Zainul Abedin was a painter and a political activist involved in the development and advocacy of fine arts in his country from the end of the British colonial era through the tumultuous decades of Bangladesh’s infancy. He is also considered by many to be the most foundational figure in Modern Bangladeshi art. His best-known works are his sketches in Chinese ink on simple packing paper portraying the horrors of the great Bengal famine of 1943—a catastrophe that killed at least 3 million people, due in large part to British food diversion and hoarding
. Still, his work transcends the strictly
political, attaining a broader humanism that is timeless and cross-cultural.
Abedin studied painting at the Government School of Art in Calcutta from 1933 to 1938 and, in 1948, helped found the Government Institute of Arts and Crafts (now the Institute of Fine Arts) in Dhaka, the first modern art institution in what was then East Bengal. He represented the newly-formed Pakistan at the UNESCO art conference in Venice in 1952, and was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Travelling Fellowship in 1956. He won numerous awards throughout his lifetime, including the Presidential Award for Pride of Performance from the Government of Pakistan (1958), an honorary degree from the University of Delhi, and an appointment as National Professor of Bangladesh in 1974. In 1975, he founded the Folk Art Museum at Sonargaon, near Dhaka, and Zainul Abedin Sangrahashala, a gallery of his own works in his hometown of Mymensingh.
Abedin developed lung cancer and died in Dhaka on May 28, 1976. The following year, he was posthumously bestowed the Independence Day Award, the highest state award granted by the Bangladeshi government. In 2009, the International Astronomical Union named an impact crater on the planet Mercury
“Zabedin,” after the artist.