Stall stories: Art, entrepreneurship and community building

When I walked into an event titled ‘Oboyob Youth and Diversity Conference’ recently, finding rows of small stalls on the premises was the last thing I expected to see.

For me, a conference has always been synonymous with a long series of lectures and panel discussions. Sometimes you see stalls that exhibit books or publications relevant to the discussions, but stalls that sell T-shirts and pins with fun and quirky messages and designs, or beautiful arts and crafts? This was new. 

After a little bit of strolling and browsing the shops, I learned that almost all the stalls were owned and managed by the artists — most of them young professionals and a few of them students. I recognised a few of them from Dhaka Makers, an art and crafts festival that took place in June 2023 at Aloki, Gulshan, and several other fairs and exhibitions. I also found almost all of their shops on social media. 

The products they sold were mostly original designs. They transform their art into wearable items, like T-shirts, tote bags, masks, pins, and badges and sell them at events such as exhibitions and fairs. 

What motivates them to manage stalls at events, especially when almost all of them have full-time engagements and when online shopping is taking over the world with its lure of easy access and convenience? 

I headed for a stall. The sign read, ‘Tees for Tat’. Around 20 T-shirts were displayed, some neatly folded on the small rectangular table and some hanging on a stand. Almost all the T-shirts were minimalist and light-coloured — white, sky-blue and baby-pink — with small designs and texts embroidered. 

An embroidery read “Magic e choli logic e na,” which translates to “magic is my drive, not logic.” Another design was a to-do list on a miniature lined notebook page — “wake up, do the bare minimum, and go to bed.” The wake-up point was ticked off.  

The girl managing the stall introduced herself as Zeba Bushra, a young entrepreneur who owns a cafe in Dhanmondi and is also associated with an event management company. 

“I’ve always loved doodling, especially the fun and quirky kinds of designs. I started ‘Tees for Tat’ in 2022, as an online shop, but I also started participating at different fairs, exhibitions, and conferences, since I couldn’t manage enough time to grow the Instagram page for my products,” Zeba said.

She added, “I do have other jobs, but those aren’t really that exciting, at least not as much as I’d want them to be. So, I needed a creative outlet and I thought ‘Why not make a few T-shirts with my doodles?'” 

Zeba started looking online where she could order T-shirts and found a small garment factory in Narayanganj very quickly. Then, she found another place where she could transform her doodles and designs into embroidery. According to her, sourcing the materials and ordering products are pretty easy since all of them can be done online now. 

“The first few T-shirts I made, I circulated them among my friends. And they loved them. But friends are always supportive. So I had to get a second opinion from others,” Zeba said. 

That same year, Zeba got a stall in an exhibition organised by Wander Woman, a social platform and travel agency for empowering women. “That exhibition was a transformative experience for me. I knew from day one that I would rather be running these sorts of stalls over selling my products online.”

Zeba preferred the human interaction you get in the stalls. 

“I get to interact with fellow artists and bond with them. I get new ideas and perspectives — things like how they are doing the business and how I can improve mine,” she explained. “Where would I get that sense of community and warmth if I only focus on growing my social media page and sales?” 

“Entertainment opportunities are so few in Dhaka. So whenever a fashion show, an exhibition or any similar event happens, these stalls function as community gatherings for the young people of Dhaka, which I absolutely love being a part of,” she further said. 

As I spoke to Zeba, I noticed another stall beside her’s. An assortment of colourful metal pins, stickers, masks with straps, bags and notebooks were neatly decorated on the table. A small rectangular pin read “Halka overthinking,” another square one “Mon niye khelo na.” 

Someone took a pin with the statement “Na and stuck it on her shirt, while  I was drawn to a cute little white unicorn with flowing pink and yellow hair. 

A girl with short hair was talking to a couple of customers. She looked very familiar, and after a while, I remembered she also had a stall at the Dhaka Makers. 

Maleena Gomes, Creative Director of Aneemal Studios, started Bad Girl Nation in 2017 as a side hustle. She, too, like Zeba, started with an online shop, which now has a sizable number of followers, but Maleena still prefers stalls. 

“Sometimes art pieces can be very beautiful but static. You can hang a painting on the wall, and that sure looks beautiful. But for me, my art is my voice, my personality. I want to communicate with people through my art. So, I’d rather have people wear and carry them everywhere than keeping them in one place,” Maleena shared.

When asked why she prefers stalls over online sales, Maleena too pointed out the fun in interacting with customers and connecting with them at the stalls. Among all the products at her stall, her primary focus is on the statement pins, and she says she can communicate the meaning of the pins and the messages they carry way better in stalls and in person than online. 

“People are more interested when I tell them the stories behind the designs and the messages, or a little anecdote here and there. That can only happen in stalls,” she added. 

Maleena is also very careful about what crowd to cater to and where to run stalls. “I want to connect with like-minded people who understand me and who can relate to my art,” she explained. 

The Bad Girl Nation is Maleena’s passion project. So, no matter how hectic her regular job gets, she keeps finding herself coming back to it. 

She designs products once or twice a year. Participation in selective fairs and events is also a conscious choice for her for another reason. Since the sourcing of her products is time-consuming and she handles her business alone, she usually works with a very small inventory.

“I have to go to a remote place near Dholaikhal for the pins. There are very few factories there where they use lasers to cut the pins in shapes and designs that I want. My statement pins are made from the scrap metals they use,” she said. 

One downside of this, however, is she needs to sit there and supervise the entire process — from cutting the metals to casting and colouring them. “These artisans are very talented, and they can make anything I ask them to. But I have to be there to direct them, otherwise, the products don’t turn out to be the way I want them to,” she added.  

I bought the unicorn pin from Maleena, thanked her, and resumed my stroll through the small hallway of the BRAC Centre, where the Youth and Diversity Conference was taking place. 

Another stall, named ‘Olokkhi’, drew my attention. The stall was also part of the Dhaka Makers, where I saw people placing pre-orders for their T-shirts as they sold out on the first half of Day 2 of the four-day fair. 

The owner of Olokkhi is Jeetu Ahmed, a designer and visualiser by profession and a huge fan of cinema posters, folk, and rickshaw art.

“I try to capture the authentic brushstrokes of the cinema posters and rickshaw paints in digital media. And I also sell art pieces, but I’m more interested in transforming my art into wearable items,” Jeetu shared. 

Where did the inspiration for transforming his art into wearable items come from? According to Jeetu, selling art and paintings is very difficult in Bangladesh, especially for rising artists with limited exposure and networks. Besides, art pieces are ridiculously expensive most of the time, and for good reason. “But if you transform your art into something wearable, people become more interested as it becomes cheaper and more accessible for them.” 

His inspiration, however, also came from a personal need. “Whenever I go shopping for T-shirts, I get very frustrated. No matter where you buy T-shirts from, most of them are very boring and repetitive. I wanted T-shirts that have sassy statements, that are a tad bit dramatic, and contain messages that we don’t always say out loud.”

Since Jeetu could not find these T-shirts anywhere, he started making them for himself. And once he started wearing them, everyone around him also wanted one. So, he started selling them online. 

Then, last year, he participated in a fair organised by a friend at Studio 6/6 in the Mohammadpur area of the capital. The response to his products was inspiring and that led him to participate in Dhaka Makers. 

“I never thought I would receive such a positive response from the customers at a stall! I took more than a hundred T-shirts at the Dhaka Makers. I thought I’m taking too many and won’t be able to sell them. But by 12pm the next day, they were sold out. I just sat at my stall for the next two days and took pre-orders.” 

The sales and the profits, according to Jeetu, are pretty good. But what he loves more is when he sees that people genuinely like and appreciate his art. “The messages of my art are a bit sassy, so I understand it’s not for everyone. But when I see people wearing T-shirts or pins with my art, it makes me incredibly happy,” he shared.

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