“The sweat of my tired body/ has become the moisture of the city, and in this moisture, I’ll survive./ I live forever.” Those lines, written by M.D. Sharif Uddin, a Singapore-based, Bangladeshi-born construction-worker and poet, could be a battle cry for millions. Right now, however, their impassioned urgency illustrates a show about migrant labour at the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) in Bangladesh.
Now in its fourth edition, the summit has built a solid reputation as a hub for contemporary art in south Asia. Held in the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, the event is sustained almost entirely by Dhaka-based collectors Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani — at a cost of around $2m — and curated for the third time by Diana Campbell Betancourt. It is a sign of their success that they are expanding the initiative. This year’s summit runs for nine days (the previous edition lasted four); new programmes include an art mediation project — designed to communicate art to the public — and an expanded exhibition section; meanwhile more than 1,200 international visitors are expected, along with many times that number of locals.
It’s hard to overestimate the challenges of gathering works by 300 artists from 35 countries in a country afflicted by a refugee crisis, terrorist threats, limited public infrastructure, daunting government bureaucracy, intractable shipping regulations and visa restrictions, especially for travellers from other south Asian countries.
Yet the galaxy of thoughtful, timely and unexpected visual conversations has surmounted these obstacles. Arranged around a series of self-contained yet often interconnected exhibitions, the recovery and retelling of past and present narratives winds through the show like a frayed but sturdy thread. Bangladesh’s history — first ruled by British India, then by Pakistan, from which it won independence in 1971 — casts a bloody shadow over its heritage. In the talks programme, a tense discussion around the term “non-western” highlighted that Asian practitioners can no longer be treated merely as tributaries of a so-called canon which was itself formed through European and US artists’ interaction with Asian, African and Oceanian cultures.
The exhibition itself testifies that south Asian contemporary practice is rich and rooted. This does not mean that it is static. By opening with Karachi-born, London-based Rasheed Araeen’s blood-red, skeletal bamboo sculpture on the forecourt of the Academy, the summit confronts the migration routes along which much contemporary art travels today. Entitled “Rite/Right of Passage” (2016-18), Araeen’s airy, arterial geometries, which also nod to the bamboo scaffolding ubiquitous on Asian construction sites, underscore that he deserves far wider recognition for his career-long fusion of Islamic iconographies with stark minimalist idioms.
The glow of mystical abstraction also shines through one of the finest exhibitions. Entitled Planetary Planning and curated by Devika Singh, it brings together a cluster of subtle image-makers such as Lala Rukh, a renowned Lahore-based practitioner and teacher who died last year. Taken from her Mirror Image and Nightscape series (both 2011), Rukh’s drawings — delicate, just-visible wisps of silvery-white on mica-black carbon paper — suggest ghostly, musical notations or the transitory detritus of falling stars.
More tangibly terrestrial stories whisper through the transcendent lines of Rukh’s fellow participants Zarina Hashmi and Ayesha Sultana. Hashmi, who was born in India in 1937 (she is now based in New York), experienced the trauma of partition first hand. Her piece “Letters from Home” (2004) lays missives written by her sister in Karachi over architectural plans for houses and cities as if loss and love are underwritten into Hashmi’s notion of home.
Meanwhile, Dhaka resident Sultana proffers “Threshold” (2012-13), a sequence of found photographs of skies, seas and cityscapes. Scratched, discoloured, and condensed to their puritan outlines, their effect is to map the stateless, oneiric territory between our inner and outer gaze.
The show’s main exhibition, Bearing Points, which is curated by Campbell Betancourt, bears more explicit witness to a tragic wheel of persecution and dispossession. Divided into five chapters, the journey encompasses the forced migration of Kashmiri Hindus through a video diptych by Srinagar-born Veer Munshi which shows the artist tramping through snow-strafed streets in an attempt to reach the burnt-out dwelling on the parallel screen. The recent torching of Buddhist villages in Bangladesh is addressed with assurance by Kanak Chanpa Chakma, whose mixed-media paintings soak fragments of figurative imagery in a sinister bloodbath of pigment. Meanwhile the plight of the Rohingya — close to 700,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar since August last year — is addressed by Bangkok-based Jakkai Siributr. The latter’s work, “The Outlaw’s Flag” (2017), comprises a ceiling installation of imaginary flags embroidered with debris lifted from beaches in Myanmar and Ranong in Thailand, where they arrived during a previous exodus in 2015, only to coincide with a wave of Buddhist fundamentalism in that country.
An arc of works tackle the menace of climate change. In “Deep Weather”, Swiss artist Ursula Biemann captures the soul-shattering existence of residents of Bangladesh’s Sundarbans delta as they filled sacks with mud in a bid to save their homes from rising water levels. Quietly, exquisitely ominous is “The Impossiblity of Loving a Stone” (2017), from Karachi-based duo Omar Wasim and Saira Sheikh. This diminutive sequence of drawings, maps, fractured geological texts and poems reconfigures the natural world as a displaced father longing to come home.
Even before the Rohingya tragedy, Campbell Betancourt’s awareness of growing numbers of migrant workers travelling from Bangladesh into countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore fuelled her conviction that a more vibrant conversation between south and southeast Asia’s culture-makers is needed. “We had one once but it has been lost,” she points out, adding that Bangladesh’s position as a gateway to the south-east should help it transcend its positioning as “little brother of India and Pakistan”.
This new focus delivers a gripping, unpredictable panorama that includes “On Ghost” (2016), spine-chilling ceramic chains entangled with limb-like branches from Myanmarese sculptor Soe Yu Nwe; “Sea State VI”, a video by Singapore-based Charles Lim that interprets the Jurong Rock Caverns in Singapore — southeast Asia’s first liquid hydrocarbon storage facility — as a vertigo-inducing Hades inhabited by Bangladeshi workers; and hermetic palimpsests of imagery in watercolour, acrylic and metallic leaf on Chinese-style silk scrolls from Indonesia-based, Afghan-born Amin Taasha.
Meanwhile the DAS exhibition A beast, a god and a line, which boasts a kernel of southeast Asian works, will transfer to Myanmar in June. In doing so, it will become, says Campbell Betancourt, “the largest show of contemporary art ever held there”.
Also significant are exhibitions that have excavated fulcrums of neglected south Asian art. A gathering of commanding modernist canvases was winnowed from a collection of works acquired by the Shilpakala Academy from the Asian Art Biennale. Started in 1981 and still active today, it is the continent’s oldest, continually-held biennale and, in its early days at least, was a vitrine for admirable painters such as Dhaka’s Syed Jahangir. The glimpse offered here is a reminder, particularly to those from elsewhere, that Bangladesh’s lively contemporary art scene is seeded in its own fertile territory.
In the summit’s film programme, Legend of the Loom, produced by Dhaka photography agency Drik, scavenges memories of the now defunct craft of muslin weaving, once one of Bengal’s most sought-after luxury goods. Though the crucial plant variety is now thought to be extinct, so fired were the film-makers they are now working with scientists to create a similar cloth from remnants of DNA.
The last word must go to One Hundred Thousand Small Tales. A shattering journey through Sri Lanka’s war-ripped heart curated by Sharmini Pereira, it includes “’83” (2016), an animation by Sumudu Athukorala, Sumedha Kelegama and Irushi Tennekoon which uses childlike graphics to drum home the horror of a pronunciation test that spelt life or death for captured Tamils. Marginalised within south Asia and virtually invisible beyond it, Sri Lankan art — if this show is any measure — deserves a brighter spotlight. Yet it’s a measure of how tender sensibilities remain around that period that the Sri Lankan embassy in Dhaka asked DAS to reconsider the inclusion of Small Tales.
Such tensions encapsulate the powerful current running between art and life in zones where politics are fraught and images therefore especially charged. Mind you, that’s nearly everywhere right now. In Dhaka, at least, this week the art is on the side of the angels.
Dhaka Art Summit runs to February 10, dhakaartsummit.org
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