Children with parents, young men, couples, elderly visitors and entire families crowded the center and spilled into its brick courtyard in Dhanmondi, a neighborhood known as
Dhaka’s thriving arts hub. Art lovers
posed for photos next to an expansive painting featuring a jumble of geometric,
blue-skinned men playing cards, blowing a flute and napping in the lee of a
Boats and rivers are ubiquitous in
, a river delta country between Bangladesh and India , and were common motifs in Mr.
Nabi’s paintings. So were lively street scenes, such as a family of three on a
A contemporary arts scene began to grow in
20 years after a bloody war of
independence separated the country from Bangladesh in 1971. Since the 1990s, more
artists have graduated from the country’s arts academies and universities, and
new art venues have sprouted up. Now art openings happen weekly in Pakistan Dhaka’s galleries, clustered mostly in
Dhanmondi — though getting to them is a challenge in a city of seven million
that is choked with traffic.
In spite of the momentum, artists and patrons are still trying to push contemporary art beyond the country’s traditional notions. Some also strive to create an identity apart from grim scenes too easily associated with
: cyclones, violent political
protests, and bleak factories exemplified by the deadly collapse last year of
the Bangladesh building. Rana Plaza
Founded in 1986, the Bengal Foundation was one of the first private arts institutions in
Dhaka. Today it hosts exhibitions,
concerts and other cultural events at the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts in
Dhanmondi, as well as the sleek new Bengal Art Lounge in Gulshan, the
The business magnate Abul Khair Litu started the foundation out of personal interest in the arts, and “the vision of projecting a culturally rich
, rising above clichéd portraiture of
a country steeped in flood and famine,” as he wrote in a 2011 book by the
Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam. Bangladesh
Mr. Alam founded Drik, a photography agency and archive, in 1989 to use photography as a tool for social justice and to show
in a different light. Bangladesh
“I wanted to ensure that the only identity of
would not be an icon of poverty,” he
said. “It’s not a P.R. campaign, but the world has a very narrow understanding
of this country.” Bangladesh
Mr. Alam’s photographs have appeared in the
in Museum of Modern Art , the New York in Pompidou Center and other museums around the world.
After earning a doctorate in chemistry from the Paris — a useful degree for mixing
darkroom chemicals, he noted — Mr. Alam stumbled into photography while
hitchhiking in the University of London with a borrowed Nikon. He was hooked
and returned to United States in 1984. Eventually he founded Drik
in his parents’ home in Dhanmondi. Today, Drik’s three-story building houses
the agency, archives, a book publisher, and multimedia initiatives, along with
on the map for photography, as did
Pathshala, the photography school nearby that Mr. Alam founded in 1998.
Pathshala has trained hundreds of Bangladeshi photographers, including
award-winning photojournalists. Bangladesh
Since 2000, Drik has hosted Chobi Mela, the largest festival of contemporary photography in
Asia to be held every other year. In
2013, 130 international photographers converged in Dhaka for a week of talks and exhibitions.
Some displays even took to the streets on bicycle carts. “Art has been confined
to experts for far too long,” Mr. Alam said. “Social engagement is part of what
In spite of Drik’s prominence, Mr. Alam said that art in
was associated primarily with
painting. The Asian Art Biennale has been held at the Bangladesh in Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy Dhaka for 30 years, yet photographs are
still not accepted into the art fair.
Others agree that acceptance of contemporary art must be broadened and internationalized. The art collectors Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani started the annual Dhaka Art Summit in 2012 to showcase contemporary art by Bangladeshi and international artists with a more avant-garde bent. The second summit, this past February, attracted 250 artists from
international curators for three days of exhibits, talks and experimental
The Samdanis, both in their 30s, hope the event becomes a platform for the region and brings Bangladeshi contemporary art onto the global stage. They started collecting art in 2008 and their ultramodern home in Gulshan looks part-gallery, part-nightclub, with striking contemporary art displayed throughout the house.
In the lobby, a life-size sculpture of a corpse by the Pakistani artist Huma Mulji lies on the floor grotesquely clutching at the air. Ms. Mulji modeled the sculpture on bodies of the “disappeared” found dumped in rivers in
. Upstairs, an outsize rack displays
dozens of shiny metallic bras made of razor blades by the Bangladeshi arztist
Tayeba Begum Lipi. Ms. Lipi’s work of a bed frame constructed of razor blades
was recently acquired by the Pakistan in Guggenheim Museum . New York
Ms. Lipi is part of the Britto Arts Trust, a group in
Dhaka founded by Bangladeshi artists in 2002 as an incubator for
experimental work like video and installation art that remains largely alien to
the city’s traditional venues. “When we started, galleries didn’t give us
space,” recalled Mahbubur Rahman, one of Britto’s six founders.
Britto has gained ground since then. It hosts workshops every two years for local and international artists, and has a new arts space near Dhanmondi where Britto’s 11 members work and exhibit.
In 2009, Britto also helped stage 1mile2, a display of films, public art and installations focusing on ecology over one square mile of Old Dhaka, the capital’s chaotic historic district. For one day, works by 40 artists spotlighted the environmental and urban degradation so prevalent in Old Dhaka. Works included a life-size replica of a traditional wooden boat made of empty plastic bottles that carried passengers onto the black, fetid waters of the
, and a photo installation depicting Buriganga River Dhaka’s wild urban monkeys.
Mr. Rahman said that 15,000 people had viewed the show in a single day, including laborers who work and live in Old Dhaka. “They didn’t understand what was going on, but they are very much curious and enjoying,” he said.
Although pockets of contemporary art are thriving in
Dhaka, challenges remain. ’s fine arts academies and
universities tend to neglect teaching the subject, and there is still more
respect for older, traditional artists. “No one wants young people to get
recognition,” lamented Mr. Samdani of Dhaka Art Summit. Bangladesh
Art patrons spoke of the divided, fragmented arts community in a country known for cutthroat politics. “It’s a pity,” said Giorgio Guglielmino, the Italian ambassador to
and an avid collector who lectures
on contemporary art. “If you want the country’s art to emerge, they should put
together forces.” Bangladesh
Those who attend art exhibitions in
Dhaka seem oblivious to this infighting.
Back at Mr. Nabi’s exhibition at , a 35-year-old banker named Sazzad
Islam admired the paintings. Mr. Islam studied accounting at university. His
fondness for art has grown by visiting Dhaka Art Center Dhaka’s galleries.
“When I get any time I try to go there,” Mr. Islam said. “Day by day, I myself feel devotion.”
AMY YEE for The NY Times