A young man stands motionless with his back to the wall. On his shoulder rests a pole, which tilts diagonally down to the floor and across which visitors must step if they are to reach the other side of the space.
The work, part of a display by the Mumbai-based artist Shilpa Gupta, was one of numerous borders crossed at the Dhaka Art Summit earlier this month.
Crossed, or, in some cases, comprehensively smashed. That was certainly true of the imaginary barrier that prevents organisers from conceiving events that are ambitious in scope yet human in scale. Also challenged was the notion that Bangladesh, a country afflicted by poverty, floods and corruption, must provoke pity rather than admiration.
Art acted as a conduit across political boundaries. After a civil war, Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan only in 1971. Since then, its rapport with its neighbour has been stamped by tension. Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s relationship with India, often described as the “big brother” of the region, is of the love-hate variety.
The summit provided a platform for south-Asian art with links to this triad and beyond, into countries including Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. There were 14 solo projects that acted as the mothership to a fleet of satellites encompassing group shows, performance and film programmes, panel discussions and a small fair of commercial galleries.
In a less embattled country, the initiative would not be taxing. In Dhaka, success was far from given.
Home to 15m people, approximately 10 per cent of Bangladesh’s population, the overburdened capital is prey to strikes, power cuts and outbursts of political violence. Daily traffic jams reduce the streets to gridlock. Religious extremism menaces the country’s liberal anima while the roots of its democracy, established in 1990, are sickly. The opposition is calling for a rerun of last month’s elections. Allegations of human rights abuses are common.
Little wonder that preparations demanded, in the words of curator Diana Campbell Betancourt, “logistical acrobatics”. These ranged from the challenges of acquiring visas to the renovation of a building – the 120,000 sq ft Shilpakala Academy – where neither cranes nor drilling were permitted.
That the summit took place at all was due to the commitment of Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani, whose foundation is the sponsor. Based in Dhaka, the couple are collectors who own works by both Bangladeshi and international artists. Asked what prompted the summit, Rajeeb, a 39-year-old entrepreneur with interests in food, IT, logistics and communications, replies: “When people think about south Asia they start with India and end with Pakistan. Bangladesh is forgotten.”
With artists such as Subodh Gupta and Rashid Rana enjoying high international profiles, it is true that India and Pakistan are still spearheading south Asian contemporary art. Overall, this region is a crucible of energy: last year saw India launch its first, and acclaimed, biennial in Kochi; the Colombo biennial is in its third year; and there is an increasingly rich web of exchange programmes by institutions both within the region and beyond. That Tate Modern is not only pursuing a south Asian acquisition programme but also collaborating in Delhi with Khoj, a non-profit artists’ association that runs residencies, workshops and exhibitions, demonstrates just how valuable the territory is to global institutions.
It’s unlikely that Bangladesh will continue to slip under the radar. In 2011, the country won plaudits for its first pavilion at the Venice biennale, where the work stood out for its fearless power and formal exactitude.
In Dhaka, too, those qualities prevailed. The projects all benefited enormously from the tailor-made spaces whose construction caused Betancourt such headaches. Here was art blessed with room to breathe and time to be considered.
With much of the art turning on experiences of disconnection, dispossession and betrayal, the exhibition recalled George Steiner’s observation that art springs out of a sense of exile. Yet sentiments of return and reconciliation were also present.
Gupta’s project, for example, revolved around Indian and Bangladeshi communities trapped in enclaves in the wrong country, deprived of all rights. As well as the performer with the pole,a series of drawings, texts and photographs with words and imagery sliced out signalled her tale of unbelonging with a delicate yet insistent tempo that gave it a universal resonance.
Minimalist sculptor Rana Begum, who left Bangladesh for the UK when she was eight, marked her first major show in her country of origin by creating a dome from locally woven baskets. Casting dappled shadows, the canopy become a magnet for visitors, who roosted on the wooden stools Begum had placed within.
Teasing at the notion that western institutions cast too long a shadow over art in other regions, Rashid Rana brought the ghost of Tate Modern to Dhaka in the form of an empty gallery whose walls were covered in a shimmering skin of pixelated grey squares. It was a clever, quietly beautiful piece, whose suggestion of mischief was boosted by the presence of curators from Tate Modern, the Guggenheim in New York and the British Museum.
Among Bangladesh’s artists, anger at the discrimination suffered by the country’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community was a notable theme. Most spectacular was the project of Mahbubur Rahman, who created a replica men’s room out of stainless-steel scissors. What made this feat of design riveting was a cluster of light in the centre of the room. Changing colour like a chameleon, it underscored the shape-shifting nature of gender with memorable clarity.
Rahman is married to Tayeba Begum Lipi, another prominent artist, who used her project space for brave personal storytelling. Drawing on her experience of miscarriage, the assembly of portraits of her ultrasounds in razor-blade frames, a vitrine of baby clothes and a tray of tampons, forceps and cast plastic hands could so easily have been morbid. Instead, it was a reminder that art cannot only highlight the unbearable but possibly heal it a little, too.
Both Rahman and Lipi are founder members of the Britto Arts Trust, a non-profit artists’ collective that runs exhibitions, residencies and workshops from a gleaming, brightly lit space within a busy Dhaka shopping centre. Such pragmatic urban synergies are essential in a city with zero public infrastructure for contemporary art and a paucity of collectors. “Apart from Mr Samdani, there are mainly just people who buy paintings for their homes,” Lipi observes.
Although funding is a “huge struggle”, Britto’s nurturing gifts were evident: no fewer than four Britto members were part of the 12-strong shortlist for the Samdani Art Award. Judged by a jury headed by Aaron Cezar, director of London-based artistic residency project the Delfina Foundation, it was won by Britto artist Ayesha Sultana.
Sultana is going places. Now 28, her varied practice ranges from her winning entry, a trio of velvet cloths embroidered with sometimes arrestingly rude phrases from her diary, to drawings and oil paintings on linen that employed subtle, judicious mark-making to evoke the poetry of architectural space.
The latter works were part of B-desh, a group show of seven artists with no more in common than that they are based or were born in Bangladesh. Often such round-ups feel rudimentary, yet here the works’ intensity welded them into an awkward yet vital conversation. It was particularly encouraging to see “Metal Graves”, Shumon Ahmed’s elegiac photo-story about tankers left to rust on the shore at Chittagong.
Bangladesh is known for its rich tradition of documentary photography yet its practice has struggled for recognition within the art fraternity. The presence of Ahmed in B-desh, and also on the award shortlist, suggests the divide is narrowing.
The photography exhibition here demanded that art curators take it seriously. Entitled Lifeblood, it gathered seven photographers, including the genre’s chief pioneer Shahidul Alam, and Munem Wasif, who won the Prix Pictet commission in 2013.
Sitting on a delta of rivers, Bangladesh’s proximity to water should make it rich but too often curses it with flooding and pollution. The country’s tortured rapport with that element was the theme chosen by curator Rosa Maria Falvo. From Alam’s fishing boats on the Brahmaputra river, their sails radiant yet vulnerable under a thunderous sky, to Khaled Hasan’s image of the back of a worker mapped by soapsuds as he washes himself clean after a day crushing stones, these were stories that tugged you into the country’s soul.
No doubt there are piteous narratives to come from Bangladesh. But no one who participated in the Art Summit should feel anything but proud.