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DAS: The inside track on South Asian modern and contemporary

Mumbai-based collector, author and gallerist Amrita Jhaveri and Kolkata-based gallerists Priyanka and Prateek Raja share their reflections on this year’s Dhaka Art Summit, introducing important voices from the region to an international audience

Led by chief curator Diana Campbell Betancourt, the biennial Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) — which was founded in 2012 by the Samdani Art Foundation with the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy and support from the government of Bangladesh — seeks to create wider connections between South and Southeast Asia, with Bangladesh as the focal point.

More than 300 regional and international artists were showcased this year at DAS, which was attended by leading museum directors such as Glenn Lowry of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Frances Morris of Tate Modern.

Here, Amrita Jhaveri, Director of Jhaveri Contemporary in Mumbai, collector, and curator of South Asian Modernists 1953-63  at The Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, England, and Priyanka and Prateek Raja, whose Experimenter gallery is currently showing South Asian artists Bani Abidi and Naeem Mohaiemen, share their insights on DAS and the state of South Asian modern and contemporary art.

Which South Asian artists would you recommend to new collectors, and why?

Amrita Jhaveri: ‘Works by Bangladeshi artists Novera Ahmed and Rana Begum feature prominently in my collection, but there are so many wonderful artists from across the region making very distinct works.

‘With regard to modern art, I am very excited by the works of Mohan Samant (1924-2004) from India, who we will exhibit at Frieze in New York, as well as Shahid Sajjad (1936-2014) from Pakistan. Samant was an early modernist and a member of the Progressive Group. Sajjad, a self-taught sculptor who was active around the same period, was represented in Diana Campbell Betancourt’s Bearing Points  exhibition at Dhaka Art Summit.

‘Jhaveri Contemporary also represents some contemporary artists whose work I admire. Most of these artists are not in the mainstream of the art market and speaking personally, the element of discovery is the driving force in building a collection.’

Ayesha Sultana, Threshold, 2012-13. Solarised, scratched photographs with glue. Image courtesy the artist and Experimenter, Kolkata

Ayesha Sultana, Threshold, 2012-13. Solarised, scratched photographs with glue. Image courtesy the artist and Experimenter, Kolkata

Priyanka and Prateek Raja: ‘India-based sculptor Sahil Naik is young, has a brilliant practice, and a very bright future ahead of him. Photographer Sohrab Hura is exceptional; a Magnum nominee, he has recently been included in some of the most critically important exhibitions all over the world and is one of the leading practitioners of his generation.

‘Looking at the subcontinent for young artists, I’d recommend following Rathin Barman, Ayesha Sultana (above) and Sahej Rahal. For more experienced collectors, I would suggest looking into Naeem Mohaiemen, Bani Abidi and CAMP.’

Having visited early editions of the Dhaka Art Summit, what do you make of its evolving role in Bangladesh and South Asia?

AJ: ‘DAS changes with every edition, bringing a greater number of art professionals from around the world to Bangladesh. It is a platform for Bangladeshi artists and, more importantly, for them to be seen among their peers. In many ways it is both similar and distinct from the Kochi Biennale, which exhibits the vision of a single artist who is nominated as a curator. Dhaka draws upon the expertise of professional curators from around the world to engage with South Asia.’

Shikh Sabbir Alam’s works in the Samdani Art Award exhibition caught the eye of Priyanka and Prateek Raja. Installation shot from Kunstnernes Hus Oslo show in 2016. Image courtesy the artist

Shikh Sabbir Alam’s works in the Samdani Art Award exhibition caught the eye of Priyanka and Prateek Raja. Installation shot from Kunstnernes Hus Oslo show in 2016. Image courtesy the artist

P & PR: ‘We have been to Dhaka Art Summit since its inception, and this year was our fourth visit in six years. DAS is one of the most significant exhibitions in South Asia and is a much-anticipated event. With every edition, the programme and the projects at the summit are increasingly ambitious and extremely well curated, consistently pushing the limits of contemporary art.

‘This year’s summit was very strong in terms of content and, personally, in terms of discovery. I think all the curators, led from the front by Diana Campbell Betancourt, put together very thoughtful exhibitions. The talks and seminars programme was great, too.’

Installation image One Hundred Thousand Small Tales  at DAS 2018. Works by Anoli Pereira and T.P.G. Amarajeewa. Photo Pablo Bartholomew

Installation image: One Hundred Thousand Small Tales  at DAS 2018. Works by Anoli Pereira and T.P.G. Amarajeewa. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew

Which artists or artworks at this year’s Dhaka Art Summit have made a lasting impression on you?

AJ: ‘Artworks by Shahid Sajjad and Pablo Bartholomew in the curated section of the Bearing Points  exhibition were notable, as well as presentations by Seher Shah and Randhir Singh, featuring together in a curated section titled Studies in Form, Dhaka University Library (#1), commissioned by Samdani Art Foundation. Elswehere, works by Zuleikha Chaudhari, Goshka Macuga and Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran also made an impression.’

P & PR: ‘There were so many, but I think Sharmini Pereira’s exhibition One Hundred Thousand Small Tales, on a cross-generation of Sri Lankan artists, was a highlight for me. So was the show curated by Vali Mahlouji, A Utopian Stage: Festival of Arts, Shiraz-Persepolis, which documented an arts and performance festival held in Iran every summer between 1967 and 1977.

Opper Zaman, Insulate, 2016. Casting plaster, found objects, nails, rope and projected film. Image courtesy the artist

Opper Zaman, Insulate, 2016. Casting plaster, found objects, nails, rope and projected film. Image courtesy the artist

Diana Campbell Betancourt’s Bearing Points  was the anchor that brought these disparate practices together. Also from the Samdani Art Award exhibition, we liked the works of Opper Zaman and Shikh Sabbir Alam, and would be interested in knowing where their works are headed in the next few years.’

How do you think major art-world institutions are reconfiguring their approach to South Asian art?

AJ: ‘I think many of the institutions are still learning about the region, which is why events like DAS are so important. There are so many buried histories that need to be excavated.

‘When I was approached by the Whitworth for an exhibition on South Asian art, I began to explore the history of South Asian artists in the UK and their relationship with Victor Musgrave, who ran Gallery One in London, between 1953 and 1963. Musgrave not only had an active relationship with painter Francis Newton Souza, but also exhibited a dozen leading South Asian artists including S.H. Raza, Akbar Padamsee, Avinash Chandra and Anwar Jalal Shemza.

‘Once he closed the gallery in 1963, he embarked on collecting Outsider art. The Whitworth then acquired this particular collection, which is why the telling of this particular story made sense to the museum. Our exhibition, South Asian Modernists 1953-63 (running until 15 April), illuminates the collection of the Whitworth itself and further unfolds the story of South Asian art in Britain.’

P & PR: ‘I think the art world institutions have realised over the last few years that their collections and their curatorial work has been missing an important link. They are now on a steep learning curve in order to understand the art practices out of South Asia over the past few decades, and bridge that crucial gap. Initiatives such as Dhaka Art Summit, Kochi Muziris Biennale, and many other singular exhibitions held in our national galleries, institutions and private galleries make that bridge possible by introducing the works of important voices from the region to enthusiasts all over the world.’