How this Dhaka-based entrepreneur is putting his native Bangladesh on the global cultural map

‘Dubai is a leader in art’ says Durjoy Rahman

By Shaikh Ayaz

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Published: Thu 16 Feb 2023, 9:23 PM

Make no mistake — Art Dubai 2023 (March 1-5) promises to be bigger and grander than anything you have seen before. In a little over a decade and half, the UAE’s leading art fair has become a cultural force to reckon with. While Art Dubai has done more than its fair share in hoisting the Gulf region’s robust art scene onto the global map, it has always reserved a soft spot for South Asian art, particularly artists, galleries and foundations from Bangladesh. One such regular at Art Dubai is Durjoy Rahman. As the founder of the Dhaka-based Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation (DBF), Rahman is one of the biggest art collectors and philanthropists from Asia. This year, the 54-year-old is collaborating with Art Dubai Commission 2023, which hopes to shine a spotlight on the notions of community and connection through performance, food practices and design-related activities. Along with DBF, the other Bangladeshi foundations expected to participate at Art Dubai 2023 include the Britto Arts Trust and Samdani Art Foundation.

Rahman himself is no stranger to Art Dubai and the UAE’s cultural landscape. While DBF is one of the cultural partners at the ongoing Sharjah Biennial 15, earlier in 2021, the foundation had collaborated with Art Dubai to support Elephant in the Room, a participatory art project by Bangladeshi artist Kamruzzaman Shadhin made in concert with occupants of the Kutupalong Refugee camp, one of the largest Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. Made of bamboo and cloth, the life-sized installation floored visitors at the Dubai Design District in 2021 but at its heart, it tackled the theme of “the negative impact on the environment and the displacement of elephants due to the sudden arrival of thousands of Rohingya communities in 2017,” he tells wknd.

As we sit down for a chat at his art-filled home located in upscale Dhaka, Rahman invokes Dubai as one of his favourite destinations for art. Emphasising Dubai’s role in facilitating conversations on art and driving social change, he says, “Dubai is a leader in art. It has poised itself as a strong catalyst in the region due to its very neutral and modern outlook. What I find amazing is that Dubai art fairs have continued even during the pandemic in the physical fair form while other fairs throughout the world were completely curtailed. It only goes to show the UAE’s willingness to keep the art movement going no matter the challenges.”

Rahman is an entrepreneur who made his fortune in the garment industry, a sector whose revenues have helped turn Bangladesh into one of the fastest growing economies in Asia. Much like the American tycoons of a certain vintage, who poured their oil riches into purchasing modern art, he has been investing his textile earnings into building what he calls a “meaningful collection”. This has made him something of a patron saint of the art movement in his native Bangladesh.

A first-generation collector, he started out small and had no idea that one day he would be a pretty serious player. “That was never my intention and is still not,” says Rahman, who began collecting more than two decades ago, at a time when South Asian art was at a nascent stage and the so-called art boom had not yet taken root. Here’s a man with over 2,000 rare works of art to his count, but Rahman good-naturedly reiterates that his journey was predicated by chance rather than by choice. It so happened that one of the gifts he received from a guest at his wedding in 1997 was a Samarjit Roy Chowdhury painting. That unusual wedding present piqued his interest, a search that eventually set him on a path to acquiring. “I grew more passionate and started building my collection. Guess, I haven’t stopped since,” he smiles. As a child, he remembers being fascinated by pop art, cartoons and graphic design. One of the first artists he fell in love with was Rafiqun Nabi aka Ranabi, the creator of the iconic cartoon character Tokai. Life came full circle when he added Nabi to his collection later on. “My fond interactions with senior artists like Ranabi have helped me develop and nurture my love for art,” admits Rahman, who held the exhibition Modern & Contemporary Prints Exhibition in 2009, featuring Rafiqun Nabi and other local modern giants like Mohammad Kibria and Monirul Islam.

A House for Art

To spend time with Rahman and observe him tend personally to his artworks can make it almost seem like he’s a child in a candy store. With its modern chic interiors and comfortable elegance, he built his residence in such a way where he could more than just live and lounge around. The house is perfect for get-togethers with friends and family, for hosting dinners (which Rahman does often) and having people over to enjoy and get inspired by the cultural treasures that cram every single corner of his abode. His collection reflects his eclectic taste — Bangladeshi and Indian masters, such as Jamini Roy, Ramkinkar Baij, M.F Husain, Jogen Chowdhury, Quamrul Hassan, Rafiqun Nahi and Shishir Bhattacharjee, rub shoulders with pieces by Western giants like Pablo Picasso, Lucien Freud, Henri Moore, Andy Warhol and David Hockney. He buys so much art that he’s running out of space and had to recently convert a storage unit in Dhaka to make way for newer acquisitions. (Post-pandemic, the space was transformed into the swanky DBF Creative Studio and is open for intimate gatherings).

When wknd. spots a gorgeous Andy Warhol at his house, there’s a sudden excitement in Rahman’s body language. And why not, it’s one of his favourite nooks — carefully chosen to display Liz, Andy Warhol’s iconic silkscreen tribute to Elizabeth Taylor. Few luxuries in the world scream enormous wealth and status quite like a Warhol masterpiece, but Rahman makes it clear that the pride of place given to the American pop master has got more to do with emotional reasons. For him, it’s a highly symbolic acquisition and easily one of his favourite paintings of all time.

“Warhol’s Liz was the first Western artwork I saw in New York and many decades later, I was able to buy it. So, it’s very, very special,” he says, though refusing to divulge the princely sum he lavished on it. “I have always loved pop art for the same reason as I do Bangladesh’s indigenous rickshaw art — both celebrate and yet critique pop culture and also effortlessly move between the high and low art. I enjoy the spirit of the commonplace mingling with the more important political and social ideas embodied in its messaging.”

That diversity of thought guides his collecting philosophy. Recently, Rahman commissioned Shambhu Acharya for a series of 100-feet scroll based on the theme of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Hailing from rural Bangladesh, the Acharya clan is a pioneer of the patachitra tradition (scroll painting), with Shambhu representing the ninth generation of his family. Indeed, Rahman puts his money where his mouth is — or perhaps, it would be more accurate to say where his heart is. The great collector Peggy Guggenheim once described herself as a “midwife to modern art”. Rahman likes to call himself a “bridge builder”. Talking about art and evoking an unmistakable passion for fostering cultural friendship between different regions of the world comes effortlessly to him.

The Joys of Collecting

“Collecting is an emotional need, not a financial investment,” he says, before quickly adding, “Of course, money is involved but it’s not a means to an end.” In 2018, he took on a new mission — the Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation in 2018 was launched as a platform to support and champion his country’s artists, both younger and older. Thanks to DBF, local artists from Bangladesh are today getting international recognition. Recently, DBF was invited by the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2023 to showcase a community-based project entitled Bhumi, which was designed to help Bangladeshi artists tide over the mounting Covid-19 losses. DBF also hosts the Majhi International Art Residency, aimed at triggering a dialogue between South Asia and Europe through exchange programmes. Last year, they also supported the Indian artist Pallavi Paul’s first solo show at the prestigious SAVVY Contemporary in Berlin.

“For me, art is about giving back to society,” he says. “I see my role as someone who can build an ecosystem that helps everyone, from artists and gallerists to institutions and the public. After all, the true pleasure of art is when it is used to create a better world.” Rahman believes in combining art with activism, reflected in his philanthropic acts. In 2018, he gifted the Indian artist Mithu Sen’s powerful installation MOU (Museum of Unbelongings) to the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg in Germany to further prop up their permanent collection. Today, Sen’s installation forms the basis of the Kunstmuseum’s emerging Indian art collection, which now includes works by Tejal Shah, Gauri Gill and Prajakta Potnis. Uta Ruhkamp, the museum’s curator, defined Rahman’s donation as a “global statement”.

The idea of decolonisation is important to Rahman, especially the West’s view about South Asian art. “When Western narratives are recurrently being used to explain our art practices, I feel we need to foster native scholarships that will remind the world that we have always been a flourishing civilisation with a distinct cultural legacy of our own,” he says, adding, “But due to our long colonial legacy, especially Bangladesh which become independent later than other countries in the region, it hindered our progress. Finally, I can say that South Asian art is thriving on the world stage.”

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