Installation view – Adrián Villar Rojas, ‘New Mutants’, 2017-2020, Moroccan marble floor tiles encrusted with Devonian period micro Ammonite and Goniatites fossils.
Photo | Randhir Singh
At the centre of the 2020 Dhaka Art Summit, curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt, is the airy, open atrium of the National Gallery Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy building. While the other galleries resemble more traditional white-cube or black-box spaces, this expansive section of the first floor, looking out onto the grounds and bright with natural light, is chaotic, unexpected and vital. Many of the exhibitions that comprise the Summit intersect here, including the entirety of The Collective Body, curated by Betancourt and Kathryn Weir, Nobody Told me There’d be Days Like These, curated by Mustafa Zaman, and Geographies of Imagination, envisioned by SAVVY Contemporary with Jothashilpa. Sections of other exhibitions also spill over into this space: works from The Collective Body and from Geological Movements. If the welter of exhibitions that comprise the Summit is occasionally disorienting, the chaos of the works and practices in this room are wonderfully expressive of the possibilities of collectivity.
Installation view - front: Taloi Havini, ‘Reclamation’, 2019-2020, mixed media installation
The main architectural element here is a lightweight cane structure, more scaffolding than hut, resting on a mound of soil. The installation, Reclamation by Sydney-based Taloi Havini, reflects on the impermanence of the traditional architecture of the Hakö, the matrilineal clan to which the artist belongs. The space has been occupied by various collectives: the Mata Aho Collective, composed of four Maori women based in Aoteroa, New Zealand, who over the course of the Summit are learning a type of Maori song called patere; and Dhaka-based Artpro, who are producing fabric-based embroideries in the kanta style, drawing on traditional practices and domestic labour.
Beside it are two long, curving panels. One side is covered in a 36-metre long canvas painted in bright colours by Jothashilpa, a collective of cinema poster painters whose work is threatened by the rise of cheap digital printing. The painting is one output of SAVVY Contemporary’s curatorial research project, Geographies of the Imagination, laying out a unique timeline of world history. It covers key moments in which geographies have been imagined and divided, from the supercontinent Pangea hundreds of millions of years ago to the Berlin Conference of 1886, to the present day occupation and siege of Kashmir. The timeline was updated during the course of the 9 days of the summit, with the addition of new historical events and calendric systems.
Installation view of The Collective Body at DAS 2020, picturing SAVVY x Jothashilpa, ‘Geographies of Imagination’; and Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury,
‘LOVE LETTER TO THE LAST SUN’, 2019-2020, mixed media.
This spontaneous quality is everywhere here; much of the work is in process. While in a nearby gallery I heard the sound of singing coming from the space. When I entered I found a dance party in full swing, with live acoustic music. After the dancing ended, a tarp was taken off the floor under the dancers’ feet to reveal a canvas sheet resting on a carved woodblock. That was carefully lifted to reveal a woodprint that had been printed through the force of the dancers’ feet, the work of the Borneo-based Pangrok Sulap collective.
Above all, this is a space for exchange. It is a space for conversations, struck up while waiting in line at Hanoi-based Artlabor’s Vietnamese coffee stall or while sitting in Kathmandu-based ArTree Nepal’s falcha, a reconstruction of a traditional Nepali gathering place for rest and conversation. It has also been a space for exciting collaborations between artists. In the weeks prior to the Summit, members from Lagos-based Invisible Borders Trans-African Organisation and Dhaka-based Drik Network/Pathshala/Chobi Mela went on a road trip together around Bangladesh. For the Summit, they have produced a newspaper, The Trans-Bangladesh, bringing together essays, photographs, and poems in English and Bangla that emerged from the trip. It is funny, absurd, and reflective all at once.
These collective, non-institutionalised practices are sites for experimentation with local and indigenous practices of construction and display, a welcome shift from the infrastructure-heavy displays that we’ve come to expect from large international exhibitions. In the panel discussion Design in an Era of Climate Catastrophe, Dhaka-based architecture theorist Hurarea Jabeen told us that venue design accounted for 77% of the 2018 edition of DAS’s carbon footprint. For the 2020 edition, the designers interfered minimally in the structure of the Shilpkala academy, an experiment that was most palpable and successful in the Collectives space.