Art patrons Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani open the doors to their family home in Dhaka—which houses one of the most impressive art collections in South Asia—and share the story behind their mission to turn Bangladesh into a cultural hub
A singing voice greets me when I step off the bustling, dusty streets of Dhaka and into the hushed home of Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani. “I’ll just keep on, till I get it right,” it sings. There’s a pause, then it sings the line again. And again. The voice is not Rajeeb or Nadia’s, nor that of any of their three daughters—it’s a work of sound art by British artist Cael Flover that plays on a loop in the Samdanis’ entrance hall.
“When people come to visit, they sometimes get confused whether they’re in a house or a gallery,” says Rajeeb. That’s understandable. Flover’s voice echoes around a slick cube of a room filled with works of art from near and far. One of Anish Kapoor’s signature shimmering steel dishes dominates one wall, while a stone sculpture of a strange humanoid figure by Pakistani-American artist Huma Bhabha stands imperiously by the doorway.
It’s so tall that visitors can stare directly into its spray-painted black eyes. “The only piece of furniture in this whole room is that chair by Zaha Hadid,” admits Rajeeb, gesturing towards a sofa that looks more sculpture than seat. “People ask us, ‘Why would you want to have a space like this in your house?’”
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But to friends of the Samdanis, the fact that their front door opens into a gallery—devoid of family photos, furniture or any sign of domesticity—is no surprise. The couple own Bangladeshi conglomerate Golden Harvest, which has interests in banking, property, agriculture, food processing and more, but they’re best known as the founders of the Samdani Art Foundation and the biannual Dhaka Art Summit, an exhibition and research platform that is arguably the most important art event in South Asia. So in the Samdanis’ home, art is king. “When we were building the house, the main priority was the art,” says Nadia. “When you go to most people’s homes, they try to match the artwork with the rest of the house. For us, it was the other way around—we had the artworks and we built the house around them.”
Step by Step
The Samdanis began designing their home a decade ago, working with the in-house architects at Golden Harvest to create a space that would be both comfortable for their family and also a fitting showcase for their more than 2,000 works of art—some of which are so large they tower over visitors. “It was challenging,” recalls Nadia with a laugh. “But we knew what we wanted.”
And they got it. Standing five storeys tall, their elegant house in Dhaka’s Gulshan district is part practical family home, part exhibition space. Some of the major works in their collection are displayed in the ground floor gallery, then smaller paintings, prints and photos fill the first, second and third floors, which house the family’s bedrooms. Then, on the fourth floor, the art really shines—often literally. Here, floor-to-ceiling windows wrap around one side of the house, flooding the space with light.
By the window, a metal dress sculpted by Pakistani artist Naiza Khan hangs over a gleaming gold and silver pot by Indian artist Subodh Gupta. A few steps away sits an enormous installation by German sculptor Alicja Kwade made of elongated, contorted bronze trumpets. “That one was difficult,” recalls Nadia. “We had to put a crane on the roof to lift it up, then we had to remove all of the windows on this floor to swing it in.”
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What the Heart Wants
Upstairs, in an entertaining space that opens out onto a rooftop plunge pool overlooking Dhaka, works by big name artists line the walls. There’s a pink neon by Tracey Emin that spells out “Trust Yourself,” a video by Amar Kanwar and a small, ragdoll-like multimedia sculpture by Tony Oursler, which occasionally utters unnerving squeals. “Some collectors are focused on South Asian art, or they only collect photography,” says Rajeeb. “We don’t want to bind ourselves with these things. Whether we’re focused or whether we’re not—who cares? It’s not a competition. It’s what we enjoy.”
This wasn’t always the case. When the couple first began collecting, their focus was more local. Nadia’s parents are avid collectors, and she caught the bug at the age of 22, when she purchased a painting by Bangladeshi modernist SM Sultan. Rajeeb’s first acquisition was a work by Zainul Abedin. “But I wasn’t a serious collector—it was when I met Nadia that my interest grew,” he says.
As a couple, the Samdanis focused first on Bangladeshi modern art, then fell in love with the country’s contemporary art scene—and realised young artists had no support. “Even if you googled Bangladeshi contemporary art, you couldn’t find anything,” says Nadia. “There were no galleries, no foundations, nothing connecting the [art scene]. But there was so much potential.”
So the Samdanis stepped in. In 2011, they founded the Samdani Art Foundation to support Bangladesh’s young artists and architects, and the following year they hosted the first Dhaka Art Summit (DAS). Held every two years, the roughly week-long summit comprises a series of exhibitions—featuring both local and international artists—and a string of lectures, forums, talks and more. Working alongside the Samdanis is American curator Diana Campbell Betancourt, who advises the couple on their personal collection and DAS in her dual role as the founding artistic director of the Samdani Art Foundation and chief curator of DAS. “We have a wonderful team of people led by Diana working towards our mission,” says Rajeeb.
That mission is two-pronged. Firstly, the Samdanis founded DAS to provide a platform for Bangladeshi artists to exhibit their work and for locals to learn more about contemporary art. “Bangladeshi people are very proud of our culture,” says Rajeeb. “Before partition [when British colonists divided up South Asia], Bangladesh was part of Bengal. Bengal was a hub for music, literature, art and culture. I’m personally fascinated by Bengali poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore—he wrote the national anthems of Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. Ask any Bangladeshi—a businessman, a rickshaw puller on the road, anyone—to sing you a song by Rabindranath Tagore, and they can do it.” With DAS, the Samdanis hope to inspire this same passion for Bangladeshi art being produced today.
Their second goal was to draw international attention to Bangladesh’s art scene. “We wanted to put our country on the map,” says Rajeeb. “When we travel, sometimes people say to us, ‘Hey, which part of India is Bangladesh in?’ Bangladesh is a country with a rich history—and lots of people are ignorant of that.”
Success was far from guaranteed. Dhaka is home to more than 18 million people, is prone to strikes and power cuts and is regularly brought to a standstill by debilitating traffic jams that crawl through the city’s streets at slower than walking pace. Occasionally, there are outbursts of political violence. “People were a bit confused—before the summit, lots of people didn’t come to Dhaka,” says Nadia. “But I think they were excited, too—it was something new, something different.”
The excitement won out, and DAS is now a hit with locals and a fixture on the international art world calendar. The first DAS, in 2012, attracted 50 international visitors—that number climbed to 1,200 for last year’s event. Maria Balshaw, director of the Tate museums, co-curated an exhibition for the 2018 edition, and Glenn Lowry, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, attended. Afterwards, Lowry described DAS as “a revelation.” Local visitor numbers are now also larger than the Samdanis ever dreamed—317,000 attended in 2018. “We had no expectations, so the result has been a shock,” says Rajeeb.
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“The Samdanis have disrupted the normal circulation of the art world by securing Dhaka’s position on the cultural map and creating a world-class platform that requires that the West travel to them, rather than the other way around,” explains Aaron Cezar, director of London’s Delfina Foundation. “DAS is a vital gathering point in South Asia for discourse and dialogue through visual culture that is rooted locally but connected globally.”
DAS’s global connections are growing all the time. Exhibitions originally curated for the summit have since been exhibited at Para Site in Hong Kong, the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, the Singapore Biennale, the Berlin Biennale and more. The Samdanis also sit on multiple boards and committees around the world, advising institutions ranging from Britain’s Tate museums to the Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute at Harvard University. This summer, DAS also partnered with Cornell University and Asia Art Archive to launch the project Connecting Modern Art Histories in and across Africa, South and Southeast Asia, which engages scholars from Cape Town to Nepal.
“DAS and the Institute for Comparative Modernities at Cornell University were ideal partners,” says John Tain, head of research at Asia Art Archive. “Originally taking the format of a discursive event, rather than the more predictable biennial exhibition, DAS has been able to bring together artistic, curatorial, critical and scholarly voices from Bangladesh, South Asia and beyond, for conversations and exchanges that have been enlightening for all involved.”
But at the heart of these global initiatives is the Samdanis’ love for Bangladesh and Bangladeshi art. Even in their home, amid the works by headline-grabbing artists, some of the pieces they speak most emotively about are by local stars. As you step out the glass lift on to the fourth floor, the first thing you see is a group of framed drawings, prints and paintings by Rabindranath Tagore and other members of his family, many of whom were artists.
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When you turn around, you come face to face with a 1960 sculpture by Novera Ahmed titled Standing Woman. “It used to belong to a friend of ours in Pakistan,” says Nadia. “She’s a very well-known curator and writer. We were in talks with her for two years. She didn’t want to let go of it, but eventually she said, ‘My children will not love it as much as you will. And its home is in Bangladesh.’”
Every artwork in their personal collection carries a story like this, which the Samdanis reflected in the name of their house: Golpo. “Some words you can’t translate directly, but in Bengali ‘golpo’ roughly means story or fairy tale,” says Nadia. “I remember our little one, when she was younger, she would always say, ‘tell me a golpo,’” adds Rajeeb. “We also called the house Golpo because, in a way, this house tells our story.”
Movements and Milestones
Next year will mark a new chapter in the Samdanis’ story. In February, the Samdanis and Betancourt are launching the fifth edition of DAS. “The theme is Seismic Movements,” says Nadia. “It refers to all kinds of movements—geological movements, linguistic movements, political movements, independence movements, artistic movements. Bangladesh has been shaped by all of these, and artists are working on things related to all kinds of movements.”
More than 500 artists, curators and scholars are contributing, addressing issues ranging from the effects of colonialism around the world to how climate change will affect South Asia. A highlight is sure to be Argentinian sculptor Adrián Villar Rojas’ immersive installation made of 400-million-year-old ammonite fossils, which visitors can walk over. These fossils of sea creatures can still be found in the Himalayas, revealing that these towering peaks were once underwater—as Bangladesh maybe again in just a few years. Due to manmade climate change, much of the country is predicted to be swallowed by rising seas within the next 50 years.
“We know climate change is happening; we all hear about it on the news,” says Nadia. “But I think when you see an art project, it’s engaging and people see things from different angles and think about the issue—and other issues—from different angles, too.”
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After the summit, Villar Rojas’ work is staying in Bangladesh—it’s being moved to Srihatta, an arts centre that the Samdanis plan to open next year in the hilly, tea growing region of Sylhet. “Srihatta will have a sculpture park and multiple pavilions [housing different works],” says Rajeeb. “But the real vision for Srihatta is to use it for commissions. We want to invite more artists to Bangladesh, for them to spend time in Dhaka and Sylhet and get a sense of the country. An installation that will make sense for a sculpture park in Italy or France will not make sense in this part of the world. We want artists to look at Bangladesh—to have that connection.”
The couple and Betancourt, who will advise on the programming and curation of Srihatta, have spent much of the past two years travelling to and from Sylhet, taking artists to visit the site. Polish sculptor Paweł Althamer has been working with the local community and has already completed the first work for the centre—an enormous sculpture made from palm fronds of a reclining woman draped in textiles, which were stitched by women in a nearby village. Indian artist Asim Waqif has also begun work on a site-specific piece that takes the form of a living bamboo forest. As the bamboo grows, Waqif will sculpt the forest into an instrument similar to a flute, which will play as the wind blows through it.
Waqif’s bamboo forest may be one of the most ambitious pieces of sound art ever conceived, but it’s another work of sound art that is guiding the building of Srihatta, the direction of DAS and, in fact, much of the Samdanis’ lives—Cael Flover’s song that plays in their home. “I will keep on till I get it right,” repeats Rajeeb. “As soon as you hear it, it gets stuck in your head. In some ways it’s our theme song. When you are doing a thing like DAS, it’s not easy. We didn’t have big expectations—we just did it because we love it and because we believe in it. And we’re very proud of the results and grateful for the support, but we always think we can do better. So we’re keeping on—and we’ll keep on till we get it right.”
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