Srihatta-Samdani Art Centre and Sculpture Park

Breaking New Ground for Contemporary Art in Bangladesh

SRIHATTA RESIDENCY PLAZA (2018) RENDERING BY KASHEF CHOWDHURY + URBANA. COURTESY OF THE SAMDANI ART FOUNDATION.

Dhaka - “We wanted to build a platform to promote our contemporary artists,” says Nadia Samdani, the Bangladeshi patron and founder of the Samdani Art Foundation. In 2012, Nadia and her husband Rajeeb launched the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS), a free biennial event at the capital’s Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy (on until 10 February).

“Discussions on south Asian art revolved around India and Pakistan; this is now a crucial platform for artists and galleries from Bangladesh,” says Nadia.

NADIA AND RAJEEB SAMDANI. COURTESY OF THE SAMDANI ART FOUNDATION. PHOTO: NOOR PHOTOFACE

Against the odds, the summit has turned Dhaka into an art destination. “This is our model; it’s unique to us,” says Rajeeb, a successful entrepreneur. The event is positioned as an international, non-commercial research and exhibition platform. This year, there are 16 talks featuring more than 120 speakers including Frances Morris, the director of Tate Modern, and Glenn Lowry, the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, who both participated in a session called “Reorienting Collections and Rethinking the Canon”.

FROM LEFT: MOHAMMAD KIBRIA, UNTITLED (1965); AI WEIWEI, FAIRYTALE - 1001 CHAIRS (2007); NOVERA AHMED, STANDING FIGURE (1960); ALICJA KWADE, HYPOTHETISCHES GEBILDE (2017). COURTESY OF THE SAMDANI ART FOUNDATION.

There are a number of firsts at the 2018 summit, including the inaugural Samdani Architecture Award. This was established to find new models for learning in abandoned spaces across Bangladesh. The focus has also widened. “We are looking at how south Asia is connected to the Silk Road through the show A beast, a god, and a line,” says Rajeeb. The exhibition’s curator is Cosmin Costinas, the executive director of Para Site, a contemporary art centre in Hong Kong. “The show looks at historical connections with south-east Asia, making us rethink how we imagine regions,” he says.

SKIRT WITH KADU MOTIF, PART OF THE UPCOMING A BEAST, A GOD, AND A LINE EXHIBITION AT DHAKA ART SUMMIT 2018 (2010). PRIVATE COLLECTION, HONG KONG.

Now the Samdanis have set their sights even higher, with plans to open their own art centre in Sylhet, 200 kilometres north-east of Dhaka. The initial phase of the Srihatta-Samdani Art Centre and Sculpture Park, the first contemporary art institution in Bangladesh, is due to launch later this year. It will have 10,000 square feet of artist residency spaces, 10,000 square feet of plazas and a 5,000-square-foot gallery. New commissions will be dotted around the grounds; Indian artist Asim Waqif has, for instance, built a whistling bamboo forest.

SRIHATTA RESIDENCY (2018) RENDERING BY KASHEF CHOWDHURY + URBANA. COURTESY OF THE SAMDANI ART FOUNDATION.

“In the past few years, we have acquired a large number of huge pieces, and just weren’t sure what to do with them,” says Nadia. The 2,000-strong collection, currently housed at Golpo, the Samdani family residence in Gulshan, Dhaka, is rooted in south Asian art with Naeem Mohaiemen, Rana Begum and Raqs Media Collective among the artists represented. Nadia and Rajeeb are loaning works to the MCA Chicago next year for the show Many Tongues: Art, Language, and Revolution in the Middle East and South Asia (26 October 2019 – 26 April 2020).

FROM LEFT: AYESHA SULTANA, UNTITLED (2016); RANA BEGUM, NO. 385 (2013). COURTESY OF THE SAMDANI ART FOUNDATION.

Chris Ofili, Cindy Sherman, Paul Klee and Marina Abramovic are among the famous international artists acquired by the Samdanis. A pavilion dedicated to the permanent collection will also form part of the sprawling new complex in Sylhet.

Sylhet, nestled beneath the Assam Hills, is remote but the couple are evangelical about attracting new audiences to this rural tea district. They hope that the new centre will cultivate a new community of art lovers in the region. “We’re not a museum; we don’t want to disrespect other museums, but we call this a ‘space’,” says Nadia.

SRIHATTA RESIDENCY (2018) RENDERING BY KASHEF CHOWDHURY + URBANA. COURTESY OF THE SAMDANI ART FOUNDATION.

But who will come? “Who would have thought we’d attract more than 138,000 visitors to an art event in Dhaka [to the last summit]?” adds Rajeeb, who does not hesitate to point out that the only direct flights running from London to Bangladesh go to one city – Sylhet.

Dhaka Art Summit 2018 runs through 10 February at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy

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