In Bangladesh, the Dhaka Art Summit Blooms
Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty, Belly of the Strange (2023). Immersive bamboo and wood structure. Co-commissioned by Dhaka Art Summit and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Exhibition view: Dhaka Art Summit 2023 (3–11 February 2023). © Dhaka Art Summit 2023. Photo: Shadman Sakib.
The sixth edition of the biennial Dhaka Art Summit (DAS 2023) (3–11 February 2023) was given a Bengali name for the first time: বন্যা/Bonna. Apparently a common name for girls in Bangladesh, Bonna translates to 'flood', which speaks to the monsoon cycles that shaped the land, situated on the world's largest river delta, and its entangled cultures.
Bangladesh's geography positions it among the countries most impacted by climate change. Weather irregularities causing catastrophic floods have created unimaginable damage while highlighting traditional farming methods as highly innovative—such as the water-hyacinth rafts, known as dhap, upon which farmers in the south sow their crops.
Bonna emphasises this dialectical, contextual reality across five exhibitions at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, in addition to the central show curated by DAS artistic director Diana Campbell. The result is some 120 participating artists, architects, and writers, with over half from Bangladesh and the majority producing new commissions.
Ideas and acts of collaboration reverberated throughout Bonna, starting with the galvanising visitor numbers.
Curated by Bishwajit Goswami in collaboration with Brihatta Art Foundation, দ্বৈধ(a duality) emphasises the riverine culture of a place that welcomes the new year with a song that invites annual floods to make way for new beginnings.
Mud-coated and straw-strewn floors surround immersive works like Ahmed Rasel's The fish was kept alive to tell the story (2018–ongoing). Uniformly framed photographs line a long wall, departing from three prints developed from two film rolls that the artist received from his uncle as he prepared to move to the U.S.
Recalling the time his grandmother made him release a fish he'd caught as a boy into the Sandha River, whose encroachment would later destroy her home, Rasel retraced the Padma River's stream with his camera, starting with its tributary by which his grandmother lived. Each photo is an evocative snapshot of place—a house surrounded by water; a young boy standing on a rocky ledge; a faded, family photograph whose fuchsia-red cast emphasises a solid, teal sky.
Rasel describes himself as a storyteller and his approach to photography resonates with that identification. Likewise, artists across DAS 2023 employ the medium to produce invocations of affect by engaging with land and water.
Munem Wasif's installation পতন / Collapse (2021–2023), positioned outside the DAS 2023 auditorium, includes a large black-and-white photograph framed on black metal scaffolding, depicting a brutalist structure standing on the Jamuna River with stilt-like columns. Nearby, two black steel-framed columns display black-scale shots that contrast the rigid lines of modernist constructions with enigmatic close-ups of water, plus one image where veins bulge out of a clenched forearm. More photographs are arranged choreographically on the wall—a rocky arch; a glowing, white moon; watery ripples.
In the Samdani Art Award exhibition curated by Tate St Ives' Anne Barlow, joint prize-winner Md Fazla Rabbi Fatiq's Mirage (2022–2023) comprises wall-to-wall images evoking Bernd and Hilla Becher's typological studies. This time, they focus on brutalist bridges—incomplete, abandoned, and broken down—built across rural areas in the last 20 years.
Photographs composing award nominee Sumi Anjuman's Winds carry moon (2021–2022) use the land to foreground testimonies from the LGBTQIA+ community, who continue to be persecuted in the mainstream. In one image, two men in ceremonial hats and fibre skirts worn by Hindu grooms stand shoulder to shoulder with their backs to the camera; their bodies lean into one another as they face a plume of leaves.
Resonating with Anjuman's concerns, Dipa Mahbuba Yasmin challenges binary thinking on gender. Working with cinema-banner artist Md. Dulal and rickshaw painters Md. Solaiman and Jagannath Das, Yasmin's vibrant compositions are rendered in the hard-edge, neo-romantic figurative style of Bengali rickshaw art. They pay tribute to acclaimed Bengali artist SM Sultan, whose paintings often emphasised the musculature of farmworkers.
While a central figure in modern Bangladeshi art, one aspect of Sultan's life has been consistently omitted from his legacy, Yasmin notes. Known to have worn a saree, Yasmin depicts Sultan wearing his garment of choice in one painting. Stylised flowers adorn his long, flowing hair as he plays the flute to birds and dogs gathered around him.
This exuberant composition joins other paintings by Yasmin arranged on hot-pink walls, among them portraits of famously cross-dressing artists Grayson Perry and Frida Kahlo. Such moments emphasise one of DAS 2023's core enquiries: Bonna, described as a young girl, asks 'what the relationship between gender, the built environment, and climate change might be'.
Expanding on these ideas is the central exhibition—a spine that holds the five other intersecting exhibitions composing DAS 2023 together. Recalling Rasel's photographs that touch on the loss of memory wrought by climate change, Joydeb Roaja comments on loss and imaginative recuperation on the ground level of Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy.
Board-mounted ink-on-paper illustrations show Chakma community members holding up the Chakma royal palace, submerged as part of the Kaptai hydroelectric dam construction completed in 1962, which displaced some 100,000 people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Bangladesh's geography positions it among the countries most impacted by climate change.
On the first floor, Ashfika Rahman's community-led installation বেহুলা আজকাল (Behula These Days) (2022–2023), includes testimonies of violence against women living by the riverbank, embroidered on green velvet squares that form a floating carpet held up by nemaline golden threads.
Rahman recorded these testimonies along the riverline associated with the myth of Behula, who followed the corpse of her husband—killed by Hindu snake goddess Manasa—on a raft that floated to heaven, where she sang so beautifully that he was restored to earth.
Rahman critiques the myth's underlying message that women should sacrifice themselves for men; a fact that becomes transposed to the riverbank, where gendered domesticity has left women particularly vulnerable to climate change.
Sharing space with Rahman's installation is Bhasha Chakrabarti's নরম অতিক্রমণ (Tender Transgressions) (2022–2023). Nine architectural columns are encased in bamboo frames and wrapped with jute fabrics to create feminine forms crowned by a burst of jute plants—a crucial crop in Bangladesh's economy.
Saree fabrics are pinned to each as a reference to navapatrika, the Hindu practice of wrapping plants with sarees to worship them as the goddess Durga. They trail down to join a large, colourful fabric plait that snakes around the room.
In her wall text, Chakrabarti interprets Bonna as the feminine form of bonno, which describes something wild and free. The same attributes are celebrated in Very Small Feelings, another DAS 2023 exhibition co-produced and co-curated by Samdani Art Foundation's Chief Curator Diana Campbell and Akansha Rastogi, Senior Curator at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, where it will travel in July 2023.
Invitations for conceptual fun abound in this part of DAS 2023. Neha Choksi and Rachelle Rojany's Swing for friends (used in Faith in friction) (2017) is a circle of green rubber-belt swings hanging from the ceiling by their chains. Ahmet Öğüt's Jump Up! (2022) is described as 'four audience activated trampolines'.
Afra Eisma's Poke Press Squeeze Clasp (2021–2023) comprises abstract ceramic sculptures displayed on plinths covered in brown cow-print textiles, on which colourful bald figures, some two-headed, are appliquéd. Their exaggerated features include elongated stuffed arms and hands that extend onto a carpet patterned with multicoloured smiling forms, creating a seating area.
Further breaking down binaries is Kelly Sinnapah Mary's Notebook 12: the Fables of Sanbras 1-4 (2022), an illustrated tale told across four acrylic paintings on paper. The story begins with the portrait of a girl wearing a Victorian-style high-collar floral dress, whose brown, leaf-covered face matches a leaf-filled backdrop. In the next painting, she reads a book about a tiger, only for the next picture to show her wrestling a lion, her long black braids wrapping around its body. In the final frame, she is depicted covered in the animal's fur, as if she has merged with her adversary to become a hybrid.
The merger of human and animal is equally explored in Kamruzzaman Shadhin's Irrelevant Field Notes (2020–2023), a show-stopping installation of large, fantastical creatures made from twigs, saree-wrapped spikes, and other materials. They are positioned in front of a two-channel video installation depicting people wearing similar costumes as they walk through rural land.
Shadhin's works resonate with Mojahid Musa's installation Ensemble I (2021–2022), presented as part of the Samdani Art Award. Ingeniously crafted animals made from recycled materials—bolts, broken terracotta, wood, and with their forms often coated in salt—are lined up on a long, hanging glass shelf.
Then there's Shawon Akand's Slow friend, be slow (2022–2023) as part of the central show, created as part of the artist's initiative Jothashilpa, an arts centre for artisans and traditional folk artists in rural and urban areas. Akand's presentation consists of a series of woven fabrics created in collaboration with jamdani weavers and embroiderers, as well as reed-woven turtle sculptures, drawn from turtles in the artist's paintings.
Ideas and acts of collaboration reverberated throughout Bonna, starting with the galvanising visitor numbers that electrified the galleries with palpable excitement.
From how works were made—like Roman Ondak's Measuring the Universe (2007–2023), which marks visitors' first names and heights on two long walls—to how works illuminate one another. As with Tanya Goel's Botanical Studies (Monsoon Flowers) (2020–2023), a series of crushed pigment-on-paper works distilling monsoon flowers into concentric and overlapping circles, whose luminous, pastel tones perfectly matched No. 1234 (2022–2023), Rana Begum's hanging sculpture of candy-coloured fishing nets.
The most collaborative work of all, however, was undoubtedly a portrayal of Bonna as interpreted by children affected by drought in the North and floods in the Sundarbans, West Bengal. Commissioned by Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts, a performance by those children saw Bonna embodied as a spirit in bloom, which sums up how DAS 2023 felt overall. —[O]