“Usually Bangladesh makes the headlines with the occurrence of natural catastrophes due to its geographical position in the path of devastating hurricanes, or others caused by criminal negligence,” says photojournalist Anne de Henning. “Tragic events certainly deserve all the attention they can get and the relief that can be brought to their victims, but a country cannot be defined without taking into account its cultural scene.”
De Henning herself is playing her own role in defining Bangladesh’s cultural scene and history through her recently opened photographic exhibition which documented the nation’s 1971 Independence War from Pakistan. With the help of Rajeeb Samdani and Nadia Samdani MBE, de Henning’s photographs from when she descended upon the region a little over 50 years ago to capture the nation’s emergence are being exhibited for the first time at Paris’s Guimet Museum of Asian Art in a show titled, Witnessing History in the Making.
The Guimet, who has the largest collection of Asian art outside of Asia, along with the Samdani Art Foundation are currently exhibiting the collection of de Henning’s photographic work from Bangladesh’s war for independence until 23 January, 2023. The Samdanis, a Bangladeshi couple who are world renowned art collectors and consistently rank high on Art News’s top art collectors in the world, have made it their mission to spread Bangladesh’s rich heritage through cross-cultural exchanges in which art sits at the center of the conversation. Witnessing History in the Making is the latest example of the couple’s commitment to share a the most authentic narrative around the identity of their home nation.
“We have failed to tell our story,” says Rajeeb Samdani on a call from his home in Dhaka. “We have failed to tell the story of our genocide. We have failed to tell the story of our long history of art and literature. We have failed to tell our history which involves a lot of sacrifice and trauma. Through all of this struggle we have become one of the top three largest garment exporters in the world and the second fastest growing economy in the world. So, our story today is one of growth, culture, and perseverance and this is the story we want to tell.”
The exhibition, which includes gripping images of the barely-armed Bangladeshi freedom fighters called Mukti Bahinis who liberated the land (most of whom were paramilitary or civilians who took up arms in the fight for freedom), has been described by Alexandra Fein, Executive Director of Asia Now, Paris Asian Art Fair, as having moments which are “so intense, so fragile, and so powerful.”
Comprised mainly of black and white images, de Henning’s photographs capture intimate moments depicting people prepared to risk their lives in the pursuit of freedom. There is a feeling of pensive stoicism to many of de Henning’s subjects who peer into her lens with a matter-of-factness unexpected for the situation, while the Mukti Bahinis exhibit an emotional fervor for freedom and, yet, are quietly laced with a similar sense of unknowing as their non-fighting counterparts. De Henning, through her work, tells the story of the spirit of the Bengali people who, when faced with the maelstrom of war and uncertainty, move forward into the future with a seemingly unwavering sense of faith, passion and dignity.
“I think it is important that in looking at the images the viewers feel the extent of the courage and determination with which the Bengali people were ready to fight to achieve independence for their country,” says de Henning. “Photographs that illustrate this include those of bare-chested, bare-footed Mukti Bahinis wrapped in lungis on their way to joining their combat unit equipped with old Lee Enfield 303 rifles. There is also an image of an elderly freedom fighter and a young boy demonstrating their readiness to fight with bows and arrows.”
The highlight of the show are incredibly rare images of the father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, also affectionately known as ‘Bangabandhu’, or friend of Bengal. These images were taken by de Henning upon her return to Bangladesh in 1972 when she went to witness Rahman’s address to the nation after the United States officially recognized Bangladesh as sovereign. These images of the country’s founder, which are being shown for the first time in history in the Guimet exhibition, are especially uncommon as most images of Rahman were destroyed during the coup of 1975.
As the entire art world was in Paris for Art Basel’s newly-anointed Paris+ par Art Basel, the Samdanis used the opportunity to more deeply communicate the relevance of South Asian art and, alongside the opening of Witnessing History in the Making, held an event announcing the post-pandemic return of their foundation’s Dhaka Art Summit to take place in Dhaka, Bangladesh in February of 2023.
The Samdani Art Foundation has established the biennial Dhaka Art Summit as a pivotal stop on the art world circuit which has flourished as a result of the Samdanis’ authority as art collectors and the keen eye with which they uncover the next big names in South Asian art—a combination which has elevated the importance and relevance of South Asian art in global art scene. As a result, the Summit has established itself as a fountain of discovery for contemporary South Asian art and is one of the largest contemporary art events of its kind.
The 2023 Dhaka Art Summit, which will be in its 6th iteration, has been themed around climate but particularly the dynamism of Bangladesh’s climate. In a country which is covered in rivers and plays host to the world’s largest river delta (which covers over 40,700 square miles of the country), Bangladesh’s relationship to water is both life-giving and life-taking, making climate the perpetrator of both growth and demise in Bangladesh.
Titled Bonna–a word which, like the dichotomies of Bangladeshi climate, takes on dual identities meaning both ‘flood’ as well as being a female Bengali name–Dhaka Art Summit’s 2023 theme conveys the layers of meaning in regard to floods and asks the showing artists to communicate ideas around Bangladesh’s relationship to the annual influx of water.
“Bonna may be a flood but it is also something positive for us,” says Mr. Samdani. “The floods ultimately leave the land fertile.”
With Bonna as the starting point, the Dhaka Art Summit sets the stage for conversations and commentaries to emerge around “regeneration and renewal,” as stated in the Summit’s official release, and also invites the exploration of Bangladesh’s identity in relationship to the monsoon floods which heave through the country each year. The intention is also for an even deeper and larger conversation to occur around climate change realities and the discourses around the future of the Earth’s environment, with a specific desire to include the voices and ideas of younger generations in these conversations.
Over 120 international artists will be featured at the 2023 Dhaka Art Summit including works by Rana Begum, Antony Gormley, Yasmin Jahan Nupur and Sumayya Vally, the South African architect who was the designer behind the 2021 Serpentine Pavilion.
Additionally, Samdani Art Foundation and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi have come together to create an exhibition within the Summit which is being hailed as the first South Asian institutional collaboration on this scale to shine a light on “younger South Asian artists and under-represented art historical narratives.”
Titled Very Small Feelings, the show is co-curated by Diana Campbell Betencourt (Artistic Director of Samdani Art Foundation and chief curator of the Dhska Art Summit), Akansha Rastogi (Senior Curator, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art) with Ruxmini Choudhury (Assistant Curator, Samdani Art Foundation). It will premiere at the Dhaka Art Summit and will travel to Kiran Nader Museum of Art in July 2023.
The multiple comings together around Bangladesh during Paris+ par Art Basel were the backdrop for the storytelling of a nation–its past, present, and future—which continues to be told through art. But perhaps de Henning sums up Bangladesh’s trajectory best when she says, “The struggle of the Bangladeshi people to achieve their independence and the outcome of the 1971 events are a testimony to the victory of freedom over oppression, and it’s a story that continues to tell itself to this day.”
For more images from Witnessing History in the Making, scroll below.