Reposted from DIGITAL JOURNEY this article by J Ocean Dennie, originally posted in the year 2009 gives a great account of the life and works of young Rabindra Shrestha who has just been added to the group of artists featured on the NepalNow Project “artist page”. Please enjoy this very comprehensive background material on an unusual and very interesting young artist .
In an ancient land where animal sacrifices and the public cremation of human bodies are still predominant, it is no surprise that a young painter has turned to blood as an ingredient in his canvas creations.
Rabindra Shrestha, a 27-year-old artist from Kathmandu in Nepal, is raising eyebrows on a national level with his most recent series of pieces portraying the violence of the last dozen years from a protracted civil war sparked by Maoist-led insurrections against an entrenched and ineffective monarchy. It is a conflict that resulted in the death of over 12,000 individuals and has left scars that will last a lifetime. While the fighting has subsided and a fledgling democracy has sprouted, the country is still uneasy with an uncertain future. Rabindra’s art appears to capture this confusion and underlying chaos. What is controversial in his work is not the subject matter so much as the medium used in the depictions – human blood.
The first question for the artist was, obviously, why blood?
“Blood best presents the essence of the insurgency,” Rabindra claims. “The colour is natural of course. When it dries, you can clearly tell the difference between it and various paints. Blood’s colour suggests passion, aggression and loss. It is also a political colour for me. Communist slogans and spray-painted street-level propaganda are often red.” As I sit with Rabindra in a hotel café sipping chai tea and acquainting ourselves with one another, it seems that such themes are counter-intuitive to his demeanour, for he is quite amiable and charming, even soft-spoken. I had expected to meet someone more abrasive and defiant. Underlying the tranquil veneer, however, I can sense an intensity that surely explodes when he is engaged with his labours of love.
“I paint mostly at night when the world is quiet. In those hours, the canvas looks different, the blood looks different, it is all very exciting,” he explains in a more animated tone. I imagine him overcome with a sort of bloodlust. Using his hands, painting knives, needles, and cloths, Rabindra fashions riotous abstract scenes of crisscrossing rivers and embankments of blood. Such works, however, are often balanced with more soothing imagery such as the all-knowing eyes of the Buddha. According to Rabindra, looking at blood typically sparks an internal frustration for viewers, so eyes, for instance, are added for emotional balance, for peace. It also reinforces the impression that he is not taking sides.
His most controversial thematic rendition of the torment and trauma of violent uprising is an untitled piece where he has used, in addition to his own, the blood of both a Maoist fighter and a government army soldier. Both individuals were injured in the conflict and they had first-hand experience with the violence Rabindra attempts to portray. Both willingly consented to donating blood in support of the artist’s rendering. On the canvas, their blood has been included in the painting of Buddha’s eyes. One eye is Maoist, the other, army. “The eyes were obvious places for me to include their blood, to indicate balance. If one eye is missing for some reason, there is no harmony.” The bottom half of this thought-provoking painting contains thick strokes of blood that congeal in an embankment of crimson but as one’s gaze rises up the piece, the streaks of blood lessen and thin out, accentuated with finger flecks, suggesting the promise of diminished conflict. Balance is slightly askew in order to highlight motion upward, ascending toward peace. Except around the eyes, there is no large untouched space. This is to illustrate that an untarnished peace is quite rare. “This point is also represented in the eyes that adopt a more aggressive pose in this piece, compared to other works where I have used this same image.”
With the exception of his most celebrated piece to date, the blood is exclusively obtained from his own veins. Rabindra is no masochist, however. He is very clinical in his approach, literally. For the past five years he was worked as a lab technician in a nearby hospital, so blood and its transferral is nothing exotic for him. On any given occasion, when he requires more blood for his artwork, he will typically extract some. This bloodletting is often undertaken at home. “I am very passionate when withdrawing my blood. It is a very emotional time for me. It usually goes straight onto the canvas, right away, spontaneously. Sometimes if I do not use up the amount entirely, I will store it in an airtight container for a few days. It does not need to be refrigerated during that period. It clots fairly quickly but if I give it a good shake a day or two later, it maintains its liquid quality suitable for painting. If I don’t use it within a few days, however, it starts to get stinky,” Rabindra notes with a smirk. In order to prevent this from happening after the blood has been added to a canvas, he will typically apply a transparent fixative varnish as a coating.
Rabindra is no hack artist. His paintings have been exhibited in the last couple of years throughout Kathmandu including at an exhibition staged by the Nepal Art Council, entitled ‘Reflections of the New Nepal’, where numerous dignitaries and politicians were in attendance, including leaders within the new Maoist government. The piece Rabindra exhibited depicting the violence in the country that had often resulted from the orders given by some of these men was met with mixed reactions. Most of them found the piece intriguing, however, one minister, Rabindra recalls, refused to approach the canvas and only investigated it from a safe distance, perhaps in an attempt to relieve his conscience.
Rabindra got his start in commercial art, painting Tibetan tapestries known as thangkas, Pauwa prints, and other artwork containing traditional Newari themes involving the mythology of deities. As he continued to paint in this manner, he would often ask himself, why am I painting God when I have never actually seen God?
He started to realize that he wasn’t actually painting God but different icons that reveal God. “Where is God?” Rabindra muses rhetorically. “God is everywhere. God is in people’s hearts, in revolution, in peace. I am seeking a more accurate representation of God than just drawing faces of deities. I am not into idol worshipping.” As with much religious art in the Indian subcontinent employing static images of deities based on certain physical characteristics, for Rabindra there is no exact definition on how God should look. “Paintings are not for the eyes but the heart. The aim is not to ‘see’ visual representations of God but to feel and contemplate upon aspects of godhood.”
“I spend as much time alone and in natural settings as I can. I like to walk around in nearby jungles where I can listen to the voices that are present within that environment.” The area near the Sankhu River in the Kathmandu Valley on the outskirts of the capital city is a particularly significant refuge for him. “I love to listen to how the water slaps against stone. Through such meditations, I have tended to focus on details as opposed to wider landscape compositions. I have learned to symbolize a tree merely from detailing the bark; from a few drops of water, an entire waterfall can be represented. As is the case with divinity, it is too wide of a subject to encapsulate in one piece, so I seek to represent different aspects of it.” Perhaps this is what now makes the iconic meditative eyes in his work that much more meaningful.
Indeed, painting is a religious experience for Rabindra. There is a deep satisfaction he receives when people understand his work and provide meaningful feedback. He is aware that his work will not attract widespread mainstream appeal. “I must admit that I don’t know what art really is. People try to define it, especially commercially. You can’t think too much about abstract art, it must come spontaneously. Thought, of course, is involved in defining subject, composition, balance, visual attraction, but even this is less conscious than one might expect. I feel if my pieces are discussed and dissected too much, they lose their spirit and are essentially left misunderstood.”
“I am selective in where I exhibit my work,” he admits. He bemoans the whole gallery meat-grinder and the prejudice he has encountered in the galleries, oriented toward fame rather than quality. “People in Kathmandu go to galleries just to be cool and never really see anything,” he quips, “so I am interested in exhibiting for those who really understand what I am doing, even if they are small in number.”
In a direct affront to the commercialism which he despises, Rabindra has lately chosen not to include price tags nor title his pieces or even sign them (something that would surely be a death knell in North America for emerging artists). In not signing his pieces, he explains that the revolutionary content of the period dates the piece and his blood is the signature.
His renegade attitude certainly finds a home in a national art scene striving to shed its traditional approaches and subject matter. What is needed, according to Rabindra, is the development of a modern movement that embraces tradition but is not strangled by its stereotypes.
It’s this attitude that has enabled Rabindra to forge a path for himself as an artist in a family that was not always encouraging of his passions. His father had hoped that he would assume responsibility over the family’s import-export business. The relentless pressure he faced as an adolescent to do so took its toll. He describes himself as having been a ‘mentally ill punk who did not care for life’, endangering himself, wandering through dangerous places, intentionally shunning work responsibilities and escaping into painting. When his father’s business folded, Rabindra, though sympathetic, felt vindicated. He started working in a German-administered hospital as a lab technician and was expected to pursue pathology studies further at Kathmandu University, but again, he had a dramatic change of heart and after a great deal of soul-searching, he reluctantly approached the hospital administration with the intention of resigning. The hospital’s director reached a compromise with him and so now he works one day a week filling in for his full-time replacement.
“I ended up averting depression by looking beyond everything, including the horrors I encountered at the hospital on a regular basis and the daily problems I faced. In resolving these issues, I looked for what was beyond. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse was an influential book for me. It stressed independence and a freedom to do what you know in your heart you need to do. The book inspired me to continue on with art and creation, even when things seemed to work against that choice.”
Rabindra invites me to his apartment that also doubles as his studio. It is a small room in an unassuming neighbourhood. Blue walls clash with a green carpet. There are two windows that let in some sunlight but one is now blocked by a new brick house recently erected. The room is furnished simply with a bed and a table of magazines and books and paints. There is nothing else, save for the profusion of canvases decorated with blood and older intricate watercolour pieces of detailed architectural features. There are some portraits of cultural icons including Lain Singh Bangdel , the father of Nepali modern art, and even a piece that incorporates follicles of buffalo hair.
He then feels it would be advantageous to visit the hospital where he works so that I may gain a wider perspective on his character. He also wants me to witness how he actually extracts the blood. Though I am a bit leery of this, I decide the excursion couldn’t hurt. SKM Hospital, operated by the Interplast Germany Foundation, is a bright, cheery institution of approximately fifty beds dedicated to reconstructive surgery. Rabindra and I saunter through the quaint and pretty garden onsite straight for the laboratory which he was responsible for designing and equipping almost four years back.
We meet briefly with Christa Drigalla, a friendly no-nonsense woman. She reflects upon the devastation that racked the country for so long and which would eventually influence Rabindra’s art. “There was so much blood shed by this country’s youth,” she laments, “and Rabindra could easily have been one of them. We helped treat victims from both sides of the conflict. Blood itself is not so scary. For Rabindra, it is a tool, and I feel it is a way for him to digest the difficult and painful experiences he has encountered in this hospital. I was not so surprised with his decision to launch full-time into art. It was known and discussed, but we were still very sad when he left. Thankfully we were able to retain him for one day a week. He is still a member of our family here.”
After Christa leaves, Rabindra ushers me into another room where he intends to draw blood with the assistance of the full-time lab technician. He places a beaker on some newspaper on the floor, and while sipping a cup of tea, I watch as the needle is inserted and blood flows through the tube, dripping into the beaker, all undertaken quite matter-of-factly without ceremony. Afterward, he holds up the beaker with a look of satisfaction, claiming its contents for his next creation. “I think I was born to paint with blood,” Rabindra speculates.
I ask him whether he plans to continue with the bloodletting indefinitely or if he is contemplating other artistic visions. “I haven’t really given too much thought to the future,” he responds. “I am considering staging a performance art piece in nearby Nagarkot known for its spectacular views of the Himalayas, where, in front of a limited crowd, I would extract blood from myself and paint with the energy that surrounds me. The performance will also involve fire to some degree.” Whatever he conjures up is sure to be an eye-catcher.
He is definitely an artist to keep an eye on.
As we are leaving the hospital, almost as an afterthought, Rabindra turns to me and emphasizes the care and caution involved in the bloodletting and the risks associated with doing it at home. He then realizes how controversial the whole thing may come across to readers and so as a concluding caveat he intones the time-honoured warning: kids, don’t try this at home…