Until recently, due to the absence of any kind of contemporary art infrastructure, the capital of Bangladesh was hardly recognized as an art world destination. But, owing to the efforts of the Samdani Art Foundation, which was set up in 2011 by Dhaka-based collectors Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, it is fast becoming one. Despite being modelled on the India Art Fair in Delhi – with its gallery booths, solo art projects and speakers’ forum – the biannual Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) prides itself on being more than a purely commercial venture. A new initiative with an unusual format, DAS is still in the process of defining itself. It is also free of charge to visitors and exhibitors alike.
Although Bangladeshi artists were the focus of the first edition in 2012, this year the Samdanis and their team decided to widen the geographical scope by inviting artists from Afghanistan, India, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The three-day fest of contemporary art drew a crowd of 70,000 visitors, including over a 1,000 school children who took part in workshops.
That an event of this scale and sophistication should have taken place without a hitch – amidst strikes staged in the aftermath of contested national elections that all but ground the city to a halt for a month – was a remarkable feat. Aside from the Raqs Media Collective’s Meanwhile/Elsewhere (2014), which comprised road signs and billboards with sleek double clock faces showing word associations in Bangla in lieu of numbers, and Asim Waqif’s No Fly Zone (2014), a drifting sculpture spelling the titular words with helium-filled balloons, the 14 solo art projects, five curated exhibitions, 33 gallery booths, panel discussions, film screenings and performances were spread out over three floors of the government-run Shilpakala Academy that ordinarily houses the National Art Gallery and Academy of Fine and Performing Arts.
Though some compromises had to be made to accommodate local laws, the authorities chose to turn a blind eye to sexual content (the word pairing of ‘Electric/Orgasm’, for example, on one of Raqs Media Collective’s billboards); politics (Naeem Mohaiemen’s single-issue newspaper in Bangla only – a gleeful take on the news ten years from now if the revolutionary left had come to power in 1971, when the country gained its independence from Pakistan); and activism (Bangladeshi filmmaker Molla Sagar’s poignant 2011 documentary Siren about farmers affected by the closure of jute mills).
With a few exceptions – Shahzia Sikander’s mesmerizing three-channel video animation Parallax (2013); Afghani filmmaker Lida Abdul’s haunting short films; and some of Jitish Kallat’s photographs – the solo art projects were commissioned by the Samdani Art Foundation and sensitively curated by its artistic director Diana Campbell Betancourt, who had to cope with technical difficulties and a lack of adequate equipment to install what was a beautifully mounted exhibition. A highlight of the show was Shilpa Gupta’s arresting mixed-media installation (Untitled, 2014) documenting the plight of some 50,000 people trapped in a legal no-man’s-land known as chhitmahal – Indo-Bangladeshi enclaves whose inhabitants are barred from the most basic amenities.
The 14 solo art projects showcased work by established and internationally acclaimed artists, many of whom live in London and New York when they are not in India – the one country that dominates the regional arts scene. To see the work of emerging artists from Bangladesh and other South Asian countries that do not boast India’s or Pakistan’s art or educational facilities (an issue touched on at the Cross-Generational and Pioneer Panels), one had to look to the experimental film and performance programme curated by Mahbubur Rahman, co-founder of the Dhaka-based non-profit artist collective Britto Arts Trust, which staged one of the collateral shows, ‘Cross Casting’, or else to the Samdani Art Award, jointly run with the Delfina Foundation in London, for which ten projects by local artists had been selected.
Local artists included Yasmin Jahan Nupur, a member of the Britto Arts Trust, who, for her performance Sat on a Chair (2014), was perched high up on a seat bound to a pillar in a vertigo-inducing three-hour performance; and Ayesha Sultana, winner of the Samdani Art Award, who wove statements from her journals onto velvet with gold and silver thread. As well as representing the youngest generation of Bangladeshi artists at the Cross-Generational Panel, Sultana’s work featured alongside that of more established artists such as Rana Begum or Mohaiemen – whose series of delicate blue-grey sandstone sculptures echoed the outlines of family photographs placed above them – in curator Deepak Ananth’s spare ‘B/DESH’, one of the more captivating group shows organized along national, formal and thematic lines. Although uneven (‘Liberty’, with
its hotchpotch of figurative and abstract painting by contemporary Bangladeshi artists, was a particularly weak link), the five exhibitions reflected a desire on the organizers’ part to include the local arts scene – and this was one of its great strengths. Ultimately, DAS was a remarkable achievement: less an alternative to an art fair than a highly original model for a multi-faceted art event.