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Dhaka Art Summit 2023 explores metaphors of word and water that have shaped culture

STIR speaks with Diana Campbell, Dhaka Art Summit chief curator, examining the theme and its cultural context, new initiatives to expect, and future of the summit.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Feb 02, 2023

The Samdani Art Foundation is presenting the sixth edition of the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS), with an overarching theme of Bonna—both the word for 'flood' and a girl’s name in Bengali. The exhibition promises to bring together artists, architects, and community groups, weaving together the country’s nuanced relationship with words and water. Led by Chief Curator, Diana Campbell , the Dhaka Art Summit is a non-commercial platform for research and art exhibition, acting as a bridge that connects Bangladesh to the rest of the world. This edition includes over 140 local and international artists and architects, as well as collaborative artist-led community projects. With over 50 per cent of the works on view being new commissions and performances.

Materials, 2022, Hana Miletic | Dhaka Art Summit | STIRworld
Materials, 2022, Hana Miletic Image: Courtesy of the Hana Miletic, LambdaLambdaLambda and The approach

STIR speaks with Diana Campbell, the curator of DAS on the significance of the theme and its cultural context, the vision for this edition, and the future of the summit.

Rahul Kumar: Why are the metaphors of water and word important to the region? What led to the theme and title "bonna" for the forthcoming edition of the summit?

Diana Campbell: The work of Amitav Ghosh, Sunil Amrith, and others looks at how water and climate have shaped culture in the subcontinent. However, rather than rely on novelists and academics who live in the United States, whose work we love and respect, we wanted to turn to people living with water and learning the words to describe it, to help us develop DAS: young Bangladeshis who do not have the privilege to leave or the aura of fame to be heard. We involved our volunteers and art mediators in the creative process; commissioned Gidree Bawlee Foundation for the Arts to make a trailer for us; and involved 1,200 Bangladeshi children in the production process of creating works and meaning with artists and curators both from Bangladesh and also from all over the world. 

This edition has been years in the making. DAS is an iterative project, so each edition feeds subsequent ones. Many ideas often relate to conversations that began in Dhaka Art Summit with people in Bangladesh, which continued across the world between editions, before circling back into Bangladesh. For example, I had a conversation in Cleveland with Josh Kline in 2018 about the climate catastrophe and how nearly every culture has a flood myth, and what that might mean. Otobong Nkanga was here in Dhaka for nearly six weeks preparing for the Summit and told me about a researcher she met, who said that floods had only become a problem for architecture in the sub-continent when the British wanted to keep the conditions stable to extract goods at whatever season of the year. Shawon Akand extrapolated that Bangladesh is a wet culture, that dry cultures (eg. Britain and Pakistan) could not adapt to their process of colonisation. The BBC wrote a feature about Bonna as a name which I read during the pandemic, and my friend Fernanda Brenner pointed out that the issue at play was not so much literal floods, but rather translation. Marina Tabassum and I are working together on something in California, looking at this further, a strand of DAS which will connect to DesertX opening in one month. 

Transtidal, 2022. Gouache, watercolour and ink on paper, Rithika Merchant | Dhaka Art Summit | STIRworld
Transtidal, 2022, Gouache, watercolour and ink on paper, Rithika Merchant Image: Courtesy of Rithika Merchant

Rahul: What are some of the new initiatives that one can expect to see in this edition? Has there been a change in direction for the post-pandemic world – exploring concepts that "tell stories of crisis while facilitating hope"?

Diana: We are commissioning new music for the first time, and lots of live interdisciplinary works that are meant to help us learn how to relate to strangers again, and to think more closely about the relationships we form around us. We are celebrating oral histories that often get left out of academic forums, and using the live time we have together in a lively way. Lectures that can happen on a screen won’t be happening here as they did before the pandemic; there are other forums for that now that did not exist when DAS started. We have the widest range of places in Bangladesh represented in this edition, the widest range of ages of participants, from toddlers in Roman Ondak’s 'teaching to walk' to historical artists like Satyajit Ray, novelists, rappers, musicians, choreographers, composers, architects, video game designers, fashion designers, poets, playwrights, dancers, theatre practitioners… The disciplines included in this DAS can’t be solely held within the visual arts, but what you will see is definitely a celebration of what contemporary art is and can be in the world today and how that relates to Bangladesh. 

Home, 2023, Yasmin Jahan Nupur | Dhaka Art Summit | STIRworld
Home, 2023, Yasmin Jahan Nupur Image: Courtesy of the Yasmin Jahan Nupur

Rahul: Please elaborate on the thought that words for weather are gendered, and why is that an issue? 

Diana: My friend’s seven-year-old child asked why Bonna had to be a girl after seeing the Gidree Bawlee trailer. I thought that was an excellent question, and we decided to delve into how climate change and gender are related as part of the process of trying to answer it.

The death rate of people in floods is skewed towards women, because they are often conditioned that it is their role to stay home, or they are afraid of what might happen to them in a shelter. Taking this as a departure point, many works question structures meant to keep women down, often found in language, or even in values held and passed down in folk tales. These ideas are explored in the works of Ashfika Rahman who builds on the myth of Behula; Najmun Nahar Keya on Khana, a legendary female poet who had her tongue cut out because her divinatory powers threatened men around her; and Bhasha Chakrabarti on the notion of Bonno and how that relates to Bonna. Her project explores the word Bonna as the feminine form of Bonno, meaning wild and excessive—words historically used to denigrate women’s sexuality. We live in a manmade world: men rarely consult women on large scale housing projects in the subcontinent, even though they are the people who primarily inhabit these homes and observe the effects of climate change on architecture and the built environment when staying home. The work and research of Hurarea Jabeen attests to this. I hope that visitors of Bonna will think about this and make the world safer for women knowing these challenges they face in being heard and empowered, which should not persist—it’s 2023! The 'young girl' Bonna who we invoke in DAS 2023 will not be staying home, and she might become an architect. There is even a drawing in Sean Anderson's show by a real girl named Bonna studying with the Jaago Foundation, and one of our art mediators is named Bonna as well, so the theme flows between the real and the imagined. 

Detailed image of the work, 2021,  Pol Taburet | Dhaka Art Summit | STIRworld
Detailed image of the work, 2021, Pol Taburet Image: Kristien Daem; Courtesy of the Pol Taburet and Mendes Wood DM

Rahul: How do shows like To enter the sky explore architecture as an active way of encountering materiality, collaboration, and sovereignty?

Diana: Come and see them—you will be blown away by the work people are doing to build architectures of resilience, of trust, while not discounting fear, entropy, and destruction. The exhibition centres Bangladesh as part of a broader reckoning of what it means to be human in and of the built environment today. Extrapolating the words of Sean Anderson into the wider summit, given that all of the shows are connected, The Summit “asserts how a spatial medium, with its multitudes of hope and chance, can begin to disseminate radical stories of becoming to help us understand our own fragile inheritances as individuals, communities, nations.” Check out the work of the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre, which features in several parts of DAS.  

Shelter, 2022, Veronika Hapchenko | Dhaka Art Summit | STIRworld
Shelter, 2022, Veronika Hapchenko Image: Courtesy of the Veronika Hapchenko

Rahul: What is the motivation to present works from the region, like Afrah Shafiq’s Nobody Knows for Certain, which is a narrative video game set as an exchange between USSR and South Asia during the Cold War? Does it comment on the current political scene of the region?

Diana: DAS is a contemporary art platform responding to the urgencies of our time. I was suffering from Covid when asked for help from the curator of the Russia Pavilion as he prepared his resignation statement. It was like being in the eye of the storm, with a health crisis inside of me and a political crisis all around me impacting people I cared about—one of the moments in life I felt most acutely powerless. I am close to Iaroslav Volovod, a curator who is Ukrainian by blood, a scholar of South Asian art history. He was also working at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art which mentored Afrah’s extensive and incredible research project through a grant in 2020, well before the war began. Iaroslav safely got out of Russia and is now working at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, engaging with South Asia, and I think it is my role to make sure that we do not cancel out inconvenient histories but rather shed light on the urgencies of our time and the many ways colonisation has contributed to cultural brainwashing. This ranges from American Imperialism via the Point Four Program (explored by the Iranian-Canadian artist Ghazaleh Avarzamani) to USSR propaganda via children’s books in South Asia (explored in Afrah’s work), which were happening simultaneously, intertwined with the complicated history of the Balkans addressed by Driant Zeneli. Many Soviet children’s books are thought to be local to South Asia by audiences reading them now. Soviet and Russian mean different things, the Soviet Union does not exist anymore. We have two artists from Ukraine in DAS 2023, Viktoria Hapchenko and Sana Shahmuradova-Tanska, and are also contextualising their work with that of Rohingya artists because there are many humanitarian crises in the world—and they are interrelated. Ukraine and Bengal, for example, both share histories of man made famines, a theme that we addressed in DAS 2020, linking Vietnam, Bangladesh and Ethiopia via modern art histories.

Salman Toor’s illustration for Amitav Ghosh’s Jungle Nama, 2021 | Dhaka Art Summit | STIRworld
Salman Toor’s illustration for Amitav Ghosh’s Jungle Nama, 2021 Image: Courtesy of the Salman Toor, Amitav Ghosh, and Harper Collins

Rahul: How do you envisage the summit growing in the coming years?

Diana: Seismic Movements was about terrestrial shifts and large-scale visible movements by people to change the face of the planet ; it was not subtle. Bonna is more subtle, it is airy, and connects the weather outside and the weather inside of us. It also talks about Very Small Feelings—the title of a show I am co-curating with Akansha Rastogi and Ruxmini Reckvana Q Choudhury, in collaboration with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. I want to delve more into inner worlds, more into feelings, into the smallest inner worlds that no one can see, but have tremendous impact on the world outside, like love. 

We will open Srihatta in 2024—so we will soon have a complex to rehearse and incubate more ambitious performative projects, a process that we are beginning already with baby steps starting in DAS 2023 towards DAS 2025. Interdisciplinarity is also going to continue as a core value, as is collaboration. Nikima Jagudajev (1990) is a US American, Austrian/Uzbek choreographer whose work looks at the politics of gathering. She will be at DAS the entire Summit, looking at how audiences gather in Bangladesh, to prepare a project with us and WIELS in Brussels, supported by Phileas in Austria. The project will be live at WIELS in 2023, and developed further in Bangladesh for DAS 2025.

Diana Campbell, artistic director of SAF and chief curator of DAS | Dhaka Art Summit | STIRworld
Diana Campbell, artistic director of SAF and chief curator of DAS Image: Myra Ho; Courtesy of the Dhaka Art Summit

The Dhaka Art Summit 2023 will be on display from February 3–11, 2023, at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy.

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