The Original text was published at COBO Social on 5 Feb 2016. Courtesy of COBO Social.

TEXT: Selina Ting (Editor-in-Chief, CoBo)
PHOTO: CoBo Social

Based in Dhaka, the industrialist couple founded the Samdani Art Foundation in 2011 to raise awareness of South Asian contemporary art, specially the young generation of Bangladeshi  artists.  In 2012, the foundation put on the first edition of the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS), a non-commercial research and exhibition platform for South Asian art.  Mr. Samdani is also the co-chair of Tate Modern’s South Asian acquisitions committee. He is a member of the New Museum International Leadership Council in New York, and advises regional initiatives such as the Singapore Art Fair and the Colombo Art Biennial.  Nadia is a second-generation collector and began her own collection at the age of 22. The first work Nadia collected was a watercolor by the Bohemian Bangladeshi modernist, SM Sultan, the only Bangladeshi artist to exhibit alongside Picasso, Dalí, and Braque at the Victoria Embankment Gardens, Hampstead, London, in 1950.

Exhibition view of the solo project The Sky Remains by Sandeep Mukherjee, curated by Diana Campbelle Betancourt.
Exhibition view of the solo project The Sky Remains by Sandeep Mukherjee, curated by Diana Campbelle Betancourt.

When you started the Dhaka Art Summit in 2012, you wanted to make it an international platform that would bring the world to Dhaka. That’s a very ambitious project as Dhaka is not a popular tourist destination. How did you imagine it to be possible back then?

We have been collecting and travelling all over the world for biennales, exhibitions and art fairs for many years now, and we have noticed that the presence of Bangladesh in the international art scene is very limited. When compared to the rest of the world, South Asian contemporary art is very marginalised. We have so many talented artists in Bangladesh and people are becoming more and more curious about the recent development in the region. But then there is no infrastructure that can support the artists and promote their work aboard. Very few galleries represent artists and they don’t go to international art fairs. Curators and museums directors were not fully aware of the art created here. That’s why we thought we had to do something and since we are not involved commercially, we can’t have one small show and invite people to come. So, that’s how the idea developed. We want to provide a platform here in Bangladesh where contemporary South Asian art can be introduced to the international audience. We invite everyone to come, we have people from institutions, galleries, art fairs, journalists, art critics, art historians, artists. They come from Argentina, the States, Canada, Europe, South America, Australia… all over the world. We want people to come and see and discover new art and artists based here.  So, that was how the idea started.

We see more and more collectors involved in the market and becoming art fair founders themselves. Was there a moment where you thought it might be a commercial event rather than a research platform?

Today the art market is so overwhelming…We never thought in any way that we wanted to be involved commercially, and we are not following anyone else’s model. Dhaka Art Summit happens every two years, biannually, but it’s not a biennale. We don’t have one theme or one curator but multiple curators and they have their sections. It’s a researched event, a model that we developed. We invite the curators and support them in their research. They are travelling within South Asia and gathering their knowledge for two years, and then putting up a show for us. In return, when they go back to their institutions, they are taking back with them the knowledge and the network. So, this is the way we wanted to do it. Also, because it is non-commercial and we give artists the freedom to do projects, they are not under market pressure to present marketable pieces. They can really think and present the best of their work. We want the event to be a platform to showcase their best.

Exhibition view of Architecture exhibition, curated by Aurelien Lemonier
Exhibition view of Architecture exhibition, curated by Aurelien Lemonier

When we talk about a model, we want it to be sustainable. So, how is it going to be possible to be sustainable, to be able to continue, when everything is free for the public and 90% of the funding comes from the your Art Foundation? Is there any difficulties as the event gets bigger and more international?

Now, for this event, we don’t feel like it’s our personal project anymore.  We feel that this event belongs to the country.  It is open to the public and it’s for everyone.  We want people in Bangladesh to feel that they own this event.  Yes, we are organising it right now, we are passionate about it and we want to go on and on and on.  So, maybe we will acquire less artworks.

That’s one thing that you have to sacrifice and that’s what I meant by generosity. Imagine if you put the 2 millions UDS budget to build your collection… this is what most people would do, right?

Yes, absolutely. Today for us, as collectors, we don’t feel anymore that this is our collection, that these all have to belong to us.  We love art, we are very passionate and we do collect, but now we are more passionate about doing this event. We believe that this is more important for us to do right now. Of course we would continue to collect but that’s only for our house, our family, our friends. Whereas, this is a big-scale event that’s open to the public, belong to the public.

Installation view of the Samadani Art Award exhibition area, curated by Daniel Baumann
Installation view of the Samadani Art Award exhibition area, curated by Daniel Baumann

How would the international reputation and the cultural identity of Dhaka as a city be different with the success of the DAS?

Well, in Bangladesh, we are culturally very strong and we love the arts and the culture. Music, dance, literature, theatre… all have been very active here, and historically, it is also starting from the Bengal school. When it comes to art and culture, people are very passionate and supportive.  So, these are the positive things about the country, they just need to be highlighted and to be introduced to the world. For the moment, we have cultural events but everything is at a local scale.  So, we hope that through this event, the international presence of the art and culture from region can be stronger.

It’s a very exciting event. What are your favourite parts of this year’s program?

The Samdani Art Award is very important for us and it’s very exciting. This year we have 13 young artists nominated for the award from a pool of 300 applicants. Of course, there is only one winner but all of them are great.  The Rewind show is also very special because this is the first time that we have a historical show which features modernist artists and their practices before the 1980’s.  There is a lot of historical works, and they are loans from private collections and haven’t been shown publicly for 30 years.  Also, of course, the architectural show. This is the first time we are having the architecture exhibition with 17 Bangladeshi architects.

Entrance to the Samdani’s House in Dhaka where they show part of their collection
Entrance to the Samdani’s house in Dhaka where they show part of their collection

In your personal collection, it also comprises two parts, modern art and contemporary art…

Yes, it is a big mix.  We have divided them into two parts: the foundations collection, which is focused on South Asian art, and the private collection, which is the international collection. We are working with a team to build the South Asia collection and we are collecting quite strategically, especially focusing on the modern masters of South Asia. We feel that it’s important to build a South Asian collection starting from modern masters in the 1940s to contemporary art. We don’t feel that we are just building it for ourselves but for the future generations. Or else these things are getting lost and we feel a responsibility that we have to preserve them.

I heard that you are planning a new art centre?

An art space. It’s in Sylhet which is our hometown, about a 30-minute plane ride from here and it’s near the Assam border, the border between India and Bangladesh. So, from our land you can see the border and the Assam mountains and hills. We have acquired the land and now we want to have an art space. We have a lot of works in the collection but we don’t have enough space to show them because they just occupy so much space. So, now when we collect, we are not bother about where to put it.  We just collect what we want to have.  Now we are still in the very initial stage of planning and designing the art space. But once we have that space, there will be a permanent collection, and we are going to invite artists to come and do projects there, and have outdoor sculptures, etc. We want to show works in longterm and share them with the public.

Living Room filled with artworks
Living room filled with artworks

How and when did you start collecting?

My parents loved art, they collected some Bangladeshi modern masters. So, I inherited a lot of Bangladeshi historical works. In the 1970s, because we were a new country and we were fighting for our language and culture, so, if you look at that period, there is a lot of work on language and the war that happened.

At which point did you start collecting international artists?

Well, we started by collecting local contemporary art. Then slowly, when we started travelling to biennales and fairs, we learned more and started collecting international artists’ works.

Is there a particular focus of the private collection?

No, we have all kinds of media, painting, sculpture, photography, installation, video, new media, sound work, etc.

You are at the Tate Modern’s South Asia Acquisition Committee.  Are collectors and museums getting more and more involved in the art scene here and in the market as well? Do you see a change in the market?

Well, I can’t answer you in terms of what people buy because I don’t have that kind of information. But I can tell you that people are interested in South Asian art because now that they know. When you are a little bit familiar with the art, when you got a chance to see them, then you feel that you are connected and your interest grows. Now, sometimes I met European friends who would say to me “oh, we’ve heard of that Bangladeshi artist”, that I feel there is a change of people’s interest. More and more international galleries are representing South Asian artists and Bangladeshi artists, so now people are interested.

Do you continue to support the exhibition projects abroad, like what you did for the Venice Biennale?

Yes, of course. At the Venice Biennale we supported the two South Asian artists in the theme show curated by Okwui Enwezor. We don’t have a national pavilion but we also support the Bangladeshi artists and South Asian artists who participated in the collateral exhibitions.

Are there some collectors in Bangladesh?

Yes, there are collectors, mostly Bangladeshi.  They collect Bangladeshi art, some of them are active. Generally you see more older people as collectors. Some of them also collect contemporary art but mostly interested in the more established modernists and masters.  There are collectors who collect younger artists, but not so many.  But the younger artists here are so talented, they need more support.  So, from the foundation, we like to do that.

Interior of the Samdani house : Work by Indian artist Subodh Gupta (*1964) on the left and by Bangladeshi artist Tayeba Begum Lipi (*1969)
Interior of the Samdani house : Work by Indian artist Subodh Gupta (*1964) on the left and by Bangladeshi artist Tayeba Begum Lipi (*1969)

After you started doing this Dhaka Art Summit, does this event and the contacts with museums curators, art critics, historians, etc. affect your art collecting in any way?

No. But of course, you learn all the time, your taste in art evolves slowly and it’s like a journey for us. Our collection is quite visual.  We have a lot of strange sculptures. But we don’t find anything particularly difficult from the beginning that we would say “the subject is not for us”.

What is the latest artwork that you have acquired?

The last one we bought was the Ettore Spalletti (*1940, Italy), an Italian modernist that we have discovered recently. It is beautiful and very minimal. We got two pieces of his work — one sculpture with stone and a painting which is monochrome powdery blue.  It is plain, but when you get closer, you will see that it is very textured. We found them at Frieze London last year, then we saw them again in Artissima.

Do you go to many art fairs?

Yes.  So many fairs.  Its endless.  Now, most of our travels are doing art trips.

You have three young daughters, are you also initiating them into art?

I don’t think they know any different because the art has always been there.  It’s very natural for them to see art and to live with art around in the house. It’s part of their life. For me [Nadia], when I was growing up, it was normal for me to see art everywhere in the house.  So, for them it’s also normal.

Thank you so much.

Dhaka Art Summit 2016
5 – 8 February 2016
Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka

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