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PHOTO ESSAY: Samdani Seminar – Pawel Althamer and the Neighbours


Polish artist Paweł Althamer, along with members of his community (neighbours) from Bródno, Poland—Maciej Karbowiak, Brian Halloran, Marcin Althamer and Michal Parnas—travelled to Bangladesh to engage alternative communities in an eight-day-long creative and collaborative Sculptural Congress workshop as part of the Samdani Art Foundation's continued Seminar programme.  Paweł and his neighbours engaged with patients of Protisruti (the Promise) drug rehabilitation centre in Sylhet, creating the communal work of art, Rokeya, with the aim of bridging understanding across social and cultural divides through the power of creativity.

Althamer’s Seminar began when he was first invited to Bangladesh in 2015 by the Samdani Art Foundation’s Artistic Director Diana Campbell Betancourt to conduct Draftman’s Congress, which engaged students from the Faculty of Fine Art (Charukola), Dhaka University, in the creation of a collective painting on canvas. It was during this trip that Paweł first visited Sylhet and upon engaging with the local community began developing his plans under Diana’s curatorial guidance for what has since, through an extraordinary collaborative process, become Rokeya.  Planning the project with Emily Dolan, Director of Operations and External Affairs, Samdani Art Foundation, their idea was awarded a Creative Encounters grant by the Asia Europe Foundation and Arts Network Asia with support from the Polish Institute New Delhi and the Samdani Art Foundation. 

Royeka was realised in collaboration with the Bródno Sculpture Park and Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, a partnership which will continue through the exchange of ideas with the vision of commissioning other artists’ work. In 2018 the Samdani Art Foundation will open the first phase of Srihatta - Samdani Sculpture Park and Art Centre; the first ever public art centre and sculpture park in Sylhet of which Royeka is the first site-specific sculpture.

On the first day of our work with the local community, whenever we tried to work on a part of the project ourselves, they would take over from us. Day by day it became better and we started to really collaborate and share the work between us ... to play together towards the final outcome.
— Marcin Althamer

To create Rokeya’s main form, a group of patients from Protisruti came to Srihatta to assist Paweł and his neighbours with weaving the bamboo frame, alongside children from local schools. 

My work can be a beautiful game, and as part of my artistic routine I always expect enthusiasm from the people I work with, but the locals in Sylhet gave us many examples of how open and ready they were to collaborate.  Whatever we proposed throughout the workshops, they were ready to answer.  I think it is a basic human activity to be able to recognise yourself in a collective group in the process of doing things together and on occasions against each other, and we can of course use the terms creativity or artistic activity, but people just have fun doing things together.
— Paweł Althamer

Pawel spent the first three days of Sculptural Congress in a series of workshops with patients from Protisruti and local school children. Together, they created elements of a communal sculpture in clay. These elements were then merged into one sculptural form and fired within Rokeya’s internal kiln—a creative fire at the heart of the sculpture’s structural belly—around which the community’s, Paweł’s and his neighbours’ collaborative sculptures were exhibited.

When Paweł first invited us to be involved in the project the details were quite vague, but we knew we were coming to Bangladesh to be part of a big project.  On arriving in Sylhet we were surrounded by a huge amount of creative energy, and we all spent a lot time within this energy establishing really positive relationships; whenever we felt tired the community always injected us with a new portion of their energy. 
— Maciej Karbowiak

The title Rokeya was given by the village children after Paweł shared his concept for this communal work of art–its interior space–to become a place for creative activity within the community which reminded them of Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880 – 1932), a Bengali writer, educator, social activist, and advocate of women's rights who pioneered female education in Bangladesh.


Rokeya’s colourful fabric costume was stitched by nearby village women from local textiles who also helped to drape the fabric.


The interactive sculpture has already engaged hundreds of local school children and community members and will continue to do so as a collective space for sculpture, art workshops and collective drawing.   

The project was an amazing experience for all of the young children involved; they all had autonomy over what they were making and knew that their efforts would form part of the final outcome of something bigger.
—   Rajeeb Samdani, Co-Founder and a Trustee, Samdani Art Foundation
The Samdani Art Foundation strives to bring diverse audiences to world class contemporary art, and Paweł’s project was a beautiful start to the development of Srihatta in that the local community was integral to the creation and activation of the work, and they will engage with our programming well before our public opening as key creative constituents. I can’t wait to visit their rotating exhibitions of drawings and ceramics inside of the sculpture each time I visit Sylhet. 
— Diana Campbell Betancourt, Artistic Director, Samdani Art Foundation
I have imparted something to the community that is now out of my control, and we must wait and see where the project continues from here.  The final outcome is a fantastic example of how a school and museum can be combined into a single space without conflicts; Rokeya is a space for the community to create and learn, as well as to exhibit their work.
— Paweł Althamer


All Photograph Credits:  Noor Photoface
Samdani Art Foundation