Bangladesh and Beyond
Ahmad Minkara interviews art collectors and champions of new talent, Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani.
Ayesha Sultana's solo show at Dhaka Art Summit 2016
If India and Pakistan have traditionally dominated the South-Asian art scene, then a Bangladeshi-based foundation run by Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani is doing what it can to put that right.
Aside from being ardent and experienced collectors, the Samdanis have made it their mission to raise the profile of lesser-known artists working across the region and, in particular, highlight rising talent in their relatively young homeland.
The vehicle helping them to achieve their goals is the Samdani Art Foundation, a registered private trust set up by the husband and wife team in 2011 and located in Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka.
Work by Dominique Gonazalez Foerster (Samdani Collection)
Nadia explains that facilitating a two-way conversation between local artists and the wider art community sits at the top of the foundation’s agenda. “We want to create a dialogue across the region,” she states.
One of the foundation’s major initiatives is the biannual Dhaka Art Summit (DAS). Now in its third edition, the summit represents the world’s largest non-commercial research and exhibition platform for South Asian Art.
Nadia explains that ahead of the summit and with the foundation’s support, curators from major institutions, including the Tate Modern, the Guggenheim and Centre Pompidou, tour South Asia’s hubs to seek out emerging artists who are often working in under-represented genres, with a view to developing exhibition and research proposals.
Many rising stars, such as the two talented Bangladeshi artists Shumon Ahmed and Ayesha Sultana, have made their debut at the Dhaka Art Summit. Other regional talents given a platform at the event include the Sri Lankan-born Lionel Wendt, Zahoor ul Aklhaq, from Pakistan, and Myanmar’s little-known Bagyi Aung Soe. The summit has also served as a launchpad for artists from as far and wide as Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives and Afghanistan.
Shumon Ahmed's, Metal Graves
Free and increasingly popular, the Dhaka Art Summit is certainly putting Bangladesh on the international art map. The most recent edition in February drew crowds of around 138,000 and included high-profile representatives, such as the director of the Tate Modern. Planning is already under way for the 2018 edition, which is expected to be more interdisciplinary in nature, according to its artistic director, Diana Campbell Betancourt.
The Samdanis emphasise that the artwork at the summit is not for sale; something they believe that helps to bring out the best in participants. “There is no commercial pressure on the artists. New commissions belong to them and not to our foundation,” is their message. “We support the commission process. The artists therefore create their best.”
Works remain the property of the artists, with many then appearing at international exhibitions. Shilpa Gupta’s acclaimed project travelled to the 8th Berlin Biennale, while Love Bed, by Tayeba Begum Lipi, is now housed in the Guggenheim Museum.
Some of the artists given exposure at the summit are also featured in the Samdani Art Foundation collection, a rich and diverse representation of art from around the globe.
The South Asian part of the foundation’s collection traces the region’s art back to the 1890s, beginning with pieces from the Bengal School, before bringing us right up to date. There are works by Rabindranath Tagore, the hugely influential Bengali polymath and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who wrote the current national anthems of both Bangladesh and India.
“Our contemporary art collection includes works by diaspora artists, such as Chitra Ganesh and Anish Kapoor,” Nadia notes, “while the Middle Eastern collection includes works by the Turkish artist Mehmet Ozal, Massinissa Selmani, of Franco-Algerian descent and Nadia Kaabi-Linke, from Tunisia.”
The collections have many highlights, including a seminal immersive video work titled Parallax, by the Pakistani-American artist, Shahzia Sikander. The piece was featured in the 2014 edition of the Dhaka Summit, having made its debut at the 2013 Sharjah Biennial. The work later travelled to the Guggenheim Bilbao. Several works from the collection are being exhibited internationally, currently on loan to other institutions, while in turn, pieces from other biennales have now found a permanent home in Bangladesh.
Never known for standing still, the Samdanis are now focusing on their next major project, which is the construction of a public art centre in their home city of Sylhet. The mega-complex will host workshops for artists and the foundation’s permanent collection, alongside temporary exhibitions of contemporary art from around the world. In a sign that the international dialogue drive is yielding results, the first phase of the project will be designed around an immersive video work by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, which was recently lent to the Centre Pompidou for the French artist’s retrospective.
Gaganendranath Tagore's work in the exhibition 'The Missing One' at the Dhaka Art Summit 2016 (Samdani Collection)