Circumnavigating South Asian art : Staging the summit as a global interstice
Featuring works by some of the most exciting artists from South Asia, Dhaka Art Summit, in its hugely ambitious 2nd edition, stages the contemporaneous in the region
The last decade has witnessed rapid developments in contemporary art in Asia. There have been significant shifts within the discourses on art and within the art market for Asian art reshaping the long-standing dichotomy of theory and practice. Issues of global developments in the arts, which include, among other concerns, questioning and challenging supremacy of Western art, granting it guardianship over the cultural productions from the rest of the world, have resulted in new art theories and changes in values related to what is accepted as art.
With the rise of Chinese contemporary art and subsequent emergence of Korean, Indian, Middle Eastern, and to a limited scale, Pakistani art, a deep hiatus surfaced concerning the analysis of actual trends of local art production vis-à-vis global appreciation as well as issues that colour the landscape of contemporary art in Asia.
Japan has been in the global frame since 1990s with the biggies such as Takashi Murakami or Mariko Mori, artists who are known for their tongue-in-cheek appropriation of non-art genres from the vast semantic landscape of the popular culture. But the recent international boom in Asian art has paralleled the phenomenal growth of Asian economy led by China and India. In fact, when the West was languishing during the global economic downturn of 2008-9, emerging markets of Asia raced ahead. In terms of profits, a recent report in The Economist says, Asian emerging markets now account for a quarter to half of the global economy. The mega architectural projects ongoing in China enabled by its economic power include construction of art museums, which are said to be 'increasing like Starbucks Coffee shops.' In her recent book Maonomics, the Italian economist Loretta Napoleoni sheds light on the economic miracle of China and shows why Chinese Communists make better Capitalists than those of the West. The West, she argues, has delegated economy to the market, which is more often than not a breeding ground for corruption. For China, on the other hand, it is the state that guides economic functions. (The Chinese experience proves that economy functions better if it is run by the state and represents the interest of the business leaders.)
The present art world in China is marked with large galleries in Beijing, attracting curators and gallery managers from around the world. With a vast number of studios, artists' villages and thousands of residents, China has overtaken Paris as the new capital of contemporary art. In the changed scenario, Chinese artists also earned higher visibility in the international art world. The artists who have made it big in the international arena are Cai Guo-Qiang and Ai Weiwei. With a solo show at Guggenheim that witnessed a record number of visitors after its Picasso exhibition, Guo-Qiang declared the arrival of contemporary Chinese art on the Western stage. Weiwei came to the international limelight after his collaboration with the Swiss architectural firm Herzog and de Meuron in designing the Beijing National Stadium, the Bird's Nest, and his subsequent withdrawal from the Beijing 2008 Olympics opening ceremony. An increasingly outspoken advocate for China's political reform, Weiwei has become a cult figure of contemporary art.
As is the case with China, India has also seen economic growth capable of pumping up its art market. In terms of top-grossing artists, India comes second to China. The works of artists from India now appear regularly at auction houses in London and New York. According to C-Arts reports on the '30 Most Expensive Contemporary Artists in India,' the top two ranks are held by Anish Kapoor and Subodh Gupta. Since being invited to the Venice Biennale in 1990 and winning the coveted Turner Prize, Kapoor has steadily expanded his international reputation. Cheek by jowl with Anish is Subodh Gupta, who has earned the nickname 'Damien Hirst of Delhi' since his invitation to the Venice Biennale in 2005.
If Anish Kapoor's rise as one of the art's bigwigs in the global arena is linked to his migration to England in his early life and a line of work enmeshed in the universal concept of 'zeroness' harnessed in the most elemental of forms that are his simple but emotionally fraught sculptures, Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher et al, have gone global by way of conflating the current postmodern trends with the fragrance of curry and tandoori and the sights and sounds of the Indian cities.
A major change in the contemporary Asian scene is the way Asian art worlds engage with each other and the West. In the past, as rightly pointed out by writer and curator Melissa Chiu, this was a bilateral relationship, each country individually seeking to showcase their own artists in Western institutions; which has now been transformed into an intra-regional dialogue. The most obvious examples of regional exchange are the recent art festivals, which reached staggering proportions in terms of scale and diversity. Biennials and art fairs showcasing contemporary Asian art are now so prolific and come so rapidly, that they often seem more like major sporting events. Across regions from Singapore, Jakarta to Fukuoka, Yokohama, Busan to Gwangju, Shanghai and Hong Kong, Asian art is enjoying unprecedented exposure. Art museums are also showing and collecting works of their neighbours, the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan being the first to start collecting contemporary Asian artworks. When it comes to sheer buying power, Asia too is marking its strong presence. The Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) is way ahead of Western powerhouses in their acquisition of contemporary artworks. The eye-popping annual budget of USD1 billion of QMA is 30 times what MoMA has spent on artworks and a whopping 175 times of what Tate invested in 2012. The 13-member power panel of the London-based influential The Art Review in its recent 'Power 100' list picked up art collector and head of QMA Sheikha Al-Mayassa as the most influential person in the art world. Works purchased by QMA have hit headlines for the record-breaking sums it paid for its acquisitions. In 2007 a Mark Rothko was bought for USD73 million and a Damien Hirst was acquired for about USD15 million, a record-breaking price paid for a work by a living artist.
In the backdrop of the recent upsurge of postcolonial axis-shifting and counter-discourse context-framing, new art destinations and collectors make up the emerging force to inject fresh impetus to a pluralistic and multicultural global art scene. The latest destination to come under the global arts radar for its thoughtful presentation of contemporary South Asian art is Dhaka Art Summit orchestrated by hyperkinetic entrepreneurial couple Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani.
The mushrooming of new art destinations or 'biennialization' of contemporary art (by extension any major art event outside the orbit of traditional centers) to some cultural pundits emerged as globalization's most powerful mechanism in the art world. For superstar curators such as Boris Groys, Charles Esche and Okwui Enwezor these art events in non-traditional spaces are counter-hegemonic.
Dhaka Art Summit as a newbie in the world art scene in its inaugural event in 2012 attracted over 50,000 art enthusiasts while the second edition this year, reaping a rich harvest of contemporary South Asian art, was a toast to artistic achievements from the region, staged between February 7 and 9 this year. Making headlines in mainstream art publications and hyped as one of the most anticipated events of the region, the latest edition of Dhaka Art Summit made a strong statement about universal celebration of the local and the particular and privileging cultural differences.
The timing of the Summit has probably been a crucial one as contemporary art from South Asia is beginning to enjoy an increased presence in international exhibition platforms over the last decade. There have been commitments from elite institutions such as the Guggenheim, the Tate Modern, the Centre Pompidou, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art to a greater engagement with the region. Amin Jaffer, international director of Asian Art for Christie's, was quoted as saying, 'the Samdanis have shown a huge commitment to fostering the arts in Bangladesh and raising its profile internationally' in a report published on December 5 in The New York Times last year. The first Summit has done a world of good for aspiring local artists as after the event there have been exhibitions of Bangladeshi art queuing up at galleries in Istanbul, London and New York. Important museums like the Tate, the British Museum and the Guggenheim have already acquired artworks by Bangladeshi artists. For their show No Country in New York and Hong Kong, Guggenheim picked up Tayeba Begum Lipi's work Love Bed and later acquired it for their permanent collection. Naeem Mohaiemen, who has been questioning and highlighting contradictions of political history of contemporary Bangladesh, has landed himself among the prized collections of the British Museum and the Tate.
Richard Blurton, head of South Asian section of the British Museum's Asia Department, Sandhini Poddar, adjunct curator of Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, Jessica Morgan of Tate Modern, Aurelien Lemonier, curator of Centre Pompidou, and curator of Parasol Unit Dr Ziba Ardalan – all of them assembled for the Dhaka Art Summit.
The high-voltage event showcased 250 artists, all from South Asia, and 32 local and regional galleries. The cynosure of the lineup of events has been the fourteen solo art projects curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt, director and chief curator of the Creative India Foundation, featuring works by Rana Begum, Tayeba Begum Lipi, Runa Islam, Naeem Mohaiemen, Mahbubur Rahman, Lida Abdul, Rathin Barman, Shilpa Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Rashid Rana, Mithu Sen, Tsherin Sherpa, Shahzia Sikander and Asim Waqif. Betancourt brings with her a wealth of experience from her collaborations with sculpture parks around the world, knowledge of innumerable studio visits across India, and expertise of handling new commissions of Indian art for Yorkshire sculpture park, deCordova sculpture park, Wanas Konst. She also contributed commission works for fairs such as Frieze New York, the India Art Fair, Art Hong Kong and SH Contemporary.
Rather than using a theory or theme as a unifying rubric for the solo projects, Betancourt let the artists interpret, explore, and comprehend life and living in contemporary South Asia and contextualizing them in global art lingo.
Issues of politics of gender and femininity are recurring themes in artist and organizer Lipi's work. Her work questions the representation of women's bodies and the history of their social roles, particularly in Bangladesh, where historical and religious expectations continue to determine what is permissible. She came into artistic limelight with her Grand Prize at the Asian Art Biennial held in Dhaka in 2004. In 2002, she co-founded the Britto Arts Trust, Bangladesh's first artist-run alternative arts platform, which has extended its reach beyond Bangladesh through exhibitions, residencies, talks, collaborations and exchanges. She was the commissioner for the Bangladesh Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale and one of the curators for the 2012 Kathmandu International Art Festival in Nepal.
Her installation A Room of My Own for the summit is a touching story of her internal sufferings for failing to conceive a child. A series of black and white close-up images of the bewildered and distraught artist, taken just after her miscarriage, both captures the trauma of miscarriage and expectations of family and social pressure of fulfilling the archetypical role of womanhood. The installation includes the ultrasonogram reports of her pregnancy piling since 2008 and symbolically fraught with expectations that are now nothing but sad reminders of her failed pregnancy. In 2009 she lost her child three months into her pregnancy. Then came the shock of her life: medical reports confirming that she would never be able to have her own child. The images of ultra sonogram reports that are displayed in frames crafted from stainless steel razor blades are records of a grieving heart. The garments she has been preserving for the new born are placed in a glass box at one corner of the exhibition room stages her sufferings; they effectuate a metonymic reading of the inextricable bond the mother forges with the unborn child – one which perpetuates beyond closure.
If Lipi's work charts a quest for female identity and motherhood, her fellow Bangladeshi writer and artist Naeem Mohaiemen traces the collective/personal memories with the rigour of an anthropologist and whimsy and humour of an artist. He dispels traditional perception of a linear history, instead presenting a history that is multifaceted, convoluted and complex. Naeem considers that issues of the past, and also of the future, remain, in modulated forms, a substantial part of the present, and believes that the visual arts are a space where ambiguous, open-ended conversations on history have more space.
His films United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1), has recently been acquired by the Tate Modern and Afsan's Long Day (The Young Man Was, Part 2) is scheduled to premiere at MoMA's New Directors New Films series in spring 2014.
For the Summit Naeem decodes and reinterprets dystopic news from Bengali newspapers to present alternative realities in the single-issue tabloid with the title the Dainik Kalponik. The issue is set in the future February 9 2024 and imagines a fictional Bangladesh where socialists came to power in the 1970s. The daily vernacular newspaper is the ultimate source of everyday history that is distributed, sold, shared, pasted, recycled, read and re-read. The audience in the act of reading or rejection of the stories published in the Dainik Kalponik, written by Naeem, recreate their own version of the stories/histories. History, may be at the end, not about truth but multiple truths.
Geometric patterns of Islamic art and their internal symmetry are the source of the minimalist sculpture by Rana Begum, a British-Bangladeshi artist. In her recent works she draws on her hyphenated identity and traces her childhood fascination with basket weaving and experience of reading the Quran in a small mosque in her native village. The monumental sculptural dome she has created with baskets available in rural Bangladesh for the Summit encouraged the viewer to go inside it, view it at varying angles, and experience the play of light and shadow. Art enthusiasts of Dhaka were seen spending long hours sitting under the dome admiring shafts of light making intricate patterns inside.
Faith and religion in a postcolonial and post 9/11 context surface as themes for Pakistani artist Rashid Rana, who uses everyday images from popular culture, art history and his surrounding to give expression to his condition of being a South Asian artist.
Rana is the head of the Fine Art Department at the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, and one of the founding faculty members of its School of Visual Arts and Design.
Trained in traditional painting techniques, including the miniaturist techniques that dominate the Lahore art scene, he turned to digital media and photography in the mid-1990s. This led to a broader and more provocative set of concerns. He deals with globalization, contextualizes himself in the global matrix and then presents his critique of the condition.
In his project for the Summit A Room from TATE Modern, Rana ventures into sculpture proper from his three-dimensional photo sculptures. The monumental installation is based on digital documentation of a room at Tate Modern, which has been recreated at the central atrium of the National Academy of Fine and Performing Arts of Bangladesh, official venue for the Summit. The empty room with only spotlight effects and suggestion of left-off labels and wall-text of works, the installation invites viewers to ponder about what possibly has been shown in the room.
The work is an interesting commentary on South Asian art in global context: on one hand the region is trying to import Western exhibition model into the local space and on the other hand the process of Westernization can never be completely downloaded or incorporated.
As the art world is becoming increasingly global, art writer JJ Charlesworth in his recent article 'Global vs Local' raises a pertinent question of whether this global system of contemporary art is 'destroying cultural difference in its efforts to promote art that is legible, easily understandable, instantly translatable and culturally exchangeable?'
The answer to Charlesworth's poignant question may be found in the solo projects of the summit with their attempt to construct a culture made of many cultures, a history made of many histories and a self-reflexive narrative made of fragments having no rubric to unite them.
ZIAUL KARIM is an art critic based in Dhaka, former editor of art journal Jamini, and contributes to local and South Asian art periodicals.