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Artist observes Bangladesh lockdown whilst wins National Portrait Gallery lead in UK

Ruhul Abdin was born in Bangladesh, brought up with six siblings, spends lockdown in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and becomes lead artist for the National Portrait Gallery's project to celebrate 50th Anniversary of Bangladesh in Britain.


Ruhul and his siblings emigrated to the UK in 1993. They settled in Darlington, north east of England, in the county of Durham. 

‘We had an interesting kind of couple of years growing up in a very, very white working class neighbourhood. It wasn't that much like East is East, but it wasn't that far off the style. It was interesting, colourful, there's lots of racism.’

His father had two wives  and they were living in two separate houses in Darlington.

‘I’m one of six children, you know, all these kind of crazy narratives that come with that. I mean -  I'm one of six and I have six half siblings.’

As a 13 year old he read a book and ever since he got excited about education and architecture.

‘I was very lucky… I had some good teachers who are very inspiring, who pushed and supported my eccentricities, who believed in my artistic abilities.  I think I left school with a bunch of A grades, no straight A's, I just think I'm definitely going to university definitely.’

Ruhul’s father did not think much about education. He wanted  Ruhul to work in his father's restaurant.

‘I absolutely admire and love him for what he's done. But I don't look up to him as a person to emulate. You know, I don't want to have children two wives.’ 


‘I'm going from a village to the town to the mega city. I think it's very overwhelming. I struggled with it.  I was also very lucky to develop some amazing friends - Zimbabwean, Indian, a Nigerian, a couple of Sri Lankan, Italians so we ended up being quite eclectic kind of mixed race.’

‘I was a big reader, I was absorbing intellectual literature around this kind of stuff, but also, London was sort of a massive eye opener. Engaging with what London has to offer, along with just trying to learn about architecture, and drawing made a massive difference in being able to get around the city and engaging with the city a lot more.’


During this period he was also questioning his religious belief, Islamic teaching,  and whether he believed in the religious values he was taught as a child. He said he struggled with it in the first year of university, and then he came to the conclusion that Islam isn't for him.

‘I really wanted to connect with Islam. So I pursued trying to understand it better, you know, looking at scholars and talk to people and engage with them. I had a cousin who was very engaged with Islam, and he was also just a year older than me.’

Ruhul  got drawn towards Sufism because of his Sylhetti connection.  

‘As I look into Sufism, and read more about it, I just thought you know what, this isn't me. Islam isn't really the religion that I need to follow and want to follow as a calling.’


At university he got involved with social housing and the role of design and community development.   He realised that he wanted to explore this part of architecture.  

‘…We set up Paraa as a studio. So the idea of Paraa to do a bit of advocacy, training, teaching and fundamentally build beautiful buildings and spaces and places. So the idea of the studio is to function as a school, you know, so we're forever learning.’

 He goes on to say that:

‘We’re also proactively teaching about ethics, participation in design, community building. We centred it around the values of social and environmental justice, you know, so rooting it on the idea that we as planners, architects, designers, will do the best we can to support, you know, positive progressive development of projects or communities that we work with over the years.’

Paraa would build playgrounds and spaces and places with built homeless shelters. 

‘We've also built, just good old commercial buildings to pay the bills. And as a studio we've made interesting films, we've worked, we've made publications, we've taught different interesting radical programmes here in the UK.’ 


In March 2020, Ruhul was briefly in London.  He noticed that nobody wore face masks. Once in London, he caught up with his friends. He realised that  a national lockdown maybe imminent.  

‘So I thought, it's best I come back to Dhaka because that's where my work is. I came back with the intention that…it’s only going to be temporary. And I'll come back in May, June, to the UK and it will go back to normal.’

Dhaka went into lockdown on 26th of March.The feeling of anxiety can also be felt in Dhaka, Ruhul states.

‘And it was weird because there's 100 years of Sheikh Mujibur, that's coming to the beginning; 50 years of celebrating Bangladesh and so the government… others had put in massive celebrations for the 100 years of Mujib’s…birth and all of those things were you know.’ 

The country went on lockdown, and everything was shut.  Instead of calling it a Lockdown, however, the government called it a grand holiday. 

‘No one can sell food in the streets, not working on the streets, or can navigate the streets, or buses were shot. All trains are shut, everything that's public, related, we're closed - schools, universities, offices, or cooperation. Everything was just shut, you know, for about until the end of Ramadan…’

Ruhul also struggled to persuade his clients to keep on doing the work and paying for them.

‘And then we had a massive kind of conversation about bills and what's paid for and, you know, we basically had this kind of, let's say, two 300 grand contract reduced down to half that we're just thinking, you know, this isn't cool. You know, we have a big studio and we can't assume your work, but you can understand what we're coming from. And we're also supposed to be teaching but we'll see we pushed all of that back a lot sooner.

‘There's one or two friends who we became basically COVID buddies. We supported each other.  We had our bubble.’


He occupied his time by drawing naked portraits to control his mental anxiety. It was a Zoom project on a dating app  - Grindr -  where the sitter would take off all their clothes, pose for five,10 minutes or 20 minutes and have conversations with him whilst he would draw them. As he would draw them they would talk about the challenges they had faced being queer in Bangladesh.

Ruhul then saw a job advert in Britain for a lead artist's role with the National Portrait Gallery in partnership with Tower Hamlets Council to celebrate in east London of the 50th Anniversary of Bangladesh.  He eagerly applied and pitched his lockdown art work.  He was  interviewed and then selected to be the lead artist.  Ruhul was the lead artist for the National Portrait Gallery.


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