A hundred years after Abanindranath Tagore pronounced his vision of "Asian" art, the still-born concept has rebirthed as "South Asian" art in an idea whose time has come. The Asian mass results in a forced identity with few commonalities or, indeed, sensibilities - though there might be some room to navigate in the stream of South-East Asian and Far Eastern art forms with Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean art bedding down with representations from Singapore and Hong Kong in an unhappy cohabitation. The South Asian geographies bridge this seamlessly, as was in robust evidence at the conclusion of the second edition of the ambitious, but successful, Dhaka Art Summit.
Dhaka has little going for it. It is naturally disaster prone, hardly a holiday destination, few consider its shopping significant. What it does have is a rigorous art practice with artists and organisations chipper than those in India. The state, as in all of South Asia, plays an insignificant role in this, but private support is vocal, even though Bangladesh has to seek markets outside its own delta region if it is to succeed. And it showed just how to do it at the art summit with the Samdani Art Foundation- supported event in a manner sans parallels elsewhere.
An art fair is a business event. Its organisers sell space, seek sponsors, levy charges, hope for profit. The Samdani Art Foundation wasn't attempting any of it. Its main sponsor is Golden Harvest, the company the Samdanis head. The Samdanis are a first-generation conglomerate and Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani are the country's biggest art collectors - breaking the stereotypical cliche of art patronage being a third-generation legacy - and could have been happy in that role, which gives them a degree of heft in international art fora, but they decided to launch and sustain the biennial art summit in spite of the maiden attempt winning them accolades but also opprobrium with regard to the lack of infrastructure. By sticking it out and managing that infrastructure, the Samdani Art Foundation has silenced critics about this being a one-off event. With the announcement of the third edition in 2016, the countdown has begun and the pressure on them to deliver an even better product is immense.
Beyond just the organisational management, the Samdanis are to be lauded for commissioning some of the largest solo projects at the summit. This did not include Shazia Sikandar's three-video projection that blew everyone's mind, but it did include a magnificent installation by Rashid Rana, a politically incisive one by Shilpa Gupta, and a thought-provoking one by Runa Islam, besides those of homegrown stars Mahbubur Rahman and Tayeba Begum Lipi, who are becoming household names in India. Curators Deepak Ananth, Veeranganakumari Solanki, Ambereen Karamat, Md Muniruzzaman and Rosa Maria Falvo put together competent shows, but it was the narrative quality of photographs that was more remarkable. The work of South Asian artists by participating galleries was comme ci comme ça, but is to be lauded for the variety it managed to achieve.
There is little doubt that the mood of the summit is more contemporary than modern, unleashing a young energy and a host of video installations, performance artists and awards on a delighted audience. In giving it a South Asian dimension, and ensuring the presence of representatives from key museums, art organisations and auction houses - "We're here to support the Samdanis in their endeavour," each said - the summit has attempted to become the collective voice of the region. If, in its next edition, it manages a greater pool of collectors as well, it might yet place Bangladesh on the global map of the art world.
Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic. These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated