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Dhaka Ups Its Cultural Stakes
FREQUENT VISITORS TO DHAKA, the capital city of Bangladesh, gush about its warm people, charming bazaars and incredible food. But few talk about the country's rich art history that includes the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th and 20th century, a famous movement that gave rise to figures such as Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray.
In recent years, billionaire couple Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani have been trying to change that. Mr Samdani is the 43-year-old managing director of Golden Harvest Group, a large conglomerate that started out in the frozen food sector and diversified into IT, logistics, real estate, aviation and insurance.
He and his wife are avid art collectors who started the biennial Dhaka Art Summit in 2012. Over the years, the strong showcase of mostly Asian art has drawn thousands of international art lovers - include big-name curators - to the developing country not known for its cultural credentials.
At the Art Summit's recent fourth edition, which ran for just nine days, works by 300 artists from 35 countries looked at topical issues such as the refugee crisis, transnational labour migration and authoritarian politics, among others.
The international names include Raqib Shaw, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Liu Xiaodong, as well as Singapore's Charles Lim, Ho Tzu Nyen, Jimmy Ong and Ming Wong.
Supplemented by discussions and workshops, the exhibition was an incisive one that displayed the depth of art and culture of the region and beyond. It showed a side of Bangladesh that was far more complex and compelling than what typically gets covered in international newspapers.
Mr Samdani says: "In a way, we wanted to correct the international misimpression of Bangladesh as a place of typhoons, floods, poverty and other problems. We may be a developing country, but we've always been rich in the arts and culture."
The Samdanis have succeeded to a good degree. The major German art show documenta included not one but two Bangladeshi artists for the first time in its programme last year - founding father of Bangladeshi modern art Zainul Abedin (1914-1976), and contemporary film-maker and writer Naeem Mohaiemen. documenta's artistic director Adam Szymczyk had been a guest at the 2016 Dhaka Art Summit.
"Our artists are also now in the collection of the Tate, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other major museums," notes Mr Samdani who, with his wife, are members of the Tate International Council and the Tate's South Asia Acquisitions Committee. Not surprisingly, the Samdanis have appeared for three consecutive years on ArtReview's widely-cited Top 100 Power List that ranks the most influential personalities in the art world.
But their ambitions are set to expand. In the months ahead, the Samdanis will unveil Srihatta, an art centre and sculpture park in Sylhet, 250km from Dhaka. The complex is sprawled across 40ha of land, with plazas, parks, a 465sqm gallery and artist residency spaces. Srihatta may just do for Sylhet what the Guggenheim Museum does for Bilbao or the Chinati Foundation does for Marfa - that is, lend prestige to and boost tourism in an otherwise quiet city.
Mrs Samdani says: "We want people to travel outside of Dhaka and see other parts of Bangladesh. And Sylhet is known for its natural beauty."
TIMELY, PROVOCATIVE WORKS
Located at the four-storey Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, the Dhaka Art Summit featured numerous works that addressed timely issues, the most prominent one being the Rohingya refugee crisis.
Bangladesh has accepted more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing Myanmar in what the United Nations has described as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing" in the predominantly Buddhist country.
Responding to this, Thai artist Jakkai Siributr created several imaginary flags out of weaving detritus found on beaches where Rohingya refugees fled from or arrived on. These poignant tapestries are hung from the ceiling to question notions of homes, borders and nationalities, and remind us how these things we identify with also divide us.
On the flipside, Bangladeshi artist Kanak Chanpa Chakma addresses the persecution of Buddhists in predominantly Muslim Bangladesh. Her striking collages are made from photographic documentation and newspaper clippings of an incident in 2012 when someone had set up a fake Facebook account using a Buddhist name and posted an image of a burning Koran, sparking mob violence of over 25,000 people against Buddhist communities in Bangladesh.
The troubling notion of identity, faith and affiliation continues through to the works of Nepalese artist Hitman Gurung who drew images of people holding out their identity cards, but whose faces are hidden in bandages. Gurung is hoping to draw attention to the plight of the Tharu indigenous community of southern Nepal who have been denied equal rights and representation in his country.
The Dhaka Art Summit is primarily funded by the Samdanis who clearly take no sides in these provocative political issues. They give the artists the requisite space to express their various concerns, and this openness and lack of censorship lend considerable weight and integrity to the showcase.
Along with the focus on South Asian art, they partly explain why many leading curators and museums around the world are keen to work with the Samdanis. The latest summit was led by chief curator Diana Campbell Betancourt, while guest curators include respected names such as New York's Swiss Institute director Simon Castets and Hong Kong's Para/Site director Cosmin Costinas, as well as National Gallery Singapore's Shabbir Hussain Mustafa.
On the opening day, a discussion on the future of museum collections was headlined impressively by New York's Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry and Tate Modern director Frances Morris.
In 2012, the inaugural Dhaka Art Summit lured just 50 international visitors and 20,000 local visitors. By its third edition in 2016, it was drawing 800 international visitors and 138,000 local visitors. The 2018 numbers have not been collated but are expected to be higher.
Mr Samdani adds: "In 1971 when modern Bangladesh was formed, people saw us as someone else's backyard. In the last few decades, we've been so busy developing our country that we forgot to tell our story properly… The Dhaka Art Summit is an attempt to redress that."