Mulling Over Art: Bangladesh’s Dhaka Art Summit, growing platform for former colonial subjects

Running from the 7th to 15th of February, the just ended and fifth edition of the Dhaka Art Summit 2020 in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka dubbed ‘Seismic Movements’ (DAS 2020) brought together an international gathering of artists, curators, art historians, critics, thinkers and collectors. 

Spanning four floors at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy which is also the home of the Bangladesh National Gallery, the event was free to the public and attracted 477,157 visitors in nine just days.

Initiated by the Samdani Art Foundation, the bi-annual event usually focuses on South Asian art and architecture, but this year’s episode featured thoroughly curated, research-based exhibitions from across what is called the Global South, previously known as the Third World as some may argue.

Farooq Sobhan, the chairman of the summit’s organising committee stated “We have participants from as far as Mali, Zambia, Argentina, Barbados, New Zealand and many other countries with contexts that resonates with the challenges we face in Bangladesh”.
“Dhaka Art Summit is a beautiful example of a private/public partnership and what is possible when private foundations with a public mandate (such as the Samdani Art Foundation) come together with the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, ICT Division and Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy” stated Sobhan, a former diplomat and current President and CEO of the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI), an independent research institute for the development of the private sector in Bangladesh.

Apart from a lavish opening dinner and cocktail at the 5-Star InterContinental Dhaka, over the course of 10 days, summit participants got to mix and mingle with Dhaka’s glitterati and art collectors who outdid each other hosting a series of dinners and collection viewings. Among them were the Samdani Art Foundation founders Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, Durjoy Rahman founder of Durjoy Bangladesh and Aisha and Shahab Sattar.

While the event endeavoured to provoke visitors and participants to reconsider (art) histories, movement, borders and fault lines, it focused on one broad theme: “what is a movement and how do we ignite one beyond the confines of an art exhibition?”

Diana Campbell Betancourt, the Artistic Director of the Samdani Art Foundation, who was also Chief Curator of the summit and worked with other curators, artists, and academics to organise the event, stated the summit connected widely across the Global South based on shared struggles rather than current geopolitical definitions.

Her Curatorial Notation, proposed: “Inspired by the geological reading of the word ‘summit’ as the top of a mountain, ‘Seismic Movements: Dhaka Art Summit 2020’ (DAS 2020) considers the various ruptures that have realigned and continue to shift the face of our spinning planet. Seismic movements do not adhere to statist or nationalist frameworks. They join and split apart tectonics of multiple scales and layers; their epicentres don’t privilege historical imperial centres over the so-called peripheries; they can slowly accumulate or violently erupt in an instant.”

According Campbell Betancourt DAS 2020 touches not only upon geological movements, but colonial movements, independence movements, social movements and feminist futures, spatial movements, “the conditions that move us to act and the power that comes with moving collectively”. 

“We do not just consider forms of artistic production, but also forms of institutional production that enable artistic practices and pedagogies, generating new vocabularies of social organisation and building better ways to create and live together. What do the stirrings of a movement feel like and how do we learn from the experience of living through one?”

Campbell Betancourt also proposed that the summit was “about shaking up our understanding of the present and the past, creating opportunities to come together and make and write (art) history from new perspectives, trying to give a voice to the people who are not in the most dominant positions to be heard.”

She hoped the summit will widen its view to look at historical layers of connectivity across Asia, Africa, and the Indian Ocean, becoming a platform where former colonial subjects can come together without a western intermediary to imagine new features from Dhaka inspired by similar utopian movements of the past.

Correspondingly, Nadia Samdani the Director of the Dhaka Art Summit and Co-Founder of the Samdani Art Foundation stated that the summit “has grown from an inkling of an idea in 2012 into a globally respected platform five editions later – a platform where we are able to come together and see the world outside of ‘narrow domestic walls’ and to find new ways to connect with each other through the power of art”.
Samdani further stated that “today – we feel that the art produced in Bangladesh, and also is South and Southeast Asia, Central and South America, Africa, Oceania, the Arab World (i.e. the global majority world – more people live here than Europe and North America) is incredibly powerful, yet the world lacks enough platforms outside of commercial or soft-power channels to make this work visible to audiences that have so much to learn from it”.
The Dhaka Art Summit also hosts the Samdani Art Award exhibition which features 12 emerging Bangladeshi artists under the age of 40. The award comes with a six-week, fully funded residency at the Delfina Foundation in London and the winner of the prize is selected by an international jury, this year the award went to Soma Surovi Jannat.
Running simultaneously with the summit at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy was a new research project entitled Modern Art Histories in and across Africa, South and Southeast Asia (MAHASSA) which brought together a team of leading international faculty and emerging scholars to investigate parallel and intersecting developments in the cultural histories of modern Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.

* The author, Andrew Mulenga was part of the MAHASSA team in his individual capacity as an Art Historian from Zambia. His trip was made possible through the generous sponsorship of the Dhaka Art Summit (Bangladesh) in collaboration with the Institute for Comparative Modernities (ICM) at Cornell University (USA), and Asia Art Archive, with support from the Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories initiative.

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