Dhaka Bangladesh, February 4-8, 2016 | Professor John Zarobell
Art ought to be a means to overturn such expectations and to allow people to understand history and its relation to the present in a new way.
Last week, I traveled to Bangladesh to attend a unique visual arts event, the Dhaka Arts Summit. This was the third manifestation of a biennial festival that began in 2012 and I participated in the festival by moderating a large panel of curators and artists discussing the development of regional group exhibitions. Regional group exhibitions are controversial among artists and curators in the Global South because, while including them in a broader expanded understanding of modern and contemporary art, these museum shows nevertheless position them in the role of an exotic other for a western audience. Since the Dhaka Art Summit is itself a regional group show, billing itself as the largest festival of South Asian Art, it is clear that these projects have evolved since the 1980s, when the first exhibitions of non-western artists began to appear in European and American museums. Having a regional show take place in the region and unaffiliated with any museum, means that the terms are now more open to debate.
There were two reasons that I was compelled to travel 14 time zones away to spend a long weekend in Dhaka. The first is that I have just finished a manuscript for a book entitled Art and the Global Economy about how the art world has been transformed by globalization in the past generation. If you are going to talk the talk, you’d better be willing to walk the walk. The second is that Artistic Director Diana Campbell Bettancourt had assembled an incredible group of curators and artists from five different countries to discuss the broader implications of how particular regions of the world are made visible through the arts. This issue is one that goes well beyond the cultural domain that was proper to the Summit, and cuts across economic, historical and political dimensions of difference. It is not simply that there are unequal power dynamics between the “West and the Rest”, but that institutions and exhibitions that feature art works respond to broader cultural and social developments, as well as economic imperatives. Globalization is a term that can make it seem like everything is different now and all parts of the world have equal access to the benefits of civilization. Nothing could be further from the truth and this panel explored one way that universal ideals are belied by historical experiences.
At the beginning of the panel, Kate Fowle, Chief Curator of the Garage Museum of Art, Moscow, and I discussed how group exhibitions of art from the Global South began to emerge around the end of the Cold War, when the twin ideals of political freedom and consumer capitalism would seem to have become universal. While the European and American curators who presented on the panel discussed the multiple ways that exhibitions of contemporary art from the Global South could generate new spaces and forms of intellectual production, curators from India and Sri Lanka were concerned about the power dynamics that emerge from making regional group shows and how to present South Asian modern and contemporary art in a complex and multifaceted way. The problem is simple yet it is part of a more complex dynamic. No artist wants to be considered an Indian contemporary artist or a Nigerian contemporary artist, but simply a contemporary artist. Yet how museum visitors and curators look at art from distant shores often reinforces cultural stereotypes and power relations, as well as legacies of colonialism, many of which survive to this day.
Art ought to be a means to overturn such expectations and to allow people to understand history and its relation to the present in a new way. At its best, curators set up a structure, an exhibition, that allows the art to speak and to divulge its own significance. While there are glaring problems to explore from past examples, the Dhaka Art Summit itself largely succeeded as a regional group show by presenting an array of artistic statements by artists of South Asian origin from many different countries and living under vastly different circumstances. There were established artists that came from India, England and Los Angeles, but there was also an exhibition of young artists from Bangladesh. There was a performance program, a film program, as well as the talks program. The exhibitions celebrated the works of individual artists, historical figures, and architects, but also productively explored themes developed by multiple curators. Most importantly, the Summit activated the local population who crowded into the free presentation throughout the weekend in order to look at, discuss, and take selfies with works of art. This panel discussion may have been planned for specialists, but the fruits of this Summit were shared by Bangladeshis all weekend long.