There is much to learn from the success of the second Dhaka Art Summit
Although it hardly falls into the bracket of glamorous cities typically associated with the international art world, Dhaka hosted a resoundingly successful art pow wow earlier this month. Billed as the largest South Asian art event in the world, the second Dhaka Art Summit, held from February 7 to 9, drew an audience of 70,000 locals and a global community of art curators, museum administrators, collectors, auction houses and gallerists. Two hundred and fifty artists from South Asia participated, and there were 14 solo art projects by artists from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Nepal. Experimental films and performance art, including an eight-hour work by Nikhil Chopra, as well as a citywide public art initiative, “Meanwhile, Elsewhere”, by the New Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective, were part of the line-up.
For most of the Indian art fraternity attending, not only was it a first visit to Dhaka but, against the backdrop of political uncertainty, there was a certain amount of doubt about whether to attend. And as citizens of the bigger nextdoor neighbour, a bit of scepticism also existed. Yet, in the end, most made the journey. The unanimous verdict amongst our art world cognoscenti was a collective gasp of wonder, elation and excitement. As Shireen Gandhy, director of the storied Chemould Prescott Road gallery in Mumbai put it: “I am astounded and overwhelmed.” Other blue chip gallerists, artists and curators from India echoed her sentiments.
On the heels of the Delhi art fair, where there was much handwringing about the quality of art on display, Dhaka reaffirmed that art at its best can make spirits soar, offering a window into the human condition that often defies explanation.
Works like Parallax, a 3D multi-channel video work created in 2013 by Pakistan-born, New York-based Shahzia Sikander for the Sharjah Biennial using the artist’s paintings — with music and poetry produced in collaboration with others — reflects, in the words of curator John Zarobell, “two views of the same thing that are fundamentally incompatible and nevertheless real”. The beauty and scale of Parallax and works like the British-Bangladeshi artist Rana Begum’s Untitled (2014), an installation of 1,000 handwoven baskets, or Indian artist Shilpa Gupta’s Untitled (2014), a series of photographs, digital prints and installations exploring the landlocked enclaves of displaced Indians and Bangladeshis in each other’s countries, were some of the examples — and there were many — of the way art can seize the imagination.
Incredibly, this endeavour was funded by an enterprising, young art-collecting couple, Rajiv and Nadia Samdani, whose abiding interest in promoting South Asian art led them to create, via the Samdani Art Foundation, an entirely non-commercial event. The Dhaka Art Summit did not charge galleries any fee to participate, nor visitors an attendance fee. The Samdanis did not make a profit from the event. Moreover, they gave artists from the region grants to create works that would subsequently be owned by the artists, not themselves.
Under the able leadership of its artistic director Diana Campbell Betancourt, an American curator based in Mumbai, the Dhaka Art Summit defied expectations. Aside from the solo projects and art on display, the Samdani Art Foundation enabled artists to research in Bangladesh, curators to develop exhibits they may not otherwise have had the opportunity to, and for locals to hear panellists from major museums, like the Tate Modern and British Museum in London and the Guggenheim in New York. They also instituted an art award for a Bangladeshi artist, between 20 and 40 years of age, to attend a three-month residency at London’s Delfina Foundation.
Across the world, this kind of patronage is rare. That it is emanating from Bangladesh is happily bewildering. In India, we have some stellar patrons of the arts, including Lekha and Anupam Poddar and Kiran Nadar, but certainly more could and needs to be done by those who have the means and an abiding interest in the arts. For those of us who were able to witness the Dhaka Art Summit’s achievement, what grated was how much more India could do. Should we not take the lead in promoting the arts, via both public and private initiatives, including incentivising private players through tax breaks?
Given that our region is beset by strife despite our shared histories and cultures, the fact that the summit’s remit was beyond Bangladesh and encompassed South Asia is noteworthy. In the absence of political understanding, culture plays a significant role in building bridges. In an online interview, the Afghan artist Lida Abdul said, “Art can be a petition for another world… whatever transformation art has the potential to bring about cannot be immediately seen. Only if people engage with one another through their art, culture and music and genuinely resist trying to reduce the ‘other’ to what is familiar to themselves, a lot of change can come about.”
The writer is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist