curated by diana campbell betancourt
2-10 February 2018 | Dhaka Art Summit
The Dhaka Art Summit 2018 placed Bangladesh at the centre of its own cartography rather than at the periphery of someone else’s, recalibrating how we think about art in South Asia by focusing on the increased inclusion of minority positions and conflicted terrains. This allowed visitors to reconsider the diversity found in the region beyond national narratives, and to begin to navigate South Asia as a long-standing zone of global contact. To this end, the Solo Projects section of the Dhaka Art Summit was replaced with Bearing Points. This new initiative comprised a series of large-scale thematic presentations by artists and architects, orienting visitors toward lesser explored transcultural histories of the region, curated by DAS Chief Curator Diana Campbell Betancourt, and weaving together strands of thought from the nine other guest curated exhibitions in the Summit.
bearing point 1 - Politics: The Most Architectural Thing to Do
“Architecture must inspire the people, for whom it is built, by creating spaces that incite the finer, more gracious aspects of the mind,” said Bangladeshi architect and urbanist Muzharul Islam (1923-2012). When asked why he entered politics, he responded, “because it was the most architectural thing to do.” This Bearing Point considered the entanglement of the history of architecture in South Asia with the quest to undo the effects of imperialist colonisation. Decolonial practice meant re-making the world; re-framing a new attitude to internationalism against the modes created by imperialism.
Moving towards the de-hegemonisation and decolonisation of form, Rasheed Araeen’s monumental commission Rite/Right of Passage (2016-2018) used the familiar form of bamboo scaffolding, as well as that of temporary bamboo pavilions, used across South Asia for ritual and ceremonial purposes to destabilise an imperialist idiom of minimalism, with its focus on the machine-made, replicable form, and erasure of the traces of the presence of the human hand. A rite of passage can be described as a ceremony marking when an individual, or individuals, leave one group/society to enter another. Inspired by figures like Araeen, DAS sought to create a space for artists on the periphery of a Western-dominated art historical discourse, but also an India-dominated South Asian cultural discourse.
Seher Shah and Randhir Singh’s Studies in Form (2017-2018) was a tribute to a history of internationalist thinking in architecture, while simultaneously imagining a blueprint for cultural hybridity in architecture through a landscape of cyanotypes. The post-independence moment saw the invitation of many pioneering architectural thinkers to the region. Franco-Hungarian architect and theorist Yona Friedman was first invited to South Asia by UNESCO in the 1980s to research into techniques of vernacular architecture, which could be used to respond emergencies where resources were limited. Friedman worked with existing craft practices, such as basket-making and the use of bamboo, to develop what would eventually become the Museum of Simple Technology (1982) in Madras (Chennai). Rebuilt in 2017 in Bangladesh, this project symbolised the spirit of self-reliance, flexibility, and freedom that allowed Friedman’s manifestos for mobile architecture to exist into perpetuity, infinitely translatable. Questioning the hierarchical position of the museum, and the role architecture plays in the creation of its hegemonic position, Dayanita Singh’s Pocket Museum and Shoebox Museum workshops created a different form of a museum without walls – as mobile entity, one in a permanent state of flux.
Continuing the Tagorean tradition of syncretism between vernacular and western forms and de-colonial pedagogy, the Education Pavilion, designed by Samdani Architecture Award laureate Maksudul Karim, imagined a space for a nomadic art school at the centre of DAS which hosted free workshops on artistic and curatorial methodology. The Dhaka Art Summit hoped to foster modes of architectural thinking that are able to conceive of located, contextual forms of life, oriented against imperialism, that produce their own syncretism framework that reimagine both built and non-human environments.
bearing point 2 - Dozakh-i-puri n'imat (An Inferno Bearing Gifts)
The 14th Century Moroccan scholar Ibn Batuta’s description of Bengal reads as Dozakh-i-puri n'imat– an inferno bearing gifts. This Bearing Point descended into this inferno, considering the interwoven histories of Bengal to face the coming storms of ecological catastrophe and rising ethno-nationalism.
Muzharul Islam once said that “independence brings in the greatest opportunity for a nation to express its thoughts, talent, and energy.” Islam designed the campus of Chittagong University, which was the birthplace of the 13-panel mural, Abahoman Bangla Bangali (The Flows of Bengal and the Bengali), painted in 1972 by members of Chittagong-based collective Oti Shamprotik Amra. These panels narrated a history of Bengal up until the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, and were part of the Bangladesh India Friendship Fest, the first exhibition of Bangladeshi art abroad in 1972 in Calcutta, which included artists, musicians and performers. The first panel is titled Ruposhi Bangla (Beautiful Bengal) after the seminal collection of poems by Jibanananda Das (1899-1954), which served as a major point of inspiration for the nationalists of the Language Movement from 1952.
Music and oral performance were key in the Bangladeshi Liberation War when radio stations deemed illegal by the Pakistani government disseminated nationalist Bengali songs and troupes of performers travelled to far ends of the country to produce citizenship through music. The Bengali musicians’ collective Mohiner Ghoraguli also draws its name from a Das’s poem. Zihan Karim takes one of their songs as a point of departure to reimagine the metaphor of the body as the architecture for the soul. His 3D video installation examines what is lost when people try to erase difficult pasts, using a lens of social critique offered by the song to engage with centuries of history.
Music also played a significant role in the emergence of Bangladesh into international consciousness through the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh organised by Ravi Shankar and George Harrison. The early leaders of Bangladesh were cognizant of the impoverished image of their country in the world’s eyes. Muzharul Islam once remarked: “In the 2,000 years of our history, we have been poor for only 250 years and that too, because of colonisation. If we do suffer from poverty, we suffer only from one kind of poverty– economic.”
Student movements have paved the way for revolutions across history, including in Bangladesh, speaking to the role of education as a form of de-colonial practice and a vehicle for changing the course of history. One of the most radical institutions for education was Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan, where the poet and his contemporaries created an institution that focused on community-based aesthetically-oriented learning. The Otolith Group revisits Tagore’s pedagogical and aesthetic philosophy in their lecture performance which opens DAS’s talks and education programmes. Speaking to the centrality of the spoken word in the production of the law, Zuleikha Chaudhuri’s Rehearsing the Witness revisited a legal case where the identity of the presumed dead Kumar of Bhawal was disputed for over 16 years in the courts of Dhaka, Calcutta, and London. These works activated archives and oral histories, to create contexts that investigate the production of identity as a performed practice.
BEARING POINT 3 - An Amphibious Sun
The Bay of Bengal once supported an amphibious life. Water was not a force to keep at bay, but an entity to live with, and through. In Ursula Biemann’s film Deep Weather, mud connects the ends of the Earth: Alberta, Canada and the Sundarbans Delta of Bangladesh that has soaked in the sea of the Bay of Bengal for centuries. Mud complicates the relationship to liquid, which is no longer delineated, discrete. The attempt to extract oil from the muddy sands of Alberta by multinational corporations leads to displacement: of indigenous people in the Athabasca basin in Canada, and of local populations in southern Bangladesh who have been transformed into climate refugees as a result of the resulting effects of global warming. Only lines of sacks filled with mud stand between these people, and the sea that swells with rising global temperatures, as global capitalism churns the insides of the earth to burn the remains of long-dead life forms. Rotating around the same sun, Canada and Bangladesh, as well as everywhere else on the globe, are linked by the oceans and atmospheres connecting them; a catastrophe on one hemisphere inevitably impacts the other.
With colonialism came the attempted erasure of muddiness as condition – amorphous zones became hardened into coastlines; lines were even drawn in the muddy space between the human and the non-human. The time of stones, of tides, of swamp, of earth, became subsumed to the relentless measure of the clock. Omer Wasim and Saira Sheikh’s drawings and text in The Impossibility of Loving a Stone (2017) reconstitutes the human in geological time, where the present stretches back two million years – they soil the skin between the Earth and us, slowly moving us like shifting mud through the present. Ho Tzu Nyen restages the first recorded colonial encounter between a white man and a Malayan tiger in Singapore which occurred in 1835, harnessing CGI technology to bring the story into the 21st century. He transforms the historical tiger attack into a metaphor for resistance against colonial exploitation of past and present; the 19th century colonial surveyor morphs into today’s corporations that are exploiting nearly the same forests. The human, animal, spirit, and machine become entangled in the suspended moments of this haunting essay film.
Moving further away from the generation of knowledge as mere data, Neha Choksi turns her attention to the sun, both as planetary sustenance and a point of reference for dialogue across generations and within the self through multiple modes of narration. The artist’s obsession with the sun is related to her long-standing interests in absence, loss, memory and nature. Choksi invited ten Bangladeshi children to embody a fictive dream of a child obsessively drawing suns, and to consider the multiplicity of the sun as a powerful magic orb and a cursed ball of fire, both energising and overheating life on earth. They considered the sun’s power from their point of view as children, but also from the vantage point of other human and non-human entities. They imagine how the sun might consider us within its dominion of power as it shines down on our planet. Each day of the Dhaka Art Summit 2018, Choksi invited a different adult professional to interact with the now-embodied dream child through the lens of their skill sets as an archaeologist or a meteorologist, among others. The psychological process of animating nature drawing the visitor back to their primal yearning to reconnect with the cosmos across species and generations as they morph from atoms into beings and back.
BEARING POINT 4 - There Once was a Village Here
There Once was a Village Here was a Bearing Point that considered what anthropologist Jason Cons describes as “sensitive spaces” – spaces that challenge ideas of nation, state, and territory where cultures exist that do not fit the image that the state has for itself. These spaces, which like many villages, are often razed with its people forced to succumb to the state, subdue to its needs, or submit to the domination of majority forces. However, the social fabric of a village often remains intact through oral tradition. South Asian artists have been advocating for these “sensitive spaces” for decades, however this Bearing Point differs in the sense that rather than advancing the visibility of internationally acclaimed and highly networked artists, it provides a space for artists from these communities to join these networks and speak for themselves.
When the British carved out Pakistan from an independent India in 1947, creating East and West wings, they created a country only united by its common majority religion, Islam, ignoring the plurality found in Islam’s cultures of worship, as well as the vast cultural contributions that Buddhism and Hinduism lent to Bengal, especially from the perspective of village rituals that inspire much of Bangladeshi modern art. The name Bangla Desh means the land where people speak Bangla (Bengali) and Bangladesh was born in 1971 on the back of the Language Movement in the 1950s where people fought for the right to speak, live, and work in their own language. Linguistic lines offer far more room for cultural diversity than religious ones, however there are 42 other languages spoken within this territory. Bangladesh has recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its peace accord with the Chittagong Hilltracts and the cultural ministry remains committed to supporting the visibilty of the rich cultures present there.
While we enter vastly different landscapes while navigating this exhibition from Thailand in the east to Afghanistan in the west, the plight of the minority cultures tied to these lands shares uncanny similarity as development needs of the state, capitalist greed, and religious fundamentalism seek to mine resources from below the ground these people stand on and erase the religious beliefs which they stand for, often tied to cultures of fear and oppression. These artists bear witness to religious and ecological violence unfolding in their locales, and their work often acts as a register for this trauma. Despite carrying the weight of enormous pain, the deeply poetic practices of these artists are able to create spaces of empathy through which new modes of solidarity might be imagined.
BEARING POINT 5 - Residence Time
Standing in the air on scaffolding, laying telecommunications cables while submerged under the sea, or manning call centres while suspended on a foreign time zone– the toiling bodies of the over 20 million migrant South Asian workers around the globe are mostly invisible, and yet instrumental in creating many of the world’s most picturesque cityscapes as well as to the simultaneous socioeconomic development of South Asia through the money they send home. Bangladeshis are moving beyond the countries geopolitically comprising South Asia, further west to the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia and further east to Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. These people are often treated as bodies without souls, having no culture of their own beyond their otherness. They are often written out of the narratives of the very nations they help to build, as reflected by the sparse South Asian cultural discourse in Southeast Asia. Works by Subas Tamang, Gan Chin Lee, Liu Xiaodong and Shahidul Alam attempt to humanise this issue through technique of portraiture.
South Asian culture is present all over the world via complex relationships of labour, and this Bearing Point serves to reorient our thinking about South Asia away from land-bound definitions - no longer sufficient markers of where a culture lives. Even if you watch a Hollywood 3-D film such as Harry Potter, the film was post-produced via a global assembly line running from Los Angeles through Bombay and beyond, capitalizing on low labour costs and government subsidies to supply the painstaking work going into each frame of a film. These digital networks are beautifully captured in the work of Lucy Raven and Anoka Faruqee, and the diversity and complexity of these interwoven movements can be seen Nabil Rahman, Yasmin Jahan Nupur and Pratchaya Phinthong’s work.
Overseas workers often inhabit a suspended condition of statelessness, literally going underground as in Charles Lim’s haunting video or being forced to cross unfamiliar black waters as in Andrew Ananda Voogel’s chronicle of the pain of indentured labour. Bangladesh has its own migrant labour situation now that over half a million Rohingya refugees have entered Bangladesh. Just as there are instances of Bangladeshi workers being trafficked or falsely enticed into exploitative labour contracts in Southeast Asia, there are also cases of Rohingyas being trafficked in Bangladesh as acheap labour source as chronicled in Kamruzzaman Shahdin’s monumental quilt made from material traces of displacement.
We build the world around us through our labour, and it is important to remember that the post-industrial economies in which many of us participate are built on the backs of cheap, often coerced, migrant labour in the Global South. Transnational flows of labour create new cultural economies, which need to respected and celebrated as having as much legitimacy as national narratives.