A Liminal State: Between Tradition and Transformation

Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani


On the opening day of the 2020 Dhaka Art Summit (7-15 February), Soma Surovi Jannat was announced as the winner of the 5th Samdani Art Award, presented in partnership with the Goethe Institut and the Delfina Foundation. Set up in 2012 by Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, the art collector couple who are directors of the Samdani Art Foundation and of the Dhaka Art Summit, the award supports and promotes contemporary Bangladeshi artists between the ages of 22-40.


Jannat was selected from a shortlist of 12 artists by an international jury chaired by Aaron Cezar, Director of Delfina Foundation, and consisting of artist Adrián Villar Rojas; Castelli di Rivoli director Caroline Christov-Bakargiev; artist Julie Mehretu; and SFMoMA curator Eungie Joo.


Installation view – Soma Surovi Jannat, ‘Into the Yarn, Out in the One’, 2019-2020

Over at the National Art Gallery of Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, the Summit’s venue, an exhibition curated by Philippe Pirotte (assisted by Ruxmini Reckvana Q Choudhury) brought together works by the shortlisted artists. Spanning various mediums, including documentary photography, performance, and mixed-media installation, the works here are an idiosyncratic survey of the concerns and strategies of a generation of Bangladeshi practitioners.


Diana Campbell Betancourt

This is a country undergoing momentous shifts, as suggested by the title of the 2020 edition of the Summit, Seismic Movements, curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt. Outside the Shilpakala Academy, massive infrastructure projects are transforming the city. Roads are dug up and traffic is at a standstill. Around the country, globalisation is radically altering cultures that have been embedded in the local. A flood-prone, largely deltaic nation, Bangladesh is under serious threat from rising sea levels. The question of how to negotiate and represent these chaotic encounters is at the forefront of many of the works here.


In The Spell Song, a set of Bangla proverbs hangs on the wall; the curved letterforms are upholstered in handwoven cotton saris of the Tangail region, where the artist Najmun Nahar Keya hails from. They spell out oral sayings that have been passed down for generations, rooted in local practices and addressing changing seasons and the different crops that come and go through the year. Appearing organic and fleshy from afar, when seen up close the words give way to the warp and weft of the weave, and the shimmering colours of the dyes.


Zihan Karim’s Last Five Minutes of Xiluo Theatre is a quiet meditation on loss. A projection shows videos of the interior of a theatre on the eve of its demolition. The camera is still, the only movement a beam of light that ranges across the room as the day passes. Next to this ambient video a metal scaffold supports nine CRT televisions, also showing images of the theatre. The televisions have their casings removed and their inner workings are visible. Like the theatre building, they are now obsolete. 


As for Jannat’s installation which won her the award, Into the Yarn, Out in the One is made up of delicate pen and ink drawings spread over seven curved white tables, a series of small wall-mounted panels, and the gallery walls. Disfigured animals, curvaceous human bodies, bits of furniture, men rolled up in carpets, machines, limbs, and lines morph into one another as if in a surrealist game. Jannat tells me she is intrigued by the spiral structure that governs the shapes of galaxies, as well as the whorls of fingerprints. This is echoed in the layout of the work: to traverse the installation, visitors must circle between the concentrically arranged tables and then out again, getting lost in the details as they go along. In these drawings and their installation in space, chaotic violence exists alongside order and stillness, a sharp image of contemporary concerns in the region.