It is difficult to imagine the incredible amount of hard work that is put into creating a festival on the scale of the Dhaka Art Summit 2016, which is ready to open its doors and wow the public as of today. Only a few days before the big opening, we went to Shilpakala Academy, the venue of the Dhaka Art Summit, to experience the hustle and bustle before the curtains open and take a sneak peek at some of the exciting exhibitions that will be on display.
There is a lot of effort that goes into setting up each and every exhibition, and quite often rooms have to be completely redesigned and panels put up to create the sort of effect the curators have in mind. According to Nadia Samdani, director of the Dhaka Art Summit and co-founder and president of the Samdani Art Foundation, the curator of an exhibition exercises complete creative control.
“The curators play the crucial role in the Dhaka Art Summit, and that is why this takes place every two years, because it literally takes that long to do the research. The curators do their research, make multiple journeys to Dhaka, decide the theme, select the artists and design the show. The Samdani Foundation plays the role of setting up the networks and giving them all the portfolios, but we have no outside influence over what the professionals decide their show will be.”
This year, the DAS will feature curators from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Tate Modern in London, the Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Kunsthalle Zurich, among others. For this reason, the organisers of the event is calling the DAS a ‘pop-up museum’ that will introduce a variety of art forms, with a wide range of collections within each variety, and will be completely free for the public to enjoy.
The sheer diversity of the Dhaka Art Summit is really quite incredible, and there is something for everyone. Amanullah Mojadidi’s zen garden in one room, with sunlight streaming in from a window, followed by Haroon Mirza’s darkened room designed to test the interplay and friction between sound and light waves and electric current, giving you a visual and sound experience like never before. A corner for the children’s workshop, where they will learn to make art from trash, and another corner dedicated to an experimental piece by Tino Sehgal which is based on a Japanese manga video game character. Even going from one room to another is an artistic experience in itself - with artwork by Simryn Gill hanging up in a corridor that you can see through as you walk past, and Prabhavathi Meppayil’s amazing phenomenological creation unsettling viewers by turning the central hall upside down.
However, it is not only performance art and installations that stimulate your senses and challenge how you perceive your surroundings which are available at the summit - many of the exhibitions are based in political and social contexts that are extremely relevant in our times and send an important message. One such exhibition by Burmese artist Po Po talks about the VIP culture in Bangladesh and Burma, and is ironically taking place right outside the VIP lounge. Another display exhibits the facetious but effective protest by an artist who was profiled by the FBI after 9/11 for his religion and mobile nature of work, to which he promptly responded by taking thousands of pictures of his travels and emailing them to the authorities.
In one room, you can walk through the forests of Burma, painted almost in the style of a traditional theatre backdrop, and understand the dramatic environmental changes that have affected this land while admiring the beautiful artwork done by Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu. In another, you are given a grim reminder of the cages women are forced to wear as a result of patriarchy, by artist and activist Shakuntala Kulkarni.
According to Diana Campbell Betancourt, artistic director of Samdani Foundation and chief curator of DAS, a lot of the works may not be explicitly political, but life is always mixed up with politics, and artists’ personal journeys may have wider implications that help us see into their societies and political contexts. This is most evident in the exhibition Mining Warm Data, which is curated by Diana.
“Warm Data is a term that was coined by Afghan artist Mariam Ghani. It basically follows on the fact that you know more about a person by what they name their children or their favourite movie, rather than what their religion is or what town they were born in. So how do you turn a cold statistic into a warm data, that personifies you? How do you let the personal touch the political? That is basically what is explored here.”
This is only the tip of the iceberg, and there are a myriad of solo projects, curated exhibitions, curated programmes and children’s workshops that will definitely take a whole day to explore, if not more.
“I just want to tell people that please bring your families, especially your children. We have so much planned here and there is so much to see. The giants of the art world will be present as speakers here, and it will just be this amazing experience that is completely free and you shouldn’t miss out,” says Nadia Samdani.