Despite being a country in transition, with its ever-pressing economic problems and political instability, Nepal saw this year filled with art happenings. Newer avenues with several dimensions seem to have opened up for Nepali art and the local artists.
Art in Nepal has always been driven by secondary agents in the form of religion and patrons in power. But with the end of the Rana regime, Nepal started to open up to the world and along came global inspirations and a modern era followed. Pioneers like Lain Singh Bangdel and Uttam Nepali gave rise to a new period where creators of art became much more than artisans working under patrons. Artists now had freedom. CM Maskey being jailed for creating public murals and other stories along those lines were now a thing of the past. And all the creative freedom that Nepali artists had been deprived of not so long ago, gushed out in the form of expressionism, abstraction and other modern forms of art. Within the next few decades, Nepal witnessed a crash course on modern world art history.
Another shift came about at the end of the millennium. Amidst the coexistence of the traditional and the modern, younger artists started taking things up a notch, experimenting with the medium and disciplines, venturing beyond the practices that were limited to the canvas alone. The multi-disciplinary workshops that Sutra—an art group credited to be a pioneer in initiating alternative practices, which emphasises on the process of art making—conducted played a central role to the evolution of Nepali art as a whole.
Right now, we see art from all these different timelines moving forward in parallel. There has been a sort of a mini-revival in the case of traditional paubha art—religious paintings by the Newars—with more people, both local and international, showing interest in getting trained in the form. A recent exhibition at the National Art Council (NAC), Babarmahal—organised during the Saarc Summit—which was a collection of more than 100 such paintings, can be taken as an example. The modern artists, especially the likes of Puran Khadka and Nabendra Limbu who can be found in their studios, are still at work working ever so meditatively, indulged in their own worlds of abstraction.
Alternative mediums have never been used more. The Oho! My Word! exhibition, which was held at the City Museum, saw artists transforming verses of poetry into works of visual art—along with illustrations, there were interactive videos, stop-motion animations and 3D model loops. More than ever, there are more inter-disciplinary collaborations being made now.
Younger artists are also coming out of the studios and working with the community. The month-long Climate+Change exhibition, at NAC, saw participation from artists, researchers, educators, students and the community to address a larger issue of climate change.
According to artist and art educator Sujan Chitrakar, there is hope for Nepali art, as artists have started to make use of theoretical ideologies and discourses in their works. “The scene is becoming more contemporary and contextual. Artists have started basing their works on different issues. This makes art works time-bound, but that is how art works are developed. Artists need to do more deep research now. They should work hard,” he says.
The gallery scene
As before, this year too, private galleries have been the most active of the lot. Well-established Siddhartha and Park galleries are doing their business as usual—providing space for newcomers as well as for the more recognised faces.
Siddhartha Art Gallery organised about a dozen painting exhibitions during the year, out of which Amalgam—a month-long exhibition that featured works from 26 contemporary Nepali artists—could be labelled as ‘the’ exhibition that best sums up the mainstream contemporary artscape.
The good news is that newer galleries are also putting an equal effort. Spaces like the City Museum Kathmandu, Bikalpa Art Centre, Taragaon Museum, Image Ark and Mcube Gallery hosted occasional shows throughout the year and organised workshops and programmes, which Nepal and Nepali artists can benefit from. To add to the list, The Children’s Art Museum of Nepal opened at Hattisar in June has been running programmes that involve children in imagination-and-creativity-boosting activities. An initiative that is being taken to introduce art to the young is a feat for the art scene as a whole.
While individual groups are trying to promote art, the state and its art acamedy still happen to be in a state of stagnancy, for now.
“Nepali artists seem very committed, but it’s sad to say that we still lag behind in the global art scenario,” says Chitrakar. “The state, business houses and organisations need to support local artists.”
Chitrakar thinks capital and space are the two main things that Nepali artists require the most.
Like in every year, the 2014 annual exhibition—an example of the lack of support—was a building full of artworks, ill-selected and ill-placed.
But according to newly elected Chancellor Ragini Upadhyay Grela of the National Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), the national exhibition in 2015 will be different.
“Globally, it is a prestige [for an artist] to be a part of the national exhibition. This year, we want to choose quality over quantity and select quality works of art,” she says.
Grela also says that NAFA is currently planning an international art fair. “An art fair is the best way to provide exposure to a country’s arts and craft. So in October, we want to organise one [art festival]. It might start out as a small event, but something is better than nothing,” says Grela.
The government-run institution has plans to take art outside of the Valley as well. Two art programmes to be held in Pokhara and Nepalgunj have already been listed in the academy’s schedule for 2015.
During her four-year term, Grela also wants to see a triennale being organised by the Academy.
Out of the gallery
Public spaces were where most of the magic happened this year. Art in the streets was, for the most part, an unexplored territory if we do not count haphazardly placed political banners and film posters. The Kathmandu walls started donning some Bruno Levy’s and Mr Ks, but it was during and after the Kolor Kathmandu Project—initiated by Sattya Arts and Media Collective to remodel the image of the city in 2013—that public art started creating space for itself in the metropolis. A staggering number of 75 murals have been created since then.
Various artists and art groups are now trying their hands at public art. Some have been using typography while others have been reliant on figures.
Apart from paintings murals, some artists have also been collaborating with local communities in art projects. A recent interactive workshop held in Saugal, Lalitpur, saw Korean and Nepali artists collaborating with the community to create a life-sized idol of god Ganesh out of used cardboard boxes.
“Creating art in public spaces is an act of opposition. It is about challenging an already established notion,” says Chitrakar. “It challenges the modern idea of artists being regarded as demi-gods. It is an important post-modern act.”
The primary plus point about public art, according to Chitrakar, is that art will be more accessible to public, which means an increase in viewership.
But, Chitrakar stresses, the artists need to be “sincere”, especially while working in public spaces. An artist breaches shared spaces while creating public art; the impact can work both ways. Attention will be drawn irrespective.
Certainly, for both “high-” and “low-brow” art, there is ample potential to draw in viewers. With so much going on—there is at least one ongoing exhibition at any time of the year and so much more to be seen on the walls and the streets—it is only a matter of time, collaboration and a little organisation before Kathmandu becomes an important art hub in the subcontinent.
“There are amends to be made, but to me, the future looks bright,” says Chitrakar.