The Bangladeshi girl who inspired Room 13 founder

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Our new freelance correspondent on Ardgour, Nic Goddard, went to meet local artist and founder of the global Room 13 initiative, Rob Fairley, to find out about his new book, inspired by a chance meeting in Bangladesh.

On my way to meet Rob Fairley I called in to the Resipole Studios to pick up a copy of Prinaka – a day sketching in Dhaka.

Speaking with gallery owner Andrew Sinclair, he told me the gallery was ‘thrilled’ to have had the opportunity to publish Prinaka.

‘Having known Rob for many years, and admired him greatly as an artist, when he first approached me with the story behind the work, I knew it was something that needed to be shared with the wider world,’ said Andrew.

I began to read the book aloud to my husband who was driving and we were soon both drawn into that day, 27 years ago, ourselves.

I had not realised that my teenage son and daughter, sitting in the back of the car were also listening until I stopped reading aloud and a voice piped up asking me to carry on.

We had all been taken by the hand and pulled through the streets of Dhaka in much the same way as Rob himself was back in 1992.

One of Rob's sketches of Prinaka from his new book. NO F28 Rob Fairley sketches 01
One of Rob’s sketches of Prinaka from his new book.

I met Rob in his studio, tucked away from the world in an idyllic spot between Loch Ailort and Rois-bheinn.  I was greeted by horses, dogs and chickens before Rob himself appeared to welcome me into his work space.

Art materials jostle for space alongside music systems and the walls are lined with years worth of sketch books, giant canvas works in progress, meticulously labelled files and folders, and cameras and lenses crowding the shelves which reach high up into the eaves.

I’ve been following Rob’s current social media project sharing ‘50 years of his sketchbooks’ in which he posts a photograph of one of his sketches and tells the story behind the sketch, so I was already aware that alongside his artistic talents, Rob has a gift for painting pictures with words too.

Prinaka – a day sketching in Dhaka is a perfect marriage of the words and pictures telling a story of a life-changing day.

In a diary-style format, illustrated with pictures, often annotated with Rob’s pencilled words, the book documents the day he spent in the company of Prinaka, a young girl he crossed paths with when he found himself lost having wandered from his hotel on a stopover in Bangladesh.

It was a trip cut short by ill health and Rob was on his way back to the UK via a series of short flights.

Finding himself unable to retrace his steps, he accepted the offer of this young girl to show him home if he accompanied her on her day’s work first.

Rob explained how the story that follows is his account of that day; sketches and photographs of the people they encountered and the tales around those people.

Due to language barriers, the dialogue is sparse but the communication and connection is rich and full.

Rob told me: ‘I’d never met anyone like her before. I still can’t see why she adopted me, but she looked after me and she was so fun to be with. She was hilariously funny. I am not very good at languages but I found myself wanting to be able to speak, to communicate with her.’

Rob told me that his meeting with Prinaka made him rethink how he saw humanity and, in particular, children.

Rob has enjoyed a long and successful career with his art, with exhibitions in galleries across the UK. After his encounter with Prinaka, Rob became involved with a group of young people closer to home, in Caol, Fort William.

Inspired by what he learned from one small girl, Rob worked in partnership with these primary school pupils to create something amazing and Room 13 was born.

Now an international community with Room 13s spread across the globe, this network of studios continues to spread the ethos of listening to, respecting and empowering young people.

Rob told me: ‘It was meeting Prinaka which taught me how to work with the children in Room 13. We had a culture of honesty and openness. We worked together and I learned far more from them than I think I taught them.’

The legacy of Rob’s meeting with Prinaka continues and now the full story of that day is available as a beautiful book published by Resipole Studios.

There will be an official launch for the book at Resipole Gallery on Sunday, July 21, from 3-5pm, alongside a small exhibition of Rob’s work. Copies of the book are available to buy from the studio.