Rajeeb Samdani is on his feet, gesturing towards a hypnotic painting, an asymmetrical stacking of intriguing red and green shapes. ‘Let me give you an example. This work is by Anwar Jalal Shemza, a Pakistani modernist. And this Shemza was highly influenced by Paul Klee,’ he says. His gaze drifts across the wall in the direction of a painting by the Swiss-German artist, similarly geometric but employing a soft palette of pastels. ‘Do you see the connection? There is always a connection.’
I am at the home of Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani, in the heart of Gulshan, the leafy central suburb of Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. And around me is an incredible collection of art. On the coffee table lies a Damien Hirst skull, next to a plate of Bangladeshi kebabs prepared by my ever-hospitable hosts. On another table sits a dancing, diminutive Dalí sculpture. And across the magnificent six-storey residence hang works by the likes of Ai Weiwei, Tracey Emin, Zaha Hadid and Anish Kapoor – a mere sprinkling of the 2,000-plus works that make up the Samdanis’ immense collection of art.
The Samdanis are Bangladesh’s foremost art collectors. But in the past few years they have also arguably become the most influential duo in all of South Asian art – and, indeed, among the 100 most influential people in the art world, according to ArtReview magazine’s annual Power 100 list.
‘We started off as collectors. We would travel all over to museums, biennales and exhibitions, and saw there was no presence of Bangladesh anywhere. We wondered, why is this happening? We have so many great artists,’ says Nadia. ‘So we thought we needed to support our artists.’
In 2011, the duo founded the Samdani Art Foundation, initially supporting Bangladeshi artists by funding individual exhibitions and projects. ‘And then we thought, how many projects, internationally and individually, can we support? And how can you do that in the long term?’ says Nadia. ‘So we had the idea of doing something here, on a big scale, where everyone from all over the world can come and see.’
Enter the Dhaka Art Summit. Launched in 2012, the biennial four-day event has quickly become the world’s biggest non-commercial platform for South Asian art. And it’s a unique showcase. It features contemporary art in all its diverse forms, from painting to sculpture, performance to video, photography to installation, and a number of exhibitions put together by curators from some of the world’s biggest art institutions. It includes programmes of seminars, films and workshops. And entry is completely free, which has allowed many of the city’s poorest to be part of the 138,000 people who attended in 2016. ‘We had kids from some of Dhaka’s poorest schools come. Can you imagine for them to see something like this?’ says Nadia.
The inaugural summit in 2012 focused firmly on Bangladeshi art. But over time it has taken on a broader, more ambitious vision. ‘We wanted to support the art scene of Bangladesh, but we also wanted to support the whole of South Asia. We thought it important to have a platform where people from all over the world can come, discover artists and learn what is happening in the region,’ says Rajeeb, before emphasising, ‘the most important thing is to build the connection.’
While it may not be the home to South Asia’s most vibrant art scene – Rajeeb suggests that honour would go to Mumbai or Delhi – Bangladesh’s historical background makes it an ideal place to begin these pan-regional conversations.
The country of more than 150 million people has a complicated modern history. Culturally, it has always identified with the region of Bengal, which was once part of British India, along with what is today India, Pakistan, Myanmar and Nepal. Later, it became part of Pakistan when British India was ‘partitioned’ in 1947 along religious lines into two countries. It was only born as Bangladesh in 1971, when it declared independence from Pakistan after a brutal civil war.
‘There are a lot of historical and other connections across the region,’ says Rajeeb. ‘South Asia as a whole is very strong as a region. Yet before we started the summit, we had no idea about art in Myanmar or what is happening in Nepal, for example. And if we were facing these problems, what about people from the rest of the world?’
Indeed, the rest of the world has quickly seen the Dhaka Art Summit as the place to discover South Asian art. Led by the foundation’s artistic director, Diana Campbell Betancourt, the 2016 edition featured an impressive list of collaborations with some of the world’s biggest museums. These include the venerated institutions of the Centre Pompidou, Tate Modern, the Guggenheim Museum and Kunsthalle Zürich. Each of these museums is conducting long-term research into the region that will remain with their respective institutions long after the summit is over.
‘The summit has quickly become the new must-watch hotspot on the international art circuit,’ says Nada Raza, assistant curator for South Asia at the Tate Modern. ‘Its rapid ascent shows that art needs new meeting points, that the former centres no longer hold.’
‘People have so much interest in this part of the world, but very little knowledge,’ adds Rajeeb. ‘They want to discover, they want to find out.’
Through the summit, many people are also finding out the strength of the Bangladeshi art scene. The quality of art, says Nadia, has long been there, but now there is a new pathway for its artists to the world.
‘For a lot of artists, life has changed,’ says Nadia. ‘From the first edition, major museums have acquired work by Bangladeshi artists, artists are being represented by international galleries, and a Bangladeshi artist has had a major retrospective at Kunsthalle Zürich. And all of this came from the Dhaka Art Summit.’
One of those artists is Shumon Ahmed, a young conceptual photographer, whose hauntingly beautiful images of Bangladesh’s immense ship-breaking yards grace a vast wall in the Samdani house. In 2014, Ahmed was a finalist for the Samdani Art Award, an initiative of the foundation that focuses on young Bangladeshi artists and culminates at the summit. Ahmed didn’t win the award but his participation put him before some of the world’s top curators – and eventually on a path he previously couldn’t have imagined.
‘Because of the Dhaka Art Summit, now I have a gallery that represents me: Project 88 in Mumbai, one of the best galleries in the subcontinent,’ says Ahmed. ‘I have this exposure to a world that I was deprived of. Now I have an opportunity to have a dialogue with a larger community of practitioners in the art community in Dhaka, in South Asia, in the world, all with a different tone.’
His experience, he says, is by no means unique. The presence of the summit has brought a new enthusiasm to young artists across the Bangladeshi art scene.
The Samdanis have even greater plans for the future. Near the northern city of Sylhet, where both their families originate, they are opening Srihatta: Samdani Art Centre and Sculpture Park within a sprawling 40-hectare property. It’s like a permanent extension to the Dhaka Art Summit, which they hope will drive their vision for the art of the region.
‘Ultimately, we want to see Bangladeshi and South Asian art in all the major museums, being recognised as one of the top international art regions of the world,’ says Rajeeb. ‘We believe a door has opened for us, for Bangladesh, for South Asia, and we should take this opportunity. This door will not be open forever. This is our time.’
This story was originally published in July 2017 and updated in September 2020