The Power of Art

Mark Rappolt assesses whether the Dhaka Art Summit is building a sustainable local art scene

By Mark Rappolt

Po Po, ‘VIP Project (Dhaka)’, 2015. Commissioned and produced by the Samdani Art Foundation for the Dhaka Art Summit, 2016. Courtesy the artist and the Samdani Art Foundation

Now in its third edition, which took place over a packed weekend this past February, the biennial Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) operates according to an unusual structure. Part biennale, part conference, part art fair, part research report, part collection of museum-style exhibitions, part awards ceremony and yet at the same time not exactly any of those things, it took place in the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, the state-sponsored national academy of fine and performing arts, which for the four days of DAS’s occupation was transformed into something of a South Asian tower of art power. All that in a country that has only existed in its present configuration since 1971, following numerous massacres, widespread population displacement and a guerrilla war waged against the Pakistan Army. And in a city where poverty is evident, the roads are often gridlocked, certain trips around the city involve an armed escort and the local English-language newspaper suggests that you subscribe via your hawker, it can be hard for the visitor to understand how the development of a contemporary art scene is its inhabitants’ most pressing need. But if you wanted a reminder of the potential power of art, and of the political tensions still present in the country and the region that surrounds it, then the Chinese ambassador’s much-publicised opening-day ‘explosion’ at the sight of Dharamshala-based filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s Last Words (2015, part of a larger ongoing multimedia work titled Burning Against the Dying of the Light), featuring the last letters of five Tibetans (freely available online) who had self-immolated in protest against Chinese occupation of their country, gave an indication of that. Bangladesh is China’s third largest trade partner in South Asia and the latter a major supplier to the former’s military; the offending letters remained, but were subsequently covered by sheets of blank paper following the ambassador’s request for their removal. Perhaps the incident was also a reminder of the limits within which art operates.

Ultimately though, most of art’s more interesting adventures involve a leap of faith. In this case, the jump has been taken by Nadia and Rajeed Samdani under the auspices of their privately run Samdani Art Foundation (founded in 2011), which spearheads the event and is working towards the opening of a permanent art centre in Sylhet, in the northeast of the country. Almost incredibly, DAS hosted six curated exhibitions, 13 new commissions, four artworks that had been reworked for the site, plus a constant stream of talks, conferences and film screenings over the course of the long weekend. Among the highlights were Rewind, a show of rarely seen works produced by South Asian artists before 1980 and broadly reflecting the international spread and local adaptation of Modernism: a voguish theme right now that exposes the shared concerns of artists adopting a modernist language and the different reasons for their doing so. By way of example, the show featured one of two films (transferred to video) by Mumbai-based painter Akbar Padamsee. Syzygy (1969–70) is an extraordinary 11-minute black-and-white animation inspired by Paul Klee’s pedagogical drawings in which the Indian artist sets out a series of quasi-mathematical propositions that lie behind a series of geometrical line drawings, reflecting his notion that ‘you need the mind of a mathematician and poet put together to be a painter’. Next to Syzygy, Nalini Malani’s remarkable Utopia (1969–76) is a dual projection that features a woman silhouetted against a window looking out over Bombay and a series of colour studies of models of blocky modernist houses, capturing themes of isolation, aspiration, dreams and disillusionment in a haunting way.

That work found an echo in Aurélien Lemonier’s beautifully curated and intelligent survey of Architecture in Bangladesh, which charted the country’s journey from modern to contemporary architecture with a focus on its role in nation-building and related struggles between regionalism and internationalism. Such debates in turn had an effect on the experience of viewing the Solo Projects section, curated by DAS artistic director Diana Campbell Betancourt (whose group exhibition, Mining Warm Data, featured Memento Mori, 2016, an incredibly moving installation by Indian photographer Pablo Bartholomew that revolved around his response to the accidental destruction of one of his photographic archives). While the projects included absorbing works such as Shumon Ahmed’s Guantánamo-inspired interactive installation and Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu’s fusion of traditional theatre sets and documentary videos to chart environmental change in their native Myanmar, the focus on individual artists, their projects isolated one from the next (bookended by a version of Tino Sehgal’s 2011 Ann Lee performance and phosphorescent paintings by Lynda Benglis), seemed slightly discordant with the notion of dialogue and historical and geographical location established in the other exhibitions. Perhaps it was also a reminder that this type of art tends to operate in a privileged space (which, once you’ve walked Dhaka’s streets, DAS undoubtedly is). That said, it’s also true that the Solo Projects simply articulate the desire to provide a ‘something for everyone’ experience at DAS. They were certainly packed with extraordinary numbers of students, families and schoolchildren. Some of the irony of the ‘VIP treatment’ was captured in a photographic and film project by Myanmar-based Po Po, which (following on from a similar 2010 VIP Project in Yangon) explored the prevalence of and deferential reaction to VIP signs in Bangladesh. It was, of course, located next to DAS’s VIP lounge.

Amidst the art and the crowds of visitors, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that many of the things that made their way into the Shilpakala Academy are the product of ongoing workshops and dialogues with local and international artists, and museums around the world. Behind the exhibition spaces are passionate summits and conversations (one gathering a ‘Critical Writing Ensemble’) that debate the pathways that South Asian art (and art in general) might follow and the structures it might build to support that, both within the region and internationally. And it’s the initiation and facilitation of such discourse that is, in many ways, the really lasting effect of the DAS initiative – and one of the paths by which it can truly contribute to the establishment of a vibrant art scene in Bangladesh. 

This article first appeared in ArtReview Asia vol 4, no 2.