Dhaka Art Summit 2020: Bangladeshi artists shine at the event’s third edition

Samsul Alam Helal, ‘Runaway Lovers’. Image courtesy of the artist

The 2020 Dhaka Art Summit, which took place last week at the Shilpakala Academy in the city’s university district, centred on the notion of “seismic movements” – whether geological, colonial, feminist, revolutionary, social or spatial – attracting half a million visitors, more than ever before.

The goal was to use the theme to subvert rigid histories of the nation state and imperialism. “Seismic movements do not adhere to statist or nationalist frameworks,” said director Diana Campbell Betancourt. “They join and split apart tectonics of multiples scales and layers; their epicentres don’t privilege historical imperial centres over the so-called peripheries; they can accumulate slowly or violently erupt in an instant.”

Her hope is that the theme will resonate beyond the individual artworks and exhibits, generating a movement outside the confines of the event. “Too much attention is paid to showing things via exhibitions, rather than the careful consideration and nurturing of the conditions that are necessary for great art to be created,” she said.

Artists – more than 500 of them, across art, craft, architecture and design – came from around the world including Argentinian sculptor Adrián Villar Rojas, 2019 Frieze Artist award winner Himali Singh Soin from Delhi, Nigeria-born, Antwerp-based Otobong Nkanga and Brazilian artist Clarissa Tossin.

Rojas showed an immersive work, New Mutants, an underground experience that encouraged the audience to consider the passage of time on a geological scale as they walked over a marble floor encrusted with 400-million-year-old fossils, surrounded by rammed earth walls. Singh Soin’s work intersects between colonial and geological movements: her magical realist film ‘we are opposite like that’, made in remote parts of the Arctic and Antarctic, is a story told from the perspective of a melting fossil, which has seen change over centuries.

Nkanga extended her ongoing Landversation project to Bangladesh, after iterations in Brazil, Lebanon and China – interrogating through a variety of works how humans inhabit the land, during a month-long residency. Tossin assessed the contradictions between our desire for space travel and environmental destruction on earth, weaving together satellite images of deforestation in Brazil with Amazon.com boxes.

Himali Singh Soin, ‘we are opposite like that polar futurisms’, 2017-2019. Courtesy of the artist

Himali Singh Soin, ‘we are opposite like that polar futurisms’, 2017-2019. Courtesy of the artist

At its core, though, the event remained grounded in its roots, with a healthy showing of works by Bangladeshi artists. These ranged from established figures such as painter, writer and filmmaker Murtaja Baseer and the late mid-century painter Zainul Abedin, to emerging practitioners such as installation and performance artist Yasmin Jahan Nupur and photographer Munem Wasif. The local focus was reflected in the attendance. “Most of our visitors are local,” Betancourt says. “The immense amount of local traction is what enables the summit to be what it is.”

Dhali Al Mamoon, ‘While They Came – 1’, 2017, tea, indigo and pencil lead on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Photographer Samsul Alam Helal used sound, video, and sculpture to expose the displacement of more than 100,000 indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts area in southeastern Bangladesh, owing to the building of a dam in 1962. Ashfika Rahman explored issues of police violence, rape and religious extremism through varying mediums, including 19th century printmaking, photography, and contemporary media.

Dhali Al Mamoon explored the self through history through drawings, paintings, sculptures and installations, using indigo and tea as materials to reference the British East India Company’s colonial presence. Meanwhile, photographer Habiba Nowrose used photography to investigate gender identity and human companionship.

Habiba Nowrose, ‘Life Of A Venus’, 2019, Photography. Courtesy of the artist.

Ashfika Rahman, ‘The Last Audience’, 2016, photography. Courtesy of the artist.

The thriving architecture scene of Bangladesh was the focus of a major feature in Clove Issue 01. At this year’s Dhaka Art Summit, the exhibition Muzharul Islam: Surfacing Intention, took this as its starting point, asking 17 international artists to respond to the work of an architect who inspired a generation. Among them was London-based artist Rana Begum, who created a participatory installation of thousands of fingerprints of those who put work into the Dhaka Art Summit in order to celebrate collectivity and the hands-on work of many.

Betancourt pointed to this element of the summit as typical of its approach: “There needs to be a movement around protecting the legacy of this brilliant architect, and that movement needs to be lead by Bangladeshis who can access the materials in its primary language. It’s not just about the show, but about what it can do to catalyse work within the field.”

Left: Shezad Dawood, ‘University of NonDualism’, 2020, installation with painted textiles and programmed lighting sequence, musical score by patten. Commissioned for DAS 2020, supported by the Bagri Foundation. Courtesy of the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary. Photo: Randhir Singh. Right: Rana Begum, ‘No.972 Wall Painting’, 2019-2020, ink and fingerprints on wall. Commissioned for DAS 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary.