Summit of All Things

Dhaka, Bangladesh

Left: View of Dhaka Art Summit panel. Right: Curator Diana Campbell Betancourt and Samdani Art Foundation director Nadia Samdani. (All photos: Zeenat Nagree)

I HEARD about the general strike minutes before boarding my flight to Dhaka. Three Indian businessmen at the Delhi airport were discussing the flaws in a batch of T-shirts they’d commissioned to manufacture in Bangladesh and deliberating on their itinerary to avoid the citywide hartal, as they call it in this part of the world, on February 6. Me? I was supposed to attend a dinner party to kick off the second edition of the Dhaka Art Summit, which promised to exclusively present South Asian art through elaborate solo projects, curated exhibitions, gallery booths, performances, film screenings, and lectures, all at the country’s national fine arts institute, the Shilpakala Academy. As I eavesdropped, I considered how high-reaching it was for a city known for alarmingly regular political shutdowns and attendant street violence to host a three-day “international” contemporary art festival. Indeed, the summit’s existence was testimony to the determination of the young, enthusiastic collectors Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, who pumped in around one million dollars to mount the event. “In Bangladesh, where there is no infrastructure to support the arts, this was a really ambitious project,” stated a proud Nadia Samdani, director of the Samdani Art Foundation. “We are so passionate about art!”

Ultimately, that day, no public buses were burned nor petrol bombs hurled at vehicles on the roads of Dhaka. The shutdown inadvertently reduced the traffic as I made my way to Dhaka’s richest neighborhood for a Japanese meal. Guests flown in from around the world instinctively headed to the restaurant’s open bar; the constant flow of alcohol was taken for granted, and few seemed aware that it is otherwise an acrobatic feat to get a drink in this town. I spotted Gasworks’ Alessio Antoniolli, the Guggenheim’s Sandhini Poddar, the Delfina Foundation’s Aaron Cezar, and Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s Helen Pheby, all huddled around various food stations. Indian art worlders too milled about, prominent among them collectors Lekha and Anupam Poddar and Khoj director Pooja Sood. Almost no Bangladeshis seemed to be in the crowd. Most of the participating artists, curators, and dealers were missing, too, including the summit’s India-based curator Diana Campbell Betancourt, who was installing works well into the early hours of the morning. But Nadia Samdani was present—as she would be at every event—elegantly draped in a traditional Bangladeshi sari, bedecked in pearls and diamonds.

Left: Curator Eungie Joo and Kunsthalle Zürich director Beatrix Ruf. Right: Fiorucci Art Trust director Milovan Farronato, dealer Pilar Corrias, and William Massey of l'Officiel Art.

The team had begun installing forty-five days in advance: Enclosed areas, walls, and partitions had to be constructed to accommodate different kinds of displays across 120,000 square feet in anticipation of seventy thousand visitors. Projectors were brought in from Sharjah and Germany for two projects and helium had to be imported from India for another. The most prominent spots across the building’s three stories were occupied by South Asia’s most established artists, each represented by monumental works. Here, Rashid Rana, Shahzia Sikander, and Lida Abdul were in the company of Shilpa Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Runa Islam, Naeem Mohaiemen, Mahbubur Rahman, and Tayeba Begum Lipi. Many of these fourteen individual projects were commissioned by the Samdani Art Foundation specially for the Dhaka Art Summit. “We wanted artists to engage with Bangladesh,” explained Betancourt. “Also, you can’t really ship large works here.”

The layout of the summit allowed visitors to wander from imposing solo presentations to geographically divided group shows and clusters of gallery booths (there were thirty-three in all). One might even stumble upon performances on the way to lectures or screenings. Nikhil Chopra “blackening” his face here, Yasmin Jahan Nupur perched upon a chair atop a column there. The performance and film sections were curated by Bangladeshi artist Rahman, cofounder of the nonprofit Britto Arts Trust. Neither a fair nor a biennial, neither performance festival nor conference, the Dhaka Art Summit turned out to be a restrained, beautifully mounted combination of them all. “The public can’t tell the difference between a fair and a biennale,” noted Eungie Joo, curator of the forthcoming Sharjah Biennial. Joo wasn’t the only art-world celebrity impressed by the summit’s unique, unusual configuration. Adam Szymczyk, artistic director of the next Documenta, lurked in the background during most of the summit’s activities (despite being frequently hounded by South Asian talent) and nodded in assent. Here on a trip to see “art in its context,” Szymczyk revealed his plans to return to the region for more in-depth engagement. A number of other power wielders had flown in—curators Jessica Morgan and Nada Raza from Tate Modern, Antonia Carver from Art Dubai, Beatrix Ruf from Kunsthalle Zürich, and dealers Pilar Corrias and Leila Heller. The cozy daily evening gatherings—two of which took place poolside at the Samdani residence—seemed to be always overflowing with celebrities ferried in on chartered buses.

Left: Photographer Shahidul Alam, Documenta 14 artistic director Adam Szymczyk, CAMP’s Shaina Anand, and artist Shilpa Gupta. Right: Artist Yasmin Jahan Nupur performing Sat on a Chair.

The first edition of the Dhaka Art Summit, held in 2012, had focused solely on Bangladeshi artists and didn’t attract such a crowd. But with the second edition, the Samdanis astutely expanded the scope of their project, capitalizing on international interest. Among the most arresting projects on display was Shahzia Sikander’s mesmerizing painting- and drawing-based animation Parallax, first screened at last year’s Sharjah Biennial. Lida Abdul’s four films, particularly What We Saw upon Awakening, showing men pulling ropes tied to a bombed edifice, and Shilpa Gupta’s installation highlighting daily challenges faced by residents of enclaves on either side of the India-Bangladesh border, were powerful and provocative. Raqs Media Collective’s citywide billboard project Meanwhile Elsewhere featured clocks that riffed on Dhaka’s frustrating traffic jams. But Rashid Rana’s work was definitely the cheekiest: He replicated an empty room from the Tate using printed, pixelated floor-to-ceiling wallpaper. After all, wasn’t the gleeful mood at the summit propelled by the latent desire to fill or inhabit rooms just like this one with art objects from the region?

Amid the mix of artists from India and Pakistan, it wasn’t always easy to map Bangladesh’s art scene. But even if the quality of work was uneven, there was a range of it on view at the country’s fifteen gallery booths, all offered without rent. One Bangladeshi artist was omnipresent: The very articulate, New York– and Dhaka-based Naeem Mohaiemen had a solo project at the booth of Kolkata’s Experimenter—sequestered in a section reserved for some of the best galleries, primarily from India. His solo project, entirely in Bengali, was a fictitious newspaper full of hopeful and subversive ideas. Mohaiemen also shared dazzling insights on the rural and urban themes in art from Bangladesh in a panel discussion. Most of the other conversations were led by VIPs who had little to say about Bangladeshi art. In one of the sessions Asia Art Archive’s Hammad Nasar questioned presentations about the activities of the British Museum, the Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou, and the Guggenheim. “Why aren’t we talking about the Fukuoka Museum or the Queensland Art Gallery or the Asia Pacific Triennial, which have really facilitated dialogue within the region?”

Left: Curator Nada Raza, Khoj director Pooja Sood, and dealer Shireen Gandhy. Right: Dealer Bhavna Kakar.

There were murmurs of discontent among the Bangladeshi art community, too. One artist and journalist complained about the underrepresentation of artists from the country. “They could have given the Samdani Art Award nominees a small amount to make a new work for the exhibition,” he said. One nominee concurred: “Why have large budgets been reserved for the projects of established artists with ample funding while we weren’t given any support?” On the other side, Ayesha Sultana, the winner of the award for emerging Bangladeshi artists, seemed pressed for time between meeting quote-hungry journalists and eager dealers. “There is no system of gallery representation in Bangladesh,” she explained.

In that, the Dhaka Art Summit seemed to have attracted enough invested visitors to become a place for private discussions and potential partnerships. With the India Art Fair—once the only hub of activity in South Asia—growing staler each year, the Dhaka Art Summit assumed an urgent conviviality. Betancourt’s model, mixing a range of contained activities and events, turned out to be a confident and unique display of art from the region—although if the guest list was anything to go by, still with one eye looking West.

Zeenat Nagree

Left: Curator Md. Muniruzzaman and Ganges Art Gallery’s Subhra Chowdhuri. Right: Dealer Priya Jhaveri.

Left: Dealer Sree Banerjee. Right: Artist Asim Waqif’s solo project No Fly Zone.

Left: Nikhil Chopra performing Blackening VI. Right: Artist Palash Bhattacharjee.

Left: Samdani Art Foundation director Nadia Samdani and Gasworks director Alessio Antoniolli. Right: Curator Eungie Joo, Kunsthalle Zürich director Beatrix Ruf, and curator Diana Campbell Betancourt.

Left: Artists Rathin Barman, Mahbubur Rahman, and Htein Lin. Right: Delfina Foundation director Aaron Cezar and Tate Modern curator Jessica Morgan.

Left: British Museum’s Richard Blurton and dealer Kishore Singh. Right: Dealer Prateek Raja, curator Natasha Ginwala, artist Naeem Mohaiemen, and curator Deepak Ananth.