Summit as a point of entry into myriad South Asias
DIANA CAMPBELL BETANCOURT reflects on regional art and the lens through which she frames its contexts.
Mustafa Zaman: I would like to start this interview by thanking you for the 3rd edition of the Dhaka Art Summit, an intense showcasing of South Asian art. What I found this time is that you have a text which seemed very contextual. You touched upon issues that lie at the core of South Asia – cultural heterogeneity. I emphasize this since many an artist including me are working in an environment where one feels a constant pressure to refer to the 'rural'. Whereas you talked about avoiding literal definition of South Asia, referring to them as traps of clichés. A region, or a Bangladesh known through rural inheritance, is not only identity; that is what you mean…
Diana Campbell Betancourt: The other thing I find interesting is this inside-outside perspective. I come from the West – I am an American. There are exhibitions happening globally under the frame – art from elsewhere. I hate this idea. When I first came to India there was this huge wave of Indian shows…. When I was doing research on Indian art … I would go to the Saatchi to look at Empires Strikes Back, or the Indian Highway. The Indian Highway was travelling when I first started looking at Indian art, and the Pompidou Paris Delhi Bombay show was in the making. There were several artists whose works I responded to who shared that they were sometimes left out because the curators told them that 'the works did not look Indian.' What is really interesting is that if you are showcasing things what you're looking for you are missing the entire point of the new context. For example, in Mumbai there is an artist named Hemali Bhuta; she makes minimalist sculptures using alum and other minerals used in local rituals. Just by physically absorbing the piece and visually appreciating it without reading about it, you might not have any clue that it is from India. But if you look deeper – it is deeply rooted in the culture. Another thing which is important to me is to get people to look at art without getting caught up in the stereotypes or the exotic. Take for example rickshaw painting from Bangladesh, I like it but…
M: That is not the entire picture.
D: Right! You happened to be born Bangladeshi. Let's say you wanted to move somewhere else and adopt a different culture. What about cultural self-determination – I think that space for this kind of work or thinking is limited when we start putting people into 'boxes'.
M: Also rickshaw painting is not entirely rooted in Bangladeshi culture. It saw its beginning by those displaced people who came to settle in this Muslim majority region after those riots that rocked India during and after Partition. They brought in the culture – the ornamentation and everything.
D: So much 'culture' is brought in like that and people who are insecure do not want to look at elements of their culture that might not be indigenous. South Asia is a zone that has had international contact for centuries, not just now.
M: If you look at the genealogy of a particular genre the root lies somewhere else.
D: I guess we all have our roots somewhere else. That is something very important to look at and also the other reason we are inviting so many Western – you know outside curators … instead of curating the show somewhere else with art from somewhere else why don't you do the research and curating for the local audiences to give just completely different sensitivity to the topic. And yeah! I think it is so cliché what people are looking for from South Asia; to make the point that there is a bigger picture from art that is circulating internationally at the moment.Not to mention that a lot of exhibitions that claim to be South Asian are actually India and Pakistan focused. We like our guest curators to come in with open minds and do independent research without having to be bogged down by local or international politics or power or funding structures that often influence regionally focused exhibitions.
M: Nadia Samdani in an interview talks about a specific model you have come up with ... what I see is a movement towards a focus on the locale. I am just wondering about the inclusion of the early Moderns – you know, SM Sultan, Rashid Choudhury and their contemporaries from the region represented by what they did during the mid-twentieth century. There is a special section in this edition for them. What did you have in mind?
D: This section evolved over time. When we first decided to do this, it was with an understanding that you can't understand contemporary art without looking where it's coming from. What was really difficult – which I just shared with the Mumbai Mirror – how difficult it is to import anything to this country with 120% import tax. So, imagine I included a painting by Arpita Singh and a custom officer found out that she is the most expensive living female artist working in India and decided to personally profit off of that – the Summit would be over as our funds would be exhausted. There is no art insurance here. On the section you referred to, which comes under the title Rewind– if someone wants to poke a hole into the show saying that in the development of abstraction in South Asia where is Gaitonde? I can't show that here – logistically impossible. So I tried to find a way to sensitively show the early developments of abstraction within South Asia – looking at artists who are mostly known for their figurative practices. These artists could not be pigeonholed into the movement called abstraction, and many of these works are under exhibited. Looking at the works that the market praises of Akbar Padamsee – you might be surprised to see his important contribution to video art in South Asia. Look at S M Sultan, reading interviews from the 1950s he is described as a landscape painter, but most of the works that are exhibited in Dhaka are his post-1975 monumental muscular figure canvases. So the idea was to show people what they haven't seen before. The idea was to pull out things that are unexpected and make a dialogue – the national boundaries that existed when S M Sultan was making his landscapes, or Lionel Wendt was experimenting with photography, are completely different now. There were interesting analogies one could draw. If you look at the Monika Correa tapestries and the Rashid Choudhury tapestries – they were made at the same time. There were also figures that kind of took textile and elevated it to high art at a time when people did not expect that. And if you are looking at Arpita Singh – those are referencing kantha textiles and stitching. Certain points were stronger than others. Another really strong point was when you were looking at Shafiuddin Ahmed – how his water and the fish theme in his etchings made around the same time as Krishna Reddy's early prints which were more figurative in nature (particularly the works Insect and Fish from 1952). Both artists had taken up printmaking when people thought this was a 'lesser medium'. I thing we succeeded in showcasing a huge variety of mediums: we had video, sculpture, painting, textiles, prints – and what I am very proud of is that this is a show that could only happen in Dhaka given where some of the loans came from.
We want to continue the historical exhibition in future summits but Rewind is going to be a difficult show to top. We are thinking of extending our research into exhibition histories in the future. For example, many Bangladeshi artists were showing their work in Iran in the 1960s. How nice it would be to find the posters and catalogues of all those shows. The work Angry Fish by Safiuddin Ahmed exhibited at the biennale in Tehran, and Rashid Choudhury also exhibited here as well. Iran once considered itself to be Asian, but given contemporary politics – it is looked at through the lens of the 'Middle East' which is a bit misleading.
M: Precious bit of information. You do not have any archive here in this country.
D: What's frustrating is that there is no bibliography on many Bangladeshi modern artists. We are trying to hunt them down – I found Rashid Choudhury's student record in France. Let's wait for the files to come in. Like the show of Sultan with Picasso – there were no British records to confirm this – and Scotland based scholar Lotte Hoek just found historical evidence that proves that Sultan exhibited in England in a catalogue from July, 1952 called Artists of Fame and Promise – which also included Henry Moore! Research into exhibition history is extremely important. Right after the Summit I went to Japan to look at an exhibition Sultan had in Fukuoka in 1980 that was listed in several publications and his Wikipedia page, a local artist had told me to reference in my research. Being in Fukuoka, I was able to prove that this show never happened and that S M Sultan did not exhibit his work in any museum in Fukuoka by consulting the city records and the museums' archives, as well as interviewing the museum director at the time Sultan was meant to be there. Wikipedia has since been corrected, but that is obviously not a credible source for research. We need to work to create a legitimate, traceable bibliography for these artists who are so important to art history in Bangladesh.
M: So that one is able to discern what has been done in the past – and how the trajectories look like.
D: You know what is interesting is that Sultan in 1980 is not the Sultan we showed in Rewind.
M: So there is this lack of ‘obokathamo’, or lack of infrastructure … also freighting objects of art is a challenge in Bangladesh context. If you are an art historian willing to delineate the firmament of the 1950s or 60s or even the 80s, you would be hard put since there is no physical archive where one would find the relevant materials. You were faced with the same problem, trying to retrace Sultan's earlier phase.
D: The Asia Art Archive helps. It's not complete. That's why they did this project in Dhaka to collect materials related to the art scene. So you are really working backwards. I got in touch with the Rockefeller Foundation to find Sultan's file from when he was in the US. If this exhibition people talk about really did happen, it's in storage and we haven't been able to get it out. My sister is a librarian at University of Michigan, and Sultan exhibited his work there in 1952. I gave her a call and she went through the records to find the original letters where people write about him [Sultan] when he was there. She also found a student newspaper talking about a Pakistani painter named S M Sultan. And she found an original New York Times article from the 1951 written on him. And it was by showing this article to the Trust in New York that I could make them agree to go into their storage. The other difficulty is how people changed the spelling of their names. You know Murtaja Baseer changed the way he spells his name after Bangladesh became independent. Rashid Choudhury, the way his name changes from Pakistan to Bangladesh period – difficult to track down – but also easy to catch fakes which we have recently seen more frequently.
M: Who is responsible for such changes?
D: People writing the texts. So if you want to do research on Rashid Choudhury you better include all these different spelling of his name.
M: There is this interview in a vernacular daily where we come to know about your origin – you have a maternal link with the Chamorro of Guam. So if that history is brought to bear upon what you are doing here in Dhaka, will that explain why you are here in Asia doing what you are doing as curator?
D: Why Asia? I'm part Asian. When I heard that a local artist of prominence was referring to me as white and privileged I had to laugh because in the United States or Europe, no one sees me as White. I just came across a poem by a London based half Bangladeshi half Italian artist named Imran Perretta which says 'Too brown for the white kids/too white for the brown kids' – it basically sums up my life.
M: How does that come into play – when you are curating three shows simultaneously – the Summit, Rewind and Mining Warm Data.
D: Let's put it in context. I love Simryn Gill's writings – she is one of my favourite artist and writers. She has this quote about how you understand your 'self' when you see yourself as 'nothing'. You begin to define yourself by the things around you. And things around you move and who you are moves as well.
M: Your self is in flux.
D: Always! I don't have a sense of nationality. I never felt any sense of race as I never had to fit into anything.
M: Your father is an American.
D: Yes! He has got blonde hair, blue eyes and his last name is Campbell. People would tell me you don't look like a Campbell.
M: You grew up without any fixed sense of identity!
D: The other thing is a keen understanding of the in-between – the Western and Eastern cultures. In the East the individual is not the centre of the planet. What makes the family or the collective battler/better off that's the decision you make? In the Western context what makes you better off is the decision you take. And there is tension between the two, I think. When I first moved into Hyderabad I couldn't find one bedroom apartment, because nice people do not live alone. As the NRIs are now coming back to India suddenly single bedroom apartments are available. That understanding of the context had made me able to work here.
M: Mining Warm Data – a section which is very, very political if you look...
D: I don't curate political shows normally. So I really wanted to push myself and originally Rajeeb and Nadia wanted me to curate or find a curator for an 'Afghanistan Show'. Then I started looking into this idea, and I soon realized that I have serious problem with this kind of nationality-oriented exhibition. As you can see, other than the Muniruzzaman [Bangladesh] show, there is no other section that is country specific. The Samdani award section is a completely different animal. There is no India show; or Pakistan show … even if you look at the labels, I cut the country out of the labels for the solo projects. Take for example – Nalini Malani, she was born in Karachi which was not Pakistan at the time and after 1947 the country of her birth changed, and it may change again.
M: Borders are ephemeral.
D: Yes. I did not want to include an Afghanistan show because recently this was attempted in Documenta 13– there were artists who were included because they happened to be from Afghanistan. Their nationality was instrumentalized in order to do something that fit into the construct of the curator, which included Kabul as a site. However, in the process of my research towards this 'Afghanistan Show' - I came across Mariam Ghani's work with Chitra Ganesh, the Index of the Disappeared, where I encountered the artists' concept of Warm Data.
M: That is an interesting concept.
D: My parents wanted me to be an Investment Banker. So I had to take a lot of math courses, including insane econometrics classes. I can't even tell you how complicated it was – I can't even remember any of it any more. What I thought was super interesting is that in these classes they use math to explain anything you could think of under the planet. One of these studies was why boys with names that sound like girls' names, such as Sue, are more disruptive and have more behavior problems in school than boys with boys' names. If you would run all these statistical tasks it will tell you with a very small margin of error, if you have a kid – a boy with a girl's name, he won't have confidence, will act out and have altercations with his classmates, and will end up with bad test scores. Obviously you cannot generalize on the basis of such data …in this ever-quickening pace we come up with a general rule to apply to everyone. Look at Hassan Elahi's project which ties in very closely with this. His neighbour turned him as a terrorist because the artist would come home in the middle of the night and would not take out his trash. So, Okay, Muslim man, coming home in the middle of the night and doesn't take out his trash, and 9/11 happened, this man must be a terrorist. For the next six months, this poor guy had to visit the FBI over and over again. They only let him out when he took a polygraph test – that was the only test they considered legitimate. It is interesting what's considered legitimate, what's considered evidence, what's considered fact…. How do you work it out when things are becoming less and less personal as we become less interested in engaging with the person next to us than with the 'screen'? Some holes in the show – to find ways as to how it could develop in the future – I don't look at Big Data in this show. Big Data doesn't really exist in South Asia, but it is something you cannot ignore if this show happened in a Western context.
M: It is new duality for me – the way you pitch Warm Data against Cold Fact. I think by this you are placing interpersonal relationship in opposition to established interpretive frame of relationship. People scarcely take into consideration the hegemony of the so called majority and their opinion, as well as that of the government, or a particular social group – elites who work as a pressure group. There this a sweeping generalization with regards to the construction of identity – you are either a Bengali, or a Muslim – you have addressed that in your statement – the borders are very, very definite, they do not mix at all. Salimullah khan in a talk was saying that you can be a secular person and still pray … nothing's wrong with that.
D: Absolutely. You know Mariam Ghani is also the daughter of the Afghan president. And this is an extremely politically charged work.
M: Most works in this section incline towards the political. Do you have any favourite?
D: I love Maryam Jafri's work Getty vs. Ghana. That is my favourite – a fantastic work. It is amazing to wake up to the fact that you can have two images that are basically the same, owned by two different parties who assigned to them two different captions. Finance will make one circulate while the other do not circulate…. So, what does that do to the idea of Fact?
M: They are our production and nothing is absolute in them. We need be aware of that, I think that's the message it sends across. History in Bangladesh is freighted in an absolute form.
D: And think about the mistranslation … it happens all the time. And who has the agency to speak in absolute terms?
M: With this artwork people has been given the agency. That's what happened, at least to an extent.
M: A young artist was telling me that the last Summit was better because of the fact that you had huge, impactful works by Shazia Sikander, also works by other giants from South Asia. But there are others who are happy to see smaller projects. An artist who now lives in the US, though no longer an important figure in the art scene, but had once produced art which one can consider to be of avant-garde standard of his time, was happy to dub this Summit as an inclusive site.
D: If I were the only curator of the Summit, you would see a particular type. That's why I try to bring many different voices and the show in its entirety has not been dictated by me. I don't even like some of the works in the Summit, but I am happy to include these works because someone else finds them meaningful, and the works make sense within the framework of the curators who included them. I think we tried to make the artist look bigger than the curators. Like for example if you look at the Missing One, or Warm Data – there is no big Nada Raza or Diana Campbell Betancourt name-tag, that's because we really wanted the exhibitions and the artworks to speak for themselves. I also think that this summit had more focus on the Bangladeshi artists, which you also see in the aftermath of the summit with artists such as Rafiqul Shuvo, Munem Wasif, Farzana Ahmed Urmi, Ayesha Sultana, and even yourself being included in exhibitions abroad. In past editions of the summit, it was mostly the international works that were touring, not the Bangladeshi ones.
M: You talk about diversity of the region … with that in mind, how do you go about solo projects … what is the frame behind them? What is your goal in bringing so many different art projects under one classification?
D: Solo Projects are difficult to frame – and I am still having difficulty with that. This is because the 'brief' is so limiting – the brief is to show monumental solo presentation of artists from the region. I expanded that brief a bit; I put two bookends that didn't make sense by taking a literal look at that brief. I put Lynda Benglis who is an American artist, but spent significant time in India for thirty years and still considers it as a home, and on the other end, Tino Segal who has never been to the region but whose father is Indian (from a region which is now in Pakistan). It kind of throws light on the difficulty and subjective nature of what being part of a region means.
By the same token, it is not so curatorially interesting to limit the show to monumental recent works by artists in South Asia (although this can be very interesting to certain audiences). I tried to find a way to link together the complexities of defining and becoming an individual (pushing the regional framework) alongside the goal of producing, enabling, and exhibiting new works. In Shumon Ahmed's new work for example – the work is not about Guantanamo, it's about how you dislodge someone from his rationality or state of mind. If you look at Sandeep's [Sandeep Mukherjee] project – he is referencing nature but the other way to read it – it looks like DNA stripes when you run gel electrophoresis. He shuffles them to elicit the fact that things change and mutate. What I love about the Myanmar project – the jungle ipso facto – is that myths that you grow up with kind of shape your understanding of the world. But what happens when the myth [is] tied to our nature, what happens when there is no more mud volcano? How do you understand where you come from? So thread is super loose – the real theme is artists from South Asia – but I try to link them to make it happen. There are some interesting interconnections – I think – two of them being Christopher Kulendran Thomas' project and Tino Segal's. Christopher's work is a 3D rendering programme – kind of like an Amazon where you can buy people to put into architectural renderings, but there were no brown people to choose to add into the renderings – no South Asians! So he created this first South Asian person and inserted that into the programme – so that's the face – the 3D model you are seeing in the images. In Tino's project, he is setting a digital character from Anime, Ann Lee, free into the world to become an individual who can't be programmed anymore.
M: You have picked a trope from the writing of Dipesh Bhattacharya – Cultural Pollution. It's a phrase that has a long history in our region. You say that you want to celebrate this idea of pollution; you also came up with this context that this celebration can take place 'alongside the rich exchange of ideas', because … because of what – that is what I would like to know.
D: I would like to give the example of the Pakistan panel – which was not easy to realize in Dhaka given the ban on visas to Pakistanis. Rafiqul Shuvo, Ayesha Sultana and Shimul Saha– they studied in Pakistan. How can you not look at the emerging scene without looking at Pakistan. Nor can you talk about Sultan, Zainul, or even Syed Jahangir if you omit Pakistan from the scene.
M: You have Sultan and Zainul in Pakistan, lying in private collections.
D: Of course. Also, when you want to look at Myanmar, they want to look at themselves as South East Asian. But if you go to Chittagong, the parallel between the two are uncanny, Rini Igarishi now doing research on this. It's really important. I am answering your question in really short way, but you know take for example Nalini Malani – traversed South Asian borders.
M: We traverse borders in our own way. Shuvo turned into a media artist after having been educated in Pakistan; he came back and has been exploring video art and photography ever since. There is an impact of crossborder exchanges.
D: Even look at the crossborder exchanges we bring together in the Summit. I love Ayesha – presented by Indian gallery, received higher education in Pakistan, and she is a Bangladeshi artist. Even Shumon, another Banagldeshi is being represented by Indian gallery. It's great. I think the artists need gallery in India or somewhere else to survive since there is no room for them here, if you consider gallery representation. You and Firoz Mahmud and Yasmin Jahan Nupur now have Exhibit320 – which happened [as] the gallery visited Bangladesh for the past two Dhaka Art Summits. Munem Wasif is now represented by Project88, and Shuvo and Rini Mitra are on a residency at Galerie Krinzinger in Vienna.
M: Art is related to the people first – travelling people, migrating people … ideas travel with them, and ideas transcend time and place.
D: Also people who cannot travel at all. Look at Prabhavathi Meppayil, she doesn't really travel. She is very much a home- and studio-based artist. What's really interesting is that the goldsmiths [who] surround her are from Bangladesh – and given immigration complexities, they only opened up and told her that when they found out she was traveling to Dhaka.
M: Last time there were star artists who sort of seemed enough to make a stir. Who are your star artists this time?
D: I tried not to pick stars.
M: Linda Benglis is a star in the West.
D: But people don't know her here. She was supposed to come. Now she has grown old and cannot fly more than six hours. She sent this great quote, you know. She wrote,'I was so thrilled about all this. The pictures look great. What I think is so great is that all the names are so exotic to me. I think I am equally exotic to them.' We are missing all the market stars here. Simryn Gill has been an institutional superstar, she has been in several Documenta shows, represented Australia in the Venice Biennale, and is in MOMA, Guggenheim, and many other leading international institutional collections, but no one really knows her here. Her Solo Project for the Summit was a quiet work and that I think is based on the idea to let the work speak, not the name.
M: You always plan ahead; you want to talk a little about the next Summit?
D: I would love to turn the solo project into a sculpture court. Imagine if you are looking at the development of sculpture in South Asia across time. I could have modern artists … Novera would be there with her fantastic works. I would like to get rid of those walls to have sculptures in open court where I will have architect-designed plinths, it could be amazing. But sculpture is so expensive to ship. It is complicated but that's my dream. You know, Solo Projects are meant to be about big statements, I could still have the big statements but get out of this 'recent works' frame. Let's see.
M: Any last word?
D: I said this at the opening dinner: the Summit only exists because there are good artists in Bangladesh. No one would travel to this place to see terrible artworks. They know that when they are going to come here they are going to see things which they will not see anywhere else. And that is what the Summit needs to maintain. That's something I am protecting very dearly.