'It’s in our blood': How Dhaka Art Summit is shining a light on Bangladesh's creativity

Dhaka Art Summit is making waves as a platform for new Asian, African and Latin American artists, writes Alexandra Chaves

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When an earthquake strikes, it creates seismic movement, sending waves of energy rippling across the Earth. This year's Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) is named after this phenomenon, and takes the term beyond its mere geological implications to examine artistic, social, political, colonial and independent movements that have affected the world.

“This play on words looks at how the world is moving and how we move the world, also considering the conditions that move us to act,” writes DAS chief curator Diana Campbell Betancourt in her curatorial statement. “What might happen when ideas move from inside the exhibition to the larger reality outside?”

It is an important question, one that the 500 participants – including artists, scholars, curators and collectives – will attempt to address in one way or another through artworks, panel discussions and performances. The summit will take place in Bangladesh's capital from Friday, February 7, to Saturday, February 15. The idea of a seismic shift is not only applicable to the ideas of DAS 2020, but DAS itself. Now in its fifth iteration, the summit has become the country's leading art exhibition platform and event, as well as a vital one for the rest of the region. Free and open to the public, its attendance has rocketed from 20,000 in 2012 to more than 300,000 in 2018, primarily made up of the local population. The biannual summit is run by the Samdani Art Foundation, a private arts trust created in 2011 by art collector couple Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani.

Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani, founders of the Samdani Art Foundation and Dhaka Art Summit. Noor Photoface
Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani, founders of the Samdani Art Foundation and Dhaka Art Summit. Noor Photoface

"It started as a passion project … it was designed to support local artists," says Nadia, explaining that the intention behind the foundation and DAS was to help Bangladeshi artists gain exposure to the wider international art scene. "What visitors see here is different from what they see in fairs and biennials. It's a different set of artists, because we really support more emerging artists and new talents.

"We work as a bridge connecting our artists to the rest of the world. Before Dhaka Art Summit, there was hardly any presence of Bangladeshi artists anywhere." Nadia recalls that many artists who have been shown at DAS have gone on to present exhibitions abroad and now have works in major institutions worldwide. These include Munem Wasif, whose work is part of the Tate's collection and has shown in Paris's Centre Pompidou and London's Victoria and Albert Museum, and Ayesha Sultana, whose work is in the collections of Art Jameel in Dubai and the Museum of Modern Art in Brisbane. The newly renovated Museum of Modern Art will show Reetu Sattar's performance piece Harano Shur, which was originally commissioned by DAS in 2018.

In only a few years, DAS is becoming a critical stop in the contemporary art exhibition circuit, particularly as it often explores ideas and histories outside western narratives and challenges colonial frameworks. In addition, its list of artists is diverse, with a great number of practitioners hailing from the so-called 'Global South', a term used to describe low and middle-income countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

These new ways of approaching history and art are part of the Samdanis' aims. "Culture and art have always been part of Bengal. It's in our blood," says Rajeeb, citing the writer Rabindranath Tagore as an example of an intellectual who sought to establish his own voice within literature, art and music. "He urged us to have our own style, and said we shouldn't follow the western world," he says. The last edition had 1,200 international visitors, which means DAS is still largely a local affair, but its impact on Bangladesh is undeniable. "It is not just our event any more. The country owns the event," Nadia says.

Not quite half a century old, Bangladesh is a relatively young country. It declared its independence in 1971, before which it was part of the Pakistani federation formed after the Partition of British India. This history comes into focus through the exhibition Lighting the Fire of Freedom: Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which traces the life of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh's first president and a man considered the country's founding father. "He was the main architect behind Bangladesh," Rajeeb says. "This year, our main theme is Seismic Movements, so it is fitting to have this exhibition of his timeline alongside the summit," he says, explaining that it was Rahman's ideas that drove the independence movement for Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi history will be explored at the Summit. Image is of magazine cover of 'Newswee'k from April 5, 1971. . Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Memorial Museum
Bangladeshi history will be explored at the Summit. Image is of magazine cover of 'Newswee'k from April 5, 1971. . Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Memorial Museum

The historical exhibition, shown in parallel with DAS at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, comprises personal photographs, video footage and newspapers, many of which will be displayed for the first time, that trace the leader's political life.

There will also be modern and contemporary artworks on view, including paintings by notable Bangladeshi artist Zainul Abedin that depict the famine in colonial Bengal during the Second World War. The Samdanis say the exhibition ties into the summit's mission to unveil histories through visual art.

DAS draws parallels to other independence movements across the world, as seen in the work of Maryam Jafri titled Independence Day 1934-1975. It features an archive of photos from the very first independence day celebrations from Asia, the Middle East and Africa, chronicling periods of transition as these territories turn to nations. Other highlights from the summit are Adrian Villar Rojas's immersive installation made of 400-million-year-old fossils of creatures that lived on the planet for millions of years before their extinction. They were around when the supercontinent Pangaea broke apart 175 million years ago. Titled New Mutants, the artwork looks at the evolution of humanity on the planet, and pushes visitors to rethink their calculations of time.

Adrián Villar Rojas,The Theater of Disappearance, 2017
Installation view, Kunsthaus Bregenz Courtesy of Adrián Villar Rojas, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York | Paris | London und kurimanzutto, Mexiko-Stadt © Adrián Villar Rojas, Kunsthaus Bregenzcredts:
Photographed by Jörg Baumann
'The Theater of Disappearance' (2017) by Argentian sculptor Adrian Villar Rojas, one of the artists presenting work at Dhaka Art Summit 2020. Courtesy the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery

Considering the impact of colonialism, artists Kamruzzaman Shadhin and Gidree Bawlee have collaborated on a work that investigates how British-era railways changed the agricultural make-up of Bengal's lands, compelling farmers to switch from the production of food – rice – to that of cash crops.

Meanwhile, the Samdani Art Award 2020 exhibition curated by Philippe Pirotte includes Bangladesh’s most promising young artists, including Ashfika Rahman, whose photographic works take on social issues, and Habiba Nowrose, who composes colourful portraits that examine relationships and gender identity.

The artist list for the summit also includes Otobong Nkanga, Phan Tao Nguyen, Yasmin Jahan Nupur, Rana Begum, Shezad Dawood, Zainul Abedin, Bouchra Khalili and Tuan Andrew Nguyen.

Dhaka Art Summit runs from Friday, February 7, to Saturday, February 15. To find out more, visit www.dhakaartsummit.org