Dhaka Art Summit: Everyman’s Country

Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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The Dhaka Art Summit reimagines identity and nationalism

WHILE REFLECTING ON the unprecedented success of the fourth biennial Dhaka Art Summit, having witnessed, first-hand, its meteoric rise from its second edition back in 2014, I happened to revisit a phrase from my review of its 2016 avatar. ‘The euphoria of transnational togetherness’ aptly described what it meant to visit what was then a five-day affair that possessed the expansiveness of a biennale but the intimacy of a seminar. I wrote about the euphoria of the ambience within which the summit had been unveiled and viewed, having been staged in conditions that belie one’s general expectation of logistics and infrastructure, given Bangladesh’s ‘third-world’ status. The air of exhilaration aside, the Summit, in the more-than- capable hands of its curator, Diana Campbell-Betancourt, had ventured to show the world, through its carefully assembled series of exhibitions and solo projects, that our present was rife with fissures that harked back to complicated histories which required constant rewriting, lest they be forgotten.

Having already received prestigious international and local acclaim, one did wonder how the 2018 edition could outdo its own legacy, especially since at the first edition, back in 2012, the Summit had announced its aspiration to be a leading platform for South Asian art, a mission it had already achieved by 2016. In fact, in the span of the following two years during which The Samdani Art Foundation (SAF), helmed by collector couple Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, along with Campbell-Betancourt, was preparing for the 2018 instalment, it had already laid the groundwork and raised the structure for a permanent institution in Sylhet, the Srihatta Samdani Art Center and Sculpture Park. The inaugural phase of its programming, it was announced, would include several commissions for the 100-acre sculpture park, 10,000 square feet of artist residency spaces, 10,000 square feet of plazas, and a 5,000-square-foot gallery, designed by Dhaka-based Bangladeshi architect and 2016 Aga Khan Award winner, Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury. Running parallel to the development of this endeavour, however, was one of the most tragic contemporary tales of mass migration. Since August 2017, more than half a million Rohingyas have fled the destruction of their homes and persecution in the northern Rakhine province of Myanmar for neighbouring Bangladesh, leading the United Nations to describe the military offensive in Rakhine as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’.

A day before the opening of the Dhaka Art Summit, Associated Press broke a story about the discovery of at least three mass graves—latest evidence of the Rohingya genocide at the hands of the Myanmar military. It was covered in the local papers and by the international news. The tactical use of acid on the faces of the corpses and the deformation of fingertips made it difficult for bodies to be identified. Speaking at a panel on February 2nd, titled Another Asia, featuring art historians and curators discussing the past, present, and possible future for inter-Asia artistic exchange and the steps necessary to revive these vibrant transnational histories, Rustom Bharucha reminded the audience about the xenophobia at the heart of the Rohingya crisis that was symptomatic of hostile nationalism. Bharucha referenced a diktat by the former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances through which they come.” Howard received the sharpest rejoinder not from his political opposition, but from a female elder of the aboriginal community. The elder responded, “ This is not John Howard’s country. It has been stolen. We, the Aboriginal people, have always had the same kinship system for all human beings in a spiritual way. Our beliefs teach us that everyone is a part of us and we should care about them. It’s a duty. Duty. Not pride, not obligation.” Bharucha, whose book, Another Asia, traces the relationship between Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin, said the Aboriginal woman’s words resonated with the philosophy of Tagore, testifying to the need for hospitality and an openness to strangers. These are principles, he believes, that biennales and art summits need to keep in mind in order to counter the viscous agendas of nationalism with new imaginaries of the national, at once culturally and ecologically open to new ways of being human.

Half way through day one, the agenda of the Dhaka Art Summit was resoundingly clear. It was no longer about merely creating a platform for South Asian art. It wasn’t interested in settling for such short-term goals. It was invested more in locating itself in an Asia that it wanted to help reimagine, a utopic premise, certainly, since it consisted of also reconfiguring the category of nationalism, one that the domain of art was perhaps better equipped to consider. How may we retrieve elements from a shared history of Asia? Bharucha answered his own question, “In my view, it’s not scholars, social scientists, academics who can do this. They’re totally trapped. I think it is artists who are best equipped to invent these new epistemologies.”

Transgression has been key to Campbell-Betancourt’s trans- nationalist curatorial approach. The free-flowing structure of the summit this year was a welcome tutorial in how a series of exhibitions could be at once confined within a building—the Shilpakala Academy—and yet extend beyond boundaries. There was a spilling over that reflected an immense generosity of spirit on the part of the organising team, possibly the consequence of the summit’s unprecedented magnitude, with work by 300 artists from 35 countries. Also, for the first time, the duration, previously three to five days, had been extended to ten. What was a section featuring solo projects commissioned by the Samdani Art Foundation had turned into a series of five large- scale thematic exhibitions titled Bearing Points, that sought to orient the viewer towards lesser-explored transcultural histories of South Asia while weaving together strands of thought from the nine other guest curated exhibitions and public programmes.

The free-flowing structure of the summit this year was a welcome tutorial in how a series of exhibitions could be at once confined within a building, the Shilpakala Academy, and yet extend beyond boundaries

Two days before the opening, as Campbell-Betancourt took me on a quick walkthrough while many significant works were still being installed, we stopped to marvel at a boat-like structure that was intended as the Education Pavilion. “My mother always told me, when in distress, re-arrange the letters of the word ‘ocean’ and you get ‘canoe’,” she said. The structure, titled Chhaya Tori, made using traditional Shapman boatbuilding techniques, synonymous with fishing communities in Southern Bangladesh, was Maksudul Karim’s winning design for the Samdani Architecture Award 2018. On the morning of opening day, it was here that the international art cognoscenti gathered to listen to the Otolith Group’s illustrated and dramatic fictionalised lecture, ‘Notes on a Film on Santiniketan’, that harked back to the ‘aesthetic sociality’ that was at the crux of Tagore’s educational experiment. After waiting in vain for a microphone, the Otolith Group, the award-winning collective comprising Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun, decided to wing it without a sound system, requesting the attendants to re-arrange their seating to create a more intimate, immersive setting. It meant that their reading, during which Sagar essayed the role of Tagore, was punctuated by the discordant yet profound droning of 30 musicians who had been seated on platforms across large steel scaffolding at the entrance to the Dhaka Art Summit, each armed with an antique ‘found’ harmonium (with some shehnai players) upon which they collectively performed a piece called Harano Sur (‘Lost Tune’). The atonal, dystopian rant was composed by Reetu Sattar to constitute all that Bangladesh’s musical traditions had lost to hardline Islamisation. While entry was free, with no registration required, all visitors to the summit on day one had to pass through this soundscape before they could enter the building.

Before passing through this area, which had been designated the performance hub and titled An Utopian Stage, curated by Vali Mahlouji, visitors walked through the 1935-Karachi-born, London-based Rasheed Araeen’s vermillion bamboo sculpture in the forecourt, aptly titled Rite/Right of Passage, and 94-year-old Hungarian born French artist Yona Friedman’s intricate sculptural bamboo shade. Both these structures were components in part one of Campbell-Betancourt’s mini-exhibition—Politics: The Most Architectural Thing to Do—alongside an excellent collaborative series of cyanotypes by artist couple Seher Shah and Randhir Singh, Studies in Form, that was part of her larger, Bearing Points, as was Maksudul Karim’s canoe, which hosted at least 22 workshops. Politics, says Campbell-Betancourt “considers the entanglement of the history of architecture in South Asia with the quest to undo the effects of imperialist colonisation and the need for radical internationalist thought in politics.”

Campbell-Betancourt’s strategy has been to nurture a cross-border community of stakeholders, from international institutions and high-profile collectors to curators, installers, art educators, critics and academics. The stable of international artists the summit has endorsed through commissions is truly vast, and the local arts community has infinitely benefited from the engagement, a fact made evident by the impressive exhibition this year of the 11 Bangladeshi artists shortlisted for Samdani Art Award, guest curated by Simon Castets, director of the Swiss Institute, New York. This year’s jury, chaired by Aaron Cezar, director of the Delfina Foundation, included Subodh Gupta, Mona Hatoum, Sheela Gowda and Runa Islam, and was presented by none other than Tate’s first female director, Maria Balshaw. The winner, Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury, will be offered a three-month residency with the Delfina Foundation.

Two of the most intimate and considered exhibitions were by Sharmini Pereira and Devika Singh, curators who had both been part of the Dhaka Art Summit’s 2016 edition’s inaugural Critical Writing Ensemble, which this year was titled Sovereign Words and included the acclaimed post-colonial theorist, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Both Pereira and Singh approached the project of exhibition making as an exercise in re-composing existing narratives. In Pereira’s case, through One Hundred Thousand Small Tales, by cajoling viewers into re-framing their understanding of Sri Lankan history, while in Singh’s case, with Planetary Planning, by reminding us of the political nature of the private enterprise of imagining utopias. Both were museum-quality shows with sensitively placed works by emerging and established artists.

While it is public knowledge that Cosmin Costinas’ elaborate, extensively researched, textile-based show, A Beast, A God, And A Line, will travel to Hong Kong and Myanmar, one hopes that Pereira’s and Singh’s shows will share a similar fate. Costinas’ exhibition comprised a series of quiet, introspective moments that sought to build a connection across a varied geography with Bengal at its core, examining the rise of religious fundamentalism and the artistic resistance to the tide of hate and bigotry. Interspersed through the show were a series of portraits of Rohingya refugees by Sawangwongse Yawnghwe, titled Rohingya Boat Portrait. Yawnghwe, who was born in the Shan State of Myanmar in 1971, lives and works between Berlin, Amsterdam and Chiang Mai. Costinas deliberately looked at practitioners who are not conventionally considered contemporary artists, proposing that many of their gestures are deeply rooted in post-colonial policies and the marginalisation of indigenous communities in a pro- capitalist world. Munem Wasif’s Machine Matter, a 14-minute single channel video installation, takes the viewer on a melancholic journey through abandoned jute factories, a statement on the geo-politics of jute, its significance in Bangladesh’s history and the implications of the factory shut-downs on labour rights.

Beyond the meticulously themed exhibitions that investigated the role of the national in reimagining the project of nationalism, two deliberate interventions cemented the 2018 edition’s clear-cut agenda to recalibrate Bangladesh’s indigenous, modern and contemporary art history by realigning the region’s cultural nexus with that of the larger third world and the global south. A Utopian Stage, curated by Vali Mahlouji, reminded viewers of the history of the Festival of Art at Shiraz- Persepolis from 1967-77 by exposing the festival’s retrieved archives for the first time in Asia, interposing them with live performances, musical interventions and film screenings that respond directly to the festival’s transcendental spirit of exchange. The visual and archival feast also offered itself as a mirror to the Dhaka Art Summit’s perception of itself, reflecting its own subversive, enterprising spirit and its enthusiasm for defying all the odds. Mounted next door to it was The Asian Art Biennale in Context, which reoriented viewers to Dhaka’s history as a place of innovation within the arts, through the Asian Art Biennale (Asia’s oldest surviving biennale which was founded in Dhaka in 1981). The exhibition drew works from the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy’s collection and the archive of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, and in doing so, located the Dhaka Art Summit’s future within the continuing present of the Asian Art Biennale. These, coupled with a rather inspiring display highlighting 12 of the country’s most vibrant artist-led initiatives proffered a relentlessly positive portrait of Bangladesh’s potential artistic future while also enunciating the non-quantifiable impact the Summit has already had within the region.

(Note: My mother always told me, when in distress, re-arrange the letters of the word ‘ocean’ and you get ‘canoe’,” was wrongly ascribed to Diana Campbell-Betancourt. It is to be credited to a Chamorro indigenous poet named Craig Santos Perez.)