For an event that has become synonymous with the rising Bangladeshi art scene, Dhaka Art Summit’s opening ceremony was much more accessible than one might expect.
Held at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy in the capital, the event was attended by huge crowds from all walks of life. As the general public mingled with art world savants, for a moment, time appeared to stand still — with two wildly different worlds colliding together in a spectacular embrace.
It is fitting then that the idea of binaries is first evoked in the name of the sixth summit itself Bonna — both a common word for “flood” in Bangladesh and a popular girls’ name in the region’s Bengali dialect.
“This dual meaning opens up different and more nuanced ways of thinking about what the climate means to the people of Bangladesh,” says Nadia Samdani, who co-founded the summit along with Rajeeb Samdani in 2012.
Known for its rich network of river deltas, Bangladesh is home to the mighty Brahmaputra river and the Sundarbans mangrove area. But over the decades, it has witnessed some of the worst climate-related devastations — most recently, last year when more than 100 people were killed and millions displaced in floods. Several works on display at Bonna respond to these environmental challenges, aiming to reimagine a better future in their own distinctive ways.
The entrance to the venue is taken up by Miet Warlop’s Chant for Hope, in which the Belgian visual artist encourages spectators to participate with performers, in a union she calls “ritual concert”.
In the works, a group of performers flood moulds of plaster and sculpt words in Bengali, creating a sensation of a shape-shifting art that changes meaning with every new participant.
Inside the gallery space, a room is dedicated to Submerged Dream 8, installed by local artist Joydeb Roaja. As viewers walk in, they are drowned in a metaphorical lake. The work is inspired by the Kaptai Dam on the Karnaphuli river, which flooded about 655 square kilometres of land belonging to the indigenous Chakma people.
“Even the Chakma royal palace was submerged,” says Roaja, whose interactive installation depicts people from the Chittagong Hill Tracts districts collectively raising the submerged palace back to the surface. “There’s always hope after tragedy, isn’t it?” he asks.
Elsewhere, Paradoxes of Plenty, the series of drawings by Marzia Migliora, who lives in Turin, Italy, explores the relationship between food production and exploitative forms of capitalism. Similarly, the Indian artist Rithika Merchant’s surreal Transtidal, which consists of gouache, watercolour and ink on paper, highlights the water crisis by weaving in the myths associated with the river-based Bede community of Bangladesh.
“As much as the artworks are shining a light on some of the challenges around the climate, we also wanted the artists to probe our relationship with weather and water, and to tell their own stories around these ideas,” explains Nadia.
Curated by Sean Anderson, the special exhibition To Enter the Sky is a collaboration by the Jaago Foundation, with 1,000 Bangladeshi children from some of the areas most affected by climate change contributing drawings of the spaces and buildings they imagine living in in the future. “The perspectives of young people recur throughout the summit,” Nadia asserts.
One of this year’s highlights is the summit’s first collaboration with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in India. Titled Very Small Feelings, it presents 42 projects, including a mix of new commissions, historical works, installations, performances, books and archives activated through the lens of cultural practices related to children.
It explores childhood as a transformative energy and a place that one can enter and exit at will — where the origin of the self begins and flows into the dynamics of family, community, world and selfhood.
“We stage this exhibition through known and forgotten stories, tales, popular characters and cartoons that many generations relate to and the imaginary figures that the invited artists conjure — in this peculiar way, the exhibition is seeking to create a space for intergenerational exchanges and bind us to our inner child,” says Akansha Rastogi, senior curator at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and co-curator of Very Small Feelings.
Visitors can also enjoy a rare chance to see the sculptures of Bengali artist Leela Mukherjee, who died aged 93 in 2009, as part of Very Small Feelings. A pioneering artist in her own right, Mukherjee was often overshadowed by her more famous husband, Benode Behari Mukherjee.
“Art history knows her mostly in the supporting act as wife and mother. Very Small Feelings presents her as much more than that and, arguably for the first time, in such a researched way,” says Diana Campbell, the summit’s chief curator, acknowledging a need for women artists in Bonna to be celebrated and given their due.
The summit was initially established to promote home-grown artists from Bangladesh who lacked opportunities to compete at the global level. Despite having a long history of trailblazing artists, Bangladesh did not have a platform to showcase contemporary and cutting-edge art.
“We have a vibrant art scene but whenever I’d travel the world, rarely, if ever, I saw any reference to Bangladesh. The lack of representation meant that it became our mission to create one,” says Nadia, went spends time mingling with artists and visitors wearing a sari.
She insists that her summit offers a unique model: “We don’t follow a traditional biennale format, which has given us the freedom and flexibility to evolve in our own way, adding in architecture, performance, education programmes, workshops and so on.”
Since its launch in 2012, the summit has become increasingly popular with artists and gallerists from around the world. Having played a significant role in putting Bangladeshi art on the global map, Nadia hopes to foster more dialogue and partnerships between East and West in the future and continue serving as an institutional support system and incubator for artists and performers, regardless of their nationalities and ideologies.
“It has been an incredible journey and a big learning curve for us,” she says. “Over the years, we have grown in size, scope and confidence, while remaining true to our original mission. One can’t ask for more.”