Diana Campbell Betancourt

Talks _10

Diana Campbell Betancourt is the artistic director of the Samdani Art Foundation in Dhaka and the chief curator of the Dhaka Art Summit for its 2014 and 2016 editions, and is based in Mumbai. She caught up with Tank at Frieze London to discuss the 2016 Summit.

Interview: Thomas Roueché
Portrait: Shumon Ahmed  

Thomas Roueché How long have you been working in Bangladesh?
Diana Campbell Betancourt I have been coming to Bangladesh for three years, and I have lived in India for five going on six. I went to Princeton and did the LA-New York thing from the time I was 13, as part of my intense classical ballet training. I moved to India in 2010 because my boyfriend in college, later my fiancé, was Indian. It had absolutely nothing to do with art! I was curating independently in New York and thought I could go to India and do the same thing. 

I arrived there and realised, this is not going to work. I didn’t move to Delhi or Bombay; I moved to Hyderabad, which is in south-central India. It’s extremely conservative and there is zero contemporary-art scene there. But through my ex-fiancé’s family I met a man who was very passionate about sculpture parks, and he wanted to start his own sculpture park in Hyderabad. He funded me to travel all over India and do studio visits with 250 or so sculptors across the country, and also to visit sculpture parks all over the world to figure out what sort of model we should be using. My ex-fiancé and I broke up, but I decided the art I was seeing in India was so interesting, there was something worth staying in the country for. 

As there are no sculpture parks in India I came up with the idea that we should be commissioning Indian artists in international parks to give them exposure and experience working outdoors. In the process, I worked with the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wanås Konst [in Sweden] and a lot of international parks to create new opportunities for Indian sculptors. One of the artists I was exchanging a lot of ideas with was Jitish Kallat, a very famous Indian artist who also curated the last Kochi Muziris Biennale. The Samdani family of Bangladesh had just acquired some work of his and when they came to Bombay, he organised a dinner for us to meet. It was a great match, because soon after they invited me to get involved with the Dhaka Art Summit. It was strange because at the time Bangladesh was having intense protests; Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani kept inviting me to come to Dhaka, but the trip kept getting cancelled because of the strikes. 

Ahead of their very generous invitation, I had never thought about going to Bangladesh; I knew nothing about Bangladeshi art, but I was really surprised and impressed with what I saw there, which rivals the art scene in India. Bangladesh is right next to India, but the context is completely different. They have far fewer resources, but in a way they are able to do things in Bangladesh that would be impossible in India. I think maybe because the country is very new – it was founded in 1971 – the government is very excited about building things. Working in Bangladesh I’m able to take loans from the Pakistani government; I’m able to take loans from the Bangladesh National Museum; I’m able to take loans from the Bangladesh national collection; and then put together exhibitions of works that haven’t been seen in the public for over 30 years. So for a while I was developing this park in Hyderabad and also working for the Samdanis, but it got to a point where the amount of work for the Samdanis was so large and so exciting that I shifted all attention to Bangladesh. I took over the full-time role of artistic director of the entire Summit and Samdani Art Foundation and collection in October 2013.  

TR So tell me about the Dhaka Art Summit.
DCB Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani started the Summit from a place of passion. They’re very young; she’s 33, he’s 41, and I’m 31, so we’re all roughly the same generation with similar energy levels, and it’s a great team. 

The Samdanis decided to start their foundation because when they would travel, people in the arts would talk about South Asia – it’s become a buzzword – but South Asia seemed to mean India and Pakistan. People know about art from India, and maybe Pakistan, but much less Bangladesh, and what about Myanmar, what about Nepal, what about Bhutan, what about Sri Lanka? These places don’t have a platform on the international art scene. So the Samdanis decided to create something that would inspire people to go to Bangladesh and do their own research to change the narrative of discussions about the region.

Nadia and Rajeeb planned the first Summit on their own – there were galleries, there were commissioned projects, but it was a home-grown affair, nothing international; it was really only focused on Bangladesh with a few illustrious guests such as Jessica Morgan, Ravinder Reddy and Deepak Ananth, among others. After the success of the first Summit, the Samdanis wanted to increase the Summit’s ambition, so that’s when they offered me an invitation to commission and produce the 2014 Solo Projects, which led to an invitation to take on the role of artistic director and head of the foundation’s collection. 

When I came on board, we began changing the model of the Summit to divorce it from the misconception that it is an art fair. There were some misconceptions because the India Art Fair used to be called the India Art Summit. Our event is entirely noncommercial. Everything is free; we don’t earn a cent of income from sales of artworks; no one even needs a ticket. There is another foundation in Bangladesh that is a commercial entity with gallery spaces – we wanted to have our own model that allows us to exhibit artworks without any constraints that looking at the art market might bring. Local people in Bangladesh have really warmed to what we are doing. We had 70,000 local visitors in the 2014 edition and we expect 130,000 next time. Adam Szymczyk, who’s curating the next Documenta, came last time, loved it and gave a Bangladeshi artist a solo show at the Kunsthalle Basel, which we helped to support, and he’s coming back for the 2016 Dhaka Art Summit as well, along with several members of his curatorial team. My challenge is to be able to equally address the leading intellectuals and institutional directors in the art world as well as people who have never experienced contemporary art before, such as the local tea sellers, because they both have absolutely equal access to the Summit. It’s great because there are a few art critics in Bangladesh but not many, so the reviews are written by firemen, lawyers, local people, and they’re excited and proud that they can have a world-class exhibition in Bangladesh. Our international visitors were very surprised to see the kind of works that we were showing. Imagine a 60-foot-long, three-channel HD video with surround sound, where each of the projectors cost €150,000! Through goodwill and ingenuity and tenacity, we were able to secure loans of projectors from Eidotech, as well as the patience of the artist, Shahzia Sikander, to be able to show this work locally. I am asked about this work each time I visit Bangladesh, so it had a deep local impact. 

We have over 40 collaborators, from Harvard University to the Centre Pompidou. While I’m the artistic director and chief curator, I have about seven curators working with me who will have very different takes on the South Asian scene, so we’re trying to explode the dominant ideas about the region. Often when you see regional shows or South Asian shows, it’s the same 10 names you see everywhere. We really want to expand the narrative beyond the “chosen few”. The other thing is, and maybe this ties into my biography a bit, but I think it’s very difficult nowadays to categorise someone by their nationality. Especially in South Asia, where Partition happened. Bangladesh used to be part of Pakistan. There’s a deep history of Bangladeshi artists in Pakistan, but when you only focus on this Bangladeshi-Pakistani thing you miss out all the different points in between. We’re not going to be labelling any of the artists by country and we’re also looking at Western artists who have deep engagement with South Asia. Lynda Benglis, for example, lived in India for 30 years, her life partner was Indian, and she still has a studio in India. She’s unbelievable. She’s Greek, but Benglis kind of sounds like Bengal, so she has a theory that maybe her ancestors were shipbuilders from, or with a connection to, Bengal! It’s obviously an unconfirmed theory, but Benglis-Bengal is a fun sound and we are honoured to be showing her work in Bangladesh for the first time. She invited me to visit her studio in Santa Fe, which was amazing, and we drove around in her truck, and she was playing Indian ragas from Gujarat! There are many sorts of these characters who fall in between traditional ideas of nationality. 

We also have the first historical section of the Summit in this upcoming edition. One of the fathers of Bangladeshi modern art, SM Sultan, was a bohemian who travelled all over the world before retreating into peasant life in Bangladesh toward the end of his life. He was in New York in the 1950s and sold a work to Hilton Hotels in order to pay the bills. He sold it for nothing, but Rajeeb found it in an auction and brought it back to Bangladesh. We’re really interested in these transnational connections, and along with a colleague from the Guggenheim Museum, we are beginning some intense research on these sorts of exhibition histories tied to the region – SM Sultan even exhibited with Picasso and Paul Klee in London in the 1950s. But it takes a lot of research because these transnational connections are often forgotten outliers. There’s something important about being exceptional, so we want to make space for the exception as well. 

TR Am I right in thinking you’re doing something with the Centre Pompidou?
DCB Yes, we have a curator from the Centre Pompidou curating a show of Bangladeshi architecture, which is incredible. He thought he would include maybe 10 architects, and now it’s 17. Of course, Louis Kahn’s Parliament building is in Bangladesh and it’s one of the most important works of 20th-century modern architecture. It’s in Dhaka, so we’ll get a lot of architecture buffs coming as well. Normally you can’t go inside the building, but during the Summit we’ve been able to get permission to take people inside. The contemporary architects are incredible and responding to Kahn’s legacy as well as the intense environmental needs of the country, building flood and cyclone centres alongside beautiful residences, mosques and office buildings.  

TR How did the Summit evolve?
DCB The Summit evolved through our research on what the needs of the region are, and the potential reach we can achieve through addressing audiences in Bangladesh. There is a very established model of the biennial – but the Summit isn’t a biennial – Bangladesh already has a long-established biennial, which has existed for 16 editions, called the Asian Art Biennale. The difficulty with these biennial models is that the same artworks just travel around everywhere. Also, most biennials now don’t pay for production, so they put the artists really out of pocket. Bangladesh is a very poor country; so is India; so is Myanmar. At least in India there are commercial galleries that are stepping up to the plate and helping support their artists with non-commercial projects. But imagine a place like Myanmar, where there are very few commercial galleries – there is no way there is going to be this sort of production support. We produce many artworks because we saw a need to produce works outside of the market. These works belong to the artists after the Summit – they don’t belong to us; it’s not a collection-building strategy. We also have a collection, but that’s another story! We keep the two very separate because we see the Summit as a philanthropic gesture. Collecting is philanthropic also, but you get some sort of tangible benefit. The Summit really is a pure gift to the people. 

TR I feel like a lot of biennials get bogged down with overthinking the relationship of the work to the place – precisely that problem of stuff being brought in from wherever…
DCB A lot of biennials also seem to be curating artist lists, and I respect recent decisions of curators not to publish artist lists so that people can focus on the works themselves and not the star power of the names of the artists in the show. Many of the artists we will show in the Summit have names that are unfamiliar to international audiences, and it is exciting to be able to present something outside of preconceived ideas that come along with “curated artist lists”. In Myanmar, for example, when I went a year ago, there was barely any internet connection, and it’s only in the last couple of months that Telenor has built a cell network. So now the 3G network is faster than anywhere I’ve experienced in the region. But still, you can’t really do research online – you have to go and see the works and artists in person, which is challenging but well worth the effort. In addition to producing works we also support the travel of the artists whose work we produce, so the international curators and museum professionals can meet them. Bangladesh is a great meeting point because Indians can’t easily get visas to Pakistan, and Pakistanis can’t easily get visas to India, but they can get visas to Bangladesh, so where before people would have had to go to London or Japan or Australia to meet, now they can all meet in the region, in Dhaka, during the Summit. § 

Dhaka Art Summit, February 5-8, 2016. dhakaartsummit.org