10 Standout Artists at the Dhaka Art Summit 2023

Rahel Aima
Feb 10, 2023 10:11PM

Sumayya Vally, performance view of They Who Brings Rain Brings Life, 2022–23, in “To Enter the Sky” at Dhaka Art Summit, 2023. Photo by Shadman Sakib. © Dhaka Art Summit 2023. Courtesy of Dhaka Art Summit 2023.

Given the difficulty of post-Partition visa regimes, Dhaka is a rare place where artists from across South Asia and farther afield can not only exhibit their work, but also meet, talk, and reimagine the region together. As such, the biannual Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh, organized by the Samdani Art Foundation, has become especially important as a site for discourse. While this year’s programming tends towards talks typical of art fairs, exhibitions more than make up for the light number of programs with its strongest edition yet.

Fittingly in a country that has become synonymous with the devastating impacts of climate change, this sixth edition of DAS is themed “বন্যা/Bonna,” or flood, and runs from February 3rd through 11th. Featuring more than 160 artists, it considers play and the inner child, the fluid and destructive potentials of water, and how language and its misapplication can structure experience—a callback, perhaps, to Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak’s controversial 2018 DAS keynote on Indigeneity, subalternity, and the Rohingya genocide.

Under the artistic direction of Diana Campbell, the summit unfolds over three sub-exhibitions curated, respectively, by Bishwajit Goswami, Sean Anderson, and Campbell and Akansha Rastogi (a clear highlight); in addition to the Samdani Art Award for emerging Bangladeshi artists, curated by Anne Barlow.

Here, we feature 10 standout artists from DAS 2023.

Thao Nguyen Phan, installation view of Tropical Siesta, 2017, at Dhaka Art Summit, 2023. Photo by Farhad Rahman. Courtesy of Dhaka Art Summit 2023.


In Thao Nguyen Phan’s dreamy two-channel video Tropical Siesta (2017), children are the only inhabitants of an isolated Vietnamese farming community that seems to exist outside of time. In the mornings, they till the rice paddies. When the sun is high, it’s time for a game of make-believe and an afternoon snooze at—and sometimes sprawled on top of—their school desks. The children have only one book to read: a collection of travel writing by 17th-century French Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes. All other memories are locked away in the school library, a reference to the historical amnesia that is so central to Phan’s work. In the film, they base their games on the observations of de Rhodes, variously acting out the tale of a Chinese sea goddess, and several methods of punishment.

Their school is named after de Rhodes, who laid the groundwork for the romanized Vietnamese alphabet mandated by French colonists that is still in use today, which in turn structures the national narrative and the violences that are both remembered and forgotten.

Najmun Nahar Keya, installation view of Symphony of Worlds, 2022–23, at Dhaka Art Summit, 2023. Photo by Promotesh Das Pulak. Courtesy of Dhaka Art Summit 2023.

Antique Tangail saris in sage, indigo, and shades of blue become soft, sculptural Bengali script that cascades from the ceiling like precipitation or a waterfall. Najmun Nahar Keya’s Symphony of Worlds (2022–23) sways in stray air drafts, casting beautiful dappled shadows on the nearby wall. It takes from the words of the medieval Bengali poet and astrologer Khana, whose tongue was cut out by men jealous of her divinatory powers and problem-solving acumen that attracted the attention of the king. Regional feminists celebrate her as a victim of the male fragility that still circumscribes the lives of women today.

Inspired by nature, atmosphere, and her local terroir, Khana’s lyrical works have seeped into the collective consciousness and become foundational aphorisms, particularly in rural areas despite the drastic changes in weather patterns that have occurred in the centuries since she lived. In Keya’s installation, language becomes a repository of both cultural and climatic memory despite the patriarchal and anthropogenic forces that seek to erode it.

Kelly Sinnapah Mary, painting from “Notebook 12: the Fables of Sanbras” series, 2022. Courtesy of Samdani Art Foundation and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Kelly Sinnapah Mary, painting from “Notebook 12: the Fables of Sanbras” series, 2022. Courtesy of Samdani Art Foundation and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

A descendant of indentured laborers in Guadeloupe, Kelly Sinnapah Mary unspools her Indo-Caribbean identity over four small, lush paintings that extend South Asian identities beyond its traditional geographic borders. A young woman—the artist’s alter ego Sanbras—is depicted against layered foliage. Her face is foliage, too. In the first of four exhibited works from the series “Notebook 12: the Fables of Sanbras” (2022), she wears blue-ribboned schoolgirl plaits that her Indian ancestors might have sported. In others, she reads a book about tigers or battles a lion, all while wearing neat mary janes and white socks. In another painting from the series, she sprouts fur and becomes a Chewbacca-like beast while holding an uprooted seedling. Work titles contribute to the fairytale air; reality slides into science fiction and back again.

Sumayya Vally, performance view of They Who Brings Rain Brings Life, 2022–23, in “To Enter the Sky” at Dhaka Art Summit, 2023. Photo by Shadman Sakib. © Dhaka Art Summit 2023. Courtesy of Dhaka Art Summit 2023.

Fired and unfired pots become a ring of stacked balustrades in Sumayya Vally’s austere installation Ceramic vessels activated by performance (2023). Drawing from various rain-making rituals, the work is grounded in an IsiZulu proverb, “Oletha imvula uletha ukuphila,” which translates to: “They who brings rain brings life.”

At its center is a circular basin of water placed upon a smaller ring of pots. In a nightly performance, a trio of percussionists use more ceramic vessels to create a soundtrack of rolling thunder and rain. Women in white saris methodically submerge what looks like jute rags, and use them to apply water to pots mounted on, and then taken down from, the inner wall.

The fired vessels take on a glassy luster, and greenware begins to collapse into itself. Here, the basin becomes cloudy with sediment like a fast-moving river after heavy rain, and clay returns to mud. Over the course of the summit, the work takes on a patina as layers dissolve. In a summit that tends towards color and material sumptuousness, this work is particularly rewarding in its spareness.

Kasper Bosmans, installation view of mural No Water, 2019/23, at Dhaka Art Summit, 2023. Photo by Farhad Rahman. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery.

Tucked in a corner of a rotunda filled with the kinds of large-scale works privileged by a summit like this are two charming gouache and silverpoint paintings from Kasper Bosmans that consider the rainbow in relation to the biblical flood, to the cosmos, and to queer love. Rainbows on Titan (2023) stems from the premise that Jupiter’s largest moon, because of its rainy atmosphere and dense methane cloud cover—or perhaps Dhaka, with its wet climate and mysterious methane plumes—might be the only moon in our solar system to have rainbows.

Kostbera’s Dream (2023), meanwhile, is based on a 13th-century Icelandic folktale of Sigur the Dragon Slayer, whose themes of minimizing female prophecies, and dismissing modes of knowledge considered to be irrational, echo throughout DAS. I think of the way that sunshowers across cultures are so often described as weddings between animals or witches—the threatening feminine. There’s the same kind of sweetness in the work’s invocation of cross-border universalism that’s easy to feel jaded about.

Kamruzzaman Shadhin, installation view of Irrelevant Field Notes, 2020–23, at Dhaka Art Summit, 2023. Photo by Farhad Rahman. Courtesy of Dhaka Art Summit 2023.

Shot over three years, the large two-channel video projection that anchors Kamruzzaman Shadhin’s Irrelevant Field Notes (2020–23) chronicles a landscape over several seasons. Unlike so many other works at DAS, there is no dramatic flood or cyclone invoked, but rather, how the slower and ultimately more destructive effects of mass cultivation decimate the land. Soil is not washed away so much as slowly leached of its vitality, along with the poetry, mythology, and Indigenous rituals they birth. Masked entities with animal heads skulk worriedly through the videos, an embodiment of this disconnection with the earth. They seem to come from another time, almost as ghosts that are still stubbornly, if progressively weakly, tethered to the places they once inhabited.

These same figures now haunt the space as chimeric sculptures made of dried plant matter. Sporting textiles that suggest ceremonial dress more than everyday garb, they appear here as more powerfully animal than human, but already ossified and dead. Sound elements remind us of how much has already been lost.

Agnieszka Kurant, installation view, from left to right, of Post-Fordite 6, 2021; Post-Fordite 7, 2022; Post-Fordite 8, 2022; Risk Management (Map of Social Contagions and Phantom Phenomena), 2020; Map of Accidental Gods, 2022; and Sentimentite, 2022, in “To Enter the Sky” at Dhaka Art Summit, 2023. Courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery and Zien.

Four works from Agnieszka Kurant consider extractive economies of a more immaterial kind, and how they circulate. In “Post-Fordite” (2021–22), a number of rocky epoxy sculptures embedded with fordite—or lapis lazuli–like, fossilized car paint from automotive assembly lines—sit on simple pedestals. Now used to make jewelry, fordite has begun to be traded and gain value online, and is particularly interesting in the way it visually invokes the digital creator economy, from “100 layers of makeup” challenges to Instagram epoxy art. It is joined by Sentimentite (2022), a speculative cryptocurrency redeemable as sculptures made from pulverized objects that functioned as official and informal currencies over time, including cowrie shells, stamps, and Tide detergent.

Virality and blind faith is further considered in a pair of infographics. The first, made in collaboration with writer Anna Della Subin, tracks “accidental gods” nominally across the globe, but primarily in South Asia, Central America, and the northern Mediterranean. Deities range from Lysander of Sparta and Vladimir Lenin to Adolf Hitler and Diego Maradonna. Another charts social contagion over the last millennium, a delicious catalogue of Wikipedia wormhole-baiting phenomena like 2012’s Face Scratcher of Uttar Pradesh (15000 believer), an alien spacecraft with lasers believed to scorch marks into people’s faces, the Meowing Epidemic that ravaged a French convent in 1500, and the Berkshire Sheep Panic of 1888—animals, after all, aren’t immune to the same social anxieties humans face.

Afrah Shafiq, installation view of Where do the Ants Go?, 2022–23, at Dhaka Art Summit, 2023. Photo by Farhad Rahman. Courtesy of Dhaka Art Summit 2023.

Dolly Parton’s 1980 song “9 to 5” meets data harvesting and workerism in the monumental, Minecraft-inspired anthill of Afrah Shafiq’s immersive installation Where do the Ants Go? (2023). One of the summit’s major subthemes of play is mediated as a video game in which visitors control a colony of digital ants living inside the large screens that encircle the inside of the structure.

A small interactive screen describes the work as an attempt to understand the individual ant’s relationship to its colony, and by extension, the human’s relationship to the world. It asks affective multiple-choice questions like “What do you think there is an excess of in the world today?” with answer options of fear, guilt, anger, anxiety, sadness, or irritation. These responses are fed into an algorithm trained on ant behavior, which modulates the reactions of both individual ants ferrying eggs about the room and the colony as a whole. All the while, a queen ant sleeps, waking occasionally to utter subtitled phrases in Bengali like “A girl just can’t catch a break, can she?”

Md Fazla Rabbi Fatiq

Md Fazla Rabbi Fatiq, installation view at Dhaka Art Summit, 2023. Photo by Farhad Rahman. Courtesy of Dhaka Art Summit 2023.

The Bangladeshi photography scene is particularly robust thanks in large part to the efforts of Drik Picture Library and the biennial festival Chobi Mela. It is well represented at DAS—of note this year are Sumi Anjuman’s portraits of queer life and death, and Faysal Zaman’s ledger of enforced disappearances—where it tends to address the most overtly fractious issues in a generally politically unthreatening event. Especially striking is “Mirage” (2022–23), Md Fazla Rabbi Fatiq’s photography series on urban infrastructure projects abandoned due to the pervasive, systemic corruption in the construction industry.

To drive—to inch, in its notoriously congested traffic—through Dhaka is to see so many such unfinished overpasses and expressways, but their effect is all the more felt in these otherwise empty bucolic settings. Bridges cross but don’t connect to roads on either side. Sometimes they are left collapsed. More than anything, they suggest Soviet monuments or unadorned paifangs. They are staggering not just in their size but their sheer numbers. People are wholly absent in these images, but we see their effects on the landscape all the same.

Yasmin Jahan Nupur, performance view of Home, 2022–23, at Dhaka Art Summit, 2023. Co-commissioned by Samdani Art Foundation and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art with the support of Bagri Foundation. Photo by Shadman Sakib. Courtesy of Dhaka Art Summit 2023.

Home (2022–23) is a nice, mustard- and sienna-colored room that visitors enter through an arched doorway hung with sheer fabrics embroidered with flowers and a welcome message. The walls are prettily stenciled, too, with a high, fern-like border and depictions of mythical creatures. Houseplants, spare furniture, and objects mounted on walls and placed on shelves (a bouquet of silken corn; foodstuffs in jars that are occasionally offered to visitors) create a comfortable sense of domesticity. People relax or have earnest chats sitting on straw mats placed around the tiled floor.

Then—along comes the artist. She asks me where my home is; where my ancestral home is and whether I still have access to it; whether there’s a river there and whether it is polluted; whether I enjoyed my childhood. She tells me about her ancestral home in southeastern Bangladesh, about the mud house she used to live in that was taken away by the government, and that this room is her home now.

So many of the works in DAS can feel like sets, waiting to be brought to life through the daily performances that are made possible by its nine-day length. Here, I’m forced to suddenly recalibrate my relationship to both water—I’ve only ever considered myself in relation to the sea—and the idea of home itself.

Rahel Aima

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of paintings exhibited from Kelly Sinnapah Mary’s “Notebook 12: the Fables of Sanbras” series, and misidentified one of the paintings from said series.