A conversation with Diana Campbell Betancourt
Curated by Daniela Veneri
“We have this vision that we can create something priceless and that has other ripple effects. We have this emotional economy in the Dhaka Art Summit, which includes artists, galleries, our team, people that just really want to make something happen. None of what we do is rational, this makes absolutely no sense, but it creates, we can create, this magical experience for people that can have a wider impact than what could ever be measured.”
- Diana Campbell Betancourt
What are the projects you are working on that excite you most and why?
The next 2020 Dhaka Art Summit. It's our fifth edition and we received a grant from the Getty Foundation to bring together twenty emerging art historians and five senior faculty to look at Comparative Art Histories between South, Southeast Asia and Africa. I think that this idea of connecting our histories and bringing people together that try to catalyze change outside of Western paradigms is very exciting. An artist friend of mine shared that basically in the tropics air moves from east to west. I think that it's also very interesting to just try to reframe how we look at movements of knowledge and ideas. The other big project, which is tied to this, is that we are opening our first permanent space in Bangladesh in Sylhet- a 45 minute flight from Dhaka. It is a big construction project and I'm having to figure out how we balance our work on the festival and the permanent space which will be a sculpture park and residency program and exhibition program revolving around our collection and because they are separate projects, how we make them complementary and not competitive.
Where do you notice current shifts pointing at a more healthy and balanced way of working in the arts system?
I think part of this is also creating an environment that leads people to approach DAS with humility - realizing how much they don't know and catalyzing the formation of groups of people who try to think and learn together outside of existing frameworks. It was a great experience to be at The Met in New York in January and seeing the Bangladeshi artist, Rashid Choudhury's work installed in the permanent galleries across from Sol Lewitt’s work. I like this approach- which does not keep South Asian artists within geographically defined galleries.
It’s a slow process but South Asian artists (as well as other artists from the Global South for lack of a better word) are starting to be given the same kind of attention that Western masters have been. Of course it will take time but I think that, as more institutions start to do this, it's a shift in that direction. Which is also why we are focusing our energy on engaging with a younger generation of emerging scholars (such as the Met’s Shanay Jhaveri) because generations will shift and we are part of that. It's about creating the conditions with which people can think in a more expanded manner than narrow-minded western centric institutions allowed in the past.
Some arts professionals notice how different roles are more and more melting into one another, and they are concerned about how sustainable it can be for a person to take on so many different aspects. What is your perception about this issue?
I think the role of a curator as we see it today is relatively new. I was spending time with this artist who is also a curator and a producer, Asad Raza. He produces work for artists such as Tino Sehgal and Philippe Parreno, he is a very good independent curator, and he also has his own artistic practice. He was saying how hard it is because certain people's minds have rigid boundaries — working to try and keep these separate but connected parts of his practice from coming together when in fact they feed each other.
We are now seeing a lot more artists curating (the upcoming Documenta is a case in point). It is not always done well, I wouldn't necessarily recommend this throwing an artist in the deep end without a support system, but I do think that curators have a lot to learn from artists and there have been some great artists curating biennials, and I think there is a need to be more of this kind of porosity. While I would define myself as a curator, I have to be take on other roles in order to realize the kind of shows I want to make in Bangladesh. I have to be the registrar, I have to be the conservator, I have to do all the logistics around it. So I think it's really quite a luxury to just be able to be a curator and have other people execute stuff for you, and as budgets get cut I think that you will see more of a need for curators with more practical expertise. I guess that as things keep getting done over and over again, you have to find new ways to do things or new ways to look at things. I guess it's a natural progression, but I do think that part of what curators are being asked to do, at least in my experience, is taking on more of the producer role, which might have something to do with funding cuts.
Today there are a lot of cross-sectoral collaborations involving the arts. How do you look at these opportunities?
In Belgium, where I live now, there is this great festival which is called the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, or also the Manchester International Festival would be another example where you have dance, food, architecture, visual arts and theater all coming together and it's really incredible. You need fresh perspective, so when you have people from different disciplines coming together that way, you often have phenomenal results. As a viewer, I really enjoy these things. As a practitioner, for example, I'm now working on a show about a Bangladeshi architect, Muzharul Islam, and I'm inviting artists to interpret some elements of his buildings that speak to his political and architectural ideology. Bangladesh is known for its architecture, there's a lot of artists who work with architects that are inspired by architecture. There's a bit of a fetish about that at the moment, I have to say, but at the same time it's really interesting to see the way that artists conceive of space and what architects can see with space and allow them to come into dialogue, and also working on an ambitious exhibition design component that will allow the viewer to feel that they have experienced a Muzharul Islam building by navigating through the show.
What do you like most about your work?
I just love spending time with artists, with their crazy ideas. I think it's a great feeling to have the trust of this incredible community of brilliant people. Sometimes it can get lonely traveling all over the world and having to be all these places, but at the same time, if you look at it the other way, that anywhere you go there is someone there that has a crazy idea that you can work on and realize together, it's actually very exciting. I like to push the boundaries of what is considered possible - and I build dynamic cross-cultural teams to do so.
Right now I am working on a project with the Polish artist, Monica Sosnowska, and it's monumental, concrete river that is a walking path, it's the biggest work that she has ever done. She came back to do another site visit and we were standing on a viewing tower in a swamp forest when the water levels were low, and then we realized that actually as water levels drained the way that the natural landscape looked like it was very similar to her river, and actually that was not where the reference point came from, because the proposal was originally made for Poland. It is just really interesting to work on these projects with artists, see how they take different turns and bring them to reality.
I've been really lucky, maybe because the context of Bangladesh is so unique and interesting, it's super challenging. We have 120% tax on foreign art, we don't have conservators, we don't have registrars, those jobs just don't exist because there aren't museums to support that, so it's really difficult logistically, but at the same time, the context is so interesting that, almost every artist I've wanted to work with, I've been able to work with because our work together is something really special that can't happen anywhere else.
Bangladesh is a place that is very much about community and it’s a privilege to be a part of this community and to welcome artists into it- and I realize we work with most artists across several editions of DAS- it’s not a one time engagement. Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world, with half the size of Germany and twice the population of Germany, and when we have the Dhaka Art Summit it has huge visitor numbers and we are the highest daily visited arts festival in the world. We had over 300,000 people come to the last edition in nine days. That doesn't really speak to the quality of my exhibition, it actually speaks to how people engage with culture locally. When I do a project like this, it is actually visited, seen by and influences people. I don't think art should be used as propaganda and I shouldn't instrumentalize art that way, but I had this light bulb go off in my head that actually some of the ideas I share and the summit are quite radical, and if I had 300,000 people talking about that in a public space we would probably all be arrested. This is something fragile that we must protect — and it is a privilege to have built such a platform to share ideas urgent to our times.
What are the qualities that enable a team to play at its full potential?
I think for our team it's that we have a calling that is, clearly for us, not about money. At the Dhaka Art Summit nothing is for sale and all of us, we could make so much more money if we were working on something else. We have this vision that we can create something priceless and that has other ripple effects. We have this emotional economy in the Dhaka Art Summit, which includes artists, galleries, our team, people that just really want to make something happen. None of what we do is rational, this makes absolutely no sense, but it creates, we can create, this magical experience for people that can have a wider impact than what could ever be measured. We care about our local audience - and we try to build the best festival that we can for them, our primary audience.
We are working in a different space that is not about a commodity economy, and if you are not on that page, working with us is never going to work. There are two ways to see this. The people who were involved in this summit are very much like a family, that could also be read as being cliquish. We work with hundreds of artists, hundreds of people, but the kind of core people that keep coming back to this are those that have those same kind of feelings. That's because we share similar values, these values of coming together and being able to create something not quantifiable and priceless, even if it's only for a moment. It is very utopian. I also see that when we talk about generosity. My head of administration, Sazzad, he is from a village in the south, he doesn't get to go home very often. Today, for example, it's technically supposed to be his day off, but he is in Sylhet (the area where our permanent space is being built), with an artist. He is excited to be there to see this project realized. He doesn't see this as a sacrifice. But it is a sacrifice, and he is very generous with his time because he has the drive to see this artist’s vision realized. So when we talk about generosity, it is actually generosity on micro levels too. It has ripple effects.
Can you think of three or five keywords that mostly resonate with you, your impressions and feelings about what we just talked about?
Imagination, because I think to be able to imagine something different, to imagine the world in a way that is different from the way you experienced it, is a really empowering thing for anyone. Whether you're an artist or a villager or a farmer, the imagination is super important and it connects people across class, race, religion, all divides imposed after birth.
Responsibility, as you have to look at the world and respond with your ability to make an impact, and you have to also think about what the consequences of what you are doing are.
Generosity. I guess this was a piece of advice I got a long time ago, but I think that if you surround yourself with people who are generous with knowledge, if I tell you everything I know, you are going to tell me everything you know, then we know twice as much, if not more.
Collaboration, because I think that no one can do anything by themselves and the art world is far too individualistic, and I wish we could look at it more like a theater production or film production.
Movement, which I guess you could see in many forms. I think that artworks also have to be moving. You have to move someone. If we are going to do something, how does it stop you in your tracks and make you think or move differently? How do you create that kind of emotional engagement that takes us away from being robots?
Diana Campbell Betancourt is a Princeton educated American curator who has been working in South and Southeast Asia since 2010, primarily in India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. Since 2013, she has served as the Founding Artistic Director of Dhaka-based Samdani Art Foundation, Bangladesh and Chief Curator of the Dhaka Art Summit, leading the critically acclaimed 2014, 2016, and 2018 editions. Campbell has developed the Dhaka Art Summit into a leading research and exhibitions platform for art from South Asia, bringing together artists, architects, curators, and writers from across South Asia through a largely commission based model where new work and exhibitions are born in Bangladesh. In 2018, she was appointed curator of Frieze Projects in London. Her writing has been published by Mousse, Frieze, Art in America, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) among others.