Exactly one week ago today we got the devastating news that Dina Bangdel, beloved friend, mentor, erudite scholar, renowned art historian and curator died after complications of a standard sinus operation, and not in Nepal but in a U.S. hospital in Richmond, Virginia. The blow was hard and it is still not fathomable that this brilliant, elegant, warm and friendly woman is no more. Having met her twice on my last trip to Nepal her total aliveness and warm interest in people is still imprinted in my mind and heart – and I grieve deeply for her.
To honour her here on NepalNow.blog I have collected the major obituaries and take the liberty of reposting an especially sensitive one by friend Kurchi Dasgupta (subheaders and collages are mine, all fotos taken from Dina’s Facebook page).
May she truly rest in peace!
Farewell, Bird of Fire!
By Kurchi Dasgupta, Kathmandu
… she was a person, who got invested in everything she touched, everyone she met but never once did she forget her location as a Nepali. Her ambition for her home country, especially in the arts, was limitless and she would protect its concerns and rights like a tigress. But she was also the most soft-spoken, kind, gentle person I have met. I do hope her country will not fail her, especially the art fraternity. For not once has she failed them, except in her passing …
Dina Bangdel, daughter of Lain Singh Bangdel
Lain Singh Bangdel was best known for being the catalyst that brought Modernism into Nepali art. His daughter, Dina Bangdel, who passed away on t July 25 in Richmond (USA), had carried his legacy forward to astonishing results.
At the time of her death, Bangdel was just 52 and yet she was already recognised as one of the world’s most prominent experts in traditional Himalayan Art. More importantly, she was among a handful of people performing the extraordinary task of informing the global art mechanism of Nepal’s contemporary art practices. The whole of South Asia (including Tibet) was her field, but Nepal, especially Kathmandu Valley, remained her life-long focus. I am yet to come across a scholar from this country with as much commitment to Nepal’s cause in every aspect of the arts.
Dina’s academic career and focus
Bangdel (1965-2017) rose to her current status through years of hard work and discerning accumulation of knowledge and expertise. She trained in USA with some of the best in art history, receiving her BA in History of Art at Bryn Mawr College in 1989 and her masters in South Asian Studies from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1991.
She went on to teach in the art history departments of Ohio Wesleyan University, the Western Michigan University, the Ohio State University, the Virginia Commonwealth University and was currently the Director of Program at the Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus in Doha. I had heard her say numerous times that she elected to relocate to Doha so that she could make quick trips to Kathmandu throughout the year and be active in promoting Nepali arts to the world.
Her PhD dissertation, which she did with the renowned Himalayan and Buddhist studies experts John C Huntington and Susan L Huntington at the Ohio State University in 1999, was seminal in its content. Called Manifesting the Mandala: A Study of the Core Iconographic Program of Newar Buddhist Monasteries in Nepal, the title of her dissertation speaks for itself and has since been hailed as a rare unveiling of Newar Buddhism for common understanding. More importantly, Bangdel had articulated arguments to rid Newar Buddhism of the label that it was a mixed practice. ‘Newar Buddhism remains the last remaining legacy of Indian Buddhism that is practiced within an actively South Asian cultural context,’ reads the introduction to her dissertation, and she goes on to explain how this particular strain of Buddhism not only retains the chief tenets and goals of the soteriological practice, but intelligently adapts itself to the official religious discourse of the times to survive historically. And even more importantly, she drew attention to the extraordinary flowering of culture around the practice, over centuries and to this day, that gives Newar art its unparalleled position in South Asia.
Dina was all this, but for me she was more. I met her when she was putting the finishing touches to the voluminous Pilgrimage and Faith: Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, which she co-edited. I remember her strained but joyous face as she sat in our living room with her husband, and led us through the many facets of Nepal’s traditional, modern and contemporary art. I listened spellbound. The evening ended with her husband, Bibhakar Shakya, telling us about how he had first walked into the waiting room of Ohio State University, and realised that he had found his soulmate as soon as his eyes fell on her.
Dina as a friend and mentor
In a way she took me under her wing, letting me accompany her on some of the studio visits she made whenever she visited Kathmandu. And thus my introduction to so many of the premier, senior artists of this country was fast-tracked. What I found amazing was the ease with which she discoursed with ‘Paubha’ artists on the intricacies and varying schools of their individual practices, while talking modernist history with the Nepali modern stalwarts, while inspiring and tweaking the younger generation of ‘contemporaries’ with her vast first-hand knowledge of the current, global art scene. Dina was a turbo-charger that fuelled, inspired and drove all generations of artists in Nepal living in contemporaneity, no matter how diverse their practice, over the last decade or so.
Dina as a curator
In association with the Nepal Art Council, which her father headed for long stretches of time and during which he pushed Nepal into the Modernist scene, Dina led Nepal’s first significant forays into the South Asian art fairs scene. She handpicked artists for the India Art Fair contingents and supported them in every possible way, especially with advice that came from her globe-hopping exposure.
Our paths had diverged of late, but I could not but appreciate the extraordinary collateral that she put up and curated for the recently held Kathmandu Triennale. I hear that she was already between surgeries when she pulled it off, having brought together an extraordinary body of work from Nepali and Qatar-based artists on the theme of migration, labour and identity. Incidentally, every one of the artists from Nepal that are making forays into the international art world today, were incubated by her in one way or another.
Dina was a rare scholar who could, in equal stride, be a PhD advisor to students that delved into the intricacies of a Dipankara Buddha or an Anish Kapoor. Not many, even in our globalised world, are capable of such feats of straddling such diverse boats. She forged pathways for Nepali scholarship and arts practices, which undoubtedly will only be appreciated much later.
Dina and the “lost art of Nepal”
Identification of heritage pieces scattered all across the world’s many museums and private collections, and the need for restitution of the same, especially from private collections, was a passion she shared with her father. This is evident from the book she co-authored with him, Inventory of Stone Sculptures of Kathmandu Valley (1997) that now acts as a handbook for such efforts.
It was just yesterday that I heard that her dream was slowly being realised—the Guimet Museum (better known as Musée national des arts asiatiques) of Paris, with the largest collection of Asiatic art lying outside of Asia, is in the process of restoring, exhibiting and finally returning a selection of such works with her facilitation. For Nepal, the event will be (and am hoping that it will indeed materialise in her absence) of unprecedented magnitude.
Dina, the prolific writer, presenter … wonderful personality
She produced numerous books, articles, presentations during her career; curated path-breaking shows, including the acclaimed Circle of Bliss; given talks that helped reshape the world’s perception of Nepal’s traditional, modern and contemporary art practices. Everything she touched, everyone she met was marked for life by her intense, effervescent personality.
Of all my memories of her, when I think back, what I remember most intensely is the image of her in a lime-green jacket, pushing effortlessly through the crowd at the Doha airport’s arrival section, pushing aside people double her side, looking for me. Then she saw me and her face, anxious to the point of desperation for she had thought I had gotten lost on arrival, broke into a smile that lit up everything around us.
She knew what it felt like to be alone on foreign soil. She had lived it herself. She was a person, who got invested in everything she touched, everyone she met but never once did she forget her location as a Nepali. Her ambition for her home country, especially in the arts, was limitless and she would protect its concerns and rights like a tigress. But she was also the most soft-spoken, kind, gentle person I have met. I do hope her country will not fail her, especially the art fraternity. For not once has she failed them, except in her passing.
Repost of a very fine interview published today, March 20th 2017, in literary magazine LaLit. Learn much about the planning and total process of creating KATHMANDU TRIENNALE 2017 in this highly intelligent conversation with Belgian curator Philippe Van Cauteren.
Taking care of art:
Philippe Van Cauteren and the Kathmandu Triennale
Image: Philippe Van Cauteren, photo by Dirk Pauwels
Philippe Van Cauteren is the curator for the upcoming Kathmandu Triennale, which focuses on the theme of the city. He is the Artistic Director of Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (S.M.A.K.) in Ghent, Belgium. Cauteren has also worked as a freelance curator and publicist in Germany, Mexico, Chile and Brazil, and has been represented twice at the Venice Biennale. In 2015, he was appointed by the RUYA Foundation to curate the Iraqi Pavilion.
… I have this belief – it might be a romantic one – that art is as valid for society as is a butcher, supermarket, religion and law. Art is a means for healing. Through an intangible and nonfunctional way, art can have a therapeutic effect on society.
What does curation mean to you as a creative process?
The words “curation” and “curating” come to me with a certain ambivalence. It is only with the professionalisation of the art world that this word appears and has, at times, taken on a bigger importance than even the word “artist”. Recently, the famous curator Hans Ulrich Obrist was wondering if it was not time to find another word for “curator”. This, to me, indicates a problem with the word. If you look at the origin of the word from the latin word “curare”, it means to take care of and cherish. This would be the ideal perspective to look at curating – taking care of the artist by having a solid and substantial exchange to provoke or inspire the right process or intervention.
At the level of an exhibition like the Kathmandu Triennale, which is like a festival, curating is also about trying to understand the place where one works. As best as possible, you have to try to understand the cultural and social surrounding in which you are active. This is a complex element wherever you are active – whether Belgium, France, Iraq or Nepal – you are always an intruder, a guest. But it is about developing empathy for our surroundings and its contexts to identify good and meaningful interventions or additions.
In your curatorial statement you state, “An exhibition is namely a tool (for transformation) and an instrument, which generates meaning, and that which serves, in its spatial articulation, to make the predefined artwork to become ‘elastic.’” Can you go into this idea of elasticity as it seems pertinent to your curatorial understanding?
Yes, with the elasticity, I think and hope that we hold the notion that an art work is not a unidimensional thing – it is not something that can be read or understood in one way. It is not to be taken like a scientific model or mathematical proof. How an art work interacts with its surroundings and spectators means that it has a very flexible existence, it always interacts with a plurality of people. What an art work means for you does not necessarily mean the same for me, in this sense, it has an elastic way of existence. In relation to the Triennale in post-earthquake Kathmandu where many things are still fragile and in some cases uncertain and not evident, the artists and the art works need this elastic capacity to answer to the place in which he or she is coming into.
So in terms of curating this exhibition, is it more about taking what the artists are doing in terms of that elasticity within their art or are you trying to create a space where those conversations could open up? How do you approach this part of the curation, is it spatial or art based?
Everything starts with the place of course, but you have to feel the necessity. If there is no necessity to do an exhibition then it is better not to do an exhibition. When I came to Nepal in November 2015 to teach a 10-day workshop, I had a fantastic exchange of dialogue with the people whom I was teaching. I fell in love with the city and this idea of doing the Triennale came around from there.
Given how busy I already am, I would not have accepted the proposal to do the Triennale if I did not sense a necessity. For me, necessity should be at the core of every activity. Of course what is necessary for me is not necessary for another person. And in terms of art and culture, there can be a lot of disagreements about necessity. Most politicians, in any country in the world, will not see art and culture as a necessary tool in society. But I have this belief – it might be a romantic one – that art is as valid for society as is a butcher, supermarket, religion and law.
… because an artist thinks, proceeds with and processes images and things as a means to connect the past, present and future. Almost no one else does this.
Art is a means for healing. Through an intangible and nonfunctional way, art can have a therapeutic effect on society. Of course this is not measurable, like how a certain medical treatment can lead to a decline in mortality. On the contrary, art is neither quantifiable nor does it have a direct function. Art holds up an extreme mirror to society. It is the best way to get a critical view of ourselves, our society and the world we live in and there is no better person to do this than an artist – not a journalist or scientist – because an artist thinks, proceeds with and processes images and things as a means to connect the past, present and future. Almost no one else does this.
Going back to the idea of curation and this idea of the artist, the Triennale isn’t just happening in one location, it is happening in multiple locations around the city – Patan Museum, Nepal Art Council, Siddhartha Art Gallery, Taragaon Museum – how do you approach the curatorial work itself?
Keep in mind that this is one exhibition happening in four different locations. The Kathmandu Triennale is one exhibition that is interconnected across these spaces. Each of the locations represent four different typologies of spaces. For instance, the Nepali Art Council has long been used for art practices, the Patan Museum reflects a certain part and layer of Nepali history and society, the Taragaon Museum was built to be a hotel by an Austrian architect and is a Western space, while the Siddhartha Art Gallery is a logical place for art.
Each of our locations is being used in a different way and the artists in them are being presented in a different way. In the Art Council, the artworks will interact with each other whereas in the Taragaon Museum you will have separate exhibitions in the individual units you find there. The kind of artist we present in the different places is determined by its architectural gifts. The four locations are of the same importance, but we try to answer to the space with respect to the context and the origin of the place.
The title of the exhibition, as you know, is “The City, My Studio / The City, My Life”. This reflects the notion of the city as a kind of primordial place where life takes place, a source of inspiration, a working ground and context for the art itself. The Triennale is also not just the presentation of the art works but also the conversations, meetings and the sharing of ideas. The art work is just the first step to build collaborations and partnerships.
The Triennale is like a pumping system to show the potential of the arts in other industries in the city. This is why we have invested a lot into our outreach to work with schools and children to give the exhibition as many anchors as possible. We want to show that there is a necessity to continue this and that there should be a second one in 2020. This exhibition is a part of Kathmandu. I am not a person who is here to do my thing and then leave, I bring my experience of close to 20 years in different places and locations but it is the city that is doing the exhibition.
What do you think makes the Kathmandu Triennale necessary at this point of time?
I met many Nepali artists – I think around 60 to 70 – from different generations. I have tremendous respect for the engagement with which they work. There were a number of artists who responded to the earthquake by taking art along with basic necessities. These artists took a stance. They said that they too could contribute and address the tragedy by helping people and softening the trauma people went through. You may believe in it or not, but it is a very courageous position for artists to take. The generosity of the artists in Nepal is in taking on cultural responsibility. They go beyond their own need to create their art works and take a position in society.
… the generosity of the artists in Nepal is in taking on cultural responsibility. They go beyond their own need to create their art works and take a position in society.
Another remarkable thing in Nepal is this remarkable continuum of the traditional arts. The tradition is very present while at the other end of the spectrum are contemporary artists and artists who think they are contemporary but are maybe more traditional than traditional artists. It’s fantastic to see so many art practices existing at the same time. However, I see there is a lack of a person – going back to the idea of a curator – who mediates between the artist and their art work. Someone to make their work more precise and help the artist formulate his or her work more precisely and accurately while thinking better about the form and content of the art work. If it is not in the sense of taking care, I have a very ambivalent relationship with the notion of a curator. I hope that the Triennale will show what the role of the curator can be and how meaningful it can be.
In terms of the artist taking a stance in society, would you be able to curate an exhibition with artists whose ethical stance or ethos you do not agree with?
I wouldn’t be able to, of course not, but I can understand that the artist is the only person in society who is able to deal with ethical questions in a different way. The rest of us have to work within the parameters of social compromise, whereas the artist is the only one who can stand outside this logic and take on another ethical position: but he or she also has to bear the consequences of it. But I would never collaborate or deal with an artist whose ethical position I would not be able to embrace.
Let me be clear about this – this does not mean I will not engage with artists with whom I disagree, there are after all plenty of positions. Even in this exhibition, there are artists with whom I do not agree 100%, but I still respect them. You do need something in common, even if it is a broad cultural sense and belief in the validation of art for society. In contrast, I would never deal with an artist who promotes ideas of racism, inequality and discrimination or takes a position against humanity.
Sticking with the politics that is associated with the arts, and the “city” that is central to the Triennale’s theme. Cities are places of both diversity and inequality: how do you balance the engagement with the city and make it accessible?
All spaces are spaces of inequality, not only the city, like the school system, the medical system. Unfortunately, inequality is one of the most difficult things to get rid of in the world. In Nepal, the caste system is not officially validated, but you will still see it play out for many generations. In my country, as well, various forms of inequality are present. I believe we have to try to have people participate in the Triennale to multiply the moments of contact between artists and viewers. This is why we emphasise our outreach to
… I believe we have to try to have people participate in the Triennale to multiply the moments of contact between artists and viewers.
schools, kids and young people. Most international artists are coming here to have an exchange with Nepali artists. We will be doing workshops, masterclasses, portfolio reviews – I want the artists to come to Nepal not just to enjoy themselves but to work, work, work and share their knowledge and point of views. I should also emphasise that the exhibition is a tool for information and communication. The Triennale is a catalyst. I hope it can add to fighting indifference, inspiring youth and encouraging the next generation to contribute to the future of this country.
How do you curate the outreach? Do you design the exhibition and then build the outreach or is outreach part of the exhibition design itself?
At the core of everything is the artist and the art, always. That is the starting point. But, of course, you do not think linearly. You don’t think, first comes the artist and then comes the second thing and then the third thing. You take it all together. So, from the beginning, we said our outreach is important. In each of the four locations, we will have outreach units. Also, the whole process of reaching out to schools and young people has already started and has been happening for months already. You cannot separate it, you have to think of it as a whole. But, we must acknowledge that we can do these things thanks to the artists and the art works.
… the Triennale is a catalyst. I hope it can add to fighting indifference, inspiring youth and encouraging the next generation to contribute to the future of this country.
What happens after the exhibition? Will there be any publications?
The exhibition only lasts two weeks. During this time, the focus is very strongly on things happening in Kathmandu and Nepal even though there will be plenty of guests visiting. We will be making a catalogue for the Triennale by the end of this year to give us time to prepare it well. We will include shots of all the exhibits and will include some critical texts on the exhibition. This catalogue will be the only thing left over from the exhibition, the only tangible thing that will remain. Most art works are temporary and this will be the only record of everything. For me, this catalogue will be a very important tool and will be a means to provide knowledge and information about the exhibition worldwide. We will also use it to prepare for the next Triennale in 2020.
The Kathmandu Triennale will be held in various locations around Kathmandu from March 24, 2016 to April 9, 2017. For further information, please visit: www.kt.artmandu.org.
… even in the NEW YORK TIMES the successful participation of six Nepali artists at IAF 2017 was mentioned:
“NEW DELHI — It’s no surprise that satirical portraits of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un are the centerpiece of the India Art Fair, the annual feast of visual arts where politics took center stage this year, including groundbreaking projects on migration and rapidly changing urban landscapes in South Asia.
Titled “Peace Owners,” the work of Nepali artist Sunil Sigdel uses Buddhist motifs on the faces of the three global leaders. “Artists are responding to the global political climate,” said Dina Bangdel, curator of Nepal Art Council in New Delhi. “We are also looking at agriculture and perhaps the disintegration of the rural community with urbanization. Artists are speaking in a Nepali voice but in the broader context of South Asia.” Bangdel said the work of her artists reflects both the “fragility and resilience” of a country still recovering from the devastating 2015 earthquake.
Prof. Dr. Dina Bangdel, who spearheaded the presentation in New Delhi, says: “There were six Nepali contemporary artists whose works were highlighted for Nepal Art Council’s second invited participation for IAF’s Platform series with a regional focus on South Asia — with a focused curatorial intent!
The installation was intense with less than 12 hours to put up a show, not to mention some technical snafus out of our control! Huge congratulations to the artists, whose works were highlighted in over 10+ media coverage. This experience was incredibly valuable and a privilege for me personally as a curator and to the amazing NAC team/supportors — the quick deinstallation is always bittersweet! Thank you to the artists for your participation! Congratulations once again to the artists — one of the most visited booth at the India Art Fair once again this year!”
(For brief information on all participating artists please scroll down to the end of the post)
(collage: Beata Wiggen; all photos: Dina Bangdel)
Participating artists IAF 2017:
Anil Shahi is currently pursuing his MFA at Tribhuvan University. In 2011 and 2012 he took part in NAFA’s National Art Exhibitions. He has exhibited with his peers from KU at the Nepal Art Council and participated in the Kalajatra exhibition. He is the recipient of the Australian Himalayan Foundation Art Award and held a solo exhibition at Siddhartha Art Gallery in 2014.
Koshal Hamal’s (b.1988, Nepal) works are engaged in a synthesis of appropriation. Hamal received his BFA (with a distinction award) from Beaconhouse National University, Lahore (2011) on a UNESCO Madanjeet Art Scholarship. His work received one of the best awards for young artists by Lahore Art Council in 2012. His works have been included in several South Asian art exhibitions nationally and internationally including New Selections: South Asia, Thomas Erben Gallery, New York (2012) and South Asian Artists: Imagining Our Future Together, a travel show organized by the World Bank, Art Program (2012-13). Hamal is currently doing his Masters in Fine Arts at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, Pakistan.
Kabi Raj Lama completed his BFA from Kathmandu University’s Center for Art and Design in 2009. He was a research student of Meisei University, Japan, where he also served as a Teaching Assistant in Printmaking. He has participated in numerous exhibitions nationally and internationally and has had a solo show at the Hotel D’Annapurna.
Sandhya Silwal is Lalitpur-based artist. She completed her BFA from Kathmandu University’s Center for Art and Design in 2007. She has two solo exhibitions to her credit and has participated in many workshops and group exhibitions. Sandhya mostly focuses on painting but explores other art forms as well.
Sanjeev Maharjan is a Kathmandu based visual artist. Maharjan’s works are often inspired from his social surroundings, which he represents in the form of drawing,painting, photography, installation and murals. Maharjan was born, raised and studied in Kathmandu.He graduated from the Kathmandu University Center for Art and Design in 2009.
An alum of Nepal Fine Art Campus T.U, Sunil has six solo exhibitions to his credit and has been part of many international residential workshops in countries like the UK, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan. Sunil was also a part of the 1st and 2nd Kathmandu International Art Festival and the Dhaka Art Summit. Sunil has been the recipient of several awards and recognition for his art, including the Asian Art prize in Hong Kong & Seoul (2012 A.D).
A brief Review of the Contemporary Art in Nepal (1920-2014)
By Sangeeta Thapa, Siddhartha Arts Foundation for Gallerie International, August 2014
Nepal lies neatly at the center of the world’s largest growth region. As a developing country, Nepal is experiencing major political changes while writing its new constitution. It is hoped that the new constitution will defend freedom of speech, as artists have an important role to play in the future of Nepal by raising the consciousness of its citizens. The new government of Nepal must rise to the challenges of its time and work in tandem with private cultural organizations to generate activities that support the younger generation of artists from all ethnic backgrounds, thereby supporting new ideas for social change through the visual and performing arts. However, it is essential that in the quest for modernity, the very essence of Nepali culture is not sacrificed.
In 1940, the Nepali artist Chandra Man Maskey was imprisoned for drawing cartoons lampooning the Rana rulers. India’s independence in 1947 and the end of the British Raj had huge political ramifications in Nepal. Change was inevitable – politicians, members of various underground political outfits who were imprisoned for their political beliefs, social activists, teachers, lawyers, artists and writers united collectively against the Rana rule and clamoured for change.
Twelve years later, King Tribhuvan Bir Bikram Shah Dev ended the Rana rule and Nepal finally opened up her borders to the rest of the world. His successor, King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, believed that the arts could be used to create a feeling of nationalism under a guided democracy called the Panchayat system, which would take Nepal forward into the 21st century.
A feeling of euphoria and jubilation marked the initial years of the Panchayat system, and between the late 50s and 70s, the Royal Nepal Academy was established to promote art, literature, dance and music; the City Hall was built to stage public performances, the Nepal Association of Fine Arts, and the Nepal Arts Council were established to promote contemporary expression and an independent association initiated to promote Nepali handicraft.
The National Museums were also set up in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur during this period. The royal portraits of the Shah dynasty were painted by the famous artists of the era: Balkrishna Sama, Chandra Man Maskey, Tej Bahadur Chitrakar and Amar Chitrakar and were installed in museums and government offices. In 1952, the Nepal Art Society and Kala Samiti were registered. Three years later Gehendra Man Amatya, a self taught artist exhibited a series of non figurative works –now considered a departure in the history of Nepali contemporary art. In 1960, Narayan Bahadur Singh began a column in the Gorkhapatra National Daily, dedicated to the arts. A year later, King Mahendra was to meet three Nepali artists during his tour of Europe, one of them was Lain Singh Bangdel who had graduated from the Ecole National Des Beaux Arts in Paris and was residing in London. King Mahendra invited Bangdel to Nepal to play a pivotal role in taking Nepali art forward.
The birth of modern art in Nepal
In 1962, the King inaugurated Lain Singh’s exhibition of abstract paintings at Saraswati Sadan. His paintings marked the beginning of modernism in Nepal and Bangdel was appointed Head of the Faculty of the Fine Arts at the Royal Nepal Academy by the King. He held multiple portfolios: literature, art, music, drama and administration. He also contributed greatly to the Nepal Association of Fine Arts and in co-founding the Nepal Art Council. With his untimely demise in 2002, Nepal lost a celebrated artist, writer, novelist and art historian.
The Paris trained printmaker Urmila Garg Upadhyay returned to Nepal in 1962 and held the first exhibition of prints. The third artist that the King met while on his tour of Europe was the Paris based Nepali artist Laxman Shrestha. After attending an exhibition of Shrestha’s oeuvre in France, King Mahendra was greatly impressed by the artists work and invited him to Nepal. In 1964, Shrestha returned to Nepal and held an exhibition of his paintings at Saraswati Sadan. The mountains, the ethereal mists of Nepal were to become a continued source of inspiration for the artist. Though Laxman eventually settled in India and was to become an acclaimed artist, his exhibition and his work had generated excitement in the contemporary art scene in Nepal.
The first generation of modern artists
Aspiring artists Kesab Duwadi, Ramananda Joshi, Thakur Prasadh Mainali, Pramila Giri, Uttam Nepali, Shankar Raj Suwal, Vijay Thapa, Shashi Bikram Shah, Batsa Gopal Vaidya, Krishna Manandhar, Indra Pradhan, Madan Chitrakar, Manuj Babu Mishra and Shashikala Tiwari journeyed to India, East Pakistan, France and beyond to study the fine arts and were to return with new ideas and expressions that would define the post modernist arts movement in Nepal. In 1965, the Nepal Association of Fine Arts organized the first National Art Exhibition, which was presided over by the Crown Prince Birendra Bikram Shah who continued to patronize the arts through the 70’s and 80’s.
The second wave of art graduates returned in the 1970’s: Surendra Bhatterai, Pravin Shrestha, Kir an Manandhar, Birendra Pratap Singh, Ragini Upadhyay Grela, Parmesh Adhikari, Yuvak Tuladhar, Laya Mainali and Raj Manandhar. The influx of artists created new dynamics in the contemporary art scene – artists collectives were formed such as the SKIB Group [Shashi Shah, Krishna Manandhar, Indra Pradhan and Batsa Gopal Vaidya], the Young Artist Group and Artist’s Society of Nepal which had a broader membership base. The individual and collective contributions by the artists created a definite impact on the psyche of the public. It is also during this period that Nepali artists would travel abroad to take part in inter-regional and international art events: the Dhaka Art Biennale and in Fukuoka Asian Art Exhibition.
Ramananda Joshi a graduate from the Sir J.J. School of Art in India, opened the Park Gallery in 1970 as a hub for artists, art activities and as a commercial space for the arts. By the 1980’s, the original patrons of the arts, the temples, the aristocracy and government, were replaced by private galleries, which were established by artists and entrepreneurs, in response to the need for professionally managed spaces where contemporary Nepali art could be exhibited and marketed. The J Art Gallery was established by the entrepreneur Hirendra Bajracharya. A few years later Kiran Manandhar opened the Palpasa Gallery. In 1987 alone, three art galleries were opened: the Srijana Gallery, established by Birendra Pratap Singh, the Pumori Art Gallery founded by Ragini Upadhaya and the Siddhartha Art Gallery which was opened by Sangeeta Thapa and Shashikala Tiwari. Though some of the galleries have now closed, new galleries have emerged.
Though the arts gained an unprecedented momentum, it is important to remember that censorship was a key issue during the Panchayat period. However artists, writers and poets were allowed to use the traditional festival of Gaijatra to voice their frustrations against the State. The Royal Nepal Academy organized gala shows satirizing and lampooning the leaders of the time. Along with the public, the King and his Ministers attended the performances, enjoying the parodies. A key feature of these times was the publication of a magazine called “Bhand-Bhailo” in 1983 – which was only released during Gaijatra by the Young Artists Group. Contemporary artists contributed their cartoons while writers penned their satirical and humorous anti–establishment texts.
Even though at one level of life, the visual narratives of the artists were drawn from traditional religious iconography and symbolism, from its agrarian settings, folk art motifs and universal human emotions, the contemporary arts began to reflect socio-political tensions, a yearning for change and the desire to be free from the censure of the Panchayat system. In 1990, Nepal was to witness a historic revolution that called for greater democratic freedom, thus ending three decades of Panchayat system of government.
Ragini’s bold portrait of the royal family sporting signature dark glasses, was a powerful commentary on the royal family’s lack of awareness of reality. Her works in 2001, focused on the ineptitude of politicians. Her solo exhibition ‘Gaijatra’ in 2010, caricatured the greed and lust for power that lead the country down an abyss of misrule and corruption. However, her works have landed her in controversy on some occasions. Her exhibition ‘Love is in the Air’ in 2011, courted controversy as the artist depicted herself as the modern day Goddess Saraswati or Goddess of Wisdom riding a swan. A US based Hindu outfit, the Forum for Hindu Awakening, asked the artist to take the work off the website. This incident marks the first instance in Nepal, of an artist’s work being deemed offensive by a religious organization. A staunch advocate for women’s rights, even in the art field, Ragini established WAGON (Women Artists Group Nepal) a non-profit organization dedicated to the uplifting women artists.
The second generation of modern artists
The early 1990’s bustled with local and international exhibitions and activities. In 1991, Uma Shankar Shah returned from Banaras Hindu University with an MFA in Printmaking. In 1993, Jyoti Duwadi a Nepali artist residing in the US travelled to Kathmandu to present his site specific installation ‘Myth of the Nagas’ and ‘Kathmandu Valley Watershed’. This event would be the first time installation art was presented to the public. However, the years between 1996 and 2006 quickly metamorphosed into turbulent and bewildering times as Nepal reeled under twelve years of a bloody civil war. In 2001, three events were to stun the world: the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddha in Afghanistan, the massacre of the royal family in Nepal and the bombing of the world trade Center in the USA. Many Nepali artists such as Shashi Shah, Shashikala Tiwari, Ragini Upadhyay Grela, Gopal Kalapremi responded to these events with powerful and compelling works.
Some of the key names from this period include: Gopal Kalapremi, Ashmina Ranjit, Prashant Shrestha, Sudarshan Rana, Sunita Rana, Erina Tamrakar, Binod Shrestha, Pradeep Bajracharya, Bhairaj Maharjan, Pramila Bajracharya, Sunila Bajracharya, Asha Dangol, Binod Pradhan, Sarita Dangol, Kirti Kaushal Joshi, Sujan Chitrakar, Kishor Rajbhandary, Manish Lal Shrestha, Sunil Sigdel, Jupiter Pradhan, Purnima Yadav, Prithivi Shrestha and Saurganga Darshandhari. Some of these artists travelled abroad to further their studies – and were to return to Nepal to play an important role in strengthening the local art community.
The present generation of modern artists
On the political front, extrajudicial killings, murders, kidnappings, disappearances and turmoil, continued to ravage the nation. The works by Shashi Shah, Durga Baral, Shashikala Tiwari, Kiran Manandhar, Jyoti Duwadi, Ragini Upadhyay Grela, Ashmina Ranjit, Sudarshan Rana, Manish Lal Shrestha, Sunil Sigdel, Sujan Chitrakar, Asha Dangol, Om Khatri, Govinda Azad, Chirag Bangdel and a host of other artists provided powerful commentary on these tragic and bellicose times. In 2007, Nayantara Kakshyapati launched ‘Photo Circle’ as a platform for emerging and professional photographers and as photo archive. In May 2008, the Kingdom of Nepal metamorphosed into a Federal Democratic Republic, thereby ending the rule of the 240-year-old Shah dynasty. Statues of the Shah Kings that had been installed across the country were vandalized and paintings of the monarchy removed from all government offices. In the same year, the palace of the Shah Kings – Narayanhiti Durbar- was converted to a Museum.
The sweeping political changes also impacted the indigenous and marginalized communities who demanded that their voices be heard beyond the confines of the house of parliament. The need to develop national cultural policies that were socially inclusive was finally brought to the forefront. The various presentations of indigenous cultures have added a greater dimension to the field of art, music, dance, theatre and cinematography. In 2008, the Society for Modern Art SOMA was registered and an indigenous language magazine for arts and culture published by Chomolunga Pratishtan Nepal. Two years later the Kirat Fine Arts Association and the Mithila Artist’s Society were also registered.
Durga Baral ‘Batsayan’ (2005) – Death of Constitutional Monarchy
Kathmandu International Arts Festival and now “Kathmandu Triennale”
In 2009, the First Kathmandu International Art Festival was held as a theme-based, non-commercial, contemporary arts festival. Organized by the Siddhartha Art Gallery, the Festival used the medium of art to address critical socio-political issues. The event was conceived as a platform to establish Kathmandu as an international arts hub. KIAF served as a visual narrative on the ‘Status of Women’. Inaugurated by the former Living Goddess, over 100 artists from 25 countries participated in the event spread out across six different venues in the city. The festival served to introduce new perspectives in art practices to Kathmandu.
Exhibitions by BFA graduates from Kathmandu University also set the tone for bold new approaches in contemporary art. In 2010, Tribhuvan University officially began its MFA program with eminent printmaker Dr. Seema Sharma Shah at the helm as Head of Department, Central Department of Fine Arts. Hitman Gurung, Mekh Limbu, Arjun Khaling and Jaya Shankar Son Shrestha are some of the artists that graduated from this institution. The works made by this young generation of artists, focus on socio-political issues: the status of women, human trafficking, the environment, pollution, art made from materials sourced from the junkyard, politics, war, the seduction of power, a growing awareness of one’s ethnicity, architecture and heritage, traffic woes, the saga of migration and the search for spirituality in an increasingly chaotic urban space.
On a parallel level, the need to explore alternative art practices in contemporary art beyond the confines of a Gallery structure, was to lead to the opening of multiple art spaces: Kastamandap Studio, Sutra, Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre, Sattya, Lasana Live Art Hub, Artudio, Bindu space for artists, Bikalpa, Srijanalaya and Art Lab. The art residencies, workshops, interactions, art forums, street art initiatives, photography and film screenings brought national and international art practitioners together and have challenged the existing patriarchal concepts and succeeded in connected art to the local community and to a wider audience.
In August 2012 a death threat was issued against Manish Harijan by members of the World Hindu Forum who had visited Harijan’s solo exhibition at the Siddhartha Art Gallery. After this visit, a case was registered at the Central District Office demanding: the arrest of both the artist and Gallery Director, the seizure of Harijan’s paintings and the sealing of the gallery on the spurious grounds that the works posed a threat to public security as they were anti-national and anti-Hindu. Manish‘s paintings of Hindu gods with western super heroes satirized the commercialization of Hindu and Buddhist icons. The misinterpretation of the work in a secular new Nepal, created a furore in the art world and revealed the gap between what the State perceived Art should be, and what contemporary artists in Nepal are making.
The Second Kathmandu International Art Festival –EARTH BODY MIND was held in 2012. Thematically centred on environment and climate change, this mega event drew 100 artists from 35 countries. Diaspora artists Jyoti Duwadi and Ang Tsering Sherpa also participated in the Festival. More than 400,000 visitors attended the exhibitions and events which were spread across sixteen venues in the city. The cumulative energy of the Festival has contributed towards propelling contemporary art in Nepal towards a bold new direction. A series of interesting developments were to follow, in 2014 the photographer Kashish Das Shrestha opened the City Museum and a few months later the very first Children’s Art Museum was established by Sneha Shrestha. 2015 saw the first international photography festival take hold of the historic city of Patan. And in 2016, Photo.Circle organized the second edition of the event with an overwhelming response from local and international community. Today the arts in Nepal, is poised for a takeoff, despite the lack of government funding. It is important to recognize the resilience of the local artists and role played by private art galleries and institutions to create awareness about the vitality and potential of this field.
I first came across Kabiraj’s work while he was a BFA student at Kathmandu University. Then in 2009 the Siddhartha Art Gallery organized his graduation show at the Annapurna Hotel. As a resident of Boudha and living close to the sacred Boudhanath Stupa, he was inspired by the strong cultural and spiritual environment. His work became “a search for inner enlightenment for the tranquility of the inner self”. His exhibition “Transcendental Vibrations”, focused on portraits of Buddhist monks. His command of oil paint, oil pastel and ink and his sensitivity to line were evident in compelling portrait studies of this period. After graduation, Kabiraj journeyed to Japan with the dream to study art in a country with a long and illustrious history in printmaking. Accepted at the prestigious Meisei University Center of Art and Design in Tokyo, but without resources to pay for his education Kabiraj had to take on multiple jobs to cover both educational expenses and the cost of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Kabi Raj in Japan
Talking to the artist about his time in Japan, I learnt of the many challenges. He spoke no Japanese and it took more than two years to learn the language and begin to understand traditional Japanese culture with all its nuances. He had issues of self esteem and identity in a country where foreigners are regarded as gaikokujin or outsiders. The loneliness and frustration was debilitating and he began to doubt his artistic journey “Learning and practicing art gradually became secondary to the urgency of earning a living. I felt a deep necessity to regain my identity and compelled myself to find a balance between the two, finding time and space for art within my hectic earning schedule.”
First exhibit after Japan
In Kabiraj’s body of work in this exhibition From Tokyo to Kathmandu– Recollections in Print, the loneliness of the artist on his spiritual quest and the quest to master new techniques are not parallel journeys but the continuation of a more profound journey. The journey of the karmic self with obstacles central to the journey such as finding the right place of instruction and finding a teacher. While in Japan, Kabiraj studied a range of printmaking techniques before deciding on lithography as his medium. He was fortunate to find a mentor in the celebrated printmaker Shibuya Kazuyoshi. In an interview with Kabiraj he said “Drawing on stone excited me and increased my interest in lithography. The features of the technique matched my creative tendencies, allowing my emotions to transmit easily into chemicals, ink, the surface of the stone surface and later onto paper.”
On the process of lithography
As Kabiraj experimented with the process of lithography, a series of abstract works evolved. He found the task of grinding the stone meditative which gave him time to contemplate each tremulous movement of the placing of lines and color on stone; “..each stroke and the rawness of their movement were expressions of my raw temperament which was composed of both fear and aggression. I pursued the idea of transforming my emotions into prints and rediscovered my thoughts through the imprints and textures in litho”.
Special character of the artist’s works
The hallmark of these abstract works is found in the fluid lines interspersed with playful squiggles and a sense of abandonment in the dripping of colour. Through this series of abstract works he began to slowly reaffirm his identity as an artist. cite example
Experiments with portraiture and figurative work followed in litho, monotype and woodcut. Kabiraj was able to prove that he could render his portraits and figurative works in print with finesse and sensitivity. cite example:
A series of new prints which hark back to his earlier spiritual bent are also from this period, replete with temple bells and divine forms : cite example
Impact of the Tsunami
During his four years in Japan, Kabiraj participated in several print exhibitions and his diligence and dedication to printmaking earned him a job as a teaching assistant at Meisei University’s Printmaking Department. There he taught lithography, woodcut, drawing and painting for a year. In March 2011, a terrible tsunami hit Japan. The devastation caused and its aftermath play havoc with Kabiraj’s mind. Battling depression while coming to terms with the searing devastation, he turned to printmaking to heal himself; “engrossed in its process, I could escape from the shadows of insecurity and depression caused by the tsunami and its aftermath. It was a harsh life and I was struggling”.
During the last phase of his time in Japan, Kabiraj experimented with an action painting series in monotype. He developed both confidence and skill to paint directly onto litho plates in swift and bold strokes. In my conversation with the artist I learnt that it was the combination of ink viscosity, chemicals and the intricacy in timing that “triggered” his creative instincts. The necessity of taking risks in printmaking, while not knowing what the outcome could reveal, helped him overcome his insecurities. He told me that while taking these steps he was subconsciously hauling himself from his darker experiences; ” I liked the idea of preparing the plates without any plans, not knowing the end result. The scale, speed and colors of these printed strokes spoke the language of my inner motions.”
Kabiraj returned to Kathmandu earlier this year and found his four years in Japan, both as a student and teacher, had left an indelible impression on him.
The KCAC residence
Awarded a residency at the Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre, but with limited local printmaking resources available, Kabiraj decided to make woodcuts, a skill he had mastered at Meisei University. A week into the residency, our main studio had been transformed into a Japanese printmaking studio with huge wooden boards, bottles of ink, cutters and rolls of lokta paper. During his four-month residency, he looked back at the Tsunami through his recollections in print. The trauma of the tsunami was still there. “In my subconscious I constantly questioned my sense of stability.“ The motifs engraved on the wood narrate the havoc and wreckage created by the Tsunami, destroying cities in seconds and wrecking uncountable lives on land and sea. His work also touches on the tragedy of Fukushima. Witnessing these catastrophes, with the fragility and uncertainty of existence exposed, was shattering to him. Each image printed here resonates with the tragedy, its after-effect and the collective spirit of the Japanese to reconstruct life anew”.
On the third floor of the Gallery the artist has created a meditative chamber, hanging the four woodcut panels he used to make the tsunami series. The panels are covered in black ink and the chamber is dimly lit, allowing the viewer a closer look at Kabiraj’s intricate engravings. Inside the chamber the sound of the artist engraving on wood is heard – in homage to both the deceased and to the art of printmaking.
In his poem Ulysses the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote ” I am a part of all that I have met…”
This exhibition reaffirms Tennyson’s words and documents the courageous journey of an artist with an indomitable spirit.
So happy to be able to post this great interview with Dr. Dina Bangdel, renowned art historian, which just came out on YouTube. She talks extensively about both traditional art of Nepal and the contemporary art scene and the need for both to become visible outside of Nepal.
Dina Bangdel is the daughter of Lain Singh Bangdel, a prominent Nepali artist, but her identity as an art historian is her own. Beginning with her undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College in the US, she went on to do her PhD from Ohio State University, and now is director of Art History Program at Virginia Commonwealth University, Qatar. She is the author of several books on Nepali art.
(To learn more about her also check out this link on DREAMS MAG from 2013)
What there is to see at the Taragaon Museum is as much about the museum complex as it is about the museum collection, a documentation of Nepal’s cultural, anthropological, architectural, and artistic history as made by foreign scholars and researchers. The distinct, barrel-vaulted rooms which museumgoers need to navigate as they walk through the permanent exhibits were originally built by Carl Pruscha to house temporary visitors who came to Nepal seeking encounters with its landscape, its culture, and its people.
In the 1950s, when the decision to open Nepal to the larger world was made and implemented, it was not just a Hindu kingdom on the Himalayan foothills that was introduced to the 20th century but also the century–rapidly changing with technology as it was and drastically affected by the two world wars–that was introduced to this country. As foreign visitors who came here in the 50s and increasingly in the 60s and the 70s, took in the sights and sounds of the country– specifi cally the capital Kathmandu, and breathed in heavy bits of it, Nepal too took its few first steps into the modern era.
To the foreigners who came here–some seeking research and documentation, others exploits and experiences; all of them adventure and understanding in one form of another–the country must have seemed a romantic idyll of the oriental sort. Nepal’s forests were pristine then, its villages as if trapped in time warps. Up until 1957, when the Tribhuvan Highway was built, there weren’t even motorable roads that lead to Kathmandu, just paths on which it was not cars that ferried men but men in their hundreds who carried cars on their backs to the Capital. Documentation is central to Taragaon Museum’s goal and existence. The photographs, drawings, sketches and other pieces of crucial visual information that are in its collection record Nepal’s recent history and showcase it to a people who are fast-forgetting the city Kathmandu used to be.
To those entering it for the first time, Kathmandu Valley must have seemed a city left untouched since the middle ages. Indeed, the architecture of the Valley was still largely dominated by elements from the Malla Era at the time. The white plaster, classical columns and Venetian windows that the Ranas brought into Kathmandu were largely limited to their own homes and palaces.Brick-walled and often more than two storied–their tiled roofs double-pitched saddles, and their structures supported by brick and timbre–the typical homes and residences of Kathmandu still retained the typical Malla-era Newar house characteristics.
These houses were joined together and built around a central courtyard, and community–the very fabric of Newar culture–was manifested in the architecture.Kathmandu was a walking city full of old routes back then, and its water was still largely supplied by stone spouts. To those who laid eyes on it for the first time, the Capital must have been an exotic land, a place unlike any other in the world. It was these eyes, foreign eyes that recognised the wonder of what must have been a beautiful and exceptionally unique city, which presented the first documentations of Kathmandu and its periphery. The foreigners who came here at the time studied the Valley’s culture and recorded it for posterity.
And this documentation is what we get to see at the Taragaon Museum, Bouddha (the Hyatt Regency compound), an exhibition space that houses permanent collections– photographs, sketches and architectural drawings, mostly–inside premises built by Carl Pruscha, the Austrian architect extensively involved in Kathmandu’s urban planning in the 1970s, and revered not just for the brilliance of his regional designs but also the instrumental role he played in getting Nepal’s cultural heritage on the world map.
What there is to see at the Taragaon Museum is as much about the museum complex as it is about the museum collection. The exhibition space is scattered across the roughly 16 rooms that were originally built by Pruscha as temporary residences for foreigners visiting Kathmandu and boarding at the Taragaon Hostel. The hostel itself was planned as part of the larger Tara Gaon Village, a tourist complex envisioned by Angur Baba Joshi, a woman born in Kathmandu’s Dillibazaar in 1932 and educated at Oxford in the 1960s, a time at which few women in the country even got a chance at receiving an education. It was Joshi’s wish to “propagate Nepali culture” and “promote Nepaliness in the tourism industry”, that planted the seed, as it were, of Taragaon in the late 60s, and the museum that we see today is a reflection of that wish in many ways.
The architecture of the complex will seem immediately familiar to anyone who has walked into the superlatively designed and appallingly maintained CEDA building at Tribhuvan University.
The drumroofed structures that repeat throughout the complex are based on barrel-vaulted structures that sheltered pilgrims–“a kind of Pati” as Pruscha calls them–which the architect came across at temple complexes in Kathmandu while conducting research here in the 1970s
Individual drumroofed structures, the actual exhibition rooms at the Taragaon Museum, lead to common courtyards where art performances, book launches and social gatherings take sometimes place.
Here, Pruscha’s modern Chinese kiln-fired red bricks–a material he chose to work with for the aesthetic and structural affinities it shares with Kathmandu’s traditional Dachi brick structures–bring the sort of Nepaliness Joshi was aiming for in her Tara Gaon complex to a very modern design. A letter dated May 13, 2010– portions of which have been transcribed and blown up for display at the Taragaon Museum–provides insight into the actual designing of the complex. In passages readable at the museum, Pruscha talks about how the centre and focus of his design for the Taragaon Hostel, the drumroofed structures that repeat throughout the complex and give it a structural harmony that has an almost classical underpinning to it, were based on barrelvaulted structures–“a kind of Pati” as he calls them–he came across at temple complexes in Kathmandu in the 70s, serving as shelter for pilgrims.If form does follow function, then the basic form of the Taragaon Museum, what Pruscha calls the “prototype” for his design, can be seen as following the same sheltering purpose that these Patis provided religious devotees.
The pilgrims’ at the Taragaon Hostel came here seeking encounters with the Nepali landscape, its culture and its people, and for Pruscha it was extremely important that he give these temporary residents the kind of space that would serve their needs–for contemplation as much as interaction, perhaps, and privacy as much as society.
Hence the individual drum-roofed structures, the actual exhibition rooms at the Taragaon Museum, today lead to a community building–the Museum cafe, as well as common courtyards where art performances, book launches and social gatherings sometimes take place. The function of the complex has been revised with the deliberate purpose of documenting an era and a way of life that is gradually slipping from living memory. The Saraf Foundation–which endeavours to support the preservation, restoration and documentation of the arts and heritage of Kathmandu–turned a beautiful and culturally-historically significant complex that had fallen into disuse and subsequent disrepair into a documentation centre.
The Museum today houses and displays to the public a significant body of work that the artists, photographers, architects, anthropologists and Sanskritists who travelled to Nepal in the second half of the 20th century have left behind.“Those foreign scholars and professionals who worked and lived in Nepal these past couple of decades are leaving, and their work is often leaving with them,” explains Roshan Mishra, museum manager at Taragaon as he talks about the documentation that is central to Taragaon Museum’s goal and existence. These photographs, drawings, sketches and other pieces of crucial visual information record our recent history, and it is this history that the museum showcases brilliantly as well. “The pictures we have in our collection might have ended up in garages in different parts of the world,” Mishra continues. The Taragaon Museum saves these works, the museum director points out, and enables visual documentation in a manner never before been attempted in Nepal.
Images from as far back as the 19th century are currently in the museum collection, the two oldest being an 1853 etching and a 1863 photograph of Kathmandu. The architect, photographer and author Niels Gutschow (who is also involved in a curatorial role with the Museum), photographer Kevin Bubriski (who has been documenting the Nepali landscape and its people in haunting black-and-white images that stick to you since the 1970s), photographer and theoretical physicist Jaroslav Poncar, photo activist Thomas L Keely, architectural photographer Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, and photographer, journalist and author Tiziano Terzani are amongst the expatriate documentarians whose work the Taragaon Museum has in its permanent collection.
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.
photo: J Ocean Dennie
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.
photo: J Ocean Dennie
“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…
With the third edition of KIAF just a year a way – it is planned for March 2016 – I would like to repost two fine articles by Kurchi Dasgupta. Dasgupa is an artist herself but has developed into a good art writer in recent years, too.
KIAF, the KATHMANDU INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL has taken twice previously. In 2009 and again in 2012 with over 100 artists from 35 countries in 16 venues all over the city. In the video above, Sangeeta Thapa, renowned gallerist/curator tells some about the comining about of the festival.
Kurchi Dasgupta’s article from January 2013 spells out how this festival changed the artworld in Nepal forever. and how it embraces art’s new forms in a spectacular way.
Chris Drury, “The Way of White Clouds” (all images courtesy KIAF)
Though the world didn’t end on 21 December 2012, the Kathmandu International Art Festival did, having possibly changed forever the way Nepal perceives contemporary art. The space given over to three-dimensional, site-specific, and video installations as well as performances in the festival was unprecedented for the new republic!
“Forest Walk” by Canadian duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, challenged the monopoly of the visual in a very exciting way. A thought-provoking soundscape that transformed the familiar but droopy backyard of the Nepal Academy of Fine Arts into a mock forest, its aural polyphony (bird calls, the crash of a felled trunk, the rumble of a car) mixed with the “real” sounds of urban Kathmandu to create a poignant narrative of humankind’s at best ambivalent relationship with nature. It remains one of my favorite pieces in the show, since I was somewhat jaded by the overabundance of artworks requiring intense visual attention. British artist Chris Drury’s insightful video loop, being showcased inside, links nature and culture rather uncannily too: streams of white, cloudy water slip and swirl into a still, black lake, immediately bringing to mind the swirls and whorls of flames in traditional paubha and thangka paintings of the Himalayan region. The image resurfaced when I ran into Maureen Drdak’s “Flying Nagas” in Siddhartha Gallery later, and Lok Chitrakar’s arcane lotuses in Metro Park.
That brings me to Metro Park and its adjacent venue, Nepal Investment Bank, both of which were chock-a-block with exciting pieces. Pakistani Yasir Hussain’s “Neuro” a video study of the Karachi waterfront on an obsolete cell phone camera, is a poignant encapsulation the broken, sad reality it captures. “Neuro” becomes doubly interesting with its follow-up, a social-media based project called “Bio” in which Nepali farmers interacted over the internet with Karachi fishing folk.
Lantian Xie, “Al Saraf Cafeteria”, 2011
Identity and interaction were also the fulcrum of Lantian Xie’s work “Al Sarab Cafeteria 2011″ in which sound vibrations emitted by the viewer set off a series of images and texts gleaned from cafeteria and restaurant menus in the United Arab Emirates – a sharp comment on global consumerism. The specter of consumerism was central to Nameera Ahmed’s “Bloody Birds” as well: in the piece, chicken are slaughtered to the accompaniment of television commercial and cooking-show voiceovers. The commodification of the body was the theme of another video installation, by Palestinian Ibrahim Jawabreh, although Jawabreh focused on the human form. So did Nepal’s Gopal Das Shrestha Kalapremi, whose series of ceramic raku figures tellingly called “People Being Cooked and Sold” were molded and fired on site, taking the same query further, to the point where the process and product both delve into the nature of commodification.
Gopal Das Shrestha Kalapremi’s “People Being Cooked and Sold” (2012) being made on site
This undercurrent of socio-political inquiry came center stage in Egyptian Khaled Hafez’s installation “The A77A Project” in which Hafez brings together superheroes, presidential elections, footage taken by unassuming citizens on cell phones, and an animated Anubis figure all in one uproarious video loop on presidential erections’ oops, I mean elections! “The A77A Project” turned out to be one of the favorites of the festival. Fraz Abdul Mateen also cast a critical gaze at the ego with “Ego-logical Footprints” for which deep footprints carved into actual books and magazines and video footage of the same formed a composite artwork attacking our environmentally unfriendly urban way of life. In counterpoint, American Cecilia Paredes’s installation used the book to build bridges between multiple cultures and times. The artist made fragile pentagons in collaboration with Nepalese women and students out of rare 18th-century Calderon editions and Nepali Lokta paper.
Sadish Dhakal, “Jamara Might Not Exist” (2012)
Time, actually running out of it, is the theme of Sadish Dhakalâ’s “Jamara Might Not Exist” which reminds us of the imminent threat of floods from glacial lakes via sets of pots bearing sprouting barley, or jamara. Each set is proportionately larger in size in keeping with the increase in water volume of Lake Tsho Rolpa. Jyoti Duwadi, meanwhile, tackled a similar idea (in collaboration with Paul D. Miller) by projecting footage of melting Arctic snow on blocks of ice that themselves slowly melted away right in front of viewers’ eyes. The Croatian Lala Rascicâ’s “Damned Damn” fast-forwards in time to 2027 and, looking back from there, delivers a fictional narrative based on the very real dam break in Modrac Lake in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In contrast, flowing water’s meditative aspect was brought out by Australian Neolene Lucas in her “Water Atlas” of eight rivers across the world, projected simultaneously on eight separate screens.
Mili Pradhan’s over-an-hour-long “Float” held me enthralled as I sat and watched the river pass by in a tiny darkened room of the Patan Museum, bearing our urban waste to the eerie soundtrack of Juliet Case Kaplan. Indian artist Sheba Chhachhi’s composite installation “Neelkanth: Poison/Nectar” questions our urban way of living/wasting and whether the Earth will be able to bear this poison forever, like the god Shiva, or give in soon. The same issue was a preoccupation for Canada’s Michael Campbell and Janice Rahn, whose pseudo-mythical marine creatures made out of rattan and salvaged waste were displayed alongside a hyperreal video loop intertwining urban industrialization and organic natural growth.
Mili Pradhan, “Float” (2012)
Through these pieces and others, the festival has been quite an eye-opener for a viewership that predominantly considers 2-D paintings and sculptures more acceptable modes of creative expression. Thrusting us into the realm of current art practices worldwide, KIAF’s “Earth Body Mind” has surely done its bit towards making Nepal more receptive to less conventional and multiple-media art forms, not to mention being an educational catalyst for environmental awareness.
Earlier this month (February 2015) Stéphane Huet published a fine artice in the NEPALI TIMES, titled “An affair of the art” about Sangeeta Thapa, gallerist, curator, cofounder/-director of KCAC, driving force behind the Kathmandu International Art Festival which is planned to take place again in a third edition in March 2016 – note from the editor: this didn’t happen, due to the earthquake, of course – (after 2009, 2012). Sangeeta is an absolute powerwoman, an elegant and hospitable lady, a multi-faceted personality, incredibly sharp, filled with a never-ending innate curiousity.
I am honored to be aquainted with her and take great pleasure in re-posting the Stéphane’s article here.
photo of Sangeeta Thapa by Devaki Bista
30 years in the business
For nearly three decades, the Siddhartha Art Gallery (SAG) has become Kathmandu’s own art installation: hosting the most prestigious art festivals and exhibitions. Synonymous with Siddhartha is its founder, Sangeeta Thapa who gave herself the goal of showing the very best of Nepali art based on merit. Most connoisseurs of art in Nepal and abroad would agree that Thapa has achieved her goal. The past five years have been particularly vibrant for Thapa as she involved herself in diverse projects.
Though it hasn’t always been easy in the past 30 years, Thapa has never stopped doing what she likes most. “Inactivity is death,” insists the self-professed workaholic.
Early interest in art
Her love affair with art began as a child when her father, who was a UN diplomat, took her to shows and exhibitions around the world. “He instilled his love for the arts very early on,” Thapa said in the balmy courtyard of a restored Rana palace outside her gallery.
Immersed in this environment, Thapa was determined to become an artist since she was five. Later, she went to the West Sussex School of Arts and Design the in UK, but stopped after one year feeling guilty about not following the career path of her father.
“The art was just about me,” Thapa says, “but I thought I could serve people as my father did.” She started studying mass communications and anthropology at the George Mason Universtity in Virginia in the USA. But art pulled her back, again.
ground floor of Siddharta Art Gallery at Baber Mahal Revisited
Starting a gallery in Kathmandu
In 1983, Thapa visited many galleries in Kathmandu and felt there was something missing. “The whole production of exhibitions was crying out to be managed better,” she said.
While creating her network in Kathmandu, she had the idea of showcasing artists in her own way and opened Siddartha Art Gallery with artist Shashikala Tiwari in 1987. They started exhibiting noted Nepali artists of that time and went back in history of Nepali art to exhibit the works of Nepali masters.
After some years of showcasing the same artists, Thapa felt the need to propose more innovative works. “I was seeking new narratives,” she explained, “and I was happy to see young artists in the art community.” The gallery helped launch a new generation of Nepali artists such as Sujan Chitrakar and Ashmina Ranjit.
Creating community engagement
Her biggest challenge was to create an appreciation from the Kathmandu audience for whom the new genre of artwork was not as comprehensible. And while the gallery churned out exhibitions, five years ago Sangeeta set up the Siddhartha Art Foundation to use the medium of art to educate and engage the community.
It was during the height of conflict that Siddhartha organised The Open Doors Project which brought artists and citizens from marginalised communities and disparate social backgrounds together in the quest for dialogue and peace.
Another project, Shanti: An Art for Hope, involved an exhibition and concert dedicated to the 327 children killed during the conflict. A monument in Sinamangal documenting the names of these 327 children is a testimony of this project.
view from inside the resident artists’ studio towards Patan Museum
Creating KCAC …
In 2009, Sangeeta Thapa co-founded the Kathmandu Contemporary Art Center (KCAC), based within the Patan Museum complex. For five years, KCAC has been providing residency spaces for national and visiting artists.
The Centre awards scholarships to young Nepali artists who are also given the opportunity to international artists in residency. KCAC has exhibited the works of Nepali artists at the prestigious Royal Overseas League in the UK.
Kalajatra is the latest project Sangeeta conceived in June 2013 as an artistic response to the emerging challenges to freedom of expression. Politics, satire and an artistic exploration of the cultural significance of Gaijatra were the prevailing themes of this event which engaged a wide range of participants from Nepal’s arts community.
Thapa is preparing for the Kathmandu International Art Festival (KIAF) in March 2016. The first two themes were Status of Women in Nepal and Climate Change, and the next KIAF will focus on the city and urban issues.
Thapa’s only regret is that there isn’t an actual museum of contemporary art in town. But, she adds: “I’m working on it.”
Did you even know there WERE contemporary artist in this small Himalayan country, the Shangri-la for trekkers and mountain-climbers, wedged between India and Tibet?
That you can find hip hotels, great coffee, and a vibrant art scene in Kathmandu?
So you are actually interested in modern art, ready to buy original art maybe for the first time, not the rich collector (yet) but on the look-out for professional works at a good price. Then contemporary art from Nepal is exactly what you are looking for.
Six reasons why buying modern art from Nepal will make you feel good:
You get great works at a great price – even though that may be kind of obvious when you are buying stuff from a developing country with a whole different income level.
You support young artists in a chaotic country with lots of problems – but still a country which allows for great creativity in the midst of a struggling economy.
As the art scene is still rather manageable in size, chances are high that you get to meet “your” artist personally, may that be virtually or actually face-to-face on a trip to Nepal.
You get to feel a real “patron of the arts” as one of the first Westerners to become involved in acquiring works from outside the country – and instead of being an anonymous buyer you will be personally valued and cherished.
Your support can really make an impact as artists tend to spread their new “wealth” from international sales by setting up own art projects with community activities (e.g. lectures, discussions, workshops for street kids …
And last but not least: the art is great!
And if it’s the charity aspect that you are after: this can also be satisfied, as a number of artists now donate their works for fundraising to a young German charity www.dana-arts.org specializing in “art& giving”! Which means proceeds from art sales will go directly to community art projects, schooling and training. So let me help you to buy your first piece of contemporary art from Nepal. After 20 years of visiting Nepal again and again, and a good decade of immersion into the young art scene of Kathmandu I can be the link between you and my artist friends in Kathmandu via www.beatawiggen.com and www.nepalnow.net .