Adrián Villar Rojas | The Theater of Disappearance, 2017
To enter the Bangladesh Shilpkala Academy in Dhaka, visitors must pass through a semi-covered foyer, an extended threshold just inside the gate. For the 2020 edition of the Dhaka Art Summit, held at the Academy, that space has been taken over by The Theater of Disappearance, an installation by Argentinian artist Adrian Villar Rojas. The foyer’s marble floor is encrusted with ammonite and orchoceras fossils, remnants of sea creatures that inhabited our planet 400 million years ago. Visitors walk over these reminders of a distant past to reach the rest of the summit. Niches in a rammed earth wall are painted to resemble burned-out fireplaces, dramatizing the fire and brimstone of planetary creation.
When I asked Rajeeb Samdani, the founder and director of the Samdani Art Foundation along with his wife Nadia, about the Foundation’s future plans, he brought up Villar Rojas’ installation. It is one of many works that will eventually move into a permanent pavilion in rural Sylhet, in the northeast of Bangladesh. Another work currently on display at the Summit, Olafur Eliasson’s minimal projection-based piece Your Uncertain Shadow (Black and White), will also move there, as well as new commissions by Monica Sosnowska, Asim Waqif, and others.
Sylhet is the location of the Foundation’s next initiative: Srihatta, the Samdani Art Centre and Sculpture Park. In addition to a permanent and growing collection of artworks from international artists, the Centre will have its own dedicated programme that runs throughout the year. Designed by the Bangladeshi architect Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury and currently under construction, it is slated to open by the end of the year.
Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani
Just as the Summit is not a biennale, Srihatta is not a museum. The Samdanis rather envision it as a space to support a range of practices that don’t fit into institutional mandates and timelines. In 2014, during the Gwangju Biennale, the Samdanis encountered Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s M.2064 (Fitzcarraldo). They acquired the work, which requires an 80-foot long room in which a hologram is projected, but they didn’t have a space to display it in. Plans for Srihatta emerged from their desire to show this work in a public venue, and expanded from there.
Delhi-based artist Asim Waqif planted a bamboo forest at the Srihatta site two years ago. A dream project, he has envisioned it as a giant flute that will emit sound when the wind blows through it. Waqif has been checking in on the progress of the forest every few months, but is uncertain about whether it will actually make music. The Foundation is supportive of this experiment: “If it doesn’t work, at least we have some wonderful memories”, Samdani told me.
The Dhaka Art Summit, meanwhile, has been evolving each edition. The 4th edition in 2018 saw the introduction of an art mediation programme, where art mediators engaged with visiting publics who are largely unaccustomed to contemporary art exhibitions. For the 5th edition, the Summit was organised for the first time around a single theme, “Seismic Movements”, with certain sections curated by young Bangladeshi curators, a way of supporting curatorial practice in the country. The Summit began as a space to support and promote Bangladeshi art, and will continue to be one.