“DAS is a kind of joint, a metaphorical fault line connecting diverse histories and allowing for the circulation of new ideas and generation of new structures to hold these ideas and histories together”, writes Dhaka Art Summit 2020 curator Diana Campbell Betancourt in her introduction to the summit programme.
Within the broad theme of Seismic Movements, Dhaka Art Summit 2020 consistently prioritised local and regional exchanges across the Global South. The exhibition draws on unexpected historical connections, shared modernist aspirations, and possible futures. This commitment is particularly prominent in the two sections titled Colonial Movements and Independence Movements, which directly address colonialism and its aftermaths. Beyond the exhibition, the question of regional developments and solidarities form the basis for the two symposia that took place at the summit: Condition Report 4: Stepping out of Line; Art Collectives and Translocal Parallelism envisioned by RAW Material Company, Dakar, and Modern Art Histories in and Across Africa South and Southeast Asia, in partnership with Asia Art Archive and the Institute for Comparative Modernities at Cornell University.
In the Colonial Movements part of the exhibition, three different works by Bangladeshi artists – Yasmin Jahan Nupur’s performance Let’s Have a Nice Cup of Tea, Nabil Rahman’s Untitled and Faiham Ebna Sharif’s Cha Chakra – articulate a set of concerns around tea as a commodity that generated new global networks. While looking towards global circulation, each of their works is also rooted in Bangladesh, where the cultivation of tea continues in colonial-style plantations to this day.
Another plantation history comes up in Adebunmi Gbadebo’s True Blue: Peter, Peter 2 and Phillis. These wall-mounted works are composed of rough patches of paper, handmade by the artist using black hair, cotton, rice paper, indigo, and fragments of silkscreened photo imagery. Little snippets of text appear to be drawn from the ledger of the primary site that the work explores, the True Blue plantation, listing African American slaves by their labour and the prices paid for them. The dominant colour is indigo, which is derived from a plant grown in Bangladesh; the rough paper resembles the blue jeans that are churned out in Bangladesh’s factories and sent all over the world. A conversation emerges between different forms of oppressive labour under global colonialism.
Phan Thao Nguyen’s three-channel video Mute Grain is half-hidden at the end of a gallery of paintings by South Asian modernists. The video tells the story of two siblings during the 1945 famine in Vietnam. The haunting, yet gentle narrative combines fantastical elements with a historical tragedy: the famine was caused because occupying Japanese forces uprooted rice and replaced it with jute to aid their war effort. Returning to the paintings of the Bangladeshi modernist Zainul Abedin and the paper-based work of Indian artist Somnath Hore, one realises that these too engage with colonial histories of famine, in this case the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, which was caused by the British during the Second World War, and took place in the modern-day Indian state of West Bengal — as well as what is today Bangladesh.
(Arms drill by women members of the Chatro Union, 1971), Bouchra Khalili (The Constellations Fig.8, 2011) and Murtaja Baseer (Three Female Figures, 1972).
The exhibition also reflects on more recent histories, particularly the moment of post-colonial optimism that was felt across the Third World. Maryam Jafri’s Independence Day 1934-1975 is a catalogue of images of the first Independence Day ceremonies of various Asian, Middle Eastern, and African nations. Jafri has arranged them according to their contents, revealing an ironic consistency across these images from different times and places. One set displays only images of brown leaders of the newly-independent nations signing papers alongside their former white colonial masters. In another grouping, we see images of the new leaders wearing impeccable suits, standing erect in the back of open-top cars, driving past cheering crowds. A third set has images of buses with people hanging out all the doors, sitting on the bonnet, even, celebrating jubilantly.
Another intervention into the transnational archives of post-colonial nationhood consists of a set of flower bouquets arranged in an installation. To create Flowers for Africa, Kapwani Kiwanga researched archival images of the independence of various African nations and subsequently recreated the flower arrangements she found within them. On display here were arrangements from Uganda, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Nigeria, and South Africa. Over the course of the exhibition, the flowers wilted and began to decay.
Zahia Rahmani’s Seismography of Struggles – Towards a Global History of Critical and Cultural Journals is a more documentary-like exercise in archival excavation. Displayed in three channels, the video presents the covers and extracts from the contents of journals from around the non-European world over two centuries. Beginning in the 19th century and ending in 1989, these materials are presented in a timeline. The slides move forward year by year, cataloguing various journals from Vietnam, Tunisia, or India. The contents are anti-colonial, expressing global solidarities.
In addition to these shared pasts, the exhibition also proposes collective futures. Vivian Caccuri’s body of work around the figure of the mosquito is a wry take on a speculative future for regions that live with mosquito-borne diseases, from Brazil to Bangladesh. The installation proposes an evolved human being that lives in a new, symbiotic relationship with mosquitoes. Drawing equally from high fashion and medical anthropology, the work is dominated by two hooded costumes made from mosquito nets. Mosquito-borne diseases have been central to a colonial imaginary of the tropics as sites of disease; by humourously reclaiming the mosquito, Caccuri imagines a world that might be ordered differently.
Besides bringing these and other works together in the exhibition, the summit also facilitated the travel of over 500 artists, curators, scholars, and critics to Dhaka. Gathering in Dhaka rather than New York or Berlin is important for these conversations. While south-south solidarities are being explored increasingly in contemporary art today, these explorations still take place too often in the power centres of the West. One of the major highlights of Dhaka Art Summit 2020 was being able to participate in such exchanges in Bangladesh, where colonial and regional histories continue to saturate everyday life, and encounters between the local and the global are urgent sites of crisis. The summit was a space to reflect on shared transnational histories and forge new solidarities — all the while staying rooted in the local context.