The most powerful woman in the world of Bangladeshi art, Nadia Samdani is driven by an overarching vision to promote her country and its artists. The co-founder and president of the Samdani Art Foundation and director of South Asia’s biggest non-commercial art event Dhaka Art Summit, Nadia’s vision is as much about showcasing Bangladeshi artists as it is about promoting Bangladesh to artists and curators from around the world.
Over the past decade, Nadia and her husband Rajeeb Samdani have created a platform that is truly unique, co-opting talented professionals from around South Asia and the world, powered by their own philanthropy.
“I’m a collector, yes,” admits Nadia, “but what I enjoy most is being part of the journey of these artists, watching them grow, and seeing their life change once they reach the international platform.”
Her other great pleasure comes a close second: “When we commission works to international artists, they come to Bangladesh, see the country and are inspired to create something for this milieu. It’s exciting for me to be part of the process from ideation to execution,” says the Dhaka-based philanthropist, who is a member of Tate Museum’s South Asia acquisitions committee and on its international council.
One could say that, for Nadia, art runs in her blood. Growing up in UK, she was influenced by her parents, who were collectors of Bangladeshi art. In the 1980s, Nadia’s father became one of the pioneers of Bangladesh’s garment industry, and the family moved from UK to Dhaka in the early 1990s.
Having attended art biennales around the world, Nadia began collecting art herself from the age of 22. With a likeminded partner in life and work, the Samdanis developed a formidable collection over time, including works of Bangladeshi and global artists.
Works from the Samdani collection have been loaned to various prestigious art museums and galleries around the world, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to Centre Pompidou, Paris. In 2017, the couple became the first South Asians to receive the Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award.
A mother of three daughters – two teens and a seven-year-old – Nadia has a youthful passion for the arts that is visible even across a Zoom call. Mid-conversation, the 39-year-old picks up her laptop and takes you along as she walks to the window of her home office to show you a sculpture in the garden.
“It is a park bench with bird spikes all over it where people are supposed to sit,” she describes with both wonder and triumph. “Isn’t it brilliant?” The work in question, Parkverbot (Looted Art), was made by Russian-Tunisian artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke, and is one of thousands of works housed in the Samdani residence, where the art famously came first before the rest of the architecture, even the positioning of the walls.
In 2012, the Samdanis launched the Dhaka Art Summit. Five editions later, the biennale has grown beyond even Nadia’s own expectations. The most recent Summit – held in February 2020 and directed by American curator Diana Campbell Betancourt – saw contributions by 500 artists, scholars, curators and thinkers, and included panel discussions, workshops and performances. Entry was free to the public, and over 400,000 visitors reportedly dropped in.
“The idea is to make art accessible to all socio-economic groups. People assume that art is just about paintings, but this is precisely the myth we wanted to shatter. Imagine a taxi driver coming in with his children and they see all these different kinds of art – performances, architecture, sound installations. The Dhaka Art Summit has completely changed the impression of art in the minds of the common people,” Nadia asserts.
The Samdanis support art production and artists but do not claim ownership over the final works. “This is not a collection-building exercise,” says Nadia, who is on the advisory council of Art Dubai and is one of the founding members of The Harvard University Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute’s Arts Advisory Council.
Each edition of the Summit also includes the prestigious Samdani Art Award, which is open to Bangladeshi artists between the age of 20 and 40, and typically gets thousands of applications each time. The shortlist of about 10 to 20 artists make to a show and are judged by a jury of international art experts. The winner gets a fully paid three-month art residency at the Delfina Foundation in London.
Nadia speaks animatedly about how the Summit has given women artists in Bangladesh a space to be seen and heard. “The award shortlist almost always has women artists in the majority,” she says, “and they bring up very strong points of view in their work, from feminist movements to politics to tackling social taboos and the subject of shame. They are more open and fearless than you’d expect.”
She describes how the jury members of the 2020 award finalised not one but two winners, both women. So convinced were they of the value of the second winner’s work that they gave up part of their own judging fee to fund the young artist’s residency in UK.
The pandemic has forced changes in the Summit schedule, and the 2022 edition has been pushed to 2023. In the meantime, the Samdanis are looking forward to launching their Srihatta–Samdani Art Centre and Sculpture Park this year in Sylhet, a city in northeastern Bangladesh where both Nadia and Rajeeb have ancestral roots. Spread over 100 acres, the couple plan to make the Sculpture Park a new art destination in South Asia, one with an international approach.
Nadia fiercely defends the value of art in an evolving society beyond entertainment and aesthetics. “Art is political, it is a statement on current events,” she says. “You may hear about injustice or crises on the news but when an artist presents it through their own unique perspective, you are touched to the core.”
She references a photography installation by Bangladeshi artist-photographer Munem Wasif, in which he presents the belongings of the homeless Rohingyas, who took refuge in Bangladesh in large numbers after persecution in Myanmar.
Each frame of the exhibit showcases one item that is small enough to fit in a hand – a currency note, a photograph, a bit of soil – insignificant objects to a stranger, until the viewer realises this is all that the fleeing refugees could carry with them, something that meant the world to that one person leaving their world behind. “Art is subtle,” says Nadia. “At first, it appears ordinary. But when you read the concept note, it breaks your heart.”
First published as the cover story of eShe’s April 2021 issue
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