Dhaka Art Summit 2020 was probably one of the last (and biggest) art summit in the world before the world turned upside down due to the pandemic. Held in Dhaka, Bangladesh, from 7-15 February 2020, the Summit is organized by Samdani Art Foundation, and was said to be the most ambitious edition to date inviting over 500 cross-disciplinary artists, scholars, curators, and thinkers to participate.
Seismic Movements– the fifth edition of DAS, was a massively interacting organism; with a series of nine chapters and seven sub-chapters, two symposiums and a moving-image program, and talks taking place through the Summit’s duration. It was a pot full of people eager to communicate, exchange knowledge, and make connections.
I was, for one, lucky enough to be taken along with the Gudskul team as a representative from Gudskul’s Collective Study. Together with Jatiwangi Art Factory and Bakudapan, we were invited to stay at the Indonesian Embassy for our stay.
Gudksul in itself was invited to do a “Stitching Ecosystem”, which is a series of mini festivals consisting of a series of workshops, sharing sessions, and market spaces with a focus on sustainability strategy, public relations, spatial practice, art laboratory, and knowledge garden.
Let’s just say that I’m a complete newbie when it comes into the “Art World”. Freshly graduated and just recently stumbled into Gudskul, the Dhaka Art Summit was my first event abroad that I have attended personally. It’s now set a high bar of standard for future art events for myself due to its whooping 500.000+ visitors in total.
Walking into Dhaka’s Shilpakala Academy, I felt like walking into an overcrowded open market. It was a bit overwhelming. As you set foot in it, it was an ocean of people. Everyone has their own selling points, knowledge to exchange, talks to be had, and they can choose where to spend their time to learn.
As Gudskul, we were given a space that is considered most open. A fair-sized corner corridor just right next to the gates called the Collective’s Hub. Couple of tables and a lot of chairs, one projector in the middle. We spent most of the preparation time going back and forth from the Collective’s Hub and the rooftop for lunch meetings.
The first hurdle for the Gudskul team was on the opening day, where we had organized Collective as School. We gathered enough people from all kinds of different art-backgrounds in the workshop as we managed to fill five big tables to interact. Discussion was made and dialogues were exchanged, and we came out with more friends than before we began.
As was with Speculative Collective– a knowledge-sharing and mapping module with the focus of exploring and understanding forms of collectivizing through direct practice, forming a kind of know-how. Chairs were lined by two, facing each other. The participants were made to get to know each other and at the end to form a collective based on their talk and interest.
The day was closed off for us with a visit to a formal ball held by the organizer. It was somehow like a breather, knowing that we managed the first day alright and that tonight we can relax for a while. Good food, smooth drinks, and wonderful company. It was a good end for the opening.
Enjoying the Summit itself was not that easy for me in the beginning. So many artworks, names, artists, concepts, ideas, all spread out around you. I had to slowly walk around during my free time and try to ingest all the information that they give. I had a lot of conversations with others that work in the art-related industry. I had conversations with myself as I’m seeing the works and see if it connects- ground me down to earth and realize just how deeply they’re talking about the topics. I had conversations with myself as I sat down on the gravel, watching the JAF performing on their stage.
I had a lot of fun.
One art piece that really stuck to mind was from the Vietnamese collective, Art Labor. They made a full functioning hammock café in the corner or the exhibition space that serves visitors with Vietnamese coffee for a couple of sessions during the day. Of course, me being a coffee lover, would be a loyal visitor.
Besides their coffee being a tasty mid-afternoon treat, the concept was about collectivism. The Robusta coffee beans- introduced to Vietnam in the French colonial period, was brought together by Art Labor from one of its member’s hometown to study its circulation of plant species in international markets and the effects of industrial architecture, along with the agronomy and the colonial and cultural histories.
Another was the performance from the guys from Jatiwangi Art Factory. They had set up a little stage on top of a gravel mound, garnished with different kinds of terracotta pieces that they later destroyed during their musical performance. I loved to sit in the next gravel mound to watch them from afar- that belonged to another artist, but I can’t remember the name.
Their performance was always in the early evening, as the sun was setting. They were joined with different kinds of musicians, modern or traditional, and always adapting to the sound.
After the opening and the workshop from Gudskul, we then had to prepare for the Gerobak Cinema. It was adapted into Bangla’s culture through the Bangladeshi’s tuk-tuk. We were scouting out places for it to be put together for an evening viewing, so we went out and visited the nearest park for lunch.
Unfortunately, the police didn’t give us permission to hold anything inside the park, so we ended up doing it in the middle of a pedestrian crossing bridge- which was also an interesting location to be held.
The preparation was quite quick as we had everything in tow in the tuk-tuk. Bamboo poles were erected to support the projection screen. Electric battery was turned on to give power to the laptop, projector, and speaker. People start to gather, be it the homeless who has settled in the corners of the bridge, the invitees who walked from the Shilpakala Academy, even passersby who knew nothing but got interested in the set up. I would say it was a successful evening for us again.
Dhaka, overall, was a hectic town. When we’re not spending time in the Shilpakala Academy, we’re spending it in the Indonesian Embassy and the central area of Gulshan. It’s like seeing through warm-grey glasses. Dust, traffic, people all around. Wind blasts through the evening whenever we tried to find food, it got quite cold contrasts to my expectation.
Talking about food and drinks of the Bangla, my favourite was the Doodh Cha– the Bengali Masala Chai. There’s a little stand just next to where we were staying, and it would always be full no matter what time that I visit. Ran by three dudes, the stall also sells burgers and kebabs- perfect for evening munchies.
The second hurdle with the Dhaka Art Summit happened during a joint workshop with Grafis Huru Hara, Shunno Artspace (Dhaka, Bangladesh) and Pangrok Sulap (Sabah, Malaysia). The workshop was scheduled to be in the morning, and later in the evening, we would have a closing party initiated by us for a Karaoke night- where I was in charge of.
After a while, we were all busy doing our own thing that day and as we’re going around the workshop participant, someone noticed that their bag was gone. To my dread, that is also when I found out that I lost my bag.
Everything got a bit crazy for a while then, as my hard drive was needed for the Karaoke the next day. The same hard drive, unfortunately, that holds all of my works for the past five years. Two bags were stolen that day- me and another photographer, his was a camera bag with five undeveloped film rolls. Also, a ton worth in memories.
Police were summoned, high-ranking people were called. I did the formalities of reporting and hoping for the best, though that day I practically let go of it either way. I spent the day desperately trying to let go. (Fun fact: the Jatiwangi Art Factory guys told me to help them destroy some terracotta pieces in the evening during their performance, that was a good way to relieve stress.)
We come to the last event of the Dhaka Art Summit, a “private” party on the rooftop of the Shilpakala Academy, where crews, coordinators, and artists are alike. Pangrok Sulap was helping us prepare the food- we had Gado-Gado, an Indonesian traditional food to be served alongside Bangladeshi’s biryani rice and variant choices of curries.
With the help of some people for the setup, they managed to get the karaoke working. I did the MC and tried to get everyone’s mood up- people were coming up to me one by one to apologize for the bad news, they all heard about my missing things. I told them it’s not the time and I would love for everybody to enjoy it. That, in my mind, was a very intimate evening for everyone. It was a nice bye and see you again.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the fifth’ Dhaka Art Summit. In the short two weeks of my visit, I went through a lot of different experiences. I learned a lot, made a ton of connections from all over the world, and would not mind coming back for future editions.
Lilu Herlambang, 2020.