This year, the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) – the largest non-commercial platform for South Asian Art in the world – rethought its previous art-fair format. It now positions itself as a research-based platform that provides insights into the region’s art-historical and socio-political contexts in order, according to curator Maria Lind, to promote the kind of art that ‘makes itself known as a dandelion rising out of the concrete’.
Under the Artistic Directorship of Diana Campbell Betancourt, a slew of talks, film screenings, performances, architectural presentations and a writing workshop were held concurrent with the main exhibition (which was free to visit) at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, the event’s sole venue. Ideas around resistance, introspection and displacement linked the 17 solo projects, some of which were specially commissioned, by artists working in South Asia, Europe and the US. In Tino Sehgal’s film Ann Lee (2011), schoolgirls slowly transform into near-automatons while interrogating the idea of individual freedom. Waqas Khan’s meditative, abstract ink drawings (‘The Text in Continuum’, 2015) complemented Prabhavathi Meppayil’s site-specific sculpture dp/sixteen/part one (2015–16), comprising white gesso cubes that echoed the construction of the ceiling in the upstairs lobby. A similar quietness pervades Mustafa Zaman’s series of photographs, ‘Lost Memory Eternalized’ (2016) – images of iconic individuals and moments from the subcontinent’s pre-partition era lie under globs of ant-laden honey, evoking layers of time. Ideas around exclusion are central to Burmese artist Po Po’s VIP Project (2014–15) and Ayesha Sultana’s installation A Space Between Things (2015–16), which was made from scraps of paper and cloth, tiles, metal frames and tubes, and could only be experienced by a dozen people at a time. In graceful contrast, Shakuntala Kulkarni’s cane armour sculptures embody trauma by highlighting the physical threats individuals must negotiate daily in an epoch of terror and violence.
The main exhibition, ‘Mining Warm Data’, also curated by Campbell Betancourt, brought together the enraged voices of 18 artists from across South Asia. Light boxes, neon signs and videos deciphered the state interferences of a post-9/11 world in Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani’s Black Sites I: The Seen Unseen (2016) – interventions that impact upon, and often destroy, lives in Afghanistan. A similar resistance informs Bangladesh-born, US-based Hasan Elahi’s ongoing self-surveillance project, as well as Nepal’s Hitman Gurung’s I Have to Feed Myself, My Family and My Country (2013), a record of the plight of migrant Nepalese workers through visual metaphors such as collages of printed money. Pakistan’s Huma Mulji’s animal-hide sculpture of a decomposed, tortured body (Lost and Found, 2012) references state violence, while Amar Kanwar’s videos from ‘The Torn First Pages’ (2004–08) document Burma’s struggle for democracy. Violence was likewise central to Ali Asgar’s performance, Inside the Zone, Outside Your Conscience (2016): the artist attempted to create a non-gender-biased zone where visitors and the artist could interchange roles through the use of ‘gender objectified props’. In ‘The Missing One’, a section curated by Nada Raza, structured around art’s encounters with modern science, David Alesworth’s Probes Intervention (2002–03) stood out as a witty dig at Pakistan’s rapid nuclearization: its digital slideshow places nuclear warheads in the quotidian moments of urban street life in Karachi. Similarly, in Tejal Shah’s video Landfill Dance (2012), gas-masked schoolchildren perform what looks like medieval dance routines on landfill.
The reclaiming of history – which is vital to DAS’s commitment towards research – was evident in the ‘Soul Searching’ and ‘Rewind’ sections. While ‘Soul Searching’ contextualized the main exhibits through the works of 50 senior Bangladeshi artists, ‘Rewind’ was a fantastic survey of 90 works from the 1940s to the ’70s, by 13 South Asian artists. The Samdani Art Award, curated by Daniel Baumann, went to Rasel Chowdhury’s contemplative documentation of railway stations (‘Railway Longings’, 2011–15), which contrasted with Shumon Ahmed’s lyrical images of Bangladeshi ship graveyards. But it was Zihan Karim and Chang Wan Wee’s Habitat (2013) that encapsulated the spirit of DAS – a host of unhappy statistics slid across the video documentation of the daily lives of people displaced by the Chittagong airport project, to the sound of the Beatles’ ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967). Bangladesh, like much of South Asia, is debilitated by poverty as it tries to negotiate its colonial past and find its way forward. DAS was an exciting and important event for the region, but the slickness of its presentation struck an incongruous chord when set against the context of the host country’s economic and political urgencies. Nonetheless, DAS’s commitment towards amplifying the ‘voice of the dandelions rising out of the concrete’ is what makes the project a worthwhile endeavour.
First published in Issue 180