DAS 2020: Tales Across the Summit


Ayman Omiyo Zahir


My friend and I had prematurely decided to censor ourselves from all online posts that threatened to reveal the novelties of this year’s Dhaka Art Summit, but what lay ahead was something utterly unexpected. As we headed towards the entrance, a wall of dirt and sediment awaited us. Erected in layers of reds and yellows, this wall reminded me of the colourful cross-sections of rock sedimentations from my Class Six science book. Clearly, it didn’t belong here. This structure stretched across the entire entrance, separating itself from reality.

We stood there for a while, trying to ascertain if we were truly at the right place or not. Surely this wall was built in only a few days’ time to accommodate the exhibition, but something about the entrance felt ancient — as if the building process had undergone centuries of sedimentation and development. As I stared in bewilderment I began to grasp the theme behind this year’s exhibition: Seismic Movements. We came in search of novelty, but to already have found something so oddly novel at the entrance could only excite us for what lay ahead.

As we traversed up the stairs, a constellation of countless black dots traversed with us. Some ingenious soul had stamped black fingerprints all over the walls adjacent to the stairs. For some, each step triggered another layer of trypophobia. For others, the plain wall became an ominous display of monochromatic fireflies, perhaps guiding them onwards. I later came to learn that the ingenious soul behind this piece was London-based artist Rana Begum. 

Upon reaching the first floor, we came across what could only be described as a horde of pottery left for dead — a collection of the most unique vases arranged in a circular pattern on the floor. It seemed as though some wild animal had been allowed to trample through the exhibit the night before, leaving the pottery disfigured, dismembered, and misshapen in their own unique ways. Some were shaped like ears, larger than any us humans possessed, while others were mere abstractions born of clay and destruction.

Our personal favorites included ones that resembled carefully crafted pasta shells, although I didn’t fancy consuming any. Oddly enough, a few even managed to survive as perfectly symmetrical vases. One might find amusement from seeking out these unscathed survivors but personally, I found solace in analysing all the bizarre abnormalities amongst the pack. At the end of the day, they were all perfect in their own way. I thank Mexican artist Hector Zamora for this sculptural installation full of narrative.

After a few mandatory “aesthetic” photographs, we entered one of the many galleries on display. We chose this exhibit as the title, “On Muzharul Islam: Surfacing Intention” arrested my attention. I was aware of the legendary architect’s influence, both internationally and in shaping much of the country’s architectural landscape. So, you could say a certain familiarity drew me there.

We came across a fun little series of artworks, or what seemed like artworks at the outset. The artist had painted mountains and natural landscapes juxtaposed with architectural structures reminiscent of Muzharul Islam’s works. This in itself evoked a sense of surrealism, while reminding us of the proximity his work had with nature. However, after observing each artwork a second time, we noticed that each had undergone some form of alteration.

The artist had playfully painted on the plains of zinc bars to create the artworks on a singular collective plain. However, the bars could be rotated to reveal another layer of artwork from a separate plain. With each turn, the overall artwork transformed with endless possibility and nuance. Suddenly, the level of surrealism felt more elevated, more tangible. As the bars rotated, the mountains rolled out partially into a stretch of concrete adorned with the architect’s trademark circular structures and arches. Concrete fused inexplicably with brick to create abstract brutalist structures, spellbound under multiple layers of perspective to ultimately end up with something almost fourth-dimensional. The transformative nature of the art was impressive, and I imagine the level of interaction kept the children busy. Sadly, I can’t seem to recall the artist responsible for this work.

As we ventured further, we encountered a plethora of artworks and installations inspired by the late architect’s legacy. Some were minimalistic: Architectural shapes and patterns were arranged purposefully, on palettes of beige canvases and walls, and even up against the ceiling. Collectively, they instilled a sense of calm with all the neutral shades that encompassed the entire room.  In many ways, they were reminiscent of Kandinsky’s abstract works, albeit lacking any vivid display of colours. Interestingly, some works took a similar approach towards minimalism, but instead made the world of light their ally, utilising light from various angles to form multiple shapes encapsulated in faint shadows. Here, each installation held its own display of trickery amidst the light and the shadows.

Once we emerged from the world of minimalism, our vision became fixated on the very first thing that popped visually. Stretching across the corridor ahead, in stark contrast to the preceding room, was a “curtain” of colourful quilts hanging along a laundry line. “Of all the places to do your laundry,” I couldn’t help but exclaim.

These quilts had beautiful intricate patterns embroidered onto them. In contrast to the minimalist works, these were bold and vivid. Some reminded me of Paul Klee’s works, with their stylistic inclination towards cubism, while others seemed to resemble ancient tapestries depicting tales full of culture and history. A certain degree of playfulness was at work too. In my eyes, this corridor seemed to be emulating a rooftop, one that a child would run across during playtime. Each quilt represented a piece of laundry that the child had his face stuck under amidst all the excitement. He must peel his way across this maze of laundry, drawing one curtain of quilt away, only for another one to come his way. 

Once playtime was over, our eardrums were invaded by the faintest buzzing from a room nearby. The buzzing felt eerie yet oddly melancholic, as if a stranded robot was calling out for help. We followed the buzzing, as it amplified with each step until we reached a dark room, secluded at the edge of the gallery. Over the course of our journey we’d found ourselves in quite a few dark room installations with only the light from a projector guiding our path forward. However, this room possessed no such projector. Instead a flickering blue light cut through the obfuscating darkness. Once my eyes adjusted, I began to make out the geography of this mysterious room and the ominous sound that emanated from it. 

The light came from six LED panels arranged to form a hexagonal metal contraption attached to the ceiling. Wires came dangling from each side, as if suggesting that it had remained derelict for ages. Directly beneath the structure lay a circle of speakers, each producing the buzzing sound in tandem, almost immediately when the light shone on them. The eerie static noise echoed across the room and after a while it slowly morphed into a rhythmic melody. We were visitors in this room and for a moment we were transported to a dystopian cyberpunk future, where machines lay torn and abandoned, an electronic threnody of disjointed frequencies looming over us all the while.

We were brought back to the present abruptly, as one of the guides began to unveil the mystery behind this room. He explained how the entire installation was essentially an electronic orchestra with the hexagonal structure acting as the conductor. The conductor would rhythmically emit a specific frequency towards a speaker each time it lit up. Depending on which direction the light was emitted, a specific speaker would amplify that designated frequency and return it back as the unsettling sound-wave that reverberated through the room. This continued for multiple combinations of LED being lit up in different directions to create a melody of digital music, otherwise known as EDM. This installation, a product of artist Haroon Mirza’s brilliance, was a tribute to Muzharul Islam’s practice of incorporating sound and light in all of his designs. I was enticed by this thought-provoking installation as I now understood the science behind it. The artist’s thought process, ingenuity, and love of the architect was frightening to me.

After that exhilarating installation my friend and I decided to skim past all the other galleries, as it now became nearly impossible to explore without bumping into some stranger. In fact, taking pictures became quite the ordeal as the crowd began to thicken. I like to believe this served as a testament to how vast the Art Summit was this year. Each gallery had a variety to offer, ranging from political imagery in the form of graffiti etched onto a wall of sensitive newspaper articles to Dadaist sculptures being lit up in dramatic fashion through animated projections and coloured lighting. 

One of my favourites included something so whimsical that I began to question its inclusion as an art form. Located on the ground floor was a jungle of gymnastic hoops hung vertically in place. It was as if someone had fabricated a child’s most ludicrous dream into reality and yet, I witnessed a flock of fully-grown adults desperately trying to hang on and swing their way through this dense jungle of chaos and awkward poses. If time were to stand still, this spitting image of chaos and jumbled figures could easily qualify as a modern Baroque painting with its wild sense of movement and grandeur. 

After a few tries on the hoops ourselves, inevitably injuring ourselves in the process, we finally decided to depart. Sadly, after clocking over two hours, we still missed out on multiple exhibits and performances. The sheer vastness of the Art Summit had come back to haunt us. I’d recommend anyone to take a few days’ time to thoroughly explore each and every corner of the exhibition. And even if you did manage to miss out on anything, I promise you won’t leave heavy-hearted. The cultural, historical, societal, and political knowledge that one accumulates from this experience easily inspires the next to create. 

I’d like to go back to the entrance now, where it’s the very sedimentation of this history and culture that acts as a foundation for all new ideas in the form of art, aptly exemplified by the works inspired my Muzharul Islam’s legacy. These ideas are constantly compounding together, woven amongst the culture, history, and society to create an impregnable wall that just keeps on growing. I sincerely thank all the curators and artists of Dhaka Art Summit 2020 for continuing to nourish this cycle of growth.

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