Continental Drift

Tausif Noor on the 5th Dhaka Art Summit

View of Bharti Kher’s Intermediaries, 2019–2020. Photo: Randhir Singh.

A CLOUD OF SMOKE rippled around Dhaka’s Shilpakala Academy late in the afternoon. Through it, we could see the occasional flame. Everyone continued chatting, unsure of what we were looking at, until a group in silver hazmat suits ascended a mound of dirt. We watched as the moonmen tended to the fires, part of a smelting performance by Swiss artist Raphael Hefti. Originally commissioned for a volcano in Milan, the heavy-metal presentation was meant to convey “part of the epic story of human civilization,” per the exhibition notes. Unluckily for me, it only prompted platitudes and non sequiturs from my fellow spectators. “London is the closest I’ve been to Dhaka,” offered a woman standing next to me. Had I not been to Brick Lane, I might have considered that a ridiculous statement.

I’d arrived that morning for the fifth edition of the Dhaka Art Summit, the biennial organized through the Samdani Art Foundation and headed by collectors Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, with Diana Campbell at its creative helm. That afternoon, I attended a panel about the “making and unmaking” of this year’s iteration, whose curatorial conceit, “Seismic Movements,” posed questions of ecological and political viability—ones particularly acute for a nation that has, in recent years, virtually become shorthand for the calamitous effects of climate change. This year, a design initiative that joined a group of Bangladeshi architects with design researchers in Basel, backed by the Swiss foundation Pro Helvetia, helped establish a set of ecologically minded design principles: Approach the environment holistically, build as little as possible, address actual impact rather than the “aesthetics of ecology,” and “opt for sustainable curatorial practices.” Representatives from that thinking group reflected on the pressing human-centered challenges to designing eco-friendly buildings and exhibitions. “What will happen to the seventy-five million people displaced by climate change?” asked Sean Anderson, an associate curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “What does the ground hold?” he wondered, gnomically. A good question for a biennial crowd that’s perpetually thirty thousand feet in the air.

Curators Shanay Jhaveri, Nour Aslam, and Devika Singh. All photos unless noted: Tausif Noor.

I ducked out—confronting humanity’s collective collapse with a roster of panels seemed like a folly—and found an answer outside the academy’s gates: floor tiles embedded with ammonite and orthoceras fossils dating back four hundred million years—an installation by Adrián Villar Rojas. This Summit’s baggy thematic framework—categories and movements included independence and the geological, colonial, spatial, social, and feminist—resulted in individually considered but loosely connected displays with a marked focus on the formalization of artistic knowledge and institution-building, most clearly articulated by Bishwajit Goswami’s “Roots” exhibition, which tracks the development of arts education in Bangladesh by artists such as Zainul Abedin and Rashid Choudhury in the 1950s and ’60s. The emphasis this go-around was on collectivity, with a number of live art commissions, performances, and discussion platforms dedicated to artist groups from across the Global South, including Dhaka’s Britto Art Trust and Shoni Mongol Adda, Art Labor from Vietnam, and the documenta 15 cocurators ruangrupa. After bumping into artists Reetu Sattar and Karan Shrestha, who delivered some of Summit’s highlights, I asked what distinguished Dhaka from the countless other large-scale international art spectacles. Like many of the other summitteers I surveyed, they agreed that it was the public engagement. Behind us, crowds posed for selfies among William Forsythe’s climbing rings.

Western, desi, and Bengali-style Chinese cuisine was served buffet-style during the evening’s opening dinner, hosted in the recently refurbished neo-Mughal Intercontinental Hotel—the famous site of pre-independence political negotiations in what was then East Pakistan, in 1970, and, later, a holding pen for foreign journalists and dignitaries on the eve of the Pakistani military’s crackdown on Dhaka and the beginning of the liberation war in March 1971. And here I was, on the front lines of the global art circuit, watching as a drag-queen-fronted band led karaoke attempts at Motown hits, getting the avuncular crowd moving as artists, patrons, and hangers-on gathered for free-flowing cocktails. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev held court with Julie Mehretu and Bouchra Khalili. Photographer Shahidul Alam seemed in good spirits, chatting with artist Munem Wasif and a coterie of admirers. I sidled up to artist Dilara Begum Jolly and asked her for her impression of the current Bangladeshi art scene. Smiling, she replied that she couldn’t have imagined it expanding to such a degree, perhaps alluding to the exhibition within the exhibition, “Nobody Told Me There Would Be Days Like This,” featuring the Shomoy group, of which she is a member. Curated by critic and publisher Mustafa Zaman, the show was among this year’s standouts—it contextualized the country’s contemporary art lineage but also demonstrated that, when done right, collectivity as a mode of operating is meant to outlast the platforms it is offered. “It’s important to recognize that artist-led initiatives in Bangladesh precede the Summit, and we’re just now celebrating them,” noted Maria Lind, referring to outfits such as Pathshala Media Institute, Chobi Mela, and the Bengal Shilpalay, which has put on a solo show of Jolly’s installation and videos as well as an excellent survey of Bengali modernist art and Naeem Mohaiemen’s Turner Prize–nominated feature, Tripoli Cancelled.

Amara Antilla, senior curator at Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, with San Jose Museum of Art senior curator Lauren Schell Dickens and artist Clarissa Tossin.

The next morning, at the symposium on “transnational parallelism” and artist collectives, organized by the Dakar-based RAW Acádemie, Marie Hélène Pereira spoke of dreams of cooperation not always being fulfilled. Via a prerecorded Skype call, Elizabeth Povinelli reminded us of the entangled nature of existence. “Life is always crumbling,” she said. “The event is something you aspire to. Being is only ever after history.” Around me, heads bobbed approvingly.

That evening, I tried to keep Povinelli’s dicta in mind as we pulled up to Golpo, the Samdani residence in Gulshan, which greeted me with a cheeky neon SOLD OUT sign at its entrance. Rajeeb was apologetic as he toured us through the collection. “The lighting isn’t quite right on these two pieces because they were just installed two hours ago,” he said about a pair of intimidating sculptures by Haegue Yang and Alicia Kwadje. Over pavlova, I explained the concept of trauma bonding to Nature Morte’s Peter Nagy, fresh off the heels of the India Art Fair. Like war, I suggested. “Or grad school,” a grad student helpfully added. Upstairs, I chatted with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Shanay Jhaveri, looking elegant in an architectural top by Haider Ackermann, about the museum’s forthcoming move from the Breuer and its Gerhard Richter swan song. A collector told me that she’d gotten jamdani silks delivered to her room. She was doing Dhaka right. Over the course of the evening, the mood, already light, became positively buoyant as Grey Goose flowed and the DJ, reputed to have been flown in from Italy, played synth-pop classics. People were smoking, accidentally ashing on one another’s arms mid-dance. Drops of rain fell as a fog machine went off. I heard later that someone, continuing a biannual tradition, dived into the pool.

Riding a rickshaw to my grandmother’s house in Ulan a couple days later, I remembered when the bridges and overpasses of the Hatirjheel Lakefront were but a twinkle in the RAJUK’s eye; there were repeated murmurings, at the press interviews, of a monorail. But infrastructure, of course, isn’t just bridges and railways—it’s also people. “What happens after seismic shifts?” Peirera had asked, and how do we retain the forms of our relationships to one another? That aftershock lingers.

Nadia Samdani, director and cofounder of Dhaka Art Summit.

Gallerist Shireen Gandhy with Nilima Sheikh and John Tain, head of research at Asia Art Archives.

Artist Dilara Begum Jolly, curator Tanzim Wahab, and DAS assistant curator Ruxmini Choudhury.

Randhir Singh, Seher Shah, and MoMA curator Sean Anderson.

Gallerist Peter Nagy with artists Chitra Ganesh, Minam Apang, and filmmaker Kush Badhwar.

Para Site director Cosmin Costinas with Clarissa Tossin and Sophie Goltz of NTU CCA.

Otobong Nkanga with her installation “Landversations.”