A clockwork, headless Superman figurine crawls on his front, an automatic rifle angled in his arms. Under him is a collage of cut-up, painted-over images from American magazines (National Geographic, Time). Bangladeshi artist Marzia Farhana’s Sovereignty to Nature (2019–20) – a sculpture with three accompanying paintings – gives us the wreckage of American imperialism: a Mad Max-style postindustrial ruin, flooded with grey smoggy skies, dead fish and wide-eyed wild cats. A more reparative reading is to be found in her inclusion of intersectional feminist struggles: within the collage are images documenting the Chipko Movement in 1970s India, where indigenous women successfully mobilized against deforestation.
Farhana’s work is part of Social Movements and Feminist Futures, one of nine chapters that make up this year’s Dhaka Art Summit (DAS), conceived by artistic director Diana Campbell Betancourt and curated in collaboration with more than 31 organizations and individuals. Taking place at Shilpakala Academy, Seismic Movements – as the overall summit is titled – looks at the forces that split things apart or pull them together, and considers how past, present and future form an inextricable continuum. The exhibition is full of critique, especially of patriarchal capitalism and how it reenacts colonial tendencies. The antidote, DAS 2020 proposes, is to be found in feminist, futurist visions.
What feels particularly special to this edition of the summit is the strong showing of work by Bangladeshi artists. Munem Wasif navigates the difficulty of depicting the nuances of the Rohingya refugee camps he has been visiting since 2009. Feeling unable to make portraits, he instead photographs objects people have brought over or made while in the camps, staging them against monochromatic backgrounds. The resulting project, Spring Song(2016–ongoing), is a collection of the fragments that make up life in the camps; there is only one image of a person – a passport-sized photo, mounted on navy blue card. Wasif’s rejection of cliché is refreshing. As with McDaniel’s intimately narrated portraits, the work relies on networks of relationships and community to come alive.
The film programme, curated by the Otolith Group, included Voices of the Gods (1985), directed by Alfred Santana, which looks at the practice of Akan and Yoruba (West African religions) spirituality in 1980s America. In it, an Akan priestess – and doctor of Western medicine – explains how, when diagnosing her patients, she also consults the relevant deities for advice on treatment. DAS 2020 is full of such syncretism of the traditional and technological: a show that suggests how to navigate the apocalyptic present with hope, aided by ancient knowledge systems.