Interest of the art world in the emerging scenes and markets is stirring up a lot of excitement before the 4-day Dhaka Art Summit opens on Friday 5th February 2016, CoBo talks to Diana Campbell Betancourt, Chief-Curator of the Summit.
TEXT: Selina Ting (Editor-in-Chief, CoBo)
PHOTO: Courtesy of Dhaka Art Summit
It took the Dhaka Art Summit three editions to reach its international scale and reputation. The remarkable growth and success of the event coincides with the rapid rise of the region’s economic power. As the art world is forever in the hunt for emerging art scenes, curators are competing to be the first to champion the next Picasso from Asia, while collectors and galleries are expanding their vision beyond the geographical boundaries to gain their first grasp on the region. The South Asian art scene itself, which is characterised by innovation with a strong root in the traditional cultures, is also showing its willingness to participate in a global discourse around the fast-evolving art world.
The founder of the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS), Nadia Samdani, who also co-founded the Samdani Art Foundation with her husband Rajeeb Samdani, is a visionary in this respect. The Bangladeshi collectors-couple launched the DAS in 2012 with the idea of bringing the world to Dhaka to discover the young art scene in the region. The event proved to be the best international platform for the artists and galleries from the region. Yet quick enough, since the second edition, the Samdanis delegated the curatorial directorship to Diana Campbell Betancourt and a team of international professionals and thinkers who helped to shape the DAS into a reflective platform on transnationalism and pluralism, as well as on the future of a more inclusive and globalized art world. This year, the DAS gathers nearly 300 artists, curators, writers and others – mostly from Bangladesh – in the 4-day presentation of a series of new commissions, group exhibitions, talks, performances, film programmes and debates.
Even though the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) positions itself as a non-commercial museum survey of South Asian Art, interest of the art world in the emerging scenes and markets is stirring up a lot of excitement before the 4-day Dhaka Art Summit opens on Friday 5th February 2016, in view till 8th February in the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy.
CoBo talks to Diana Campbell Betancourt, Chief Curator of DAS, to find out what to expect from the 4 days of intense art manifestation.
The Dhaka Art Summit is hosted in Dhaka biennially but it’s intended to be regional if not international. Is the event focusing on any cultural specificities or rather on South Asia as a collective phenomenon?
First of all, the Dhaka Art Summit is not a biennale. It happens every two years, but we see it as a pop up museum for four days. We invite many curators from different backgrounds and we come up with many themes instead of having just one unique theme. I think the overarching theme is “art related to South Asia” which are the countries as well as the Diaspora and international artists who might have spent some years in South Asia. We also collaborate with international museums. For example, we have Aurélien Lemonier, curator from Centre Pompidou, curating the Architecture in Bangladesh exhibit; Nada Raza from Tate Modern curating The Missing One, Katya García-Antón from Office for Contemporary Art Norway) curating the Critical Writing Ensemble, etc.
We don’t want to flatten out culture by saying that there is one culture of South Asia or one type of South Asian art. I think that could be dangerous. We are more interested in showing good artists than good South Asian artists. We have nearly 300 local and international artists, writers and curators in the summit, we are trying to show the many facets of the talented voices.
To give you an idea, the Samdani Art Award which is curated by Daniel Baumann (Director of the Kunsthalle Zurich), has received around 300 applications from Bangladesh and the curator selected final 13 nominees, 11 artists are from Dhaka and two from the southern city Chittagong. So that show is a discovery of the Bangladeshi young generation, kind of a snapshot in time of the best of the local art scene. Our Bangladeshi colleague, Md. Muniruzzaman, is curating Soul Searching, which gathers 52 artists to look at the roots of Bangladeshi art and folk culture. So these two are the only shows that are focusing on local artists. The other exhibits have a stronger intergenerational and cross-regional mix and that’s the direction we are trying to take.
Compare to the two previous editions, is there a progression through which the Summit develops its structure? Is it becoming more in-depth or more expansive?
The first Summit was entirely local-based and Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani planned the event in three months on their own. The 2014 Summit was the first time that it took a South Asian focus and that’s the one that I started working on. This summit, we have appointed all the curators and we started to look at it as a research platform, i.e. what all the curators are doing will stay with them and radiates into different projects in different regions. In other words, this summit is much more about thinking an alternative ways of thinking, whereas the other two were about setting up the structure.
Condensing such a diverse program into four days is very intense. What should we expect on first arrival to the Summit, to the art and the region when we knew so little about the art scene here?
Well, I think you will be positively surprised by what you see. A lot of the works in show are new commissions and site-specific based on the building. Some of them are quite large scale. One reasons being that the import tax on art in Bangladesh is 120%. So, we actually produced a lot of the works here. From a curatorial perspective, it’s not as easy as selecting pieces and shipping them here, but it’s also very exciting and I believe the artists enjoy it. If we consider the fact that many biennales don’t pay for productions nowadays, while here in DAS, we are still able to help artists realizing their ideas and financing the productions.
To help visitors approach the works and the exhibitions, we also produced a very comprehensive digital and printed guide that is available for everyone for free. Last edition we welcomed 70,000 visitors and this year we are expecting 130,000 in 4 days. We don’t charge admission fees, as we really want to provide a platform for the public, both local and international.
I think having only four days gives people an urgency to visit the shows. Also, the other reason is the cost. The Summit costs over US$2 million to produced and the Samdani Art Foundation is funding 90% of it. We really can’t afford the extra days of installation teams, equipment rental or security, it’s just too much.
One point that’s very important to note is that the summit is not a collection building strategy for the Samdani. There are only nine artists in the whole show that come from the Samdani collection and usually that’s because we can’t otherwise… For example, the central piece in Nada Raza’s show was a work by Gaganendranath Tagore, who is a really important modern figure in South Asian art. His works are national treasures in India and they are non-exportable. Basically we have the only collection of these works in Bangladesh, if someone wants to show with us, the only way to get that is to come to the collection. Other than this, we really try to keep the two very separate.
How is the socio-political environment in Bangladesh for contemporary art? Is it difficult for the artists or is it relatively liberal?
Relative to India, it is much more liberal, for the arts at least. For example, we had a project with the Raqs Media Collective, where they did an intervention on over 160 road signs and billboards and we had one sign in Bangla that said “electric orgasm” in public space. We had no problem with that, whereas in India, that would be torn down in a day. So, in terms of freedom of speech and culture, I think people take that freedom very seriously, and they protect it as well. Bangladesh is a secular country and it prides itself on that.
But it’s true that when people think of Bangladesh, people would say, “oh, Islamic country, no nudes…”. Bangladesh is a secular country and if you look at the modern art from the region, it’s extremely nude-heavy. You are not seeing geometric style “Islamic” art over here, it is very different. That said, we are being extremely careful about trying not to have works that offend anyone’s religion, though we have works that deal with sexuality… I don’t think it’s a specific Bangladesh situation, I think that’s something that people would be careful about anywhere.
In the previous two editions, the DAS also included a gallery section which features local galleries. Can you share with us your observations on the art market in the region? Is there a market or an infrastructure to support the artists? How do people look at the art scene here from a more market-oriented point of view?
There are not so many local collectors for contemporary art unfortunately. That’s why it’s really important to have international people coming here, because otherwise the artists would not be able to support themselves as full-time artists.
In the previous two editions, local galleries were invited to participate for free so that international art lovers can discover the local scene in a more effective way, and the galleries can also help to promote the DAS. According to CNN, we have the worst traffic in the world. So, it’s just a way to facilitate our visitors meeting the galleries and learning about their programs. This year, we are giving the local galleries free space in the venue so they can show introduce their artists to the international people.
I think it’s interesting that international galleries such as Marian Goodman Gallery, Esther Schipper Gallery, Lisson Gallery, etc. are coming to visit the DAS. Some Indian and Pakistani galleries are also coming. Last time, some galleries even signed up artists that they discovered in the DAS. We are also very excited that art fairs such as Art Dubai, Frieze, and I think someone from Art Basel too, are coming to Dhaka. So, the fact that art fairs and galleries are coming here for research, even though we are not an art fair and nothing is for sale, is a sign that they do think there is marketable art here. I know that there already are a lot of galleries in India that show at international art fairs, but that’s a new thing for Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. As more people become interested, things start moving in that direction.
I think it’s great that there are so many different voices in the summit. Something that I think is very unique is this collective energy that the summit has. And we want to keep that energy by offering to the public a great show.
Diana Campbell Betancourt, Artistic Director
Diana Campbell Betancourt is an American curator based in Mumbai and working across South Asia for the last five years. She is the Artistic Director of the Samdani Art Foundation in Dhaka and the Chief Curator of the Dhaka Art Summit for the 2014 and 2016 editions. Betancourt’s research interests lie in rethinking cross-cultural encounters in public space, and rethinking what public space might mean. In addition to running the Foundation’s exhibitions and international exchange programs, she is building the Samdani Art Foundation collection ahead of the opening of a permanent space in Sylhet, Bangladesh slated for 2018. Betancourt has collaborated with sculpture parks around the world contributing to new commissions of Indian art at institutions including Yorkshire Sculpture Park, deCordova Sculpture Park, and Wånas Konst. Betancourt co-curated “Energy Plus,” the Mumbai City Pavilion for the 9th Shanghai Biennale and was a curatorial advisor for the 2015 New Museum Triennial in New York. Betancourt is a Henry Moore Institute Fellow for 2015-2016, curator in residence at the FRAC Champagne-Ardenne and a research fellow at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum for 2016.
Selina TING (Editor-in-Chief of CoBo)
With a unique cultural background equally immersed in both Eastern and Western traditions, Selina is a curator and a specialist in contemporary art with over 10 years of professional experiences both in Asia and Europe. Stationed in Paris and Brussels between 2004 – 2014, she has a network traversing the Chinese, Asian and Western art world. In the last 5 years, she was Editor-in-Chief of initiArt Magazine, Whitewall Magazine (China Version). Selina has published extensively on her research projects as well as on general issues regarding art and culture. Selina is currently Editor-in-Chief of CoBo, the first Asia community platform for collectors.
Instagram : @selinating