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How to turn your passion for art into a career in Bangladesh

It is a difficult question to grapple with if you are a creative person aspiring to make a living out of your passion in arts and culture. Even if you are not directly affected by the issue, much like any other public service arena, the impact will trickle down to your immediate way of living in one way or another in society.

No matter how we go about in finding answers to this question, the reality seems so far removed from what we are used to considering in terms of future job and career prospects.

Every option seems a stretch.

More of a fantastical whim than an actual possibility that can be worked into reality with a little bit of elbow grease, as one might assume about building a career in the mainstream industries.

There are pre-established routes to take. Students and people who want to traverse these paths have arguably reliable models to emulate as they go about aiming to achieve the career they desire. The more conventional careers have been tried and tested more often and are talked about frequently. As a result, there’s more awareness about these industries and people feel that they have more access to the resources required to make themselves qualified for the field.

The elephant in the room

Addressing these issues, a panel discussion was held at EMK Centre on the occasion of their 10th anniversary. Esteemed dancer and founder of a leading dance school Shadhona, Lubna Marium, cartoonist and founder of Cartoon People Imam Rashad Tonmoy and News Presenter Ayesha Mahmud talked about their struggles and challenges as each of them went about pursuing their career.

One aspect remained constant among all of their stories despite each of them belonging to different parts of the art and culture field: It is incredibly difficult to establish a career in the arts and one will have to work hard and persevere only to get the minimal amount of respect and validation and to be taken seriously. 

“Merely saying that I draw cartoons for a living usually makes people laugh. Or they ask, no but what do you do for real?”

Cartoonist Tonmoy talks about society’s expectation of serious-sounding job titles in order to gain importance as a person involved in a real career.

“From a young age, we are taught how important professions in science, engineering, medicine and business are in the world. If we had the same education on the need and significance of art and culture in a society’s development, then we could expect to be treated fairly”.

He traces back the roots of these problems to a lack of awareness and the sheer absence of the importance of art and culture in education.

Lubna Marium told a story about a talented and polished dancer she had met who worked for a well-renowned dance company in the USA, called Spectrum. When asked about how she made a living, she said that she barely made any money working for Spectrum. Her main income was dependent on after hours and weekends when she danced Cabaret at a local bar.

To this Tonmoy added, “Many believe that it is easier to be an artist in the West. To that, I say, even if pay might be better abroad, the expenses are also higher. Moreover, the competition is much stiffer and cutthroat thereby reducing your chances of success even further. However, one thing that may be better in foreign countries is the respect and validation you might achieve for your work.”

What are the alternate options?

It is indeed true that when it comes to earning a living, many talented, hardworking and passionate creatives have relied on other jobs to make money. One common advice is to search for a job that will allow you to earn a decent monetary income to support your lifestyle as well as the requirements for your artistic pursuit eg, studio space, art supplies etc. Most importantly, the job must not drain you of the emotional and mental energy required for you to immerse yourself in your art.

In this case, a trade-off must be made and an aspiring artist may be better off by doing a job that is not engaging and maybe even meaningless if it means they are able to go home at night and paint or wake up early in the morning to rehearse.

It is easy to fall down a rabbit hole of hopelessness when sculpting out a career in the arts. But the youth must be reminded to pay attention to middle grounds and opportunities to become self-sufficient without resorting to throwing themselves into a career far and away from their true desire. Arguably, it might be more difficult to drop out of a successful, established career to finally devote yourself to your true calling than it is to maintain a less than satisfying job for a certain period of time and still being able to actively work or search for work in the field of your choice.

To elaborate on this, someone who dreams of being a writer may take up a job where he or she has to write catalogues for a company or content for their website. If you are an artist without any gallery representation, perhaps you can get a job as a school art teacher or a private art tutor. If films are your dream, a job in advertising may teach you a lot.

What should also be considered is that many of the creative practices and faculties of the brain required for arts and culture may, in fact, be employable and lucrative in corporate culture as well. It is said that often experience in an unrelated field, may lend you a unique perspective which could then further your career in the arts and culture.

Not everybody will have the chance or the privilege to work sustainably in art and culture. It is inevitable that there will be many going down the lines of business, branding, healthcare and teaching only because they have insurmountable bills to pay and families to support. Additionally, the mental angst and pressure of uncertainty in the field can be damaging to many people’s lives.

Finding a way to channel your passion

Even in such cases, I would like to say there is still hope for them to return to the arts at a later point in their career. Over the last year, as I have covered numerous art exhibitions as a reporter, I have come across a painter who gave up her career to be a homemaker, only to be encouraged to exhibit her art by her children twenty years later. I have seen works by people whom I assumed to be full-time artists. Yet, I found out they held down unrelated jobs but made time to dedicate to their art as they grew older.

As Ayesha Mahmud said, “Whoever persists in their career in this line of work, must have an immense amount of courage.” The world of art and culture is not made easy anywhere. However, those that are truly interested in seeing the development and furthering of the arts must take the responsibility of facilitating other artists and be as welcoming as possible to outsiders.

Vital answers about teen depression and suicide

The transition from childhood to adulthood is often challenging and tumultuous, and it is during this period that some teenagers and young adults first experience depression and suicidal thoughts. Sadly, depression is a much more widespread problem than most people think.

Not every young adult will suffer from depression or contemplating suicide, of course, but it’s important for parents to pay attention to their child’s behaviour as he or she gets older and to allow for open and honest communication. Parents can be better prepared to support a child who may be depressed or suicidal by educating themselves about these mental health issues.

Here are just a few of the questions that parents of young adults often have about depression and suicide, accompanied by answers from the mental health treatment centre, Yellowbrick.

Question: How do I know if my child is depressed?

Answer: It’s hard to say if a young adult is depressed or simply “going through a moody phase”.  There are no reliable indicators of an impending suicide attempt, but there are some common signs that could mean someone is experiencing depression. These might include a loss of interest in activities that your child once enjoyed, isolation from friends and family, changes in sleeping patterns (either lack of sleep or excessive sleep), changes in appetite or eating patterns, low energy levels, or sudden mood swings. Some young adults may also attempt to use drugs and alcohol to cope with depression. Substance abuse is not necessarily an indicator of suicidal thoughts, but it does increase the risk of a depressed individual attempting suicide.

Question: What might my child be going through after a suicide attempt?

Answer: It is not uncommon for young adults to experience feelings of shame and guilt after a failed suicide attempt. These feelings may cause them to withdraw from their loved ones further, increasing their actual or perceived social isolation.

Let them know that they can talk to you without fear of being judged.

Unfortunately, young adults who have attempted suicide once have a higher risk for another attempt, as the first attempt may have a gateway effect on the risk-reward center of the brain.

Question: How can I best support my child after a suicide attempt?

Answer: Because a young adult who has attempted suicide may be experiencing shame, one of the most valuable things you can do as a parent is to demonstrate your unconditional acceptance of your child. Offer to support your child in whatever way he or she needs at this time, and talk to your child about seeing a therapist or counsellor. Empathize with your child even if they are experiencing frustration and anger.  Let them know that they can talk to you without fear of being judged.

Do art and depression go hand in hand?

What is the image that comes to your mind when you think of an artist? Let me guess- constantly smoking, brooding over a blank canvas, contemplating every stroke of their brush and jumping up at the slightest distractions. It also makes you wonder what sort of demons they are battling on the inside to be so fitful and anxious. And if every artist you know is not in the right state of their mind, then it must tell us something, right?

It does feel like there is a connection

Kurt Cobain, the lead vocalist of Nirvana, committed suicide on April 5th, 1994, has become a prominent icon of art and depression correlation.
Kurt Cobain, the lead vocalist of Nirvana, committed suicide on April 5th, 1994.

We, as a society, romanticize mental illness. We believe that people who battle depression, bipolar disorders and schizophrenia must be so strong. Examples like Kurt Cobain, Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Earnest Hemmingway and Virginia Woolf only feeds into these hypotheses. There have also been studies that show a link between creativity and mental illness. For example, one study in England, conducted by the national office of statistics, found that people working in the arts industry were four times more likely to kill themselves. Another study conducted in 2013 said that authors were more prone to severe mental disorders like depression, bipolar syndrome, schizophrenia, substance abuse and many more.

Is that the whole story, though? Do arts and mental illness really go hand in hand?

Well, it might seem so, but all these studies are inconclusive.

Correlation or Coincidence?

Do art and depression go hand in hand?

A lot of external factors can come into play when it comes to a person’s mental health. There can be past traumas, genetic links, or simply a fact of a disruptive lifestyle. None of these factors can make a person more creative than s/he already is. But it seems that only the people struggling with mental issues are thriving as artists. Believing that is not completely on us, because like I said, we tend to romanticize mental issues. But according to numerous psychologists, claiming that only depressed, anxious people are more creative will be an overkill. True, art is a way of dealing with whatever hardships life throws at you. Sometimes, people who are trying to deal with all of their emotions tend to get mentally sick. They express those struggles through words, music and brush strokes.

However, there are a large number of artists who are just as creative, just as famous and they do not have any sort of apparent mental struggles. In fact, the latter might be more in number. Having a mental health issue isn’t a necessity for an artist. Sometimes it just works as a catalyst.

Call a spade a spade

Do art and depression go hand in hand?

Bottom line, the next time you see someone torturing themselves and giving excuses like “it’s for my art”, drag their behind to a shrink. There can be a deeply rooted identity crisis within these people. There is a possibility that they keep themselves miserable just because they do not know who they would be without this part of themselves.

Read more: 5 places in Dhaka to get counselling help.

Whatever the case is, these people are capable of living a healthy life filled with both joy and sadness. They don’t have to be depressed for the sake of art. Tell them that. Help them heal. And someday, they will thank you for it.