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“You don’t grow without being self-critical”: A Conversation with Diana Campbell Betancourt


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by Mirela Baciak

Diana Campbell Betancourt is an American curator based in Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Brussels. She is the artistic director of the Samdani Art Foundation, chief curator of the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh, and concurrently the artistic director of Bellas Artes Projects in the Philippines. This conversation took place in February of this year, after the 2018 Dhaka Art Summit.

Since 2013 you have been the artistic director and chief curator of the Dhaka Art Summit, a transnational art event that has grown in size and scale ever since its first edition organized by the collector couple Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani in 2012. You often stress that the summit is not a biennial—could you elaborate a little bit on this? Where is the demarcation line for you?

Bangladesh already has a biennial, the Asian Art Biennale founded in 1981, the oldest continual biennial of contemporary art that still exists in Asia. Looking outside of Bangladesh, the term “biennial” has a connotation of a tourism element, and also carries expectations of a “Venice kind of event” where the terms “scale,” “spectacle,” and “being seen” (both as an artist and as a visitor) come to mind, and these are connotations that I hoped to get away from when formulating DAS. Artists, in my opinion, often get the short end of the stick in biennials. In many of them, awards carry no reward other than short-lived recognition, exposure, and a trophy, and a biennial typically does not pay production costs and relies on gallery networks to support the presentation of projects, making it difficult for artists without significant sources of capital to participate in international events. Of course, we also ask galleries for financial support, but there is core funding from the Samdani Art Foundation for all new commissions, which allows us to work with emerging artists in contexts without any patrons or gallery support—and by not using the word “biennial” we remove this kind of “performance anxiety” (to quote Rashid Rana’s initial briefing for his never-realized Lahore Biennale) from both the artists and the curators, allowing us to focus on just making a good exhibition and a priceless invisible network where ideas are shared and born through our discursive programs—regardless of whether anyone important comes or not and regardless of any “Instagramability.” Our core audience is the local public—which might not be apparent—and after the Holey Bakery terrorist attack in 2016 we realized that even if not a single international visitor came, it would be okay because that is not who we do this exhibition for. Again, this is very unlike most biennials, where the ticket prices are unaffordable to the local public (there are of course free days that make this an exception, but as citizens of the city I think local people should be given priority when it comes to enjoying the cultural events they are hosting). Everything we do is free of charge.

Then how do you define the Dhaka Art Summit, how do you build it?

I do not see each edition of the summit as a separate entity. I am trying to build something, which I know will not exist forever, but in the end the story that the respective editions continue to write should make sense. Each summit is for me a response to what I feel was lacking in the previous one—it’s a critical response to the flaws, holes, and goals of prior editions. The 2014 Dhaka Art Summit that I was invited to be a part of in late 2012 did not look like the one we just completed in February 2018. Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani planned the first summit themselves in early 2012 with an aim to register Bangladesh as distinct from India, and the participants were solely Bangladeshi with a few international visitors, primarily from India and the UK. But back then, it resembled more of an art fair even though there was no financial motivation behind it, neither for the organizers nor the participating artists and galleries: galleries had booths, there were solo projects, the talks were very market-oriented, with gallerists and auction-house representatives on them … What was interesting was that, while it did not take the same shape that the summit takes now, it got people’s attention, and we have had repeat visitors from the first edition through the fourth edition. I came into the second summit after there was already some initial planning, and I was at first only in charge of the newly commissioned projects and the talks program. What I tried to do in the first place was to remove any kind of market orientation, so that the art projects could not be privately consumed, because there is no market for contemporary art in Bangladesh and none of the projects were of domestic scale and many of them were deliberately ephemeral. I was later offered the role of artistic director after much of the 2nd Dhaka Art Summit in 2014 was conceptualized—so the first summit that was entirely of my ideation was the 2016 Dhaka Art Summit.

An important moment that had an influence on my curatorial decisions for DAS 2016 was when a Western artist who lived in Sri Lanka for a long time made a comment in one of the panels about how she would never have been included in a platform like this, whereas an artist of Bangladeshi origin who has never been to Bangladesh could feasibly participate. I thought it was a valid point, so in 2016 we tried to expand our viewpoint to look at transnational practices that touch upon South Asia. For the 2018 summit, we looked at Bangladesh and its connections with Southeast Asia, noting that Bangladesh is more connected (via flight paths, distance, and ease of visas) to Yangon, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Bangkok than it is to Mumbai or New Delhi, while also rooting DAS in festivals of past and present such as the Festival of Arts Shiraz Persepolis, the Asian Art Biennale, and the Volcano Extravaganza. And in 2020, we will look at connections between Bangladesh and Africa and China, rooted in historical moments of trade that predate Western colonization. It’s also important to note that DAS is not envisioned as a comprehensive regional survey show, but rather provides nodes to complicate the flattening effect that these kinds of shows tend to have, challenging power structures in the process.

During my nearly seven years in India, I saw that a small number of curators have undue influence on the artists from that country who get to exhibit abroad. I did not want to be that person in Bangladesh—which is also why I invited in so many young guest curators with fresh perspectives to join my team, allowing DAS to express a multitude of positions beyond my own. I think that the integrity, commitment, love, and “outsiderness” (in Edward Said’s sense of defining the public intellectual) of the team of artists, curators, writers, and contributors to the public program, paired with the generosity and support of the Samdani Family, the Bangladeshi government, and our partners, are what built DAS into the platform it is today.

What have you achieved so far?

We try to complicate shallow definitions of art and art history in South Asia; if these art histories do not include Bengal, East Pakistan, or Bangladesh, they are not complete—not to mention Nepal, Sri Lanka, etc. When the summit began, most Western museum collections of modern and contemporary South Asian art were limited to India and Pakistan—and mostly dealing with narratives relating to partition in 1947. Partition means something very different in Bangladesh than it does in India or Pakistan. In 1947 Bangladesh did not become an independent nation. It became a colony of Pakistan. DAS began as a contemporary art platform, but we quickly realized that contemporary art does not exist in a vacuum and we need to look back in order to think forward. 317,000 local visitors came through our doors in the 2018 edition of DAS, and I think that the summit is a bastion of secularism in an environment of increased conservatism (not just in Bangladesh but around the world). And a generation of children will soon have experienced five editions of the Dhaka Art Summit as part of their education program via our partnership with schools around the country—which I hope leads to increased empathy, understanding, and sensitivity in this important generation, which will lead the country’s future. On a professional level, of course institutions like Documenta, Tate, MoMA, and various biennials and kunsthalles have visited the summit and have invited emerging and midcareer Bangladeshi artists to be a part of their platforms, which is very encouraging for us and for the local art community in Bangladesh. However, I am keen to focus on building more opportunities locally, as the spaces to exhibit contemporary art in the country are fewer and fewer and local audiences should be able to experience and appreciate the incredible work of Bangladeshi artists who are shown abroad.

I recently read a fantastic publication called Condition Report: Symposium on Building Art Institutions in Africa, edited by Koyo Kouoh. A text by Kouoh in the book, entitled “Filling the Voids,” included this insightful quote by Malian economist Aminata Dramane Traoré: “It is over forty years now that Africa has desperately been trying to get out of a deadlock. Africa tries to find a way out of the discourse established by those who taught her to think of herself as poor.” This statement is also true of Bangladesh—and through art and culture and scholarly endeavors we work to refute the poverty dialog that seems to define people’s views of contemporary Bangladesh. I think we have been successful in opening both local and international people’s minds to considering Bangladesh outside of this limiting framework (after all, Bengal was one of the richest civilizations of all time), but we still have a long way to go. In this regard, the 2020 DAS will look at an anecdote from the year 1414, when the king of Bengal gave a giraffe as a gift to the emperor of China—a sign of independent international alliances and trade before the era of European colonialism.

It is interesting to me how the summit, a private initiative, nonetheless generates a public sphere—a kind of shared space for discourse. What is the interplay between public and private? What is the model that stands behind the Dhaka Art Summit and who owns the content, in legal terms?

The reason the Dhaka Art Summit does not have the Samdani name in it is that we wanted to have many owners. The key to it is that we own the content; we have had absolutely no interference from the Bangladeshi government in terms of content, none. They give us use of the building for free, which is not an easy process—bureaucracy is never easy to deal with. I think that the reason we are able to get the incredible kinds of crowds that we do is because the summit takes place at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, which is a place people are very familiar with and very comfortable going to. If we were to move the summit into a private space owned by us, we wouldn’t get the same crowds. DAS is a truly public event because of our collaboration with the government via the Shilpakala Academy and the Cultural Ministry and National Museum partnerships. Public/private partnerships are common in Bangladesh and I think this is also why culture is so vibrant in the country. The government also supports the Asian Art Biennale, the Chobi Mela, and also collects art for its embassies and its national collection—the government is therefore one of the main supporters of art in Bangladesh. However, DAS is by no means a nationalistic project. In fact, we actively work to debunk rigid definitions of the nation and even the region—definitions that are driven by colonial mapping processes.

You said that in Bangladesh you don’t feel class differences the way you do in other countries.

Yes, the public feels comfortable coming up to you and talking to you and asking you questions. There is not this “I-am-not-as-good-as-you” feeling that is often found in the caste-based systems of India (Bangladesh does not have a caste system like India). Of course, there are class issues everywhere, but relatively speaking, it is far less noticeable here than it is in India, for example. You see people of all classes walking into DAS, and that is a really rare thing in Asia in my opinion. This is truly one of the few places where I can see artists, writers, heads of state, museum directors, public intellectuals and academics, art collectors, the general public—from tea sellers to rickshaw drivers to teachers to construction workers—and children all come together in a single venue at the same time with equal access. We have no VIP hours or VIP days and the energy that comes together with this meeting of diverse people is what keeps DAS going. I think the fact that our international visitors are regularly approached by the local public means that people feel confident to engage with them. The most magical moment in DAS for me personally was when some Bangladeshi poets from Singapore, whose day jobs are working as migrant construction workers and who come together to write and recite poetry on their one day off, were reciting their poetry in the summit and celebrated for their creativity in this public forum.

This year the summit lasted nine days and had a very particular dramaturgy. The opening weekend transmitted a cosmopolitan feeling, and the talks program addressed global issues, hosting guests from all over the world. After that one could feel a shift towards the local; the talks focused on Bangladesh and its history, and one could see school groups visiting. The closing weekend then gathered scholars in an debate about the writing of art histories in the twentieth century. Could you comment on this dramaturgy and speak about how you situate the summit with respect to these different publics—“the internationalists,” the local public, the academic world?

This was very carefully considered. We want to create a platform that can be equally enjoyed by different publics. The kind of people who are coming to hear Glenn Lowry speak are not necessarily the kind of people who are coming to hear Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak; they are different groups of people—art industry people and intellectuals—although I would love to see more crossover between the two, and I was not the only person disappointed to see that most professional institutional curators picked the opening weekend rather than the scholars’ weekend. I also wanted to have the art historians be able to consider the summit after having seen the exhibitions; I think it is not possible to do that if you just fly in. In the future, I think we need to think through more programs and opportunities to allow these publics to mix. Of course, they mixed in the exhibition space—and the Bangladeshi public felt very comfortable engaging with and asking questions of the artists, speakers, and international visitors, but I think we could push this a step further even beyond the Bangla-language programming. The arts mediators were a step in that direction. The next edition will not segregate the scholars from the practicing professionals date-wise, and the “scholars’ weekend” will extend across the whole of the summit, and we will maintain but reduce the “professional meeting point” element of the summit to allow it to take a more academic turn—also adding architectural history and fashion/design to the scholarly programming.

The summit grows every year. This year there were six curated shows, which presented the work of over three hundred artists. The discursive as well as the educational program ran throughout the whole event. What is the logic behind that growth?

I think it is just that we work with people with very big ambitions, and they are primarily young curators with fresh perspectives and their energy and expertise have helped build the summit from edition to edition. I think the guest-curated shows peaked in quality in the 2018 edition and I am so proud of what my colleagues have achieved. However, moving forward, I am not sure if we will have guest curators in the same way; 85 percent of my time on DAS 2018 was spent on the logistics and loan processes for these guest-curated exhibitions, also trying to balance limited resources between them and fundraise for them. When people see what we achieved, they do not understand all of the difficulties that went into getting there. DAS is an impossible dream in itself and we push the logistical limits with each edition, but I think we hit them this time and I don’t foresee myself traveling to Sri Lanka to hand-carry 390 kilograms of art in twenty crates the week before the show again. I think that this plurality of curatorial voices worked out really well, but … there is this Chinese proverb that reads something along the lines of: “We won the war twice. If we win another one, we are finished.” It was great over nine days. You could really see everything and build your own links across the exhibitions. I like playing with scale and I think we need to de-scale—that is something I am thinking about now. Whether I will be allowed to de-scale is another question, but let’s see. Regardless, I will definitely recalibrate the scale of the summit, and I’m also looking at a co-curated model.

And how do you understand scale?

I would like to think about scale in the sense of impact (on multiple levels). Perhaps to really have an impact, having fewer artists and fewer programs so people can focus might be a wise move—also consolidating resources to give more funds for more ambitious projects from fewer people. However, the “art system” seems to see scale as the number of artists, curators, exhibitions, visitors, etc., and I am curious how my scaling up (in an impact sense) would be read while scaling down in a numbers sense …

I remember a comment you posted on Facebook about a BMW logo. You were installing a thematic section of the summit about migrant labor and you realized that a BMW logo would soon to be installed within view of the wall text.

I was very upset about that. I am not fond of exclusive kinds of lounges in public platforms and I try to get rid of “the VIP lounge” every single year but I am unsuccessful each time because there has to be a space to host senior government officials when they visit (like the minister of culture or the president of Switzerland). Building this lounge is astronomically expensive because there has to be a full kitchen built in there—and BMW covered the cost of this, which is why they had a BMW lounge. They did not support the exhibition portion of DAS, only the lounge.

For me, this moment of seeing a BMW logo within view of my exhibition led me to think about the role that desire plays in our lives and the layers of labor that lay paths for these wheels to drive on. So I decided to embrace it, because I have faith in friction and the generative power of contradiction. There is nothing that I can do about the lounge being there, but what I did try to do was to bring as many people who would never get into the lounge there as possible.

Could you pinpoint some other difficulties and contradictions that you face as an artistic director? How do you approach them?

On an organizational level, problems are a constant. It is like Whac-A-Mole, that popular arcade game: a problem pops up and you have to smack it down, then another problem pops up and you have to smack it down, then another … You have to be in ten different places at ten different times to be able to manage all these things, because as you see, the scale is huge. It is very difficult, but if you see this as a collective, accumulative project, it gets better with time. One of the challenges that I am facing concerns border regulations. When I worked DAS in 2014, people from Pakistan could easily get visas to Bangladesh and we therefore had a large representation of Pakistani artists. This changed dramatically in 2016; now we can’t ship anything from Pakistan, and only very well-connected Pakistani artists can get visas to be part of DAS. This is something I am very uncomfortable with—but it is the reality of the times we live in. With each edition of the Dhaka Art Summit, South Asia is becoming increasingly fractured. This is ironic, since part of the founding mission of the event was to bring South Asian art and artists together. As we have progressed, we have seen that people and ideas are now flowing more between Bangladesh and Southeast Asia than they are with South Asia, making us reorient our thinking.

In general, the world has become a more difficult place to inhabit over the last five years, and not just in Bangladesh. I would say that DAS 2018 had a darker undertone than past editions. This is because artists and curators responded to the times that we live in. We are not living in an art fair tent that is dissociated from the wider world, and we are sensitive people. Life is hard because I am so sensitive, but I think I am good at my job because I am that sensitive, and I think that people should be more sensitive to the human cost of capitalist development and nationalist development. When you grow a country, something else has to shrink—so I think just making people aware of these things is important, and it is great because the summit becomes this huge public forum to think about this together.

The personal cost of this kind of role is huge, with all of the travel and untranslatable scenarios. But there is nothing more rewarding than seeing the local impact of all of the work we do so quickly and palpably. An artist recently summed up my professional and life choices as driven by love (I did not move to Asia for my career). He hit the nail on the head, because I am completely in love with my work in Bangladesh, which defies any logic when you look at the amount of work necessary to create something like the Dhaka Art Summit, and soon our permanent art center in Sylhet. I am not working with the kind of budgets that people assume I am, and we do not earn any income from our initiatives, so what drives this work is an emotional economy with our collaborators—which is priceless.

What for you is the role of self-criticality and how do you implement it within the Dhaka Art Summit?

You don’t grow without being self-critical. As I mentioned, I need time alone to process this summit, but I am critical about the scale, I am critical about the ecological footprint, I am critical about a lot of things, and I need to just sit back and figure out how the next summit deals with that. If you read the catalog essays you will see that I am very critical of the so-called New North–New South partnership and I tried to bring in Southeast Asia to counter colonial flows of money that reinforce existing power structures and exert unrealistic expectations and constraints on South Asian contexts.

We are very grateful for the support of the British Council, the Goethe Institut, the Institut Français, Pro Helvetia, etc., and for the important work that they do as major funders of the arts in regions such as South Asia. They have been instrumental partners in our mission. However, I need to actively work to find partners from non-Western contexts so that we can build new alliances and allegiances and affinities outside of these networks, which are the primary drivers of international artistic exchange in South Asia. I want to do more with China, with Africa, and with Southeast Asia. A significant amount of my time over the next two years will be spent building new institutional partnerships to allow the summit to become more of a South–South platform. A lot of DAS’s success has been through its Western validation—but we really need to move beyond this.

A special guest speaker this year was Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. In her lecture, she pinpointed a split between, on the one hand, the work of recurring large-scale events in the realm of art, and, on the other, the injustice that is happening beyond this realm. She said that it is very difficult to affect change from within art structures alone. I was wondering if you could comment on Spivak’s keynote.

I think this is a fair statement, and I will be thinking about it as I plan DAS 2020. How do we take what is in the exhibition space and make an active difference in the “real world”? How do we take our work a step further, to fight for social justice? However, Spivak had not seen the exhibition before she made that statement; nor had she spent time with the people participating in DAS until the day after she gave her speech. She was in her hotel the whole day preparing for the talk, which is understandable given all of the activist work that she was doing prior to arriving in Dhaka, which must have made her exhausted. I was thrilled when she used parts of my exhibition via the works of Sonia Jabbar, Hitman Gurung, and Ayesha Jatoi in a lecture that she gave to Roma activists after the summit was over—so I think that the exhibition did have an impact outside of its space.

I had originally wanted Spivak to speak in Bengali. I thought it would have been empowering to have a Europeanist of Bengali origin come in here, where we have many European speakers talking about South Asia, and flip the gaze. But in order for her to participate in programs as far away as Dhaka (she lives in New York), she needed a first-class plane ticket, due to her health. I could not spend that kind of money for a first-class flight, which would make these funds unavailable for emerging artists—it would feel ethically wrong. But I was able to fundraise for the ticket; the Edward Kennedy Center generously gave me half of the funds, and then OCA (Office for Contemporary Art Norway) contributed the rest by including her in their Critical Writing Ensembles program, which is entitled “Sovereign Words.”

Spivak’s keynote was a big lesson for me, because I think as an organizer, as a host, you have to make everyone feel comfortable. It was meant to be followed up by a discussion with several of the invited peer writers from Sovereign Words—an unprecedented meeting of writer-peers from Indigenous communities around the world contesting the Western canon that was organized by OCA in partnership with DAS and Artspace, Sydney (these brilliant presentations can be found online on our website). Intellectual sparks and frictions come up—it’s just part of debating—but you cannot set up a debate when the playing field is not fair. Being on stage with a leading public intellectual in Bangladesh in front of an audience of hundreds of people you don’t know might not be the best place for that kind of debate. Through its very architecture, the auditorium, with its hierarchy of a stage, is a good place for presentations but does not really foster a comfortable space for discussion or for breaking hierarchies—and this is something I am also thinking about for DAS 2020 in terms of our public program. It would have been better if this proposed discussion/debate were held in our seminar room (which hosted the other Critical Writing Ensemble presentations), with all parties present for all of the Critical Writing Ensembles presentations so that there was more understanding and room to question each others’ points of view. I should have gone with my gut and found a way to invite her to speak in Bengali rather than trying to find creative ways to make bringing her possible so that Sovereign Words and Spivak’s keynote could have both shone in their best light.

Spivak pushed me on the fact that I don’t speak Bengali—and she’s totally right. After five years, it’s time for me to earn agency over the language. Institutionally, it is extremely important that everything is bilingual. Our wall texts and catalog are bilingual, and we subtitle most of the films shown in DAS. But was is perfect? No, and that is a scary but also humbling experience.

I feel that one of the main challenges for recurring large-scale exhibitions in general is sustainability. How do you create conditions for the spirit and the practice of DAS, along with the collective commitments it generates, to continue?

I love Maria Lind’s text “Made to Fit, or the Gathering of the Balloons,” from e-flux’s Supercommunity project, where she speaks about a good institution being an amplifier: “While maintaining its nuances and contradictions, the art of the dandelion needs amplification. It doesn’t need a bigger size or a massive scale, but an accumulation of discrete entities passing the ball between each other. It requires distributed sensibilities that erupt and consolidate at certain moments in particular places.”

Dhaka Art Summit was never envisioned as a forever sort of project, and we are saying that the 2020 edition will be the last one because we will open Srihatta, the Samdani Art Centre and Sculpture Park in Sylhet, at the end of this year (opening locally—we won’t be having any “Dhaka Art Summit” scale event there until 2020). Who knows, maybe it won’t be the last summit. But thinking of the next DAS as if it is were the last is a generative exercise because I hope that it serves as a catalyst for other contexts to pick up the metaphorical torch and create similar initiatives that are experimental and artist centric while also being professional. I’ve heard wonderful murmurs about the Colomboscope in Sri Lanka wanting to scale up and taking Dhaka Art Summit as inspiration after their visit to the 2018 edition, and there have been patrons from around the world coming to DAS hoping to start their own initiatives. We have also been focusing a lot on artist-led initiatives in Bangladesh, to support them in sustaining and growing the important work that they do. If the energy from Dhaka Art Summit can seep into other initiatives that happen across the year, I think that will be great, and I also see the importance of leading by example. This is also why I am trying to think through a structure for the next DAS that creates an example of the sort of art system I want to see, where professionals are paid fees to participate (even if they are modest), where women have leadership roles, and where there is diversity on the core team and where we listen to and support artists to think in radical ways, creating a “safe space for unsafe ideas,” in the words of Rhana Devenport. If the spirit of Dhaka Art Summit is present on a daily basis in Bangladesh through the work of our collaborators and through the programming we have at Srihatta, I know that I will have done my job well. If a Bangladeshi curator can take over my role one day, even better.

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Image: A DAS 2018 art mediator is leading students in a tour of works by Pablo Bartholomew and Gauri Gill & Rajesh Vangad at the “Bearing Point 4” exhibition, curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt. Image courtesy of DAS 2018. Photographer: Noor Photoface.