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Entry Points: Reconsidering the Asian Art Biennale with Syed Jahangir

For this essay, Diana Campbell Betancourt, Artistic Director of Samdani Art Foundation and Chief Curator of Dhaka Art Summit, interviewed Syed Jahangir, artist and founder of the Asian Art Biennale, the oldest existing biennial of contemporary art in Asia. Reflecting on Jahangir's experience, Campbell Betancourt tells the story of the Biennale's inception in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1981, parsing its relationships with the Fukuoka Asian Art Show, first held in 1980 in Japan, as well as with the various diplomatic entities involved in its production. The legacies of exhibitions, like the Asian Art Biennale, are inspiring "entry points" for igniting greater inter-Asian exchange today.

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Diana Campbell Betancourt

Artistic Director and Chief Curator Samdani Art Foundation and Dhaka Art Summit Diana Campbell Betancourt (b. 1984, Los Angeles) is currently Artistic Director of Samdani Art Foundation and Chief Curator of Dhaka Art Summit, Dhaka, Bangladesh, a major... Read more »
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Entry Points: Reconsidering the Asian Art Biennale with Syed Jahangir

For this essay, Diana Campbell Betancourt, Artistic Director of Samdani Art Foundation and Chief Curator of Dhaka Art Summit, interviewed Syed Jahangir, artist and founder of the Asian Art Biennale, the oldest existing biennial of contemporary art in Asia. Reflecting on Jahangir's experience, Campbell Betancourt tells the story of the Biennale's inception in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1981, parsing its relationships with the Fukuoka Asian Art Show, first held in 1980 in Japan, as well as with the various diplomatic entities involved in its production. The legacies of exhibitions, like the Asian Art Biennale, are inspiring "entry points" for igniting greater inter-Asian exchange today.

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For this essay, Diana Campbell Betancourt, Artistic Director of Samdani Art Foundation and Chief Curator of Dhaka Art Summit, interviewed Syed Jahangir, artist and founder of the Asian Art Biennale, the oldest existing biennial of contemporary art in Asia. Reflecting on Jahangir's experience, Campbell Betancourt tells the story of the Biennale's inception in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1981, parsing its relationships with the Fukuoka Asian Art Show, first held in 1980 in Japan, as well as with the various diplomatic entities involved in its production. The legacies of exhibitions, like the Asian Art Biennale, are inspiring "entry points" for igniting greater inter-Asian exchange today.

Bangladeshi artist Syed Jahangir (born 1932) provoked an interesting line of inquiry at the 2014 Dhaka Art Summit (DAS).1 During the opening panel discussion, “Cross-Generational Panel: Where Have We Come From and Where Are We Headed?” with Wakilur Rahman (born 1961), Naeem Mohaiemen (born 1969), and Ayesha Sultana (born 1984) about the development of the Bangladeshi art scene since the country’s founding in 1971, he asked, “What is the need of this platform [DAS] when we already have the Asian Art Biennale?”2 Jahangir founded the Asian Art Biennale, now seventeen editions old, in 1981, which makes it the oldest existing biennial of contemporary art in Asia.3 This biennial is largely absent from discussions about exhibition histories found in the increasing number of biennial forums in Asia. Moreover, lacking a curator within the organization, it has come to be regarded as a government public-relations exercise, with embassies or foreign governments selecting and sending the works to be shown. In light of this, I did not understand the basis of Jahangir’s question at the time, for there seemed to be little reason for comparing the two platforms apart from the fact that every year, at nearly the same time, one or the other occupies the same building.

Two years later, while conducting research in Japan at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum on Bangladeshi modern art, I came across photo albums from the days of the museum’s first director Yasunaga Koichi (born 1939). A familiar-looking image of a burgundy-hued tapestry entitled Lady with a Butterfly (1980) by Rashid Choudhury (born 1932), an early pioneer of abstraction in Bangladesh, stood out, as did an image taken on November 1, 1980, of a young Syed Jahangir in sunglasses at the opening of the Asian Artists Exhibition II—Festival: Contemporary Asian Art Show.4 Looking more closely through the album from this exhibition, which ran from November 1 to November 30, 1980, and is now known as the second part of the First Fukuoka Asian Art Show, I discovered that several of the works documented were later shown in the first Asian Art Biennale, which ran in Dhaka from January 4 to January 31, 1981.5

Syed jahangir with works by rashid choudhury and hashi chowdhury at the opening of the first fukuoka asian art show in 1980 from the photo albums of the fukuoka asian art museum
Syed Jahangir with works by Rashid Choudhury and Hashi Chowdhury at the opening of the First Fukuoka Asian Art Show in 1980. Photograph by the author during her research in the photo albums at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum.

Though never actively discussed in either Bangladesh or Japan, it became apparent through both the archive and the checklist of the second part of the First Fukuoka Asian Art Show that there was a close connection in 1980 between the activities in Fukuoka and those in Dhaka—one that went deeper than the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum’s long-standing role in commissioning Japanese participation in the Asian Art Biennale. Mr. Yasunaga fondly recalled a “clever Jahangir-san” networking and passing out business cards to fellow artists and visitors at the November 1, 1980 opening in Fukuoka, but he did not recall the museum having had a formal or active role in developing the biennale as an institution—other than his role as commissioner and curator of Japan’s contribution to, in 1983, the second edition of the biennale, and that he sent the curator Obigane Akio to the opening in his place (the current chief curator of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Raiji Kuroda, was the curator/commissioner of the Japan sections of the fifth and seventh editions of the Asian Art Biennale). At the time, the Fukuoka Asian Art Show was not operating under a “biennale model,” but it did occur in roughly five-year intervals for four editions before transforming into the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale in 1999 (which was, in effect, the fifth Fukuoka Asian Art Show).

Jahangir was not only present as an exhibiting artist at the opening of the Asian Artists Exhibition II—Festival: Contemporary Asian Art Show, he was also a member of the exhibition’s summer 1980 planning meeting, along with representatives from thirteen countries. At the time that planning of the First Fukuoka Asian Art Show began, the staff at the Fukuoka Art Museum had wanted to develop an exhibition of American art. The mandate for an Asian show came from the mayor—whose mission was to make Fukuoka the “center of Asia” via art and culture—as opposed to from an art professional or from within the institution. Yasunaga and his team had two years to put such a show together at a time when none of them had expertise, or even real interest, in contemporary Asian art and culture. As a result, the late 1970s were intensely productive for the institution in terms of fieldwork, with museum representatives getting to know the topic through studio visits with artists.6

Seeking further clarity about the relationship between the First Fukuoka Asian Art Show and the birth of the Asian Art Biennale, I interviewed Mr. Jahangir during the opening week of the seventeenth edition of the biennale. The biennale has kept the name of the institution that Jahangir founded in 1981, but lost its spirit in trying to be more “international,” that is, by inviting participation from many more countries, including Poland, South Africa, Argentina, Canada, the United States, bringing the total participation to fifty-four countries.

Syed Jahangir and the Birth of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy and the Asian Art Biennale

Jahangir was born and educated when what is currently Bangladesh was part of British India. He rose to acclaim as an artist from East Pakistan, living and teaching in Rawalpindi, Pakistan from 1959 until he had to flee for his own and his family’s safety during the bloody 1971 war.7 Once back in the newly founded country of Bangladesh, he took an active role in putting the country on the global cultural map through his work as founding director of visual arts at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, a position he reluctantly accepted in December 1977. The academy was established in 1974 to take over the role once played by the East Pakistan Arts Council (founded in 1963), which had previously occupied the same iconic rotund building (demolished in 1997).

Early bangladesh shilpakala publications in the library of the fukuoka asian art museum
Early Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy Publications in the library of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. Photo: Diana Campbell Betancourt

In 1978, Jahangir quickly organized in Dresden what would be a traveling exhibition of Bangladeshi contemporary art, which inspired him to set up the visual arts department of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy as a collecting institution.8 He established the National Art Gallery collection within the framework of the academy in hopes that the institution could one day hold rotating exhibitions, in a dedicated museum space, of a vast collection of Bangladeshi contemporary art.9 He also traveled to India to participate (as an exhibiting artist) in the fourth Triennale-India, where he was impressed by the Lalit Kala Akademi. Nevertheless, he decided to take his own institution in a different direction, looking instead to the East for inspiration, as many artists in previous generations in Bengal had done—from Nandalal Bose (1882–1996) to Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951) to Mohammad Kibria (1929–2011), to name but a few of those who employed new strategies in their quests to create autonomous spaces for art.

Jahangir sees initiating the Asian Art Biennale as his first big act within the academy. Though he had originally agreed to remain in his post for two years, he ended up staying for fourteen—and driving five editions of the biennale. The idea for this biennale came directly from the activities happening in Fukuoka in 1980 in the lead-up to the Contemporary Asian Art Show 1980, and Jahangir had less than a year to initiate the biennial in a country that was not yet ten years old. “I used to work fast,” he shared; however “fast” seems like an understatement given the fact that in November 1980, two months before the Asian Art Biennale’s opening, only three countries had agreed to participate: China, Japan, and to the best of Jahangir’s recollection, India. At this crucial moment, he invited most of the diplomatic community to the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy to share his vision and, with the assistance of Muhammad Zamir, Director of the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Siddiqur Rahman, then Secretary of the Bangladesh Ministry of Culture; and Farooq Sobhan, then Director General of Multilateral Economic Affairs, to reach out to other foreign governments.10

It is important to note that Jahangir was exceptionally close to various ministries in the government of Bangladesh at the time, and part of the success of the biennale was due to their trust in him and willingness to extend financial support without bureaucratic constraint.11 It was not through his appeals to foreign ministries that Jahangir’s vision succeeded in terms of the quality of the artworks exhibited, but rather through his networking with fellow Asian artists participating in the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale and his contacts in the Pakistan Art Council and at the Lalit Kala Akademi.12

Just as the support of the Bangladeshi government was pivotal to the success and quality of the first editions of the Asian Art Biennale, so was the lack of support by foreign governments. For example, when the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines declined to participate in the inaugural edition of the Asian Art Biennale, pioneering artists and educators Mochtar Apin (Indonesian, 1923–1994) and Redza Piyadasa (Malaysian, 1939–2007) stepped up, independent of their countries’ governments, to organize participation.13 Jahangir, Apin, and Piyadasa were part of solid artist networks across the world because of both their regional studies and their travels abroad, to Europe and the United States in the 1950s (Apin and Jahangir) and 1960s (Piyadasa), and thus stepped into curatorial roles while firmly identifying as artists.14 Trying to break from old world orders in the age of decolonization, these artists started and supported new artistic movements in their respective countries and selected works (sometimes including their own) that likely were outside the official narratives their governments would have wanted to share. Though not part of the inaugural biennale, Raymundo Albano (Philippine, 1947–1985) and Virginia Bonoan-Dandan (Philippine, born 1941) were pivotal in organizing and securing the participation of the Philippines in the second edition, which opened in late November 1983.

Biennale catalogs
Early Asian Art Biennale catalogues in the library of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. Photo: Diana Campbell Betancourt

Jahangir’s time in Fukuoka in November 1980 was crucial to the aforementioned artists’ involvement, two months later, in Dhaka. Carrying small-format publications about Bangladeshi art, Jahangir invited fellow artists back to his hotel room to discuss, over drinks, the vibrancy of art in Bangladesh. He recalls Lain Singh Bangdel (Nepalese, 1919–2002), Albano, Apin, and Piyadasa as being the most engaged with his vision, and in fact all of these artists later came to Dhaka to help organize their countries’ participation in the second edition and served on biennale juries between 1981 and 1986, and all but Piyadasa exhibited their works in the early biennales. Apin assisted Jahangir in securing the loan of twenty prints and paintings from Indonesia, including two of his own works (silkscreen prints entitled Light Forest and White Print from 1980) and also a 1973 painting entitled Mount Agung by Affandi (Indonesian, 1907–1990), who was in Santiniketan and traveled in India from 1949 to 1951. Interestingly, after learning of Apin’s participation in the biennale, the Indonesian government sent an additional twenty works and officially signed on. Piyadasa was able to secure ten prints for the inaugural biennale, in 1981, and expanded the participation to sixteen works (including paintings in 1983) and served on the jury for the third edition, in 1986, along with Ram Kumar (Indian, born 1924), Shinichi Segi (Japanese, 1931–2011), Safiuddin Ahmed (Bangladeshi, 1922–2012), and Aminul Islam (Bangladeshi, 1931–2011).

One notable exception to the thesis that the success of the first five editions of the Asian Art Biennale was due to “unofficial curatorial efforts” by individual artists paired with the hands-on approach and vision of Jahangir is the Japan Foundation’s long-standing and official involvement, which is ongoing. Jahangir recalls the organization’s deep support of his vision from its inception, and that its members told him that if he could continue the biennale, they would help him in any way he wanted them to. Though the quality of the foreign contributions to the Asian Art Biennale has dropped significantly since Jahangir left, the Japanese participation has remained dynamic, with the artist collective Chim↑Pom representing Japan in the sixteenth edition, and Yuko Hasegawa, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, joining the jury for the seventeenth. In addition to financial and organizational support, the Japanese delegation has also offered needed critical feedback and taken its curatorial role very seriously, showing challenging installation works as early as the second edition of the biennale, when the majority of works within the overall exhibition were wall-based.

In the fifth edition, the commissioner of the Japan section of the biennale, Raiji Kuroda, warned Jahangir that without curatorial care (by that time, most of the participating countries were leaving the selection of works to the organizing government officials and the hanging committee of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, which was comprised of artists and art students), the platform would falter. The Fukuoka Asian Art Show was by then three editions old, and building curatorial expertise within a museum structure that was very different from that of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. Jahangir took this feedback to heart but left shortly after the opening of the fifth Asian Art Biennale without having fully achieved his vision for the institution to resume his own artistic practice, twelve years later than he had intended.

Raiji kuroda and yasunaga koichi identifying visitors to the first asian art show part ii in february 2016 in fukuoka
Raiji Kuroda and Yasunaga Koichi identifying visitors to the First Asian Art Show (1980) in the photo albums at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. February 2016. Photo: Diana Campbell Betancourt

After Jahangir’s departure, the institution of the Asian Art Biennale quickly regressed as its organizers no longer had direct control over spending of the government funds supporting it, and they lacked Jahangir’s international, passionate, and highly charismatic leadership, which had driven forward the legacy of the artistic networks built from the ground up. What is left is a model in which individual countries are allocated nearly equal space and send works they feel best represent the creativity of their countries, from the perspective of their official channels. Dhaka-based artist, and three-time Dhaka Art Summit guest curator Mohammed Muniruzzaman recently assumed the long-vacant post of director of visual arts at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, and I look forward to seeing how the institution develops under his leadership.

Reflecting on Syed Jahangir’s question from the second Dhaka Art Summit, I now see that a key role that the DAS needs to play as a research platform is revisiting and making accessible the remnants of the pioneering work that Jahangir, his network of like-minded artist organizers across Asia, and the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy did in the first five editions of the institution of the Asian Art Biennale. There is a growing sense of nationalism and regionalism within both South Asia and Southeast Asia (not to mention the rest of the world), but there is little of the exchange happening across these regions that happened in premodern and modern times (from the Bengal School to Santiniketan) and which led to the birth of the Asian Art Biennale. It is easy for ideas and research to flow across well-oiled networks of exchange driven by politics and capitalism (such as MENASA [the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia Area] or SAARC [the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation]) or Western-oriented exchange supported by important institutions such as the British Council, the Goethe-Institut, and the Alliance Française, but it is time to return to long-forgotten paths and chronicle key moments in Bangladesh’s art history as movements across regions become less and less fluid. To quote Philippine curator and art historian Patrick D. Flores, “It is worth pondering a line from Malaysian artist and curator Redza Piyadasa’s intermedia work Entry Points (1978), which consists of a text inscribed on the surface of a painting, in relation to an actual work of art. According to the piece, ‘Art works never exist in time; they have entry points.’”15 The Fukuoka Asian Art Show and the Asian Art Biennale are entry points for considering the legacy of inter-Asian exchange, which has taken a different turn to the more closed-off circuits we find today. It is fitting that my research on Bangladesh led me to Fukuoka, whose invitation to Jahangir sparked a movement that built the basis for the Dhaka Art Summit of today.

The author would like to thank Dhaka Art Summit Assistant Curator Ruxmini Reckvana Q Choudhury for her invaluable assistance.

1.

Jahangir clarified that there are two dates of birth listed for him, and that the correct date is 1932—not 1935. It was commonplace for parents to change their children’s birth dates in order to make them appear younger, giving them more time to apply for government jobs before the cutoff age of thirty.

2.

“Cross-Generation Panel: Where Have We Come From and Where Are We Headed? A Conversation among Artists about Art and Art Making in Bangladesh,” Dhaka Art Summit 2014 Guide Book (Dhaka: Samdani Art Foundation, February 2014), 115.

3.

The Tokyo Biennial, which was founded in 1955, ended in 1990, and the Gwangju Biennial, which claims the position as the oldest contemporary art biennial in Asia, was founded in 1995.

4.

The First Fukuoka Asian Art Show was comprised of two parts, which are now collectively known as the First Fukuoka Asian Art Show, but at the time were known as Asian Artists Exhibition Part I—Modern Asian Art: India, China & Japan (1979), and one year later, Asian Artists Exhibition II—Festival: Contemporary Asian Art Show (1980). This paper describes the exhibitions collectively as the First Fukuoka Asian Art Show, but is focused on the second part, which occurred in 1980.

5.

Fishing Net (1979), an oil painting by Safiuddin Ahmed, was included in both the second part of the First Fukuoka Asian Art Show and the first Asian Art Biennale, and also included thirty-five-plus years later in the 2016 Dhaka Art Summit exhibition Rewind, which I curated with Amara Antilla, Sabih Ahmed, and Beth Citron. Rewind also included works by Anwar Jalal Shemza and Zahoor ul Akhlaq from the same series shown in the third Asian Art Biennale, in 1986, speaking to the fact that some of the works considered to be among the best examples of modern art in South Asia were re-exhibited soon after being created for early Asian Art Biennales.

6.

The photo albums and videos that document these visits are valuable resources for researchers and accessible by appointment.

7.

The secretary and later vice-president of the Pakistan Arts Council at the time was the Pakistani revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who played a pivotal role in creating opportunities for East Pakistani artists during his tenure from 1959 to 1972.

8.

Opening on August 9, 1978, this exhibition featured thirty-seven works by thirty-seven Bangladeshi artists, both emerging and established.

9.

The Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy maintains this collection, and has major works by Bangladeshi modern artists such as Mohammad Kibria, Murtaja Baseer, Rashid Choudhury, SM Sultan, and many others. There are approximately twelve hundred works in the collection.

10.

Farooq Sobhan has also been instrumental in shaping the Dhaka Art Summit as co-chair of its organizing committee.

11.

Under Jahangir’s leadership, the Bangladeshi government transferred the full budget of the Asian Art Biennale to the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy for Jahangir to manage as he saw fit. This practice stopped once he left the institution in 1991, introducing increased levels of bureaucracy to the biennale-organizing process.

12.

Several of the Indian artists who participated in the first Asian Art Biennale also participated in the 1978 Triennale-India along with Syed Jahangir, including Biren De (who served on the jury of the fourth Asian Art Biennale) and Gulam Rasool Santosh. Other artists of note from India in the 1981 exhibition included M. F. Husain and Somnath Hore (who was born in Chittagong). Notable artists from Pakistan included Salima Hashmi and Sadequain, who were both friends of Jahangir, and later, in the 1983 edition, Zubeida Agha, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, and Anwar Jalal Shemza. Pakistan did not participate in the second edition of the Asian Art Biennale as a result of time constraints.

13.

Eventually all of the countries that Jahangir approached agreed to participate in the inaugural edition, except for the Philippines, which joined officially in 1983. Due to political turmoil in Indonesia under the New Order government, Indonesia was not able to participate in subsequent editions of the Asian Art Biennale until 1991. The 1981 edition included fourteen countries, 1983 had thirteen, 1986 had fifteen, 1989 had fourteen, and 1991 had thirteen.

14.

Syed Jahangir to this day does not use the term curator to describe the work that he did in the Asian Art Biennale, despite his active role in the selection and display of the works in the first five editions of the exhibition.

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