In the run up to the Dhaka Art Summit, Depart speaks to NADIA and RAJIB SAMDANI of the Samdani Foundation, the organization that conceived of the mega event and has invested its resources to make it a success
Mustafa Zaman: Let's start with a brief note on why Samdani Art Foundation has taken this initiative to organize the first ever art summit in Bangladesh and how the work is progressing in the run-up to the big event.
Nadia Samdani (N S): The recent economic and cultural boom in Asia has led to a significant growth in Asian Art. Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indian artists have successfully been able to showcase their work in the international art scene over the last ten years. The art scene in South Asian countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan has seen a rise in larger, more global art events. We believe that it is the right time for Bangladesh to enter this shifting platform; with this in mind, we are organizing the first edition of the Dhaka Art Summit from the 12th to 15th of April 2012. Since our main focus is to promote Bangladeshi art we are only concentrating on local artists for the inaugural edition.
As you know, this is going to be a one-of-a- kind mega event. For the first time in Bangladesh we are organizing a grand showcasing of Bangladeshi art; and there is no local expertise or experience in this. So we are starting from scratch. But, preparation for the fair is in full swing. We have teamed up with some people in Dhaka and abroad and they are working round the clock. I would say that we got tremendous support from the artists and art organizations in Bangladesh, which is crucial to organizing such a huge event.
Art summits or fairs are sites that work as an extended market place, a hyperactive nodal point for viewing and buying contemporary art. It is in the context of ever-increasing demands for newer forms of art in a globalized market reality that summits operate with the aim of bridging the gap between the local and the international art scenes and markets. Do you feel the Bangladeshi art scene is mature enough for this to happen?
Rajeeb Samdani (RS): I think this is akin to a chicken and egg situation. The question whether we are ready or not is actually inseparable from the question of our willingness to prepare ourselves. We have to risk ourselves (as art itself is a risking of oneself in creation), risk taking this step into the limelight in order to gauge if we are ready or not. And, besides, how do we even know if we are ready? Another question is, is Bangladesh, as a nation, ready? That is, do we already have a few artists who are ready to face the international market? I personally feel that Bangladesh is ready to face the international art market, and when I say that I am not referring to all the artists in the country but to a definite (if few) number of artists who are more than ready.
If you feel that the time is ripe for such an event, please give us your logic defending your answer.
RS: If you refer back to last year's Venice Biennale's Bangladesh Pavilion, Bangladeshi art made a major statement. As a continuation, one of the participating artists, Tayeba Begum Lipi, was invited to Jakarta and also to the Colombo Biennale. Another artist who was representing the Bangladesh Pavilion is Mahbubur Rahman, who had already done an exhibition for Devi Art Foundation in 2009. Devi Art Foundation is one of the strongest art organizations in India, one which has discovered artists like Rashid Rana, Jitish Kallat, etc.
Last year Ronni Ahmmed also participated at the OPEN 14 exhibition alongside renowned British artist Mark Quinn. Artist Shahabuddin Ahmed's work is already in the permanent collections of different museums across Europe and have also landed in most of the important Indian collections. Artist Monirul Islam and Naeem Mohaiemen's work were also displayed through foreign galleries at the Indian Art Fair. And Naeem Mohaiemen's work was also sold to a very important collection in the USA. The Delhi-Dhaka workshop titled 'Crossover' was also organized by Art & Bangladesh, of which 'Depart', the magazine you edit, is an important venture, and this also was an important contribution to the art scene. Following 'Crossover,' your Indian co-curator Sushma Bahl, while speaking to the Indian media, spoke very highly of the Bangladeshi artists and placed Bangladeshi art over other the art of neighbouring countries that are already in the international limelight.
After last year's visit to Bangladesh by some highly placed Tate Modern curators and officials, I can testify to the fact that they were very impressed and are now again sending a curator for a week to Dhaka during the Summit. Following their first trip, they have also confirmed that they would like to add Bangladeshi art in their collection.
Another prime example is Mr Shahidul Alam, who has taken Bangladesh's photography to a different level as he himself is a name in the world of photography and mobilises exhibitions and events internationally. The international publishing house Skira has published a book on Mr. Shahidul Alam, which has proved to be one of their best selling books. I can go on about this but personally I think there are a lot of unheard, unseen talented artists in Bangladesh whose work will attract attention if showcased alongside any international artist of some repute. And I also believe that definitely we are ready and one of the main intentions of this Summit is to bring these artists into the limelight.
I personally feel, by creating a platform for a wider audience from within and outside the country the summit will certainly go a long way to embolden the efforts of the ones (artists) who are looking to broaden their horizons. However, in terms of aesthetic achievement and exposure, how focused are the current art summit organizers on this issue?
NS: Well let me emphasize that we are focused on Bangladeshi artists alone; usually summits are meant for artists from the entire world. However, since this is the first ever endeavour to create a platform for the Bangladeshi artists, we have decided to have an extensive showcasing of the local artists. . .
And yet, various well known international gallery representatives, curators, critics, historians from Europe, India and America, including the world's two largest art auction houses, are coming to Bangladesh to the Summit and, this time around, their only intention is to observe the Bangladeshi art scene. As for our artists, the Summit will be the right place for them to enjoy exposure and generate the interest of both foreign and Bangladeshi connoisseurs. I think the Foundation has been working towards the expansion of horizons, just as we did by facilitating an artist like Ronni Ahmmed to be part of Open 14, at Venice. So we are entirely focused on the how Bangladeshi art would gain access to the European art market.
Samdani Art Foundation emerged as a platform for artists who had little to do with established norms. It is in the Samdani Art Book, which came out last year on the eve of the Venice Biennale, that even a photo installation artist was included. Has the upcoming summit been framed keeping the avant- garde in mind?
NS: Yes, definitely. Just to give you an example, Naeem Mohaiemen's installation in the book you are referring to was also shown in the Frieze Art Fair; the same installation will also be displayed at the Dhaka Art Summit and personally, me and Rajeeb, we are more inclined to the avant-garde.
If not, will it not be an exercise in the vein of the Asian Art Biennale which initially infused the art scene with new enthusiasm and provided a guiding map for upcoming artists but has later become enfeebled as it has no conceptual framework. What are the goals you would like to achieve in this event, especially in the very first initiative?
NS: The main purpose of this Summit is to bring the Bangladeshi art scene into focus. And even before the Summit, the process has started. A prime example is the positive international media coverage.
On the issue of collateral programmes which are part of such events, are you two confident that the galleries and other local organizations will be able to pull off shows that will complement the exhibits displayed on the main venues?
NS: Yes, one example is the curated show by Rafiqul Shuvo– 'Only God can Judge Me', though the show hasn't started yet. But after detailed discussions with the curator, I can assure you that the show will be amazing and you will be able to compare it with any curatorial show anywhere in the world.
Another example was the curatorial show 'Space' by Mahbubur Rahman and it was shocking and simply amazing the way they had curated it. So, I can assert with perfect candor that people who are coming to Bangladesh will definitely return with deep impressions.