The Wick - Portrait of Nadia Samdani MBE, Photo Peter Mallet The Wick - Portrait of Nadia Samdani MBE, Photo Peter Mallet
Monday Muse

Interview British-Bangladeshi Art Patron Nadia Samdani MBE

Nadia Samdani MBE
Peter Mallet
30 January 2023
Nadia Samdani MBE
Peter Mallet
30 January 2023
More than 160 artists and collectives will be exploring Bangladesh’s nuanced relationship to words and water when the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) holds its sixth edition at the Shilpakala Academy this week, from February 3-11. Organised by the non-profit Samdani Art Foundation since 2011, DAS has become a significant fixture on the global cultural calendar, encouraging discourse and engagement with South Asian art and connecting Bangladesh to the rest of the world.

The nine-day biannual has developed under the leadership of philanthropist and art collector Nadia Samdani MBE and her husband Rajeeb Samdani. Regular fixtures on ArtReview’s Power 100 list, the Samdanis have an incredible home in Dhaka and personal art collection that includes Bangladeshi and international artists such as Subodh Gupta, Tracey Emin, Chris Ofili, Zaha Hadid, Michael Armitage and Naiza Khan.

The couple are also building an art centre and sculpture park in Bangladesh, called Srihatta, which will feature a 5,000-square-foot gallery designed by Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury, one of Bangladesh’s most notable architects.

For her services to global art philanthropy and supporting the arts in Bangladesh, South Asia and the UK, Nadia was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s 2022 Birthday Honours list.

THE WICK:   Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?

Nadia Samdani:   The strong women of Bangladesh who inspire me every day. They’re the backbone of our society. Everywhere are stories of trailblazing entrepreneurs, sportswomen, scientists, farmers and artists. Whether seeing young women every morning dressed up in colourful clothes on their way to work, or being surrounded by talented young women in my team at the Dhaka Art Summit, it’s a reminder of how much I learn from them.

TW:   What does a typical Monday look like for you?

NS:   In Bangladesh, Monday is actually the second day of the working week. By then I’m in my stride. I start the day with a HIIT workout or a yoga class, which focuses me for the day ahead. I catch up with my team and we immerse ourselves in everything that’s going on. We work hard but we always have fun with what we do. By the evening I’m ready to unwind, either spending time with the kids or hanging out with friends.

TW:   What is the mission of the Samdani Art Foundation and how are you seeing a shift in perceptions towards Bangladeshi artists?

NS:   From day one, our Foundation’s mission was to support and champion Bangladeshi artists, and increase their international exposure. Back in 2011 when we started out, there were no such existing platforms or foundations, so we created one. Since then, it’s evolved to include opportunities such as production grants, residencies, education programmes, and exhibitions, as well as of course the Dhaka Art Summit – now a globally recognised art and architecture platform, which had nearly half a million visitors in 2020. It’s shone a spotlight on the region that never existed before. The art scene in Bangladesh is an exciting one and, over the last decade, the world has taken note.

TW:   Recently, the Foundation and Musée Guimet in Paris came together for photographer Anne de Henning’s exhibition ‘Witnessing History in the Making’. What did you hope to achieve with this exhibition?

NS:   The exhibition tells the story of the Bangladesh Liberation War (1971) through the eyes of Anne de Henning – a young photojournalist who was travelling through the country at the time, documenting life in the warzone and the human stories she came across. Remarkably, Anne’s incredible images remained unseen for decades – they only surfaced when, at the 2020 edition of DAS, we held an exhibition commemorating the 100-year anniversary of Bangabandhu ‘Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’. Among Anne’s images was a colour portrait of him shot in 1972, which was unlike anything the country had seen before (images of Bangabandhu were destroyed in the coup of 1975). Her trove of images are now an important part of the history and the founding of Bangladesh, to bring them to Anne’s native city of Paris was a way of honouring that. It was also great to be able to bring that story to new audiences.

“The art scene in Bangladesh is an exciting one and, over the last decade, the world has taken note.”

TW:   The theme for this year’s Dhaka Art Summit is ‘Bonna’. Tell us about the meaning and why this theme was chosen?

NS:   Climate is a big part of the history, identity and culture of Bangladesh. It’s also a global issue that deserves attention, so it felt like an important theme to explore at this moment in time, particularly from a Bangladeshi perspective. Bonna is both the word for ‘flood’ and a girl’s name in Bengali, which opens up different and more nuanced ways of thinking about what the climate means to people in Bangladesh. The artworks on display will shine a light on some of the challenges around the climate, but they also reflect the artists’ own relationships with weather and water, which are part of the story of our country.

TW:   How do you think Dhaka Art Summit has influenced the global art scene?

NS:   The Summit has been instrumental in connecting the art scene in Bangladesh with the rest of the world. It’s drawn attention to artists and creatives in the region, launching their careers and resulting in their works being acquired by major worldwide institutions such as Centre Pompidou, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Queensland Art Gallery. A recent example is Yasmin Jahan Nupur, who became the first Bangladeshi artist on display as part of the Tate’s permanent collection last October, with a work developed as part of the 2020 edition of DAS. We’re also collaborating with a growing number of institutions, exemplified by our institutional partnership with Kiran Nadar Museum of Art for one of our exhibitions in 2023. All of these are examples of how the Summit is actively driving new and exciting engagement with Bangladesh that wasn’t there before, from all parts of the world.

TW:   Which Asian designers will you be wearing to the Summit?

NS:   I’ll be wearing Bangladeshi designers, starting with a sari by Rina Latif for the opening day. Latif has single-handedly revived the lost art of muslin weaving, and I love how she juxtaposes the light material with the intricate, exquisite embroidery. Her patterns draw hugely from nature – perfect for this edition of the Summit – with flora and fauna a recurring theme.

For the evening, I’ll be wearing a custom-made Zurhem gown by Mehruz Munir. The look consists of a hand-embroidered pink muslin gown with lots of shimmery sequins and crystals, paired with a very structured silver and pink jacket. The entire ensemble took four weeks of embroidery work by 30 artisans, and it is truly a piece of art.

TW:   What piece of advice would you give to young collectors starting their collection in 2023?

NS:   Collecting art is about the love of art. There’s no rule: if you’re looking to start a collection, I would always say to follow your passion. It’s a personal thing and everyone’s journey is different.

TW:   If you could own any artwork, what would it be?

NS:   It would definitely be one of Louise Bourgeois’ monumental steel spider sculptures. I saw ‘Maman’ at the Tate Modern and still remember the uncanny feeling I had when I walked under it, that dual sense of trauma and shelter. It’s a powerful work that’s become so iconic, and a reminder of how art speaks to us all in different ways.

TW:   What is your current favourite artwork in your collection?

NS:   I don’t like to play favourites – so much so that we rotate the works we have on display at home. A couple of the paintings we’re enjoying at the moment are an early Christina Quarles, and Michael Armitage’s ‘Glue Sniffers’ (2016). We were one of the first collectors of both artists and it’s been incredible to follow their journey, as their presence around international biennales and exhibitions has grown.

TW:   Where is your favourite culturally curious spot in London?

NS:   The Serpentine Pavilion. Not only is it the perfect place to be on a summer’s day, but I love how it explores the intersection of art and architecture. I spent many days hanging out at Sumayya Vally’s pavilion in 2021, and it’s a privilege to have her part of this year’s edition of the Summit – she’s creating another pavilion, which will host a series of performances that draw on traditions of rain-making and harvest. [Check out last week’s Monday Muse feature for an exclusive interview with Sumayya Vally.]

TW:   If you could take three things to a desert island, what would they be?

NS:   My family, my artworks, and the music of Andrea Bocelli.

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