Published in La.Lit on 4 September 2020

The contemporary art scene in Nepal

Cut-outs of poles and cables rearranged and glued together. A white square split in two – a brick wall drawn on one half and a tunnel-like hole on the other; in the middle, a poem inside a pomegranate, an ode to the neighbourhood fruit tree now buried under concrete. Clothes hanging from wires inside an art gallery. On the far wall, video images of more wires and more clothes, this time on actual terraces. These were some of the visuals put together by Kanchan Burathoki and Palistha Kakshapati for their debut exhibition titled Ukus Mukus, which opened at Pulchowk’s Park Gallery in the spring of 2013.

he artists chose the Nepali catchphrase as a title for their joint exhibition because it captured their sentiments about Kathmandu, the city where both grew up. Ukus mukus connotes unease and could even mean suffocation or claustrophobia. Through their drawings, installations and multimedia projections, Burathoki and Kakshapati explored these layered meanings. In Kathmandu, it is not unusual that modern, educated women, bound by traditional societal expectations, feel an emotional or psychological ukus mukus. But the exhibition, more than anything, highlighted the cityscape and was an ode to Kathmandu’s concrete, to its jumbled wires and crisscrossing alleys, to the urban sprawl and its alarming pollution, all of which conspire to make anyone, native or visitor, feel quite dis-eased. But then, there is respite, the artists hint. The terraces perched above the chaos of the streets – away from the confines of family dynamics that play out inside dining rooms and living rooms – are a typical feature of modern Kathmandu homes, and could provide, if momentarily, some ease, some air, a sense of freedom.

“To me, that is a good example of contemporary art,” remarks Neera Joshi Pradhan, acting director of Park Gallery. Joshi explains that several factors make the work contemporary – the use of novel mediums, conceptual ideas borrowed from the West yet firmly grounded in the Nepali context, and work that was immediately accessible to the public.

To that end, Park Gallery was an ideal space for this particular exhibit. Established in 1970 by R. N. Joshi, one of the pioneers of the modern art movement in Nepal, the gallery was not only a major hub for artists during its heyday, but was also well known for its events and art classes. In those days, the modern art scene in Nepal was emergent. Going abroad to study art – Joshi was a graduate of Bombay’s J. J. School of Arts – was very rare. [1] Even so, a handful of artists such as Shashikala Tiwari, Shashi Bikram Shah, Pramila Giri and Madan Chitrakar had travelled abroad and returned with new ideas. In the early sixties, Urmila Garg Upadhyay, Lain Singh Bangdel and Laxman Shrestha returned to Nepal after spending time in Paris. In fact, King Mahendra met Laxman Shrestha in the French capital during his travels and, impressed by his work, invited him to Kathmandu to exhibit his paintings. Shrestha eventually moved to Mumbai where he has been practicing for several decades as an abstract painter. A retrospective of his work titled “The Infinite Project” ran at Mumbai’s Jehangir Nicholson gallery from August to October in 2016.

Since this crop of contemporary Nepali artists created a fresh buzz in the early sixties by successfully introducing methods and ideas that were radically different from traditional art practices, their names are irretrievably linked to the contemporary arts movement in Nepal.

More than 50 years later, the contemporary art scene in Nepal might be vibrant but it’s not unambiguous. Who are the true contemporary Nepali artists of this decade? And what exactly do we mean by the term? To start – the word “contemporary” is a derivation and amalgamation of the Latin “con” (together with) and “tempus” (time). Anything that is labelled contemporary is intrinsically linked to time; to be precise, “the present time”. Going by that definition, any kind of artwork produced by a living artist could technically be labeled contemporary.

But several art managers, educators and practitioners – locally and internationally – consider this definition too simplistic. “Contemporary arts should reflect the spirit of the time,” states Sangeeta Thapa, director of Siddhartha Arts Gallery, founded in 1987. Her view can be interpreted in several ways and could include a number of styles (those that explore new mediums), content (those that address personal or socio-political issues) and methodologies (those that engage a wider community and focus on process). In other words, any kind of artwork that attempts to break the norm and usher in change.

Keeping Nepal’s relatively short history of arts movements in mind, it is worthwhile to refer to the international arena for a better grasp. There has always been a tendency to use the word “contemporary” interchangeably with “modern”. But Modernism was a broad philosophical movement in Western societies that took place towards the end of the nineteenth century. The movement sought to detach itself from traditional structures and notions and redefine new ways of living and thinking. The Modernism movement had far-reaching influences in artistic disciplines as well as socio-political institutions. With regards to visual arts, the movement brought divisionist painting as well as abstract art to the forefront and drew attention to materials and process.[2]

Modernism was followed by post-modernism, another movement that gradually evolved and solidified in the late twentieth century. The postmodern movement is characterised by skepticism and a rejection of objective reality and absolute truth. It is also closely tied to the idea of “deconstruction”, whereby pre-existing frames of references, hierarchical values and ideological underpinnings are broken down.[3] Within this framework, from an international perspective, we are living in the postmodern era. But there is a great deal of debate about this idea in the field of arts. Rather than following the movements of Modernism and postmodernism (which inherently rejects the idea of grand narratives anyway), specialists increasingly use terms such as “Art from the 2000s” to describe a body of contemporary art. Some international galleries and museums have combined the ideas and use the descriptor “Modern and Contemporary Art”.

Until very recently in Nepal, art was segregated from society, kept on a pedestal and was considered strictly from an aesthetic standpoint. “Even until the mid-1990s, only paintings and sculptures were considered to be art,” reflects Ashmina Ranjit, an art activist who has been relentlessly addressing socio-political issues through her artwork and performances. After the autocratic Panchayat rule ended in 1990 and a People’s Movement ushered a multi-party democratic political system in Nepal, there was an influx of new voices in literature, she explains, but art took its time. For example, when she was a newcomer in the field, Ranjit received explicit messages from many sources to keep issues of women’s rights out of art. But she continued her pursuit and eventually met like-minded artists.

In 2003, Ranjit founded Sutra Art Center with a team of artists that included Sujan Chitrakar, who is currently the Academic Director of Kathmandu University’s Center for Arts and Design. During its five-year run, Sutra held numerous art exhibitions and workshops and conducted events that urged the public to think differently. “Sutra brought drastic change to visual language,” Chitrakar remembers. To that end, there is general agreement that the turn of the millennium is an important milestone in the history of contemporary arts practice in Nepal. The country was in the middle of a civil war. As a result of demands made by the warring Maoists, various issues related to identity and ethnic rights entered the public consciousness. Additionally, migration patterns were reorganising the age-old structures of towns and cities. Change was in the air, and it was difficult for artists to not be influenced by their environment. When asked to describe his views, Sujan Chitrakar says that contemporary artists are those aritists who are somewhat embedded in social issues and have a research-based approach to their work.

The ArTree team, led by Hitman Gurung and Sheelasha Rajbhandari, fall into this category described by Chitrakar. Towards the end of 2013, the team put up an installation titled “Truth of a Sacred River” at Nepal Art Council as part of the Climate+Change exhibition. To prepare for the installation, the artists walked along the Bagmati river from one end of the valley to another and collected found objects along the way – a piece of hair, cigarette boxes, discarded soda cans and numerous other items. The artists then carefully sealed these objects inside resin cubes and suspended them by varying lengths of thread. An elaborate documentation of the entire process – photographs as well as descriptive texts – accompanied the installation. The work was collaborative, research-based, used innovative materials and directly addressed a social issue – Bagmati river’s pollution. Besides, the installation had an ethereal look and emanated a sublime beauty, drawing viewers in, compelling them to reflect on the function of objects and their place in our lives, as well as that of the neglected river that flows through our city.

Another noteworthy ArTree project was their intensive post-earthquake work in Bhaktapur’s Thulo Byasi neighborhood. Immediately after the April 2015 disaster, the ArTree team approached the devastated community and helped them get their lives together. After the initial phase of relief, they held art workshops for children and women and facilitated support groups. Gradually, they involved interested Thulo Byasi members in art projects. A few months later, these projects, along with work by other artists, were showcased in an exhibition. Centered inside the Thulo Byasi neighbourhood and titled “Camp Hub, Baisakh 12”, artists used half-broken walls and temporary tin shelters as canvases. This project further extended the utilitarian idea of art, urging those involved as well as the public to view art not just as something to be looked at and admired from a distance but as a pathway to cope with difficult emotions and connect with others.

Sangeeta Thapa believes that the contemporary art scene in Nepal has never been as exciting as it is today. But the post-2000 surge should be viewed as part of a gradual movement that had its roots even during the Rana regime, she emphasises. It was the Ranas who imported the first cameras to Nepal and commissioned the first European-style portraits. Meanwhile, during the first decades of the twentieth century, Ananda Muni Shakya was attempting to reform Newari paubha paintings.[4] In 1940, Chandra Man Maskey, another graduate of an arts school in India, was imprisoned for drawing satirical cartoons of the Rana rulers (Thapa, “An Essential Quest”). The 104-year old Rana regime, which collapsed in 1951, was highly oppressive. It was extremely risky for artists to express themselves, and the current arts and education landscape in Nepal still suffers from the dark shadow of the period.

Nevertheless, after the end of Rana rule, under King Mahendra’s patronage, artists like Lain Singh Bangdel flourished. Later, R. N. Joshi and his contemporaries inspired another generation. Birendra Pratap Singh, Kiran Manandhar and Ragini Upadhyay Grela are noteworthy names from this group. Due to emerging opportunities, a lot of these artists travelled to neighbouring countries and participated in cultural exchange. They held several local and international exhibitions and are widely known for their prolific body of work. “The influx of artists (in the eighties) created new dynamics in the contemporary art scene,” writes Sangeeta Thapa, “and their contributions created a definite impact on the psyche of the public” (Thapa, “An Essential Quest”). Grela produced some of the most hard-hitting political satires in print; Singh’s pen-and-ink etchings demonstrate experimentation with form and style; and Manandhar contributed profusely to Nepal’s growing body of abstract paintings.

“The global-digital world we inhabit is constantly in flux and moving at startling speed. We are groomed to be socio-political in our living rooms,” Sangeeta Thapa says, in conversation. Continuing the thought on a separate occasion, Sheelasha Rajbhandari explains that international dynamics are changing and there is a strong momentum in south Asia to redefine pre-existing Western Oriental frameworks. These days, regional artists are constantly asking themselves “How do we represent ourselves and our culture?” especially at a time when Western structures appear to be crumbling and the new global force may eventually shift to China and India, a factor that directly impacts the art market – which might in turn influence artists’ psyches and their work.

Aside from market viability, the idea of representation has moral and philosophical significance. For example, there were a few other artist collectives working with affected communities in post-earthquake Nepal. But their work did not get as much attention as ArtTree’s Thulo Byasi project. At least one of these collectives intentionally shunned the camera because they wanted their community art project to be a private affair, thus raising questions about the role of media in art. While ArTree members attended gatherings in order to network, routinely documented their work and put it out on social media, the other group maintained that the act of capturing art inside a photograph might alter or distort its meaning.

And yet, ArTree members have been relentlessly active on social media. Their protest performance art on July 23, 2016 received widespread attention online and offline. To prepare for the performance, which was titled “Culture of Silence”, five male members of ArTree shaved their heads and asked volunteers to write messages on their bodies. That Saturday morning, they walked barefoot and blindfolded, wearing only black shorts, and joined a rapidly growing mass of protesters assembled in front of the parliament house to support Dr. Govinda KC’s hunger strike against corruption in the medical sector. In front of hundreds, the artists performed choreographed movements that symbolised death and dejection. The following day, the event received front-page coverage in the Kathmandu Post, with a photo of one of the participating artists’ calligraphed bodies. Popular Nepali language online portal Setopati also carried an article about the performance.

ArTree successfully integrated art and activism, and ventured into a territory previously inhabited by a handful of artists like Ashmina Ranjit and Salil Subedi. By demonstrating a new way of doing things, using a relatively novel medium (the body) and method (protest performance), the collective once again proved their talent, versatility and a commitment to the contemporary art scene. “Culture of Silence” ignited the public’s imagination and generated multiple discussions. In the following days, Hitman Gurung was active on Facebook, engaging with commenters, some of who questioned the originality of the idea while others were openly awestruck. All in all, “Culture of Silence” continued to stir the debate, bringing much-needed attention to Dr. KC’s demands. A day later, members from the government responded; Dr. KC broke his hunger strike on July 25.

We are all, in essence, socio-political beings. Artists tend to be more influenced by their surroundings. But does that mean that every artwork has to, in one way or another, address current affairs? Is that the only criteria that qualifies contemporary art? Sitting at the centre of her gallery’s first floor, surrounded by Umesh Shah’s paintings, which reinterpret Mithila aesthetics, Sangeeta Thapa wonders aloud, “Is beauty redundant in contemporary times?”

In this regard, Samundra Man Singh Shrestha’s paintings come to mind. To prepare for an exhibition at the Nepal Art Council in June 2016, Purna Man Shakya, founder of Bodhisattva Gallery, spent almost five years collecting Shrestha’s work, a lot of which had been sold to private collectors and international galleries. Almost all of Shrestha’s paintings feature Hindu deities such as Ganesh and Mahakala as well as images from Buddhism. Shrestha draws his inspiration from the heart of old Kathmandu’s Rakta Kali neighbourhood where he grew up as well as from a number of apprenticeships with leading artists. He also spent three years as a student of traditional Newar paubha art, during which time he learnt foundational Hindu and Buddhist iconography, iconometrics as well as styles of paubha traditions. The retrospective exhibition showcased some of Shrestha’s earlier work as well as commissioned pieces that the painter produced after 2010. These recent paintings are grounded in Shrestha’s signature paubha style but also capture the artist’s experiments with the oil medium and innovative explorations regarding lines, concept and iconography.

According to Dr. Dina Bangdel, who curated the exhibition, Samundra Man Singh Shrestha is a contemporary paubha artist. Dr. Bangdel writes that his work “skillfully combine[s] his inspiration and mastery of traditional Newar (paubha) painting style with conceptual contemporaneity – with binaries and juxtaposition of past and present, modern and traditional, and the aesthetics with pure conception”. Dr. Bangdel views Shrestha as a transcendental artist who defies categorisation, whether traditional or contemporary. On one hand, his work is clearly rooted in traditional imagery, evoking ancient Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. On the other hand, his work is detached from the paubha tradition because of its hyper-realism and the use of the oil medium.

Sujan Chitrakar hesitates to view Samundra Man Singh Shrestha as a contemporary artist because much of his work is not attuned to Nepal’s current socio-political reality. But a painting titled “Emptiness”, one of his most recent works, has a background representing a 14th-century work in which the central figure of Amitabha is missing. In its place is a stark, empty silhouette of Buddha. Dr. Bangdel has interpreted this work as a strong socio-political statement from the artist on the loss of cultural heritage, either because of the 2015 earthquake or the art trafficking that has plagued Nepal through the second half of the twentieth century (Bangdel, “Through the Brush of a Contemporary Artist”).

California-based Nepali artist Ang Tshering Sherpa’s artwork provides an insightful parallel to Samundra Man Singh Shrestha’s paintings. In a recent interview with Nepali Times, Sherpa clearly articulated his intention to break away from the “very rigid traditions” of Thangka painting and find his own voice within the medium. Renowned Thangka painter Dorje Gurung introduced the art to his son Ang Tshering at a young age. But after years of ambivalence, Sherpa finally found his true calling after moving to the United States in 1998. He believes that the monotony of Thangka paintings desensitizes viewers. Instead of sticking to the traditional techniques and rigid structures, he places the deities, spirits and narratives in modern-day settings. Praised for his intricate detailing and for addressing contemporary issues, Sherpa has exhibited his work in prestigious locations such as the Rubin Museum of Art in New York and Rossi & Rossi in London.[5]

The discipline of contemporary arts continues to be problematised. Do we include street art in the category? A recent phenomenon in Nepal, street art has gained widespread appeal, especially after Sattya Media’s Kolor Kathmandu project in 2013 that brought together 32 local and international artists and commissioned them to paint over 80 murals inside the Kathmandu Valley. Along with Sattya, artist collectives such as ArtLab are very engaged with the local art scene. Juxtapose that with Photo Kathmandu, Nepal’s first international photo festival, organised by in November 2015. Unmatched in scope and scale, the festival showcased 18 print exhibitions as well as numerous side events. Centred in historic Patan, the festival featured photographs by locals and internationals with equal attention to aesthetics as well as socio-politics. Despite – or because of – its ubiquity, some specialists still hesitate to consider photography as fine art. But for what it’s worth, the contemporary art scene cannot dismiss the immediate, and sometimes profound impact that photographs can have on the viewer.

The National Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) has categorised its work into six different departments – Folk Arts, Handicraft, Sculpture, Contemporary Arts, Traditional Arts and Others (Photography, Installation, Performance, etc). Ramesh Shrestha, who heads the Contemporary Arts department, says much of his work involves travelling outside Kathmandu to farflung districts, reaching out to local artists and bringing them together for workshops and events. His description of contemporary arts fits our first, basic definition in the sense that he is encouraging artists who are currently practicing. As a government body, his department is supporting these artistically inclined individuals in remote areas, artists who may not have the necessary means or facilities to pursue a career. The importance of this endeavour can’t be overlooked. Ragini Upadhyay Grela, who heads NAFA, describes several ongoing projects where local artists continue to visit neighbouring countries such as China, India and Pakistan and in turn host visiting artists from these regions in order to partake in an exchange of ideas and practices.

Meanwhile, following Sutra, Ashmina Ranjit founded Lasanaa, an arts platform whose board includes writers, activists and social workers. Founded in 2007, Lasanaa is another example of Ranjit’s utmost belief that the arts can bring social change if it remains open and interdisciplinary. Currently, Ranjit is involved with Nexus, an extension of Lasanaa, which is a physical and cultural space that hosts arts events and talk programmes, and hosts artist residencies. On the other hand, Sujan Chitrakar continues to motivate young art students at Kathmandu University’s Center for Arts and Design. He is careful about balancing Western influences with our Eastern roots while designing courses and is open to various emerging visual art forms such as graphic design and animation.

Even though Nepal’s politics is unstable and there is minimal support from the government, more and more artists are practicing, collaborating and presenting their work. It is indeed an exciting time for contemporary artists. Earlier this year, international arts magazine Artsy included Hitman Gurung in its list of 30 most exciting artists to look forward to in 2016. Gurung is currently putting together new pieces for his acclaimed series, “This is my home, my land and my country”, which was featured at the first Yichuan Biennale in China. The team has run a successful second edition of Photo Kathmandu, and Sangeeta Thapa has officially announced the dates for the third Kathmandu International Arts Festival (KIAF), now rechristened the Kathmandu Triennale, for spring 2017. This time, organisers have decided that participating international artists will create artwork during their Kathmandu visit, rather than ship work from abroad. This decision is not just based on logistics, but is a thoughtful approach that seeks to inspire artists to create work that is directly inspired by Kathmandu’s physicality and sociocultural milieu, in line with the Triennial theme – the city. Curator of the Triennale, Phillip Van Cauteren from Belgium’s Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art, is hoping that much of these works will be gifted to Kathmandu so that together, they can have a lasting effect on the aesthetics of our growing, dynamic city. All these events are tremendously exciting, and represent grand opportunities for local and international artists to create and collaborate, as well as to continue to redefine what it means to be contemporary in today’s complicated times.

[1] Banshi Shrestha, R. N. Joshi, Widening the Horizon of Nepali Art, 2006, Kathmandu, Park Gallery, Publication Department.

[2] Pericles Lewis, Modernism, Nationalism, and the Novel, Cambridge University Press, 2000. pp 38-39.

[3] Duignan, Brian, “postmodernism”, Britannica.

[4] Dr. Dina Bangdel, “Through the Brush of a Contemporary Artist: Transforming Tradition, Locating Modernity”, 2016, Kathmandu, Embodied Enlightenment, Bodhisattva Gallery Publication, Page XVII.

[5] Smriti Basnet, “The World Beyond Thangkas”, Nepali Times, July, 2016, #816.

This article was written in September, 2016. It was commissioned by the Siddhartha Arts Foundation’s Education Initiative and will be part of Art Manual 2017. The Kathmandu Triennale will take place between March 24 and April 9, 2017.