An interview with Nadia Samdani

Paul Laster

Nadia Samdani and her husband Rajeeb are some of Bangladesh top art philanthropists and collectors. We asked about their past, present, and future projects.

International art collectors for more than a decade, Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani have made a major impact on the South Asian art scene with the establishment of the Samdani Art Foundation in Bangladesh in 2011, the founding of the Dhaka Art Summit there in 2012 and through their loans and donations of works from the collection to important institutions and art biennials around the world. Currently constructing an art centre, artists’ residency and sculpture park (click here to discover our selection of sculpture parks in Europe) in Northeastern Bangladesh while also planning the next summit for 2020, Nadia Samdani took time out of her busy schedule to sit down with Conceptual Fine Arts to discuss the collection, the summit, the new building and the foundation’s philanthropy and goals.

Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani. Photography by Noor Photoface. Courtesy of the Samdani Art Foundation

When did you first become interested in art?

Nadia Samdani: I come from a collector family, thus my interest has been there since childhood. 

How did you start collecting?

Nadia Samdani: As I had interest and was familiar with a lot of Bangladeshi modernists when I was young I started collecting work that was familiar, things I had seen at my parents’ home. Rajeeb and I have been collecting for more than 10 years now.

Fabric(ated) Fractures, installation view. Photography by Musthafa Aboobacker

Do you remember the first piece of art that you bought?

Nadia Samdani: Yes, it was a watercolor by the Bangladeshi modernist SM Sultan.

What’s the range of your interest—from antiquities to contemporary, or is it more specific?

Nadia Samdani: I have a wide range of interests, but recently it has been focused on contemporary art.

Are there any artists that you collect in depth?

Nadia Samdani: There are a few. When we discover artists that really interest us, especially the young contemporary ones, we like to collect a whole body of their work. It’s nice to be able to see the artist’s journey—from where it started to how it’s progressing. For example, we heavily collect Ayesha Sultana’s work, and there are a couple more artists that we also collect in depth.

Nadia Samdani: Bangladesh is still a relatively new country. It only achieved independence in 1971, but before that it was part of Pakistan. The modern art that we are collecting was produced before our independence—work produced before the 1970s. We have a lot of works from the 1950s and ‘60s, which are very hard to get. Most collections of these artists’ works are in Pakistan. They are difficult to find. The collectors do not want to let them go. It takes years of negotiation to get collectors to sell them, but a lot of the older collectors in Pakistan are recognizing that it’s better if the works go to us. They know that the works will be better appreciated as part of the Samdani Art Foundation’s collection.

Fabric(ated) Fractures, installation view. Photography by Musthafa Aboobacker

Do you discuss your acquisitions with one another and your curator before collecting or do you sometimes act spontaneously?

Nadia Samdani: It happens both ways. It is usually through discussion, but it can be spontaneous. The collection is quite diverse, with some things being quite strategic. For example, if we are trying to build a certain body of work that fits into a particular theme or area of the collection, we discuss and research where works are available. Yet, a lot of it can also be impulse buying, where we see it, we love it and immediately acquire it.

When did you establish you’re the Samdani Art Foundation and why did you create it?

Nadia Samdani: The foundation, which supports South Asian art, was established in 2011, but we had already been collecting with it in mind. We had also been supporting artists, but in smaller ways that was not as organized. We decided that we wanted to do it properly and officially, which is how the idea for the foundation was born. The plan, the calendar and events, such as the Dhaka Art Summit, were established with it.

Fabric(ated) Fractures, installation view. Photography by Musthafa Aboobacker

How many works of art are there in the foundation’s collection?

Nadia Samdani: There are more than 2000 works of art in the collection. It consists of works that Rajeeb and I acquired over the past several years and works that I inherited from my family.

Where do you exhibit these works?

Nadia Samdani: In exhibitions around the world and at the summits, but some of the works from the collection will soon be exhibited in our new new space, Srihatta – Samdani Art Centre and Sculpture Park in the Northeastern part of Bangladesh. We have about 105 acres of land and are building an art centre, a residency space and a sculpture park. We’re working with the Bangladeshi architect Kashef Chowdhury, who won the 2016 Aga Khan Award for Architecture. It will open in stages. There’s a lot of construction to be done, but it’s all in progress. It will be a place for art, but also a hub for cultural thought and discussion.

Is the collection just art or does it also include architecture and design?

Nadia Samdani: It’s mostly art, but there are some other things, too. We have a lot of film.

Fabricated Fractures, installation view. Photography by Musthafa Aboobacker

Fabric(ated) Fractures, installation view. Photography by Musthafa Aboobacker

Do you commission work?

Nadia Samdani: Yes, we commission a lot of work. For example, because Bangladesh’s has a high import duty we are commissioning works for the sculpture park. We’ve invited the artists to visit the site, research materials and then come up with a proposal. It’s actually more interesting to do it this way. We don’t want to have work that has been seen in other places, but it has to make sense with the space. A lot of the artists are working with the local communities. For the last summit the Polish artist Pawel Althamer came with his team and collaborated with patients from a rehabilitation center, as well as women and children from the village.

Do you lend or donate works to museums?

Nadia Samdani: We recently donated work by Rashid Choudhury to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Tate in London and have lent work to a number of international museums and biennials.

Do you also have a private collection?

Nadia Samdani: All of the works in the collection are part of the foundation.

What motivated you to found the Dhaka Art Summit?

Nadia Samdani: We don’t have any art museums or major galleries in Bangladesh. The art infrastructure is inadequate. Because we are friends with so many Bangladeshi artists we thought that they needed this kind of structure and support. It had become a duty for us. We felt that we needed to do this for our artists and our country. There are so many talented artists, but they don’t have a platform for their work. You cannot call one curator and ask them to visit 10 artists’ homes. That’s why we decided to create this platform and invite the world to come and see them. More than 300,000 local people and 1,200 visitors came for the nine-day summit. It’s not just art lovers. It’s people from all walks of life that are experiencing forms of art—like performance, installation and video—they have never ever seen. We even invite school children, and not just the privileged ones. We have the middle-income and underprivileged school children, too. It’s huge for them to have this kind of exposure.

Ayesha Jatoi’s Residue performance. Opening of Fabric(ated) Fractures at Concrete. Courtesy Alserkal and Samdani Art Foundation. Credit Tara Atkinson

What is the mission of the Dhaka Art Summit and what kind of things are presented?

Nadia Samdani: It’s a biennial event that’s a platform for South Asian art and artists. We invite curators from different institutions to work with us for two years and put up a show. We support their research across South Asia to organize the show and then they curate it for us. We do it in partnership with the government at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. It’s an un-ticketed event that’s free of cost and open to the public. We work with curators from the Tate, Pompidou and the Met, as well as other institutions, so they are the kind of quality shows that you would see anyplace else in the world. It basically gives the Bangladeshi public a chance to come and see everything under one roof. There are curated shows, performances, films and scholarly talks. It’s like an open school, with 90 events and workshops, which anyone and everyone can attend.

Does the foundation give out awards?

Nadia Samdani: Yes, we present the Samdani Art Award to emerging Bangladeshi artists who are between 22 and 40 years of age. It’s an open call. We just short-listed our next year’s award, which is a three-month residency at the Delfina Foundation in the UK. And in 2017 we presented our first Samdani Architecture Award to create the education pavilion in the Summit. It was open to third and fourth year architecture students. We gave the specifications and a budget and got proposals for the structure.

Reetu Sattar, Harano Sur (Lost Tune), performance. Opening of Fabric(ated) Fractures at Concrete. Courtesy Alserkal and Samdani Art Foundation. Credit Tara Atkinson

Are you and Rajeeb on the committees of museums?

Nadia Samdani: Yes, we are quite heavily involved with the Tate, where we are founding members of the Tate South Asian Arts Council and the Tate International Council. We’re on the founders’ committee of the Harvard Arts Council and on other advisory committees.

What can you tell us about the collection exhibit at Concrete at Alserkal Avenue in Dubai?

Nadia Samdani: Fabric(ated) Fractures, which was curated by our artistic director Diana Campbell Betancourt, presented a number of works that were shown in the past Dhaka Art Summits. The works in the exhibition addressed issues of land, borders, nations, territories, migration and religion. We wanted to present the show in Dubai because it’s a hub for South Asians, with 70% of the population of Dubai coming from the region.

Reetu Sattar, Harano Sur (Lost Tune), performance. Opening of Fabric(ated) Fractures at Concrete. Courtesy Alserkal and Samdani Art Foundation. Credit Tara Atkinson

What do you hope all of your art and design efforts will inspire?

Nadia Samdani: We’ve been collecting for a long time and traveling to international fairs and biennials, but we hardly see the presence of artists from Bangladesh. When we meet people they ask what the art scene is like and what are the artists doing in our country. We sometimes feel embarrassed that no one knows what wonderful artists we have. (here our essay on Srijon Chowdhury) We don’t want to be ignored anymore. We want the presence of Bangladeshi art to be everywhere. The artists are really good—they just need to be discovered.

Joydeb Roaja performance . Opening of Fabric(ated) Fractures at Concrete. Courtesy Alserkal and Samdani Art Foundation. Credit Tara Atkinson

November 7, 2019