[Review] Dhaka Art Summit 2020 — Jonathan Webster

The first image visitors see at the 5th instalment of the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) is Rashid Talukder’s 1971 photograph of an arms drill by female members of the Chhatra (student’s) Union. After partition in 1947, East Bengal (formerly East Pakistan, modern day Bangladesh) was created, defined along religious lines and firmly under the linguistic, economic, and cultural control of West Pakistan (modern day Pakistan). This photograph, taken during the bloody war that ended in the formation of an independent Bangladesh, is part of a body of work which was instrumental in documenting the resistance, uprisings, and collective action in response to despicable atrocities, including the systematic massacre of intellectuals, by the Pakistan Army. Shahidul Alam described Talukder as ‘the man who had witnessed every major event in Bangladesh’s turbulent history’.[1]

The Dhaka Art Summit is touted as ‘an international, non-commercial research and exhibition platform for art and architecture related to South Asia … with a core focus on Bangladesh’.[2] Funded by the Samdani Art Foundation, a private foundation established in 2011 by industrialists Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, the summit aims to support and increase international exposure for Bangladeshi artists with production grants, residencies, education programs, and exhibitions. Underpinning this aim is an attempt to resist the conventional art world model with Western art and artists at the centre and everywhere and everyone else at the periphery. Instead, Dhaka Art Summit seeks to generate multiple international centres in a globalised art world, built from the rich, yet often ignored (or worse co-opted) art histories outside the canonical Western traditions. At the forefront is Diana Campbell Betancourt, artistic director of Samdani Art Foundation, chair of the board of Mumbai Art Room and chief curator of Dhaka Art Summit. From 2016–2018, the American Betancourt was the artistic director of Bellas Artes Projects in Bagac, Philippines.[3] The Samdani Art Foundation works closely with the Bangladeshi government, in particular through official partnerships with the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, where the summit is held.

The overarching theme of the packed, nine-day programme was ‘seismic movements’, an epithet used as a tool to ‘consider … the various ruptures that have realigned and continue to shift the face of our … planet’.[4] Indeed, the word ‘summit’ itself plays on the dual meaning of the word, not only describing a large gathering, but the topological sense of a mountain’s peak. The programme is rationalised and divided into a series of ‘movements’: geological, 
colonial, independence, 
social, collective, 
spatial, and 
modern, but these are better thought of as individual streams rather than having being subsumed, by way of a fairly tangential link, into a single theme.

Too often, such themed programmes pay lip service to environmentalism, featuring resource-intensive works that ostensibly highlight climate issues, only to be disposed of when the exhibition has run its course, thus undermining the whole project.

The curatorial planning for Dhaka Art Summit 2020, however, began with the Srijan-Abartan (সৃজন-আবর্তন) project. This international, cross-disciplinary research project funded by Pro Helvetia (the Swiss Arts Council) ‘aimed at developing new tools and methodologies for creating culturally rooted, ecologically sustainable, and socially responsible exhibition displays’.[5] The summit put this ethos into action, from a ban on air conditioning in favour of natural ventilation to the five principles for making and unmaking offered to contributing artists:

  1. Approach environmental impact holistically
  2. Work with the building, instead of against it
  3. Minimise, recycle, reuse
  4. Opt for sustainable curatorial strategies
  5. Address actual impact rather than aesthetics of ecology
  6. Improve the building as a lasting collective resource

Unfortunately, Zürich-based Raphael Hefti’s work clearly did not get the memo. His brash and ill-considered performance, Quick Fix Remix, began just a few hours after a discussion on the relationship between exhibitions and climate change, led by members of the Srijan-Abartan research project and supported by Pro Helvetia. Hefti, according to the catalogue edited by Betancourt and Teresa Albor, ‘uses the language of material to communicate a fascination with the behaviour of liquid metals, a material history which is part of the epic story of human civilisation across vast geographies’. Quick Fix Remix involved three people on a mound of sand. Vast plumes of smoke were pumped out into one of the most polluted cities in the world as the performers poured liquid metal into troughs in the sand. What Betancourt and Albor describe as Hefti’s ‘misappropriat[ion of] thermite welding processes typically used to repair high-speed train tracks’, in a country where the Assam-Bengal and Eastern Bengal Railways were built under colonial rule to serve the British-owned tea plantations, showed either a wilful or blissful ignorance of the cultural context of both the work and its ‘language of material’.[6]

fire

However, Hefti’s work only stood out because of the wealth of important art throughout the densely packed summit. With contributions from over 500 artists, an exhaustive review of each movement or strand is not possible. Instead, this review will highlight a few works of personal preference.

Freshly cut flowers sat within one of the many exhibition spaces within the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. Bouquets on plinths, a wreath, and delicate hanging displays appeared vivid within the space. Forming part of Kapwani Kiwanga’s ongoing project Flowers for Africa (2011-), the work was born out of archival images of African independence celebrations, then recreating floral displays found within them, such as the boutonnière worn by Tunisia’s former leader Habib Bourguiba when he addressed the crowd celebrating independence in 1956; and the floral arch built for the independence of Rwanda in 1961. The arrangements were left to wilt over the nine days of the summit. As Kiwanga explains, ‘Just as the enthusiasm present during the period of independence has faded, pan-African dreams have been eclipsed by the everyday difficulties of the average African citizen’.[7] Within the Bangladeshi context, this work takes on additional resonance in demonstrating the entangled colonial histories between Africa and South Asia, a process of brutal creation and destruction, and a legacy that continues to this day.

Thao Nguyen

Thao Nguyen Phan’s three-channel film Mute Grain (2018) skilfully uses lyrical chronicles, beautiful black and white cinematography, chiaroscuro effects, fantastical elements and a haunting soundtrack to tell the story of the 1945 Vietnamese famine during the Japanese occupation of what was then French Indochina, in which more than two million died. Like Kiwanga’s flowers, Phan’s film takes on fresh resonance in a Bangladeshi context. There are clear parallels to the Bengal famine of 1943 that led to the deaths of between two and three million people. Both were man-made disasters precipitated not by any food shortage but were instead the direct consequence of French and British colonial policies.

Munem Wasif’s Spring Song (2017-2019) is the result of a decade of visits to Rohingya refugee camps on the Myanmar–Bangladesh border. Using harrowing texts of the refugees’ journeys to the camps, typography, colonial cartography, and images of objects found at the camp, such as cheroot and Kyat, Spring Song meditates powerfully on displacement and loss. Sutra (2019) uses distorted typography, generated when typing ‘Rohingya’ on a computer without Burmese language programming, as a mirror of Myanmar government campaign to expunge the word ‘Rohingya’ from official discourse, replacing it with ‘Bengali’. The idea of oppression through language was particularly relevant given the history of the Bengali Language Movement. Wasif illuminates the complex networks of oppression imposed on a stateless people, whilst looking to humanise what has become a political issue by communicating through and foregrounding the experiences, memories, and objects of the Rohingya.

Running alongside the exhibitions was a brilliantly conceived programme of talks and seminars, with Condition Report 4: 
Stepping Out of Line; Art Collectives and Translocal Parallelism, a project envisioned by Koyo Kouoh, Marie Helene Pereira,
 and Dulcie Abrahams Altass of RAW Material Company, an art initiative based in Dakar, among the best of them. According to the catalogue, the idea for this collaborative symposium exploring ‘practices and forms of production that take the cooperating, non-hierarchical group as a guiding principle’ blossomed out of Betancourt receiving emails about the art scene in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, rather than Dhaka.[8]

Particularly important was the Histories of Indigenous Resistance and Gender in South Asia and the Pacific session with the Hill Artists’ Group (Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh), the Mata Aho Collective (four Māori women artists from Aotearoa, New Zealand), and the artist Taloi Havini (the Autonomous Region of Bougainville). The panel spoke eloquently of the struggles of existing as indigenous women within institutions, creating visibility and representation through narrative, and carving out space for their work. One valuable debate examined the problems of using the word ‘tradition’ to describe indigenous art, given that it implies something past rather than ongoing and contemporary.

However, due to the close links between the Dhaka Art Summit and the Bangladeshi Government, the panel could not provide a free space for expression for the Hill Artists’ Group. During a panel discussion which took place in a tent outside, near the military security, the representative from the Hill Artists’ Group was speaking through a microphone about how part of their role was to learn how to speak up against those who do not acknowledge them. When asked a further question about this, the Hill Artists’ Group member looked cautiously over to the military representative and said that they could not answer the question. It was a very real instance of the oppression suffered by the indigenous people at the hands of the Bangladeshi Government. A later Instagram story from the official Dhaka Art Summit account claiming that the summit was “censorship free” was not entirely true.

instagram

Condition Report 4 examined collective art making in considerable depth, addressing formal aesthetics, collective histories, economies of collective practice, and the process whereby collectives come to an end. The breadth of speakers was a huge strength of the discussions, with contributions from Laboratoire Agit’Art (Senegal), Jatiwangi Art Factory (Indonesia), Pathshala  (Bangladesh), Luta ca Caba Inda (Guinea Bissau), Chimurenga (South Africa), Gidree Bawlee (Bangladesh), Somankidi Coura (Mali), Hong Kong Artist Union (Hong Kong), Shoni Mongol Adda (Bangladesh). Moderators ruangrupa (Indonesia), Centre for Historical Reenactment (South Africa), Green Papaya (Philippines), Depth Of Field (Nigeria), and Shomoy Group (Bangladesh). This range of perspectives lead to many fascinating accounts of the similarities and differences of the experiences of collectives around the world.

Xeex Bi Du Jeex – A Luta Continua, shown as part of Condition Report 4, stands out as another highlight of the summit. This play and film resulted from a workshop held in 2018 in Dakar with Bouba Touré, Raphaël Grisey and Kàddu Yaraax.[9] The workshop consisted of conversations with Bouba Touré around the archives of the self-organized Mali-based agricultural cooperative Somankidi Coura, followed by improvisations with methods from the Theatre of the Oppressed. Techniques from ‘forum theatre’ were employed, wherein a performance in a public space sees audience members swap in and out of roles in order to interrogate social issues in a safe space. Bouba Touré emigrated to France when Mali was hit by a severe drought in the early 1970s. Many migrants in France were forced to live in squalid conditions, with solidarity movements emerging in response to raise awareness of the issue in Paris. These campaigns:

inspired a notion among migrants that they could return to Mali and protest against the colonial agricultural policy by growing crops for self-sufficiency and sale. Through the organisation ACTAF (Cultural Association of African Workers in France), Touré and other migrants did return to Mali in an attempt to create a community around sustainable farming. This community still exists, under the name Somankidi Coura (New Somankidi).[10]

In the Q&A session following the film, Touré spoke about how, in Mali, there is no right to own land, a law put in place by Modibo Keïtaa, the first Malian president after independence from French colonial rule. The film examines issues around migration, human rights, technology, agriculture, and collective action.

An all-too-brief mention must be given to the brilliant series of talks organised by Modern Art Histories In And Across Africa, South and Southeast Asia (MAHASSA) and the Otolith Group’s Rituals for Temporal Deprogramming.

The MAHASSA public programme’s focus on decentring modern art histories examined artistic representations of famines, historical art collectives from the 1950s, notions of Afropolitanism, and art education. Zahia Rahmani spoke about her ongoing project Seismography Of Struggle – Towards A Global History Of Critical And Cultural Journals, which aims to catalogue non-European and diasporic journals made ‘in the wake of revolutionary movements of the end of the 18th century’.[11] Her talk was displayed at the summit as a video and sound installation alongside images of the journal covers she is working to document. As the project continues, she aims to digitalise and catalogue them to create an archive.

The Otolith Group (Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun) presented a series of beautifully curated moving image works by Ayo Akingbade, Hadel Assali, Taysir Batniji, Tony Cokes, Esi Eshun, Black Quantum Futurism, Mohammed Harb, Louis Henderson, Onyeka Igwe, Salman Nawati, Ana Pi, Morgan Quaintance, Alfred Santana, Rania Stephan, Sharif Waked and Rehana Zaman, aiming to ‘bring viewers face to face with the violence of images and the threat of sounds so as to intervene in the foreclosures of colonial time and racial space’.[12]

The Dhaka Art Summit 2020 was touted as being the biggest and most ambitious edition to date. This review cannot do justice to the amount of important work on display, but the event’s popularity with the people of Dhaka stands as a testament to its success. An estimated 300,000 visitors attended over 9 days. This may sound like an exaggeration, until we remember that Dhaka is the sixth-most densely populated city in the world, with a population of 21 million. The summit was full of people enjoying art, attending talks, spending time with friends and family, and taking lots of selfies. The event succeeded in bringing together an impressive range of contributors, ideas, mediums, and works. As a platform, it generated the space to showcase the strength and breadth of work ignored or marginalised by the antiquated ‘centre’ of the art world, and move towards a more pluricentric, globalised model.

*

Jonathan Webster (b. 1992, London, UK) is an artist and academic junior doctor based in Leeds.

Notes

[1] Shahidul Alam, quoted in Chobi Mela, ‘Rashid Talukder’, 2019 <http://www.chobimela.org/rashid-talukder> [accessed June 4 2020].

[2] Dhaka Art Summit, ‘About DAS’, 2019 <https://www.past.dhakaartsummit.org/overview&gt; [accessed June 5 2020].

[3] Museum of Modern Art, ‘Diana Campbell Betancourt’, 2020 <https://post.at.moma.org/profiles/1911-diana-campbell-betancourt> [accessed June 5 2020]

[4] Diana Campbell Betancourt and Teresa Albor, eds. Dhaka Art Summit: Seismic Movements (Dhaka: Samdani Art Foundation, 2020), 11. <https://www.dhakaartsummit.org/docs/das2020-catalogue-digital-v6.pdf> [accessed 9 June 2020].

[5] Pro Helvetia India. সৃজন-আবর্তন | ‘Srijan-Abartan, a cross-disciplinary research project’ <https://prohelvetia.in/en/sristi-binash-a-cross-cultural-and-cross-disciplinary-research-project/> [accessed June 5 2020].

[6] Betancourt and Albor, eds. ‘Raphael Hefti’, Dhaka Art Summit: Seismic Movements, 17.

[7] Kapwani Kiwanga quoted in Betancourt and Albor, eds. ‘Kapwani Kiwanga’, Dhaka Art Summit: Seismic Movements, 37.

[8] ‘Condition Report 4: Stepping Out of Line; Art Collectives and Translocal Parallelism’, Dhaka Art Summit: Seismic Movements, 57.

[9] Raphaël Grisey, Bouba Touré & Kàddu Yaraax, Xeex Bi Du Jeex – A Luta Continua, 2018 <https://vimeo.com/296504940> [accessed June 5 2020].

[10] Kunsthall Trondheim, ‘Sowing Somankidi Coura: A Generative Archive’, 2019 <https://kunsthalltrondheim.no/en/utstillinger/sowing-somankidi-coura&gt; [accessed June 5 2020].

[11] Zahia Rahmani, ‘Seismography of Struggles: Towards A Global History Of Critical And Cultural Journals’, Raw Material Company, 2018 <http://www.rawmaterialcompany.org/_2224?lang=en> [accessed June 5 2020].

[12] Betancourt and Albor, eds. ‘Rituals for Temporal Deprogramming : Videos, Films and Talks Programme’, Dhaka Art Summit: Seismic Movements, 149.

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