The 10-day programme run by a private art foundation is determined to put South Asia on the map
One of the most densely populated cities in the world, Dhaka is choked with traffic: 18 million people across a 300-square-kilometre city, all heading to work and going home at the same time. Cars creep, honking, along the highways, while in a slipstream beside them, brightly coloured rickshaws, enclosed tuktuks, bicycles, people, and dogs jostle past. The sides of buses are dented and scarred with the evidence of many encounters with wing mirrors, like tin toys battered from overuse.
Amid this intensity, the Samdani Art Foundation, run by collectors Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, aims to present a different side of Dhaka: that of a city with a long history of artistic production. The couple founded the biennial Dhaka Art Summit to put the city’sart world on the map and to support the Bangladesh scene.
Every two years, they host a 10-day programme of exhibitions, talks and workshops, at the four-storey Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy in the city centre (the couple are now building a bespoke arts institution north-east of Dhaka).
Now in its fourth exposition, the Dhaka Art Summit has become a staple on the power circuit of the art world, drawing in the likes of Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern, whose attendance was described by one guest as akin to a state visit.
“When we started the foundation in 2011,” says Rajeeb Samdani, “A lot of people were talking about South Asia, especially the western world, but we thought the definition of South Asian art was wrong. Most of the time South Asian meant India and Pakistan, but there are six other countries, which includes us.
“We also thought that Bangladesh doesn’t have a contemporary art museum, and we wanted to build a South Asian collection for our future generations. When we started doing that, we realised we have no clue about our region. Within the region, we are not talking. So we created a platform for South Asia.”
The gambit worked and the first event attracted about 50 international visitors, rising to 200 the next year and 800 after that. This year, 1,200 flew in (many hosted by the Foundation). As for local visitors, the last event attracted 138,000 to the exhibitions.
The Foundation has now expanded the event from four days to 10, to accommodate the rising number of visitors.