Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani have transformed Dhaka, in Bangladesh, into one of South Asia’s great artistic centres

When it comes to South Asian art, Bangladeshi husband-and-wife team Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani can perhaps lay claim to one of the world’s most diverse and most intriguing collections. An industrialist and managing director of the Bangladeshi conglomerate Golden Harvest Group, Rajeeb professes a great love of art, both from his native country and from across the globe.

His wife Nadia, who was born in England, comes from a long line of art collectors: her father was a collector, and she started her own collection when she was just 22. Initially, the Samdanis purchased art that captured their fancy, but over the years they’ve organised their pieces into two distinct groups: the international collection and the South Asian collection. The two collections now comprise over 2000 works, 70 percent of which are South Asian.

“When we started our South Asian collection, we realised we didn’t know much about South Asia,” explains Rajeeb Samdani. “Our main interest was initially in modern Bangladeshi artists, then we started looking at young emerging artists.”

The Samdanis decided to hire curators to guide them through their process and have since built up an impressive collection that includes paintings, installations and photographs, encompassing artists from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and other neighbouring countries. Artists featured in the collection include Anish Kapoor, who is often referred to as a British sculptor, but whose work forms part of the Samdanis’ South Asian collection because of his Indian background.

In parallel to their collection efforts, the Samdanis founded the Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh’s most important artistic event. “We wanted to do something that would bring everyone to Bangladesh,” Rajeeb Samdani says. The third edition of the event was held in February 2016, with the next installment planned for 2018. “We decided to have the summit once every two years, but it’s not a biennial,” he explains. “We didn’t want to follow anything and just wanted to do our own thing.”

For the 2016 event, the Samdanis invited 11 curators, six of whom came from different institutions, and asked them to create an exhibition in the space of two years. “We had curators from the Tate Modern, Centre Georges Pompidou, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum, the Rubin Museum of Art and Kunsthalle Zürich,” he says, “and we called it a summit because we had speaker panels, creative writing ensembles, film screenings, performances, solo projects and multiple independent exhibitions.” The 2016 edition also featured a Bangladeshi architecture section.

The Samdanis actively loan out their works to international art institutions. A 2015 retrospective of French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster at Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou featured a work on loan from the Samdanis as the centrepiece of the exhibition. They also contribute to important art events, both by loaning out works and by supporting participating artists: for the Venice Biennial’s 56th edition, for example, the Samdanis supported the projects of Bangladeshi artist Naeem Mohaiemen and India’s Raqs Media Collective.

As for the future, the Samdanis are planning to open a glorious new space to house the Samdani Art Foundation on a piece of land that lies 26 kilometres from Shahjalal International Airport. Architects working on the structure include Kashef Chowdhury, who hails from Bangladesh. “We are hoping to start the foundation building in 2018,” Rajeeb Samdani says. Until then, anyone interested in witnessing the Samdanis’ art collection can do so simply by making an appointment.

by Michelle Merheb

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Collectors Issue #38, pages 66-71.