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The Dhaka Art Summit 2018: Multidisciplinary And Multidirectional

Rita Bhimani

For those musical aficionados, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at An Exhibition is a musical work in 10 movements, much of it hugely recognizable and some of it very poignant, other parts dramatic. Created in memory of fellow Russian, the artist Viktor Hartmann, many of the sketches and architectural studies were captured in music by Mussorgsky.

Visiting the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) this year which took place from the 2nd to the 10th of February, it was its whole multidisciplinary approach that had a startling similarity to the Mussorgsky imagery.   For here was a convergence of art in its newest forms, from performance art to walkthroughs melding depiction of issues with discourse, mixed media installations, the enharmonic sounds of 30 musicians on 30 harmoniums or the engagement with local audiences through Merce Cunningham’s Field Dances workshop.   All this and much, much more too.

For us, who had experienced the very first Art Summit in that city, way back in the warmer April days of 2012, this one had grown exponentially, its multidirectional petals unfolding in myriad directions in the cooler February days of 2018.   Widening its focus to create new connections between South, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean belt, exhibiting artists from Thailand, Malaysia, Madagascar, the Philippines, and several other countries, highlighting the dynamic evolution of art in contemporary South Asia and reviving historical inter-Asian modes of exchange. Over three hundred artists exhibited across ten curated exhibitions, led by Chief Curator, the tall, rangy, imposing figure of Diana Campbell Betancourt, (also the Artistic Director of the Samdani Art Foundation) and 12 guest curators from internationally famous museums, and over one hundred and twenty speakers from all over the world participating in sixteen panel discussions and two symposiums to showcase future developments of art in South Asia within the region’s rich, yet lesser-known, past. The DAS, held every two years, aims to craft a more generative space for art. Through its interdisciplinary programs, with collaborative group exhibitions and experimental writing initiatives, as well as film and talk programs, the Summit concentrated its efforts in unlocking new areas of inquiry for art and architecture connected to South Asia. For the art connoisseur,  a whole think-tanked museum-filled art-space; for the lakhs of visitors, given free entry,  a chance to come to terms with the visual and the aural; for the international auctioneers to get newer choices into their viewfinder.

Behind this extravaganza is the moving force of two committed individuals, the charming collector couple − Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani who have helmed the Dhaka Art Foundation, a private arts trust.  Their opulence is revealed in a phenomenal personal collection of a couple of thousand Indian, Bangladeshi and European art housed in an equally sumptuous, but tasteful home called Golpo, in Dhaka, but their commitment could be seen through the hectic, event-filled days of the summit, always accessible, although this time requiring their PR agency, London-based Pelham to structure interviews.

While we were at an invitational dinner at Golpo, we could gawk at the marvellous collections in the presence of many top artists, curators and the Who’s Who in the art world. Whether it was a chat with Subodh Gupta over his pricey quirky installations, or with the dashing Gaurav Bhatia, the newly minted managing director of Sotheby’s, India; the convivial presence of Experimenter couple Prateek and Priyanka Raja from Calcutta, who are about to open their second gallery in this city, or the gracious host Nadia herself, resplendent in a Sana Safinaz gown, attending to each guest—it was like a moving installation, a supercharged soiree. The inclusive bit is the fact that this art from their private collection can be viewed by the general public, by appointment, of course. The South Asian and diaspora collection has works by Gaganendranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore, Anish Kapoor, Huma Bhabha, Naeem Mohaiemen, Rana Begum, Raqs Media Collective, Shilpa Gupta, Shahzia Sikander, Novera Ahmed, and Zarina Hashimi. Their international collections include works by Lynda Benglis, Chris Ofili, Alighiero Boetti, Paul Klee, Ettore Spalletti, Cindy Sherman, Marina Abramovic, Ai Weiwei, Pawel Althamer, Mona Hatoum, Philippe Parreno, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Cardiff and Miller, and Anthony McCall.

Speaking to Nadia, she is looking beyond the DAS to Syhlet, where the couple hail from, where a  large part of the works will be installed at Srihatta – the Samdani Art Centre and Sculpture Park opening its first phase in late 2018 which professes to be the first contemporary art institution in Bangladesh.

We witnessed the ceremony of the Samdani Art Award, Bangladesh's premier art award, an internationally recognised platform to showcase the work of young Bangladeshi Artists to an audience of international arts professionals. Through the Samdani Art Award exhibition, which forms part of the program at the Dhaka Art Summit, many of the previously shortlisted artists have gained recognition and been selected to participate in various international exhibitions and residencies. The awards are done in partnership with the Delfina Foundation, London and the winner receives an all-expenses paid, six-week residency at the Delfina. It has been said that a residency there can be a career-defining moment for an artist to develop their ideas, sharpen their practice, and widen their networks.

What kind of costs are we looking at? Two million dollars, we are told to get a summit of this magnitude going. More than this, it has become a kind of artistic pilgrimage for the aficionado.

To give it the gilt-edged compliment it deserves, one can only quote Bunty Chand, the Director of Asia Society, India calling the Dhaka Art Summit as having “set the gold standard for the visual arts in South Asia.”

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