Dispatch from Dhaka: five highlights from the fourth Art Summit

The gathering—dubbed the Davos of the art world—kicks off in Bangladesh

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran in front of his works Gareth Harris

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran in front of his works Gareth Harris

The fourth edition of the Dhaka Art Summit—the gathering dubbed the Davos of the art world—kicks off in Bangladesh (until 10 February), drawing the likes of Tate’s Maria Balshaw and the Museum of Modern Art's director Glenn Lowry. Here are some of the highlights from one of South Asia's leading cultural events.

Deities in drag in Dhaka?

A series of garish, in-your-face idols are causing a stir at the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS). The totemic mixed-media statues, by the Sri Lankan-born artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, are described on the wall text as 21st-century “deities in drag” but Nithiyendran points out that the works are multivalent, referencing numerous sources including Hinduism, a religion where “multi-gender idols are a paradigm”, he says (the internet, pornography and fashion are his other sources). The range of materials is impressive, from the dripping glazed ceramic sections to the plinths that look like solid blocks but are in fact a mixture of cement and bricks. Nithiyendran will refashion one of the works for the curated Encounters section at Art Basel Hong Kong next month.

Iran’s off-the-radar pre-Revolution festival

Who knew that plays by the French existentialist Albert Camus and performers from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company were, at one time, embraced by Iran? Prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Festival of Arts was a radical performing arts event held annually in the central city of Shiraz and the ancient ruins of Persepolis from 1967 to 1977. The curatorial think tank known as Archaeology of the Final Decade is showing archival footage and audio recordings of the heady, momentous festival for the first time in Asia at the DAS. The show “documents [the festival's] revolutionary spirit”, says the curator Vali Mahlouji. All materials associated with the festival meanwhile, remain banned in Iran.

Goshka Macuga and Vali Mahlouji's performance piece, a procession of characters from the Festival of the Arts, Shiraz-Persepolis 1967-77 Gareth Harris

Samdanis drum up interest for Sylhet sculpture park

Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, the founders of the DAS are focusing their efforts on their next mega project, a vast arts complex in Sylhet 250km from Dhaka. The first phase of the Srihatta-Samdani Art Centre and Sculpture Park, the first contemporary art institution in Bangladesh, is due to launch later this year (speculation that the 2020 edition of DAS will be the last was scotched by a summit spokeswoman). Most of the couple’s 2,000-strong collection—comprising of works by South Asian and international artists—is currently housed at Golpo, the Samdani family residence in Gulshan, Dhaka. Works by the tapestry pioneer Rashid Choudhury drawn from the Samdani Art Foundation have, meanwhile, been donated to Tate and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Star presenters dish out Samdani Art Award

International and local dignitaries descended on the Pan-Pacific Sonargaon Hotel on 2 February for a lavish ceremony which saw Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury win the fourth Samdani Art Award. Maria Balshaw, the director of Tate, handed out the gong in front of a packed party which lapped up the food, drink, Madonna tunes and Aaron Cezar’s star turn as the award’s chair (his polished, commanding speech on Chowdhury’s triumph turned heads). The winner receives a six-week residency at the Delfina Foundation in London where Cezar is the director; all 11 shortlisted artists received mentoring support as part of the prize package. Chowdhury’s work sits “between installation and assemblage”, a statement says; he has a postgraduate degree in printmaking from the University of Dhaka.

The Samdani Art award ceremony; the winner Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury (fourth from right) is accompanied by Maria Balshaw, Aaron Cezar and the artists Mona Hatoum and Subodh Gupta Gareth Harris

Hard truths for Bangladesh

There is no shying away from the fact that Bangladesh will be hit hard by the effects of climate change (scientists predict that by 2050 rising sea levels will affect the lives of more than 25 million Bangladeshis). A talk at the summit co-organised by the Vienna-based TBA21-Academy, entitled Rising Oceans and Conflict: from Bangladesh to Planetary Scale, tackled the thorny issue of global warming. The architecture theorist Hureara Jabeen showed images of a Bangladeshi coastal village that has been transformed into a shrimp farm, displacing 297 of its inhabitants, leaving just three residents. Her slide-show developed into an analysis of how the populace will be affected by the environmental threat. What I feel is that we miss the faces of people who are at the forefront of climate change,” she told the captive audience.