Art Dubai: Diana Campbell Betancourt's show attests to emergence of South Asian voices in Middle East's art scene

Three notes, each played by 34 musicians exploring the seven-note range of the harmonium; an instrument entrenched in Bangladeshi musical culture, meld to echo a reverberating assertion. The ensuing discordant chord repeats itself on loop, distilling its way into the 1,370-square-meter courtyard linking Concrete, a multi-disciplinary space, the first building in the UAE to be completed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), founded by Rem Koolhas, to the rest of Alserkal Avenue, a 500,000-square-foot arts and culture community founded in 2007. The overriding tonality is one of discrete subversion despite the ever-pervasive environment of violence, censorship, and migration.

Titled Harano Sur (Lost Tune), this artwork’s first manifestation was in the form of a live performance, conceived by Reetu Sattar, featuring 35 musicians who were poised on different niches within a scaffolding at the entrance of the Shilpakala Academy in Dhaka in February 2018, at the fourth edition of the Dhaka Art Summit, a biannual event founded and managed by the Samdani Art Foundation, helmed by artistic director, Diana Campbell Betancourt. At Concrete, the video was screened on loop, its aural rendering thus oozing into the exhibition, fabric(ated) fractures curated by Campbell Betancourt, forming its core soundtrack.

 Art Dubai: Diana Campbell Betancourts show attests to emergence of South Asian voices in Middle Easts art scene

The wall, behind which the video had been mounted, rose eight meters from the earthen floor of Concrete. Its front façade bore a tapestry of garments shed by Rohingya refugees upon reaching Bangladesh from Myanmar, bound together through kantha stitching techniques by a community of internal migrant women who became victims of climate change when their villages did not survive flooding, forcing them to relocate to higher ground in northern Bangladesh. Conceived by Kamruzzaman Shadhin, the enormous quilt is monumentally displayed and serves to memorialise the histories of lived trauma to which the South Asian country has historically born witness. What could have been a closed-door space was intentionally opened out so that any visitor within the vicinity would be compelled to confront the reality of displaced lives.

Furthermore, on the floor marking the boundary between Concrete’s interior and its immediate exterior are Joydeb Roaja’s alpona-inspired drawings of indigenous women with tanks on their head. “The word alpona derives from the Sanskrit word alimpana, which means to plaster or coat with, and like the mud floor inside the exhibition space, alpona is made of a rice-based paste derived from the soil,” writes Campbell Betancourt, in a lovingly produced catalogue commemorating the ongoing exhibition at Alserkal Avenue in Dubai. For her, these drawings, viewed alongside the other artworks on display by 15 artists that were the result of commissions by the Samdani Art Foundation since late 2012-early 2013, attest to the violence unfolding in their locales and on their communities, with the work grounding the constricting present into a more porous past. “Despite carrying the weight of enormous pain, the deeply poetic practices of these artists create spaces of empathy through which new modes of solidarity might be imagined,” writes Campbell Betancourt. “They break down reductive national and regional narratives and reformulate them from a more local and human perspective.

Installation images

The impressively curated show, fabric(ated) fractures was the consequence of an invitation extended by Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, founder of Alserkal, who perceives it as an attempt to foster “a growing South to South dialogue which draws in the practices of cultural practitioners beyond our own borders, and broadening the context of contemporary global art conversations.” For Campbell-Betancourt, the show presented an opportunity to retrospectively consider Dhaka Art Summit’s journey since 2012 by bringing together commissions from various editions and encouraging a dialogue between them. “Basically, we were invited as a Bangladeshi foundation to do a show, and I wanted to complicate what that means,” she said in an interview. “There’s something very different between being national and nationalistic, and so I think that’s what we tried to communicate with this show.”

Almost all works are by contemporary artists from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Thailand, Pakistan, and Myanmar, and are thereby reflective of a critical reconsideration of the subject of borders. “They break down reductive national and regional narratives and reformulate them from a more local and human perspective,” writes Campbell Betancourt, who used Concrete’s architectural facets as her curatorial starting point, while being conscious of the fact that many of the participating artists had barely travelled out of the country and faced limitations to their sense of artistic agency. “This building speaks of money and power, and a lot of these works speak about powerlessness,” she said. The mud floor, worked upon by a team of Dubai-based Bangladeshi diaspora builders, was conceived as an important exhibition design trope that could ground the show and the fragility of its contexts. The doors were kept open to welcome visitors. “I wanted each of the art works to have an ability to breathe and be in conversation with each other,” she said.

Opening night

Within the context of Art Dubai’s ongoing 2019 edition, the show attests to the radically emerging presence of South Asian artistic voices in the Middle Eastern cultural landscape, as evidenced by the launch of initiatives such as Ishara Art Foundation, established by Smita Prabhakar, a longtime collector of South Asian art, and a UAE resident; and the slew of South Asian art work exhibited not just at the fair but also at the ongoing Sharjah Biennial and the newly-launched Jameel Art Cenre in Dubai.

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Updated Date: Mar 21, 2019 10:12:27 IST