Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani have transformed the art scene in Bangladesh. In 2011, the married couple, both enthusiastic collectors of contemporary art, set up the Samdani Art Foundation, which provides grants and residencies to artists in Bangladesh, as well as financing local exhibitions.
Central to the Samdani's project has been the Dhaka Art Summit, first staged in 2012 and now a key date in the international art calendar. This year, 368,000 people from around the world attended the nine-day celebration of Bangladeshi art and architecture. The exposure is paying dividends: young Bangladeshi artists have recently been exhibited in, among other places, Shanghai, Vienna and Zurich. In March, the Samdani Art Foundation will also bring a show, championing artists with a connection to Bangladesh, to Alserkal Avenue for Dubai Art Week.
“Before [the Dhaka Art Summit], we would go abroad and people would say, ‘Oh, what’s the art scene like in Bangladesh?’,” Nadia tells me over tea and cakes at her home in Dhaka. “It’s not like that anymore. People in the art world are aware of what’s happening here.”
Their next project: a 100-acre sculpture park and art centre
But Nadia and Rajeeb are not done yet. Next year, they will open Srihatta – the Samdani Art Centre and Sculpture Park, a stunning 100-acre development in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh (where Nadia and Rajeeb are from), some 250 kilometres north-east of Dhaka, and nestled in the shadows of India's Hills of Assam.
Built among paddy fields, mangrove swamp forests and tea plantations, Srihatta, an ancient Indo-Aryan term for Sylhet, will be a constantly expanding project. “We’re going to acquire more land in the area,” says Nadia. But the first phase, due to open in early 2019, will consist of a 10,000 square foot residency space with 11 apartments, as well as reading and meditative spaces, where artists can come to think and create. A 5,000 square foot gallery and an extensive sculpture park will house some of the Samdani’s private collection and host rotating temporary exhibitions.
“We hope that [through] this unique endeavor, the people of South Asia, as well as international visitors, will find a haven among the remarkable works of art and profound landscape,” Nadia explained when the project was announced.
It is rumoured that Srihatta could spell the end for the Dhaka Art Summit, the next instalment of which is scheduled for 2020. And while Nadia is reluctant to confirm this, she does admit that the prospect of a year-round art space appeals over the constrictions of a biannual event. “[Srihatta] means that we don’t have to be like, ‘Okay, this show is for a week and then it’s all gone’," she says. "We can keep [shows] on for a longer time, so more people can come and see them.”
The man designing Srihatta is Bangladeshi architect Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury, who won the 2016 Aga Khan Award for Architecture for his design of the Friendship Centre in Gaibandha. “The way Kashef has designed Srihatta is really beautiful – subtle, clean and simple,” says Nadia. “It’s just perfect with the landscape, it blends in with the surroundings.”
A number of large installations are already underway in the sculpture park and at least five more are in the pipeline, including pieces by Swiss artist Raphael Hefti and sound artists Raqs Media Collective.
In collaboration with the local community, Polish artist Pawel Althamer has created, Rokeya, a reclining woman made of bamboo and woven palm fronds, inside of which there is a ceramics workshop. “You can fit over 100 children in there, and they can hang out and make pots,” says Nadia.
There will also be a meandering concrete river, made by Polish artist Monika Sosnowska. Its many tributaries will serve as a set of paths taking visitors to different areas of the park. “She wanted to do this in Poland but she didn’t get the permission,” explains Nadia. “So she’s realising her dream here. She visited a couple of months ago and did a helicopter ride. She was so inspired by all the inter-connecting rivers in Bangladesh.”
A willingness to take risks
Perhaps most exciting – and daring – of all, though, is Indian artist Asim Waqif’s vision for his living sculpture Bamsera Bamsi (Bangla for “Bamboo flute”). Two years ago, Waqif planted dozens of bamboo saplings, which he hopes will grow into a natural, flute-like instrument that “plays” when the wind blows. “He said to us, ‘I’ve never done this before and it’s going to be an experiment for me, I’m not sure it will work,’” says Nadia. “And we were like, ‘It doesn’t matter, we’re going to be a part of the process.’”
This is what makes Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani so unique. They are willing to take risks, to give artists the freedom to express themselves in a way that hasn’t always been possible in Bangladesh. The art school in Dhaka, for example, teaches a defiantly traditional syllabus that doesn’t necessarily give artists the chance to try new ideas or to work in modern mediums, such as sound and video. “Students go to that school and then they leave and do something else,” says Nadia.
To counter this, in 2015 the couple launched the Samdani Seminars, a series of lectures and workshops that introduce the local artistic community to international artists and specialists, such as experimental performance artist Tori Wranes and Sebastian Cichocki, one of the senior curators at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. “Srihatta will be an extension of the Samdani Seminars because education is a big thing,” says Nadia. “These [international] artists provide inspiration [for artists in Bangladesh].”
Srihatta is the culmination of a life-long dream for Nadia. Her parents were also eminent art collectors and she and Rajib, who is the managing director of massive Bangladeshi conglomerate Golden Harvest Group and a founding committee member of the South Asian Acquisition Committee of Tate Museum United Kingdom, have been curating their own impressive collection together for more than a decade. In their house, you can see first-rate works by Michael Armitage, Rashid Choudhury, Tracey Emin, Tony Oursler and Claudia Wieser.
Do they have the same tastes? “Surprisingly we do,” says Nadia, laughing. “A couple of months ago, we were at Art Basel Hong Kong and we did a video interview where Rajeeb and I were sitting back-to-back and were asked to write down answers to the same questions – ‘Who’s your favourite artist?’ ‘What is the best art event?’ – and we got exactly the same answers.”
Srihatta will be completely free
But for Nadia and Rajeeb, art should be a public commodity, it should be available to everyone in Bangladesh. Which is why the Dhaka Art Summit and Srihatta are completely free. “We have no VIPs,” says Nadia. “Everybody is a VIP. So from the president to the taxi driver, everybody can go in at the same time. We want everyone to really enjoy, appreciate learn and experience this.”
More than this, though, Nadia and Rajeeb are passionate about supporting the artistic talent in their homeland. “We have talented artists. If we didn’t, then none of what we’re doing would make sense,” she says. “These artists have to be recognised and they just don’t have a platform. That’s what we are – a platform.
“We’ve been ignored for too long,” she concludes. “And we’re not going to be ignored anymore.”
To find out more about Srihatta – the Samdani Art Centre and Sculpture Park, visit www.srihatta.com.bd