When I tell my family and friends I am going to Bangladesh's capital Dhaka to see art, they ask: "There is art in Dhaka?"
The tone drifts somewhere between an exclamation and a question.
A friend asks: "What is Dhaka? A country?"
It is true. Dhaka certainly does not have the arty ring attached to say, London, Venice, Paris or New York. At most art fairs I have covered, the build-up is so intense, the venues and signage perfect, that even before you see the art, you can overhear one of the most overused words in the art world - "mind-blowing".
In Shilpakala - an academy for fine and performing arts and the venue of the second Dhaka Art Summit held from February 7 to 9 - visitors were confronted with a metal detector. The security folks wanted to check bags. The slowest lift seemed to be in operation. The entrance to the greyish building with multiple glass panels gave no indication of what lay within. The international art fraternity was in Dhaka, drawn by the exciting works of South Asian artists and more. I spotted art fair directors, museum curators, auction house heads such as Amin Jaffer, Christie's international director for Asian Art and Documenta's artistic director Adam Szymczyk.
I got my introduction to Bangladeshi art in 2011, when I lost my way at the Venice Biennale. I found myself in an abandoned armoury converted into an art gallery. That year, Bangladesh was making a quiet Venice debut outside the main venues. There I saw a work titled Bizarre And Beautiful that cut me deep. A glistening armour of bras made of razor blades. Many people walked past it. I could not. I stood there for 45 minutes transfixed by those blades, imagining them cutting through my skin and wondering who the artist was. It was Tayeba Begum Lipi.
And so here I was in Dhaka looking for her. I wanted to tell her that since I saw her work three years ago, when I slipped into my bra, I have sometimes felt a cut so deep.Her installation at the Dhaka Art Summit, A Room Of My Own, was the latest in a body of work that references issues of womanhood and femininity. It told of her silent journey over the years to conceive a child. The razor blades were back with even more powerful visuals of foetuses, forming and lost. In the centre of the installation, a doctor's sterile medical equipment evoked a woman's struggle to be a mother. Over three days, I revisited this piece. I saw women walk into the room and weep.
The summit had a clear focus - South Asia. There was Indian artist Mithu Sen's amazing installation Batil-Kobitaoli (Poems Declined), which played with light and shadows on a glass wall and through poems that had been rejected by publishers, questioned what makes for success and failure in the world today.
A few steps away from Sen's installation, Pakistan's contemporary art rock star Rashid Rana presented a monumental installation titled A Room From Tate Modern. Looking like a construction site from the outside, it invited viewers into a grey space. There were hidden paintings in the grey walls. These revealed themselves only on closer examination and reflected upon his position as a Pakistani artist being integrated into the Western exhibition-style white cube model.
These were among the works that stood out for me in the showcase of 250 artists. The summit has been conceived and led by one of South Asia's most influential art collector couples, Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani. Within South Asia, where art fairs are relatively new, they have created a unique model that perfectly balances the commercial and the curatorial. For their second edition, they commissioned 14 solo art projects curated by independent Mumbai- based American curator Diana Campbell Betancourt. The artists she picked for the impressive, mostly large-scale solo projects came from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Nepal.There were 33 South Asian art galleries in the commercial platform of the summit. Their programming was back-ended with panel discussions on art, screenings of indie as well as experimental films and cutting-edge performance art pieces. The most impressive of these was an eight-hour performance art piece Blackening by Indian artist Nikhil Chopra, blending elements of performance, live art, theatre, sculpture, painting and drawing.
More than 70,000 people walked through that single metal detector at Dhaka's Shilpakala. From the boldness of the programming to the vision, the organisers took risks and it worked. Many artworks were fresh commissions.
There were lessons here for last month's Art Stage Singapore, the top contemporary art fair which added eight curated country and regional platforms to its commercial fair elements. What I would like to see here next is the strengthening of this curatorial element. More large-scale works, fewer but stronger art works in the country and regional platforms, the introduction of panel discussions and film screenings and more performance art pieces. What Chopra pulled off in Dhaka in eight hours alone is worth bringing to other parts of the world.
Dhaka showed me that the curatorial and the commercial can blissfully coexist in one space. As a model it was about as perfect as any art lover could hope for.
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