Such Great Heights

Left: Dhaka Art Summit artistic director Diana Campbell Betancourt and Samdani Art Foundation cofounder Nadia Samdani. Right: Adam Szymczyk, artistic director of Documenta 14. (Except where noted, all photos: Alex Thomas)

IF I HAD PAID more heed to the US government’s strident security alerts about Bangladesh, I might have been more concerned about the dead, decaying body lying at my feet. Thankfully, any fears proved unwarranted for travelers on the latest stop of the art-world’s global itinerary. In this case, the mutilated carcass, aka Lost and Found, 2012, was Pakistani artist Huma Mulji’s submission to the group show “Mining Warm Data,” a feature of the third biennial Dhaka Art Summit. Stitched together from decomposing animal hides, Mulji’s man invoked the brutalized bodies that are too-frequently discovered in Pakistan’s sewage system.

Despite (indeed, because of) its often gory offerings, Dhaka’s Summit comes bearing peace and knowledge. A four-day extravaganza, it occupied the five-story national Shilpakala Academy of Fine and Performing Arts, much of which had been temporarily refashioned to suit the needs of 2016’s Summit. The institution’s premises were speedily remodeled—with governmental blessing—by the event’s patrons, Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani, just months before the mega-exhibition marched in. Then, chief curator Diana Campbell Betancourt orchestrated its takeover with military precision: This year she chose “South Asia” as the Summit’s focus, featuring over three hundred artists, curators, and critics from across the region (diasporic drifters included), 65 percent of whom were Bangladeshi. For Bangladesh is now a “South Asian” player in its own right. Independent after its 1971 separation from Pakistan, its economic expansion is beginning to outpace some of its neighbors.

Everyone remained unscathed as we climbed the Summit’s art-laden peaks. Unfortunately, artworks weren’t always so lucky: Chinese ambassador Ma Mingqiang ordered Indian artist Ritu Sarin and Tibetan artist Tenzing Sonam to eradicate their Last Words, which comprises the letters of five Tibetans who immolated themselves to protest political oppression. The result: White paper was pulled across picture-frames, like shrouds.

Left: MoMA research fellow Rattanamol Singh Johal with MoMA chief curator of performance Stuart Comer and curators Martino Stierli and Cara Manes. (Photo: Stuart Comer) Right: Tate Modern curator Nada Raza and Metropolitan Museum curator Shanay Jhaveri.

But the Summit didn’t always pivot on death and disaster. The VIP party at the Samdani’s residence, on the second night, was a splashy affair, with Saffronart’s Dinesh Vazirani reputedly dancing into the swimming pool at 2:30 AM. “I can’t believe I missed the main event. I’d gone home like a good boy,” wailed my informer at breakfast. I felt the same—until a friend from Bombay forwarded me the video on WhatsApp. (How’s that for “Mining Warm Data”?)

Back at the Summit, I had more serious investigating to do. Unlike your usual biennial exhibition, the Summit is not a citywide display, and unlike an art fair, nothing is for sale. This year’s main show was divided by Betancourt into seventeen solo projects: Who wouldn’t like the gilded, textile-influenced sculptures of Lynda Benglis and Shakuntala Kulkarni’s installation of bamboo dresses?

The Summit also featured six specially curated exhibitions: Beth Citron, Amara Antilla, and Sabih Ahmed worked with Betancourt on “Rewind,” showcasing abstract art produced in South Asia before 1980. (Textile “paintings” by Indian artist Monika Correa and deep-hued tapestries by Rashid Chowdhury, Bangladeshi art’s granddaddy, looked great.) On the same floor, curator Daniel Baumann organized the Samdani Art Award, showcasing works by thirteen shortlisted Bangladeshi artists. The winner, Dhaka-based Rasel Chowdhury, was announced on opening night. His Railway Longings consists of photos documenting the railways lines along the 112-mile journey from Jamalpur (Chowdhury’s hometown) to Dhaka. The railway used to be the only way to travel between the two points, but it is now falling into disuse. Covering the terrain by foot, Chowdhury’s trek was a touching evocation of the passage of time. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest hire, Shanay Jhaveri, was in charge of a film series that featured a continuous screening of Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization, the 1972 Merchant & Ivory documentary of Bengali novelist Nirad Chaudhuri.

Left: Tate Modern director Frances Morris. Right: Nour Aslam and Osman Khalid Waheed of the Lahore Biennale Foundation.

But it was Tate curator Nada Raza’s exhibition, “The Missing One,” that won my heart, bringing together sci-fi, spirituality, and South Asian identity in a carefully orchestrated symphony of blue-painted rooms. Placed next to “Mining Warm Data,” it provided the perfect contrast to the former’s more harrowing exhibits. Here, Firoz Mahmud’s photographic portraits were dedicated to middle-class Bangla families. Posing in all their finery, they sported green goggles made by Mahmud. “They are gazing at their glorious futures,” the artist quipped (ironically?). Ogling at the Summit along with me were 138,000 other attendees, including 2,500 schoolchildren. “Everyone is a VIP, everyone is invited. It’s free!” said Betancourt beaming.

“But some are more VIP than others,” winked a friend on our way to the Samdanis’ residence for another private party. An affable gent and a silvery shimmer greeted us at the door: The first was our host, Rajeeb Samdani, the second, a steely sculpture by Rana Begum. It looked like the bars of a prison, but glinted turquoise as I turned away. Documenta 14 artistic director Adam Szymczyk, looked intense, while Hans Ulrich Obrist and Frances Morris, the newly appointed director of Tate Modern, beamed beneficently. Selfie anyone? MoMA curators Stuart Comer and Cara Manes were accompanied by MoMA fellow Rattanamol Johal, busy making notes. Dealer Amrita Jhaveri dazzled in red, and her pal, the designer-collector Poonam Bhagat, sported a crimson-dress and… were those golden bird-cages instead of shoes on her feet? Collector Kiran Nadar reigned in vivid vermilion, while performance artist Nikhil Chopra—who’d co-curated the Summit’s “Performance Pavilion”—whispered “secrets” in my ear.

The Lahore Biennale Foundation’s core team, programs director Nour Aslam and chairman Osman Waheed, were more tight-lipped: “No, no, I can’t tell you the name of the curator for our 2017 Biennale,” said Aslam. “Have a glass, Nour?” I implored. Others were employing their research skills to better effect. Meena Hewett of Harvard’s South Asia Institute dubbed the Summit a “uniquely revealing window.” Dealer Prateek Raja from Kolkata’s Experimenter enthused: “The energy is palpable. Hopefully the Summit will bring these conversations to fruition.” Cornell University’s Iftikhar Dadi was more measured: “That it’s located in Bangladesh, and not in the Indian giant, also means that perspectives from across South Asia are showcased more equitably.” “Yes, yes,” I agreed, disloyally. (Confession: I am a Person of Indian Origin.)

Left: Artist Shakuntala Kulkarni. Right: Artists Firoz Mahmud and Sonia Khurana with curator Roobina Karode of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

And so the different South Asias met, mingled, and occasionally merged at the Summit’s heady altitude—but the convocation also acknowledged ruptures. Bangladesh was born of two partitions: the first being the 1947 division of India from Pakistan, the second its liberation from the latter. Both resulted in bloodbaths. “If we’d stayed with Pakistan, we would have nothing,” said Rajeeb Samdani firmly. Nonetheless, nationalism is a fragile thing. “Bangladeshis are torn between whether to identify as Muslim, Bengali, or Bangladeshi,” Betancourt explained. Exploring these identities was the Summit’s overarching agenda, where repetitive abstract shapes, inspired by Islamic geometry, seemed to float before us in many of the artworks. As viewers walked into Haroon Mirza’s room-sized charcoal-gray box, The National Apavilion of Then and Now, 2011, we huddled in the dark. Suddenly, white lights came on, forming a circular pattern on the ceiling. The walk-in installation started to squeal. “Help!” yelled a small boy. “Hurray!” whooped his sister.

By day four I felt energized by the Summit’s aesthetic heights—but also slightly stir-crazy. For our own safety, the Summit was largely confined to one building. Moreover, when we did leave (for parties, or to return to our hotels) snarling traffic jams had us sitting in buses for hours. At the scheduled architectural tour—we visited Louis Kahn’s Modernist Miracle, aka the 1982 National Parliament House, with passports in hand—I felt discomfited by its colossal concrete grandeur. Were we to be trapped in its stark Brutalist demarcations of light and shadow? And there it hit me: If the capital’s national narrative felt contrived, that’s because it is. Bangladesh is a nation under construction, and, until the Summit, the cultural heavy-lifting had been done without help from India and Pakistan. Yet despite our past sins, us “other South Asians” were generously invited to the Samdanis’ Bangladeshi bash. “We don’t insist the art world include Bangladeshi art in their shows. Just consider us.” Nadia Samdani gently suggested. Who could resist?

Left: Mahnaz Fancy, editor of Caravan magazine, and collector Lekha Poddar, cofounder of Devi Art Foundation. Right: Artists Nikhil Chopra and Atish Saha.

Left: Dealer Amrita Jhaveri of Mumbai's Jhaveri Contemporary and collector Poonam Bhagat Shroff. Right: Dealer Aparajita Jain of Nature Morte gallery.

Left: Artist Dayanita Singh. Right: Collector Anupam Poddar, Devi Art Foundation.

Left: Art historian and artist Iftikhar Dadi. Right: Writer Georgina Adam and Aaron Cezar, director of Delfina Foundation.

Left: Collector Rajeeb Samdani of Samdani Art Foundation. Right: Art historian Sonal Khullar.

Left: Artist Jitish Kallat. Right: Artist Reena Saini Kallat.

Left: Artist Sajan Mani. Right: Collector and consultant Mehreen Rizvi of Frieze and collector Puja Patnaik.

Left: Dealer Bhavna Khakkar of Latitude 28 gallery and publisher-editor of Take on Art magazine. Right: Collectors Farouk and Aliya Khan from Kuala Lumpur.

Left: Dealer Peter Nagy of Nature Morte. Right: Dinesh Vazirani, co-owner of India's Saffronart Auction House, with dealers Prateek and Priyanka Raja of Experimenter.

Left: Dealer Sree Goswami of Project 88. Right: Hugo Weihe of Saffronart Auction House, Mumbai

Left: Yamini Mehta of Sotheby's South Asian art department, dealer Saskia Fernando, and writer and curator Jyoti Dhar. Right: Artist Waqas Khan.