On the second morning of the Dhaka Art Summit, the largest non-commercial art event in South Asia held from February 5-8, Bangladesh’s Parliament building saw what must have been the largest (and certainly best dressed) group of visitors in its history. Curators, artists, gallerists and journalists – probably 100 people in all – who had flown in from around the world for the summit, had come to see the interior of what is probably Bangladesh’s best-known monument, the magnum opus of the great Russian-American modernist architect Louis Kahn.

From the outside, the primary impression of the Parliament building is of bulk – a wan grey concrete block, cross-hatched by strips of marble, huddled low on one of relatively few open spaces in this crumpled cardboard box of a city. Inside, it is immense yet prayerful, abstract yet familiar – its cathedral grandeur directing your eyes and spirit not toward god, but inward. It encourages an introspective sense of democracy; the building, like Kahn himself, is eternally idealistic.

Begun in 1962 as a centrepiece for the auxiliary capital in East Pakistan, and completed 20 years later as a capitol complex for the newly-liberated nation of Bangladesh, the building, which appears on the pages of Bangladeshi passports and on the national currency, is perhaps the country’s closest thing to a national monument.

Labour of love

Kashef Chowdhury – a Dhaka-based architect whose work I’ve written on in the past and who was among the eight contemporary architects featured in the summit’s outstanding architecture exhibition (curated by Aurelien Lemonier, architecture curator for the Centre Pompidou in Paris), told me: “People here identify with these spaces.”

Yet, for the most part, the outside world knows little about them. I had the good fortune of going around Dhaka with Chowdhury two years earlier, and so knew at least something of its rich culture of contemporary architecture. At the Parliament that morning, watching this worldly, elegant crowd (which included representatives from 71 major museums and arts institutions around the world) wandering slack-jawed and wide-eyed through those towering geometries in what must be one of the world’s most unprepossessing cities, was in itself a kind of performance art.

Though Dhaka hosted the region’s first Biennial in 1981, and hosts Asia’s largest photography festival, the Chobi Mela, the kind of international attention that the Samdani Foundation – the non-profit organisation that created the art summit in 2012 and organised it this year for the third time – has brought to Dhaka has never been a given. People in Dhaka may well identify with spaces like Kahns, as Chowdhury says, but the rest of the world still does not identify Bangladesh with triumphs of contemporary art and design.

Foundation trustee Rajeeb Samdani’s presence at the Parliament building that morning – helping the team of summit volunteers to herd awe-struck outsiders through the building – demonstrated the extent to which the summit is truly a labor of love, a matter of personal investment, rather than merely a financial one.

Something to prove

Bangladesh has had its share of political issues, among them recent attacks on journalists and foreigners that inspired half-a-dozen of my own acquaintances to warn me against going near anyone carrying a machete (sound advice in most places, as far as I’m concerned).

Dhaka is an exceptionally difficult city to navigate, so guests of the summit had their schedules pretty closely managed. We were shuttled between our hotels and the summit venue at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, invited for dinners and cocktail parties (this is the art world, after all), and granted access to the obligatory VIP lounge – ironically placed adjacent to Burmese artist Po Po’s masterful photo and video installation, VIP Project, which quietly eviscerates VIP cultures in Burma and Bangladesh.

Despite this, the overwhelming impression of the summit was neither hermetic nor rarefied, but rather joyous, free-wheeling and democratic, without being pandering or populist. When, in a talk on her installation Museum of Chance, Delhi-based photographer Dayanita Singh said, “we need to go back to the dissemination part of photography,” it seemed very much in keeping with the spirit of an event that was not only entirely free, but that, in the course of just four days, attracted 138,000 visitors, including 2,500 children from local schools.

Dayanita Singh with visitors (Photo credit: Noor Photoface | Courtesy: DAS)
Dayanita Singh with visitors (Photo credit: Noor Photoface | Courtesy: DAS)

Shanay Jhaveri, who curated the summit’s film program and who was recently appointed assistant curator, South Asia, under the department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, told me that other art events – like Documenta or the Venice Biennale or Frieze, for instance – have extended histories, “so people are being told how to interact with them.” At Dhaka, that is palpably not the case.

The works on display at the summit never condescended to their audiences. They were challenging, often political, and in some cases quite confrontational. The big story out of the summit was the Chinese ambassador’s angry insistence on the removal of the installation Last Words by artists Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, which consisted of the final letters written by Tibetan self-immolators. The curators chose to cover the work, rather than remove it, a concession to political exigencies. But it became a powerful visual statement in its own right, transforming the work from one about a specific protest to one about censorship more broadly. But to focus on just that would be to ignore the summit’s subtler triumphs.

Vivan Sundaram viewing Rasel Chowdhury works. (Photo credit: Noor Photoface | Courtesy: DAS)
Vivan Sundaram viewing Rasel Chowdhury works. (Photo credit: Noor Photoface | Courtesy: DAS)

Accessible art

Groups of school children looked closely at images from a series called Inner Face by the young Bangladeshi photographer, Gazi Nafis Ahmed, which depict with exceptional warmth, humanity, and intimacy members of Dhaka’s queer community. Teenagers chatted excitedly as they attempted to make sense of installations in the Nikhil Chopra-curated performance pavilion. Families lined up to wear heavy goggles, headphones, and black sacks over their heads in an installation by another Bangladeshi photographer, Shumon Ahmed, titled Land of the Free, which simulated the aural and visual experience of containment in Guantanamo. Across the main gallery from Ahmed’s installation, another line snaked out of the enclosure that contained a geometrically padded room that was the setting for a sound installation by Pakistani artist Haroon Mirza. It’s worth noting here that customs laws being what they are, bringing artworks from India or Pakistan into Bangladesh requires sending them via the Middle East, which might give a sense of how complicated an endeavour the art summit is.

Visitors with Haroon Mirza (Photo credit: Noor Photoface | Courtesy DAS)
Visitors with Haroon Mirza (Photo credit: Noor Photoface | Courtesy DAS)
Student with Bagyi Aung Soe (Photo credit: Noor-Photoface | Courtesy: DAS)
Student with Bagyi Aung Soe (Photo credit: Noor-Photoface | Courtesy: DAS)

Architecture students, who otherwise have limited access to venues presenting architectural exhibitions, were able to see, assembled in one room, an impressive edit of models, images, and archival sketches from some of the best architects working in Dhaka – indeed, in South Asia – today.

The Rewind exhibition gathered works by South Asian artists working before 1980, notably skipping the obvious reference points of figures like Hussain and Gaitonde in favor of works by lesser known artists, exhibiting drawings by the Burmese master Bagyi Aung Soe and several exceptional works by Pakistani painter Zahoor Ul Akhlaq, among others.

Photo credit: Nivriti Roddam
Photo credit: Nivriti Roddam

The group shows – curated by the Samdani foundation’s artistic director, Diana Campbell Betancourt, and Nada Raza, an assistant curator of South Asian art at the Tate Modern in London – put works from across the region in dialogue with one another, emphasising both the continuities in artistic concerns and the immense variety in responses to those concerns across a region known, above all else, for its mind-boggling diversity. Campbell described the event as “a pop-up museum” – as apt a description as I can imagine – combining the aesthetic daring of a contemporary art gallery with the effervescent now-or-never energy of a one-night-only theatrical performance.

SM Sultan with women (Photo credit: Noor Photoface | Courtesy: DAS)
SM Sultan with women (Photo credit: Noor Photoface | Courtesy: DAS)

A research platform

“What I find fascinating in Bangladesh, and Dhaka specifically, is that art initiatives are really trying to build their own models and identities,” Diana told me via email shortly before the summit began. “There is a strong sense of individual responsibility. I think this grassroots approach to building a cultural ecosystem is exceptional to the region. People are hungry for culture.”

In the weeks leading up to the summit, I spoke to Nadia Samdani, the foundation’s director. “Before all of this, we had artists, of course, but research was just very difficult,” she said. “There were hardly museums and hardly galleries, except for those in India and Pakistan, so where could people go to find out what’s happening?”

As a research platform, which is its stated intent, the summit provides an exciting opportunity for institutions around the world to explore South Asia’s rich and diverse contemporary artistic output, and more specifically the compelling cultural life of a nation founded, perhaps uniquely, on the basis of language and cultural identity, an identity closely tied to the arts (Bangladeshis are Bengalis, after all). The tour of the Parliament building that morning encapsulated quite effectively this component of the summit’s mission.

But that is, to my mind, the less exciting element of what I saw in Dhaka. If the summit is, indeed, “what’s happening,” then it is cause not just for admiration, but also, perhaps, for optimism, a quiet argument for the viability of broad public engagement with intelligent, measured, and occasionally provocative forms of expression, at a time when that kind of optimism is not so easy to come by.

Photo credit: Nivriti Roddam
Photo credit: Nivriti Roddam