The third edition of the Dhaka Art Summit showed that while the biannual event is still experiencing growing pains, it is opening up new possibilities for exploring emergent practices in Asian contemporary art


A host of international and local artists, curators, historians and scholars descended upon Dhaka, Bangladesh, from February 3 to 5, for the third edition of the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS), which organisers billed as “the world’s largest non-commercial platform for South Asian Art.”

The biannual event was sponsored by Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, through their Samdani Art Foundation, led by artistic director and chief curator Diana Campbell Betancourt. The free exhibition presented work by over 300 local and international artists, scholars and speakers.

The summit featured over 60 events, including exhibitions, art installations, performances, film screenings, workshops and talks, centered around the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. Work on show included well-known South Asian and international artists, among them Lynda Benglis, Simryn Gill, Waqas Khan, Prabhavathi Meppayil, Sandeep Mukherjee, Tino Sehgal and Dayanita Singh.

The pioneering event also brought together museum professionals from around the world, building on DAS’s identity as a research and educational platform. Curatorial contributions came from respected institutions including the London’s Tate Modern, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rubin Museum and Guggenheim, Paris’ Centre Pompidou, Zurich’s Kunsthalle and Hong Kong’s Asia Art Archive.

The non-commercial public event drew praise for its approach to providing Bengali language art criticism, specially commissioned during the event to coincide with a new section entitled Critical Writing Ensembles.

As part of the summit, the Samdani Art Award was presented to Rasel Chowdhury, selected from a shortlist of 13 emerging Bangladeshi artists. Chowdhury won a three-month residency at the Delfina Foundation in London.

DAS also commissioned a series of public art works, including a second iteration of Po Po’s VIP Project, in which the artist explored the notion of public art as a place-making practice by positioning VIP signs in bus stops throughout the city. In doing so, Po recorded social reactions to the segregation of these spaces, offering commentary on their exclusionary nature. By documenting the reactions of people to the signs, Po’s work comments on how public space is often re-purposed and privatised under volatile political systems.

The exhibition was not without controversy, after a small series of photographs entitled Last Words, by Indian filmmaker Ritu Sarin and her partner, Tibetan exile Tenzing Sonam, were censored by organisers after China’s ambassador to Bangladesh, Ma Mingqiang, demanded that the work be removed. The act of censorship drew the ire of international media and art press, signalling that DAS, despite its best intentions, is still experiencing growing pains and coming to terms with its identity, mandate and public function as a whole.

Despite these arbitrating issues, the summit opened up new possibilities for exploring emergent practices of contemporary art in the small South Asian country. It developed an ambitious and critical program that sought to amalgamate international discourses within contemporary art within a distinctively domestic context.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The One – on – One Issue #35, on page 21.