In Conversation with Diana Campbell Betancourt

As the Founding Artistic Director of the Samdani Art Foundation and Chief Curator of the Dhaka Art Summit since 2013, Campbell Betancourt has developed DAS into the foremost research and exhibition platform for art from South Asia. The Art Newspaper named DAS 2018 as the highest daily visited exhibition in the world with over 35,000 visitors per day. 

Concurrent to her work in Bangladesh, Campbell Betancourt was the Founding Artistic Director of Bellas Artes Projects from 2016-2018, a residency and exhibition programme in Manila and Bataan, Philippines. She continues to realise significant exhibitions at multiple institutions and galleries, including curating Frieze Projects in London in 2018 and 2019. She chairs the board of the Mumbai Art Room, one of India’s prominent non-profit spaces. She writes essays for various publications and lectures and teaches widely.

What constitutes a transnational art world to you? 

A meaningful transnational art world is one where art and artists can come together to make an exhibit work and draw connections that defy national or even regional boundaries. If exhibitions are organised by an entity like the Japan Foundation – that’s not the kind of transnational art world I am interested in because it’s organised by a national body whose name is in the title of the institution. It is about promoting Japan and reinforcing its power relationships to other places – it is not really about organic connections between the artists and their histories, and these kinds of exchanges then come with extreme political restrictions as we saw with SUNSHOWER.

I am increasingly interested in artists like Antonio Dias, who was from Brazil, but who spent five transformative months in Nepal on the Tibet border making paper with artisans there, and continued to work on that paper in Brazil, Germany, and Italy – other countries where he lived and worked. That trip was funded by a Brazilian collector who understood how meaningful that exchange could be to the artist personally – it had nothing to do with soft power. My research on this artist was funded by a Bangladeshi couple, Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani at Samdani Art Foundation, as well as Brazilian collector Frances Reynolds at Instituto InclusArtiz – and it’s changed my vision for the kind of transnational art world I want to foster in my various projects.

It is thrilling to see more transnational cultural exchange and creative leadership rise to prominence – Raqs Media Collective are appointed as the artistic director of the Yokohama Triennale 2020, and ruangrupa have been selected to curate documenta15. What are your thoughts? 

I think this is great – because these groups also play with the form of what an exhibition can be, and of what an institution should be. They have participated as artists in many of the leading biennial platforms in the world, so they also know how to make them better to serve the people who give the works that make up the show. I respect and learn so much from both Raqs and ruangrupa who are part of the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) family in the past, present and hopefully future. 

For the 2020 edition of the DAS, your curatorial direction is premised on the geological understanding of the word “summit”, and considers events of rupture that realign and shift our planet. It problematises the historical distinctions of centres and peripheries. Why is it timely and opportune for such a discourse? 

I really want to break up regional silos which are colonial and cold-war hangovers, as also discussed by Patrick Flores in his interviews about the Singapore Biennale. I have had a transformative seven years working in Bangladesh – it’s changed the way I see the world and my belief in the potential of what art can do. In five editions we have become the highest daily visited contemporary art festival in the world, and Nadia Samdani and I started building this in our twenties. I hope this is a beacon of hope for other contexts that feel ignored or sidelined – if you take initiative with a dream team of artists, curators, patrons, and the public, anything is possible. No one expected this from Bangladesh – and there are now “art summits” popping up all over the world, including in Brussels where I live part of the year. 

In discussing positioning and navigation, what do you find challenging and, conversely, advantageous, about the use of the term “Southeast Asia” to frame the paradigm of art and cultural production in this region? 

Bangladesh is at the cross-roads of South and Southeast Asia. It is the country with the most rivers within its borders, and they flow into Southeast Asia – but somehow the flow of ideas between South and Southeast Asia skips Bangladesh which doesn’t really make sense to me, and wouldn’t really make sense to any Southeast Asia specialist visiting Chittagong. This term is a hangover from how Western forces carved up Asia – it’s time to come up with new solidarities and vocabularies across the global majority world (Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Central and South America and Oceania, who support most of the world’s population) to define how we relate to each other.  Southeast Asia is super convenient to define a part of the world, as is Latin America – but the distance from Mexico City to Rio is further than Porto to Moscow. These catch-all terms flatten out distance and complexity. This is why I love Ho Tzu Nyen’s work so much – he tries to look at points that are not geographical to draw regional connections – and so many of these connect to Bangladesh! From bamboo to gongs, etc.

You often describe transnational alliances with terms like friendship, togetherness, solidarity – a welcome language of tenderness, generosity and longevity. Is this manner of communicating important to you and your practice? 

Absolutely! This is the form of connectivity I want to build – one that is about emotion and affect and connection across class, racial, lingual and religious divides. I’m not interested in making connections simply based on geographic definitions. One of my best moments of the last twelve months was sitting in Mexico with the indigenous Mexican artist Fernando Palma Rodríguez. He told me about how his three months in Bangladesh with the Chakma community in 2003 was a seismic shift in how he saw the world, because their struggles connected to his despite their massive geographic divides. 

How do we talk about and approach collectivity in the art world without flattening or singularising the complex make-ups of localities? 

I think we need to ask that to ruangrupa! We are just at the beginning of our collective experiment by convening over forty collectives in Dhaka in collaboration with GUDSKUL (of which ruangrupa is a part of), RAW Material company in Dakar, and Kathryn Weir of Cosmopolis at the Centre Pompdiou. We tried to look at common themes across localities, such as indigenous knowledges, ecology, cross-border collaboration and female empowerment, and to bring people together based on the issues they address – not the similarities of the places with or in which they work. 

What are some significant connections between the artistic landscapes of the South and Southeast Asia that you have facilitated or been involved in? 

I am grateful to the Acuzar and the Samdani Family that allowed me to work across South and Southeast Asia for two years and commission works by Filipino artists for Bangladesh and by Bangladeshi artists for the Philippines, as well as to work with incredible artists such as ArtLaboracross both contexts. It was the journey across these contexts that entirely changed the way I see both regions and the way I see the world which will continue in my future projects outside of these regions. The biggest project I am working on now in terms of cross-border connectivity is MAHASSA – Modern Art Histories in and across Africa, South, and Southeast Asia, which brings together leading international faculty and twenty-one emerging scholars from these regions to look at shared modern art histories without “The West” in the middle. This will have a huge impact twenty years from now on how we see art-historical textbooks being written. I don’t like to dwell on past achievements; I’m thinking about the future – and one when I’m hopefully retired, and my students and former team members are inspiring me with all the great work they are doing. 

You previously held an artistic director appointment at Bellas Artes Projects (BAP), a non-profit art foundation with bases in Manila and Bataan. Looking back, what are some memorable moments during your time there, leading the foundation’s programming? 

I really miss our library and having a space that is open every day – which is very different from running a festival where all of our energy goes into one mega event that runs for nine days every two years. I loved working in depth with artists to develop new work for exhibitions, my favorite two being with Cian Dayrit, and Paul Pfeiffer. 

How would you describe the spirit of art production in the Philippines? 

BAP is unique because of the Acuzar family’s commitment to craftsmanship in Bataan and the incredible artisans and production facilities they have there. So I was really spoiled to have access to these talented people and resources, to produce work with artists through collaborations. There is incredible energy in the Philippines, and I like how most of the artists I worked with – from Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, to Cian Dayrit, to Paul Pfeiffer, and many others – didn’t farm things out to fabricators; it was really a warm person-to-person, relationship-driven collaborative process when making work, with ideas exchanged in so many layers. At BAP we did not accept “mail-order” production type of projects. 

I had a conversation with Maria Taniguchi the other day about how much she liked making work and the lack of comfort with the idea of just handing something off to a fabricator. This is very different from how many artists work these days in an art world that is demanding more and more production. 

Who are some younger artists and/or art collectives in the Southeast Asian region you’ve been excited about and provoked by? Why? 

Artlabor, Cian Dayrit, Thao Nguyen Phan, Moe Satt, Khvay Samnang, Martha Atienza, Elia Nurvista and the poetic (and brave) ways that they challenge history and hierarchies of power.