Shwarga Bhattacharjee began drawing at the age of five and was inspired to continue because his mother supported his interest in the arts, he said. Growing up in a South Asian family, he felt pressured by societal expectations to become a doctor or engineer.
“As a kid, I always loved drawing and drew all the time,” said Bhattacharjee, a 2018 master of fine arts in drawing and painting alumnus. “I never considered drawing or art can be a way to live.”
To showcase his experiences and observations as an immigrant, Bhattacharjee curated his exhibition, “When the Subaltern Speaks,” which is open until Sept. 14 at the Da Vinci Art Alliance, a non-profit art organization, located at Seventh Street and Catharine Streets. The exhibition features abstract paintings, animated illustrations and sculptures. It highlights modern identities in South Asia along with migration, transnationalism, racism and the effects of post-colonial borders.
“These are all huge topics, and I’m a single person and artist and my interests are going from my own experiences,” Bhattacharjee said. “I don’t want that experience to be only a personal experience. I feel like if we think about migration, ancestry and the complexities of a person, we all can relate to these topics.”
After moving from Bangladesh to the United States in 2014, Bhattacharjee began expressing his upbringing and immigration experience by using abstract artwork to highlight his South Asian background.
“When I moved to the states, I always thought of incorporating images or symbols or resources of South Asia,” Bhattacharjee said. “When I moved here, I feel like I wanted to be an artist who is active in the contemporary art conversation.”
After graduating from Temple, Bhattacharjee explored downtown Philadelphia and he became inspired to include more than just South Asian culture into his artwork, which led to his evolution as an artist by including new places and insight into his work.
In his artwork today, Bhattacharjee embraces how Bangladesh and Philadelphia influence his identity by finding ways to incorporate and merge similarities of geography. For example, at his last solo exhibition, “Excavation Paths,” at Twelve Gates Arts, an art organization in Philadelphia located at Arch and Second Street, he conjoined the Schuylkill River and the Jamuna River, one of the largest rivers in Bangladesh, referencing how land provides water, food and oxygen without discrimination.
“The discrimination I see, I experienced in Bangladesh, or anywhere, it is created by us,” Bhattacharjee said. “But the connection with the land, with a person is so personal. After a while, I felt like Philly was my home”.
The goal of the exhibition is to show the lasting effects of British post-imperialism on India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and how natives’ ideas get lost within colonial ones. Bhattacharjee wants his audience to relate to his work by raising awareness on topics like colonization, which still affects people worldwide.
Kara Mshinda, the fellowship director at the Da Vinci Art Alliance, worked with Bhattacharjee while he was developing the initial idea for his project during his fellowship and leading up to his preparation for the exhibition.
“I’m extremely pleased, I think that his exhibition is wonderful,” Mshinda said. “From watching a concept come into reality has been just such a treat.”
Mshinda was astonished by Bhattacharjee’s ability to use his artwork as a mechanism to influence an audience about the effects of colonialism and how it changed the identity of South Asia.
Veronica Knell, the marketing manager at the Da Vinci Art Alliance, sees Bhattacharjee’s work as a reflection of the alliance’s founding by Italian immigrants in 1931, and how they built a community through art when they weren’t accepted by professional art spaces.
“We really take in that mission of building community through art and uplifting as many voices as possible today, so we’re still trying to do that at Da Vinci, and a part of that is our fellowship program,” Knell said.
Bhattacharjee’s next venture will be a fellowship for the Center for Emerging Visual Artists, an art gallery that provides fellowship opportunities, where he will have an open studio this fall.
He is grateful his exhibition was brought to life and how his artwork was a force that helped bring awareness to South Asian colonialism
“I knew that I wanted to talk about these topics, and share these thoughts and feelings, and that was what I told them,” Bhattacharjee said. “I was surprised that that happened because my work is very abstract, and I wasn’t sure that my conversations would draw on these topics, but it did, so I feel very fulfilled by that.”