating works of artists I cared about. I also learned to play the sitar in my youth, but preferred listening to the great music of masters. I used to write poetry from very early on but never considered being a “poet”. And even as I once seriously considered being a filmmaker, I preferred watching the feast of world cinema!

As a student, I was involved in social activism. Influenced by Left literature and the Left movement in Calcutta of the late 60s and early 70s. My concerns were and are, for victims of inequality. Eventually, it was a conscious act that brought all of these passionate interests together as a discourse in International Gallerie. Gallerie is a sharing of arts and ideas. In this increasingly fragmented world, it aims to create an island for reflection that will cross oceans to understand, appreciate and respect cultural diversity. Ultimately, it is culture that humanizes.

JS: When did you first realize that art was your passion? Was there any one moment or event that began this lifelong career?

BSE: The proverbial “eureka moment” happened rather late in life. While I am a writer-journalist by profession, I’ve had several punctuations, as it were, in my life as a daughter, mother and wife; as a woman. While I was engaged in all of these roles as most women are, I had forgotten my identity as an individual. One day, when the much-required brick fell on my head, I woke up to the realization that my core creative passions were gathering cobwebs in the closet. That was when I gave myself a tangible purpose. Conceptually, Gallerie’s perspective rose out of all the interests I had nurtured in my youth. When I initiated the journal in 1997, I did not have a clue who my readers would be. Today, after 18 years, I realize my readers are “the curious”. They have been reading and collecting Gallerie for the treasures we have unearthed and shared.

JS: You truly immerse yourself in your work. Could you share some experiences that have stuck with you, or really changed your perspective on the world?

BSE: Work is my life force. In fact, I am fortunate to live my work. Every issue is a culmination of experiences with people and places. For instance, in our previous issue Poland: Resisting History, I walked through Auschwitz with a guide whose descriptions of the Holocaust were as intense as the stark visuals and barracks, the factories of brutality and the gas chambers. Such experiences make you wonder at and reaffirm the smallness of earth’s living species and the largeness of the universe; how insignificant we are and yet how arrogant. Loss has also been a key element; loss of family and friends. You understand then, that you arrive in this world with nothing, and you leave with nothing. This awareness itself offers a perspective that guides you through helps you navigate life.

JS: Your upcoming issue features Taiwan, can you share some insight on the issue and your experience there?

BSE: Exploring Gallerie’s Taiwan: Chronicles of Change was a vital learning curve. Having been colonized several times, its history has been in a continual flux. While most of the colonial influences have been camouflaged or been rejected, footprints of Japan’s 50 years’ rule has remained within their sensibilities and sense of aesthetics.

There is a compelling resistance to mainland China. Although Mandarin is in their vocabulary, a resurgence of the need to reclaim Taiwanese identity in its language and culture has been a strong dissident movement. Taiwan wants to be an independent entity. The indigenous Taiwanese are also claiming their rightful space after years of subjugation and arbitrary relocations. Through these years, women have been marking their expertise in various fields.

Currently, one third of Taiwanese legislators are female and manage ten government departments; they also head some of Taiwan’s leading companies. And as an unprecedented milestone in their history, the forthcoming elections have two women leaders contesting for the President’s chair. The ruling Nationalist Party’s candidate Hung Hsiu-chu, a former teacher and current deputy Legislative Speaker and Ms. Tsai Ing-wen, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman are nominated and for the first time, Taiwan will have a woman President. This is indeed, one more reaffirmation that women need not subscribe to stereotypical roles. And if they are made to conform to such roles as it happens in oppressive communities worldwide, these women need to be made aware of their potential by those who have risen above the prescribed gender roles.

JS: What is your view on gender inequality in the arts? Do you think that the art world can address it in a deeper way on a global scale?

BSE: While it has taken centuries for women to evolve in every field, it is energizing to note that women since the 60s are increasingly claiming their space in the world. Women in the arts are a growing phenomenon, especially in strong feminist and political art. In India, we have Nalini Malani, Rekha Rodwittya, Navjoy Altaf, Shilpa Gupta, Jaishri Abhichandani and Chitra Ganesh (based in NY) and amongst others; the neighboring region of Pakistan has Aisha Khalid, Shahzia Sikander (in NY), Saira Wasim (US), Bani Abidi (in Berlin), Nilofer Akmut (in UK) to name a few, and Bangladesh has Rokeya Sultana, Tayeba Lipi, Rana Begum, Nazia Preema amongst others. Nepal has its own voices: Ragini Upadhyay Grela, Ashmina Ranjit and Erina Tamrakar. And these are just in the visual arts, there has also been a recent wave of writing by women that is are meaningful and vibrant.

JS: As you have pointed out, and we at Pen and Brush work to prove the point, there is no lack of talented women artists and writers creating work that is meritorious, there needs to be more access to opportunity.

BSE: Yes, not merely in the arts and literature, but in all professional spaces at a global scale. It still is a discriminatory world and we need to consistently have our voices heard. Often, women are known to be their own enemies. Art at various levels through education must empower the girl child in schools, while educating the male child as well, with a balanced understanding of gender issues. Re-educating adult men and women who hold preconditioned gender views is also crucial.

JS: We agree. While in 1894, visionary individuals like Janet and Mary Lewis initiated the Pen and Brush as a way to bring women together in a concerted effort to forge their own way as artists and writers in New York City, it is critical now, after over a hundred and twenty years, that women of the world unite through the discourse of literature and the arts, and through significant education on gender issues.

JS: What advice would you give to women looking to have a career in the arts and literature? Would your advice be the same or different for women creating in first world versus developing countries?

BSE: I would urge women wherever they live – if they have an inclination for the arts and literature, or other creative forms such as music, dance, theatre, photography and cinema, to pursue them with a singular passion because the joy and learning they offer cannot be quantified. The arts get under your skin and nourish your soul and even though you arrive in the world with nothing, these are the treasures you take with you.