Much has been made of the globalization of the art world. Curators, collectors, gallerists and even artists themselves are often on the move, toting their Jeff Koons-designed Louis Vuitton luggage from biennales to exhibition openings to auctions. Yet for all this glamorous jet-setting, most art events still take place in three cities: New York, London and Hong Kong.
Determined to expand the art world’s horizons, husband-and-wife team Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani are encouraging art lovers to veer off the beaten track and visit a very different part of the world: Bangladesh.
Collectors of Bangladeshi and international art, the Samdanis realized in the late 2000s that the art community was overlooking artists from their home country. “There was no gallery that wanted to show them, there were hardly any exhibitions that show them, there weren’t even websites about them,” Rajeeb explains. “But we knew Bangladesh had so much potential.”
Hoping to give the local arts scene a boost, the couple founded the Samdani Art Foundation in 2011 to increase international exposure of Bangladeshi art and to help the public in Bangladesh more easily access world-class art. “We initially started supporting artists in small ways,” Nadia recalls. “ But we thought ‘how many can we support? Five? Ten?’ That wasn’t enough, so we created the Dhaka Art Summit.”
A biannual event, the Dhaka Art Summit is a series of exhibitions, talks and public events that take place over a week or so in the Bangladeshi capital. The next Dhaka Art Summit will take place next month, from February 2 to 10.
The Summit is overseen by an artistic director, Diana Campbell Betancourt, but guest curators produce many of the exhibitions. With the backing of the Samdanis, these curators do research in Bangladesh or South Asia over nearly two years before presenting an exhibition at the Summit. This year, curators from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Artspace in Sydney and Hong Kong’s Para/Site art center are taking part, as well as Dr. Maria Balshaw, Director of Tate.
As the Summit brings together such eminent curators, it’s not surprising that it’s now become a fixture on the international art calendar. But just as importantly, it’s also given the Bangladeshi public unprecedented access to world-class art. “There are no VIP hours at Dhaka Art Summit,” Nadia explains. “It’s a free event, open to the public, who get to see all these world-class shows under one roof. Not many Bangladeshi people can travel the world to see art, but now they can see it in Bangladesh.”
The couple are conscious, however, that the Summit only takes place once every two years. Hoping to keep the momentum going year-round, the Samdanis are building a permanent arts space in Bangladesh, which will be called the Srihatta—Samdani Art Centre and Sculpture Park. The center will have a 100-acre sculpture park, 10,000 square feet of artist residency spaces and a 5,000-square-foot gallery. “A permanent space was not planned at the beginning,” Nadia admits. “But over time, it’s started to make sense that we have a permanent space.”
As if encouraging art lovers to visit Bangladesh wasn’t already enough of a challenge, the Samdanis have decided to build their arts center in Sylhet, a city roughly 200 kilometers from Dhaka. But Rajeeb is quick to explain that the decision isn’t as nonsensical as it seems.
“Sylhet is known for its luxury resorts and tea plantations, so it’s famous as a tourist destination,” Rajeeb says. “There are lots of flights in and there are direct flights to Sylhet from London and Dubai.”
The arts center is due to open towards the end of 2018 but several artists are already working on site-specific sculptures for the center. Indian artist Asim Waqif has planted a bamboo forest on the site, which will grow into a living, breathing artwork. “When you walk through it and there’s a breeze, you’ll hear a noise like a flute,” Nadia explains.
Many works from the Samdanis own collection will be installed in the space, particularly pieces that can’t fit in their home. “We have a huge floor piece by this Brazilian artist Daniel Steegmann and a sound machine by Canadian artist duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller,” Nadia says. “The sound machine looks like is a huge table with 70 very old speakers stuck on the top of the table. When we were collecting these works, we didn’t think ‘OK, where will we put these?’ We just loved them so much we had to collect them.”
Although their name will be over the door and their art will hang on the walls, the Samdanis insist that the arts center is ultimately a public space. “The most important thing is that [entry is] going to be free,” Rajeeb explains. “All of our events are free and so is this. It’s all for the public.”