Drawing From Life

by Samira George

(This article was originally published by Real Change and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

Hunched over the screen of a glowing tablet, Fahmida Azim, a commercial illustrator, draws cartoonish figures of Rohingya women and children, depicting life in a refugee camp. This is one of the many illustration projects Azim has accepted, and, like most of her art, it has a personal connection to her. Never losing sight of who she is and the life she has experienced has helped this talented artist succeed in a highly competitive field.

“I grew up my whole life with people telling me that going into the arts was never going to happen,” said Azim, a resident of Seattle for three years. “There’s no other narrative of success for us.”

Illustration depicting a female-presenting person holding a hookah and reading from a book with smoke or vapor billowing from her mouth.
Illustration of Sutaya al-Mahamali by Fahmida Azim, from “Muslim Women Are Everything”

In the United States, nearly 4 out of 5 people who make their primary living in the arts are white. This lack of diversity was brought to light once again in a report from a group called BFAMFAPhD. The report, written by a collective of art educators and working artists, used 2012 Census Bureau data, which looked at a pool of 3 million artists, and found that 77.6% were white, 7.5% were Black, 3.9% were Asian, 8.3% Hispanic, and 2.8% were other.

Azim immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh when she was 6 years old. She has faced many obstacles while pursuing a career as a professional artist. Even her choice of medium was influenced by the financial factors; art supplies like acrylics are expensive, whereas digital materials are infinite.

Family support was nonexistent. Azim explained that it’s been hard for South Asian Muslims like herself to convince family members that there’s a place in the arts for her.

“When you’re an immigrant, the story you’re told about what success is different,” she said. “I don’t think it’s because of some stereotype of culture … that we aim for just these three jobs: doctor, engineer, or lawyer. I think it’s because we’re put in a position where we’re told we can’t pursue anything else.”

Azim explained that her parents had never seen anyone like themselves make it in the arts industries. They regularly used that to discourage her: Billboards, television shows, music and book illustrations project a singular image of whiteness.

It wasn’t until Azim got a book deal and contracts from outlets like The New York Times and NPR that the conversation about her work in her family changed. Now her family views her as a success. In fact, her younger sister is being encouraged to take up activities like drama club and dancing. “She’s able to do and explore more of her interests than I ever was,” Azim said.

Azim said the biggest shift she is seeing in the publishing world compared to previous years is that we live in a time when talking about race and personal experience is at the forefront. As a South Asian Muslim woman in the U.S., Azim said, “I am deserving of being able to shoot my shot,” and she believes now is the time when everyone is getting greater opportunities.

Illustration of a female presenting person with an opened pomegranate in place of her face.
“Daughter of Man” by Fahmida Azim

Shift From Previous Years

Fahmida Azim’s early experiences are typical of many aspiring minority artists in her field. Susan Jahoda, an art professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a primary contributor to the BFAMFAPhD report, said she has seen various pressures force students out of the field for years.

Jahoda explained that no one example trumps all, but pointed to a combination of precarious financial futures, uncertain job prospects, and an overall negative stigma regarding art as a profession. “Enormous debt and a gig economy —” Jahoda said, “why would someone who already has a scarcity of resources choose a field in which they’re economically likely to fail?”

But Jahoda has noticed a change in recent years. In the past, only people who had the means would pick an arts degree, but the tech boom has inspired a wave of digital art, which is opening up the field.

“I’ve noticed many students of color go into animation design because these are fields where you can still get the foundation in fine arts,” Jahoda said. “You can still paint and you can still learn those things, but you come out of school with very specific, saleable and hireable skills.”

Photo of Fahmida Azim posing in front of Lake Washington.
Fahmida Azim poses for a photo near Lake Washington. Azim immigrated to the United States when she was 6 years old and discovered early on that she had a passion for drawing. Many of Azim’s illustrations depict scenes of people breaking stereotypes and highlight oppressed communities. (Photo: Samira George)

Compounding Effects

Jahoda said many art institutions are white, which makes students of color feel alienated and that their voices aren’t heard or represented inside their classrooms. “There has to be active recruitment for BIPOC in art departments and active recruitment of faculty,” Jahoda said. “Students want to see themselves in their teachers.”

According to Jahoda, her department is 50% white faculty and 50% faculty of color, but despite having a diverse pool of staff, the university struggles to keep its faculty of color. Amherst, Massachusetts, is predominantly white, potentially alienating People of Color.

The Black Lives Matter movement has urged arts purveyors, including academic institutions, media outlets, and museums, to seek and retain non-white talent and implement antiracist policies, which Jahoda sees as a positive. But she cautions that the focus needs to shift from the ground up, funding art-poor communities and encouraging children to participate early on, which could make all the difference everywhere else.

Samira George is a reporter for Real Change. Samira is driven by a passion for community journalism. She enjoys writing on subjects her community members feel strongly about and helping to elevate those voices. In her free time, you might find Samira hanging from a rock or backcountry skiing.

Featured Image: Azim holds an old sketchbook where she drafted drawing ideas. Azim is currently working on a project about the genocide of the Rohingya people. Many of Azim’s illustrations come from personal experience. She hopes to inspire Black and Indigeneous people and People of Color so they can make it in the predominately white art industry. (Photo: Samira George)

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