In Nepal, After Revolt, ‘Art Was Changed Forever’

International Herald Tribune
May 19, 2012

The sea-green mural at Lasanaa, an arts center here, has familiar elements of Nepali art: images of snowy Himalayan peaks and curlycue whorls representing wind in Buddhist thangka tapestries.

But it is the unconventional images that reflect the anxieties of a country in painful flux. A floating fuel tank and a gas pump symbolize Nepal’s chronic fuel shortages. A retreating bus in the mural is a sajha, a cheap, popular mode of public transportation here that is now defunct in the wake of government instability. Tucked inside an urn is a visa — coveted by many who seek opportunities overseas.

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The mural was painted by 22 Nepali artists in “Redefining Katmandu Valley,” an exhibition on view last month at Lasanaa, which means “art” in the Newari language here. The show aimed to break clichés and give a sociopolitical edge to art in Nepal, said Ashmina Ranjit, an artist and founder of Lasanaa.

Common themes in the show captured the zeitgeist in the capital of this mountain nation between India and China. Urban landscapes choked by electrical wires and labyrinthine roads evoked the chaotic congestion of Katmandu.

One work re-interpreted the eight auspicious Buddhist symbols with a modern bent. Mounted on eight-foot-tall panels, or 2.4 meters, the re-imagined symbols hinted of urban decay. The conch shell was fashioned from the battered body of a motorbike, like the tens of thousands that buzz and shriek through Katmandu’s streets. The lotus — a symbol of purity — was made of papier-mâché of old newspapers. Buddha’s footprints in the lotus’s center were a pair of plastic flip-flops. The infinite knot was made of frayed rope bound with black electrical wire.

After a civil war that lasted from 1996 to 2006, Nepalis went to the polls and ended a centuries-old monarchy in 2008 in favor of democracy. But the promises of democratic government have not come true. A constitution is pending after four years of squabbling by numerous political factions.

Now 14-hour power cuts and frequent strikes cripple the country. Infrastructure and services have crumbled for lack of governance; roads are potholed and the air is hazy with pollution.

Given this turmoil, art would seem the least of Nepal’s concerns. But artists and art organizers in Katmandu said it was relevant and necessary. During the civil war, “there was so much pain in Nepal that art was changed forever,” said Sangeeta Thapa, founder and director of the Siddhartha Art Gallery here.

“Artists couldn’t separate pain from work,” she added. “They began to question Nepal society for the first time.”

Despite Nepal’s troubles, contemporary arts in the capital are percolating. Lasanaa’s new Live Art Hub, opened in December on the grounds of the Martin Chautari institute in Thapathali, in south Katmandu. It is Lasanaa’s first semi-permanent space since the arts trust was founded in 2007 by Ms. Ranjit. Over the years Lasanaa has received support from the Danish Embassy here, the Danish Center for Culture and Development in Denmark, the Ford Foundation, the Arts Network Asia of Singapore and the U.S. Educational Foundation’s Fulbright program in Nepal, among others.

At Live Art Hub, simple thatch walls turned the institute’s front yard into an al fresco exhibition and gathering space for talks, performance art, workshops and readings. Long burlap curtains and a corrugated roof over a new cement floor sheltered artwork.

Nepal has a legacy of traditional arts, as evident in the seven Unesco world heritage sites in Katmandu Valley. Magnificently carved palaces in the capital’s Durbar Square are famed symbols of the country’s artistic and cultural heritage.

But under the monarchy, a century of political isolation until 1951 meant Nepal remained closed to the world. Contemporary artists in neighboring India, Pakistan and Bangladesh benefited from art academies set up over the years by the British Raj, but Nepal’s isolation stunted development. Contemporary art focused mainly on conventional, staid notions of beauty, such as pastoral scenes and beatific Buddhas.

Nepal’s government-run arts academies focus on traditional landscapes and still-lives and do not encourage innovation, Ms. Ranjit said in an interview at Lasanaa last month. “Education here is spoon-feeding. You don’t even chew it,” she added. Contemporary art here also suffers from a lack of bona fide critics and a foundation for conceptual art, she said.

Ms. Ranjit trained as a painter at Lalit Kala, the fine-arts department of Tribhuvan University here, and earned further art degrees from the University of Tasmania and Columbia University in New York. When she returned to Nepal in 1999, she saw the need for an alternative space that could help contemporary art mature.

Although Nepal was in the throes of civil war, Ms. Ranjit was struck by the initial disconnect between art and a society in turmoil. “Many artists said, ‘We have nothing to do with politics.’ I said, ‘How can you be away from all this?”’ she recalled.

That began to change with international workshops here and projects like a 2002 performance piece Ms. Ranjit organized called “Bichalit Bartaman,” (Disillusion Present), that addressed the violence in Nepal and its state of emergency.

Lasanaa also offers residencies to emerging Nepali artists. Rather than learning by rote, they research concepts in their art, write proposals and meet in workshops with visiting artists — from Nepal and overseas.

“The workshop was eye-opening,” said Bikash Shrestha, 26, from Pokhara who completed a residency at Lasanaa this spring. “I learned more in four months than in four years of college.”

Others are trying to nurture and showcase contemporary arts in Nepal. The Center for Art and Design at Katmandu University was established in 2003 and has a reputation for fresh thinking. And Ms. Thapa’s Siddhartha Art Gallery has been a hub for contemporary art in Baber Mahal Revisited, a sleek cluster of upscale boutiques, galleries and cafes in south Katmandu.

Ms. Thapa, director of the gallery and a descendant of Nepal’s royal family, opened Siddhartha in 1987. After growing up mostly outside the country, she returned from the United States in the 1980s. Government arts academies were in a dilapidated state and access to art books and resources was limited, she said. Artists went to Indian art schools in Benares and Baroda for training and support.

And politics hampered creativity in Nepal. “The government favors artists who toe the line,” Ms. Thapa said in an interview at her home here. “Art was based on who you’ve pleased. In Nepal, politics has entered everything. It’s like a virus.” With her gallery, she tried to create a place where art was based on merit and fueled by new ideas.

Exposure to and dialogue with international artists is important, both Ms. Ranjit and Ms. Thapa said. To that end, Ms. Thapa co-founded the Katmandu Contemporary Arts Center in 2007 with Celia Washington, an artist in London.

The center is housed at the Patan Museum in the historic Durbar Square of Patan, a 20-minute drive from Katmandu. The small center in a leafy garden behind the museum has exhibition space, an office and art library with books donated mostly by the Tate Gallery in London. It offers residencies for international and homegrown artists. Sanjeev Maharjan explored the gritty side of life in the capital with his series of paintings featuring pig carcasses brought by rickshaw to butcher shops in his Katmandu Valley neighborhood.

To encourage even more cross-border exchange, Ms. Thapa established the Siddhartha Arts Foundation in October to organize the second Katmandu International Arts Festival, which is to run this year from Nov. 25 to Dec. 21.

The first international arts fair was held in 2009 and brought together 111 artists from 25 countries with financing from foreign foundations, like the Prince Claus Fund of the Netherlands and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, as well as a few Nepali companies like the conglomerate Surya Nepal and the Himalayan Bank. So far there have been 162 submissions from 37 countries for the 2012 festival. The first five days will be devoted to international arts and a symposia, though Ms. Thapa said funding has not yet been secured.

Despite a flurry of activity, the market for contemporary art in Nepal has waned. In the 1980s and even during the civil war, a solid art market sustained Siddhartha and other galleries. Now, Ms. Thapa said, political instability and strong Maoist unions that pressure Nepali companies have “destroyed confidence in the market.” Expatriate art buyers have also dried up since the global recession.

But at a grassroots level, the art scene in Katmandu appears lively. At the closing of Lasanaa’s exhibition in April, about 100 people turned up. On a Friday afternoon last month, more than 300 people, including many young men toting motorbike helmets and cameras, crowded into the Siddhartha Art Gallery to view the winning photos in a contest titled “Hamro Nepal,” or Our Nepal.

The contest was organized by Artudio, which promotes photography and public art and was created by Kailash Shrestha, 27, a graduate of the Center for Art and Design at Katmandu University.

Photographs of hirsute yaks, mountain peaks and butterflies hung on the walls of the airy three-story gallery. But there were less idyllic images, too: An old woman hauling a gas tank and baby on her back, cars cleaving the murky waters of a flooded street in Katmandu.

Chemi Lama, 26, a freelance photographer, stood next to his winning print titled “Unsafe Duty in an Unsafe Country” that captured the harsh beauty of a boy perched on rickety scaffolding over a crowded city street. “Slowly things are changing,” said Mr. Lama, who wore a camera slung proudly over his neck. “Visual literacy in Nepal is growing day by day.”

 

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