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From making phantasmagorical journeys to constructing mirage houses, many artists at the fourth edition of the Dhaka Art Summit explore the tension between habitation and displacement. Kurchi Dasgupta writes from Bangladesh.

Between the 2nd and the 10th of February, the Shilpakala Academy in Dhaka hosted the fourth edition of the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) that showcased South Asian art along with conducting critical conversations about its place in the current global art ecology. The DAS was curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt, primarily funded by the Samdani Art Foundation and held in a public-private partnership with the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, the country’s National Academy of Fine and Performing Arts, with the support of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and Ministry of Information. Featuring a range of works like the vermillion-red bamboo scaffolding titled Rite/Right of Passage (2016-18) erected by Karachi-born Rasheed Araeen; the delicate, basket weave of Budapest-born Yona Friedman’s Museum of Simple Technology; murals by Oti Shamprotik Amra and exhaustive surveys of Bangladesh’s journey through modernism into the contemporary in Expression of Time, the DAS came across as overwhelming in range and scale.

The 13-panel mural Abahoman Bangla Bangali (The Flows of Bengal and the Bengali) by Oti Shamprotik Amra that depict the history of Bengal until the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, and was part of Bangladesh-India Friendship Fest in 1972, belonged to the show An Inferno Bearing Gifts. The show also had Zuleikha Chaudhuri’s Rehearsing the Witness: The Bhawal Court Case (2016-18) that intersects the legal, the archival and the performative and Zihan Karim’s Various Ways of Departure (2017) that weaves together the country’s multiple musical and spiritual traditions into a narrative of resistance through video and sound. These works fell under the larger rubric of Bearing Points, which was curated by Campbell Betancourt. Bearing Points, like the points on a compass, ran us through a range of contemporary themes. I found her choice of title intriguing. For bearings are always measured in relation to the North on a compass, and DAS overtly “seeks to create a space for artists on the periphery of a Western-dominated art historical discourse” even while repositioning Bangladesh within the current regional hierarchy.

Installation view of Studies in Form

Installation view of Studies in Form by Seher Shah and Randhir Singh. 2017-18. Commissioned and produced by Samdani Art Foundation for Dhaka Art Summit 2018. Courtesy of the artists and Nature Morte.

Bearing Points shows artists from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand and this diversity is best reflected in There Once Was A Village Here, which is driven by a sense of resistance to dominant ideologies. It is also driven by a desire to open up spaces for less recognized artists. Raqib Shaw is an exception, and his opulent installation comprising 13 sets of historical artefact and artwork displays and two paintings are presented against the lush backdrop of an equally mesmerising wallpaper in what is termed as Shaw’s first major exposition in South Asia. The Adoration (2015-16)and Kashmir Danae (2017) are trademarkShaw pieces created in enamel and acrylic on birchwood. They seem like phantasmagorical journeys to the lost Kashmir of his memory and intertwine and subvert preconceptions pivoted on the ideas of the East and the West – they dutifully blend the real, the surreal and the mythical. Outside stand starker works like those of Veer Munshi’s video Leaves Like Hands of Flame (2010) on the mass exodus of Hindu pandits of Kashmir in the 1990s and Nilima Sheikh’s magical, casein tempera-painted, double-sided canvas scroll Construction Site (2010).

The show also featured charcoal drawings by Prabhakar Pachpute and visual documentations of the ‘cultural DNA’ of North-Eastern India by Pablo Bartholomew. Bangladesh’s Munem Wasif’s cyanotypes explored the cultural history of food grains against the history of colonisation, whereas Hitman Gurung presented portraits of bandaged, indigenous Tharu people of Nepal in This is My Home, My Land and My Country (2015). Soe Yue Nwe’s haunting ceramic sculpture On Ghost (2016) bore the burden of a militarized Buddhism in Myanmar, opposite which was a series of paintings based on an incident of persecution of Buddhists in Bangladesh by Kanank Chanpa Chakma of Rangamati. And then we came upon The Outlaw’s Flag (2017) of imaginary countries by Thailand’s Jakkai Siributr. Created by a process of embroidering detritus from the beaches of Sittwe in Myanmar and Ranong in Thailand – respectively departure and arrival points of fleeing Rohingya refugees – the flags hung in front of a video documenting the supposedly idyllic beaches. There Once Was A Village Here was my favourite work, swing as it did between multiple, eliding perspectives that often ran into each other like waves.

Installation view

Installation view of Raqib Shaw’s works at the Dhaka Art Summit. Co-curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt and Maria Balshaw. 2018. Courtesy of the artist, White Cube, the Whitworth, Bangladesh National Museum and Samdani Art Foundation. Photograph by Pablo Bartholomew.

Residence Time focused on the plight of the migrant. Singaporean Charles Lim’s video Sea State VI (2015) caught the dark reality of migrant Bangladeshi labourers working in Jurong Rock Caverns, a liquid hydrocarbon storage facility in Singapore, while Nepal’s Subas Tamang’s I Want To Die in My own House (2017) brought us portraits of his parents carved onto slate roof tiles that evoked the mirage of owning a home of one’s own even as they laboured to build others’. Kamruzzaman Shadhin’s monumental wall-piece Haven is Elsewhere (2017-18) was made of sewn clothes belonging to displaced people in Bangladesh. The work was further charged by recitations by members of the Bengali Migrant Poetry forum of Singapore.

Politics: The Most Architectural Thing To Do set off a conversation around the politics of built-up spaces, and included Seher Shah and Randhir Singh’s commissioned solo project Studies in Form (2017-18) comprising cyanotypes that explored the contradictions between the visionary and the material in public architecture. On a similar vein, the idea of architecture as ‘both a bearer of place and language’ inspired Planetary Planning, curated by Devika Singh. It explored ‘notions of world making that have been articulated from and in South Asia’ and included Zarina Hashmi’s The Ten Thousand Things III (2016), Pakistani artist Lala Rukh’s Nightscape (2011) and Mirror Image (2011), Istanbul artist Hera Büyüktascıyan’s lyrical collages and photographs and Bangladeshi artist Ayesha Sultana’s Threshold Series (2012-13) consisting of scratched photographs of landscapes and monuments.

Cosmin Costinas, Director of Para Site, Hong Kong, had taken on the herculean task of curating A Beast, A God, A Line that unplugged the Asia Pacific from conventional political amplifiers and brought us a glimpse of “connections and circulations of ideas across a geography with Bengal at its core”. Finding space for 45 artists from places as diverse as Hong Kong, UAE, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, Mongolia, Philippines, Bangladesh, Singapore, Hawaii, Madagascar, Indonesia, Cambodia and Nepal, the exhibition traced trajectories across borders and time, weaving the region together through cultural resonances and commonalities in histories. It was a brilliant, necessary effort and a laudable one, but one which inherently questioned its own expanse. That it will be travelling to other parts of the world bears witness to its success as a survey. In contrast, when the spotlight was trained on Sri Lanka alone through One Hundred Thousand Small Tales curated by Sharmini Pereira, the effect was astounding and brought us a lucid art historical narrative of the country through instances of some extraordinary art-making. The show comprised cartoons, paintings on shaped wooden boards, sculptures, installations created from found materials, architectural models, printed books, maps and videos (one even from the 1930s).

There were also live, unrecorded performances by Neha Choksi, Ayesha Jatoi and the bauls of Kushtia. The array of expositions and experiences that ran parallel to the main exhibitions was quite large, like the Runa Islam-led Volcano Extravaganza:Total Anastrophes, as well as a full-fledged film screening programme and the Samdani Art Award that went to Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury.

The DAS entered its fourth edition this year and successfully incorporated 300 artists and 120 speakers from across the globe. This was facilitated by more than a dozen curators of international repute. Apart from the exhibitions and performances, it also hosted a symposium that re-evaluated the seminal contributions made by A K Coomaraswamy (curated by Shabbir Hussain Mustafa) and a talks programme that interrogated the contemporary art climate through the lens of decolonization, internationalism and the Global South. Last but not least, a critical writing ensemble Sovereign Words convened artists, poets, story-tellers, and scholars of Indigenous communities to reflect upon the “words, writing forms, spaces and processes through which Indigenous artistic practices, their histories and contact points with the Western canon, have been and should be, counter-narrated today”. Theoretician Gayatri Spivak delivered a searing and very engaging closing keynote address on the subject on the penultimate evening of DAS. One cannot but appreciate the assiduity with which all printed texts were made available in both Bangla and English, which makes self-evident its commitment to the local alongside the global. More than 3,17,000 visitors from all walks of life experienced the event. All said, it seems that the Dhaka Art Summit is poised to be a key player in turning the compass needle from the North to the South in the coming years.