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Art from Nepal comes out of the shadows

Despite the absence of state support, artists from Nepal are focusing on notions of identity, environmental disasters and displacement

Members of the Women’s Security Pressure Group at a rally in Kathmandu in 1993
Members of the Women’s Security Pressure Group at a rally in Kathmandu in 1993 (Photo: courtesy Sushila Shrestha Collection/Nepal Picture Library)

On 8 March 1990, just weeks before the pro-democracy movement kick-started in Nepal, four women—Kavita Poudel, Yamuna Ghimire, Dil Maya B.K. and Maiyya Bhattarai—were picked up by the police for chanting anti-panchayat slogans at a Women’s Day rally. On the day they were released from prison, they went to a photo studio to take a group portrait.

This image from the Rambha Poudel Collection is a part of The Feminist Memory Project. An excerpt from this project is on display at the Nepal Picture Library’s booth at the ongoing India Art Fair. With similar stories and visuals emerging from Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, these photographs from a different time and place are resonating with people here. These are from the first chapter—“The Women Of The People"—of the project initiated by the Nepal Picture Library in 2018. For nearly a decade now, a collective of visual storytellers based in Kathmandu has been documenting and digitizing images from all possible sources with the aim of safeguarding a visual repository of ordinary life, social history and public culture in Nepal. The collective is spear headed by NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati and research is lead by Diwas Raja Kc.

The Nepal Picture Library is now part of the thriving contemporary art scene in the country. A recent trip to Nepal revealed as much, though one could see that a large segment of the practising arts still focuses on classical aesthetics and traditional imagery. Despite the absence of state support, artists from Nepal have started focusing on notions of identity, environmental disasters and displacement—and looking beyond borders for creative growth and recognition. Many younger artists, for instance, are enrolling for scholarships at Santiniketan. Mid-career ones, such as Hit Man Gurung, are participating in the Dhaka Art Summit, the Kochi Biennale and gallery shows.

A mass meeting of former ‘kamaiyas’ (bonded labourers) in Kanchanpur (2010).
A mass meeting of former ‘kamaiyas’ (bonded labourers) in Kanchanpur (2010). (Photo: courtesy Gefont Collection/Nepal Picture Library)

Sanjeev Maharjan, co-founder of Drawing Room KTM, an artist-run studio and learning space in Kathmandu, gives artists sole credit for the vibrancy of the art scene in Nepal. “Government and private sector support is non-existent in Nepal. Artists have to make the effort to tell the world that they exist. India becomes our immediate preference since it is a large country with a very active art scene. Of course, access to the country without a visa is helpful," says Maharjan.

In India, the interest in contemporary art from Nepal is part of the growing dialogue on visual art practices in South Asia. For instance, the India Art Fair invites galleries and not-for-profit groups from Nepal, among other South Asian countries, to showcase young emerging artists or art practices from the region as part of its Platform section. This is the Nepal Picture Library’s second appearance at the fair. The Nepal Art Council has been a regular at the past few editions of the fair, though it is not participating this year.

The Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa had a programme in its 2019 edition in December, titled “Look, Stranger!", featuring artists like Bunu Dhungana, Keepa Maskey, interdisciplinary artist Irina Giri and photojournalist Sonam Choekyi. Curator Rahaab Allana had programmed it to examine how practices in South Asia, including Nepal, have transformed over time. “The region itself needs much scrutiny in order to understand the ‘local’. We need to look at cross-border histories and practices in order to understand our own relation to them," he explains.

It is not just the institutions but the galleries as well that are expressing an interest in art from the Himalayan country. For instance, since its launch 10 years ago, Exhibit320 in Delhi has sought out art from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. “These countries have a rich cultural heritage, intertwined histories and similar social narratives. It is not just the borders that we share, but also our concerns," says Rasika Kajaria, who runs the gallery.

Meanwhile, collectives such as the Nepal Picture Library are trying to bring to the fore hitherto unknown and unheard narratives from the country’s history. The Feminist Memory Project, for instance, emerged from six months of research, during the course of which the team met hundreds of women who have shaped the feminist landscape of their country.

As of now, in the first phase, the team has documented stories from 108 sources: individuals as well as groups, who were either part of socio-political organizations and trade unions, or are now trying to build chronologies of a feminist past. “For us, the personal is very political. History begins at home. Personal histories add up to create larger narratives. And we all respond to them immediately as we can relate to them," Kakshapati adds. The project features instances from the past when women joined and led political struggles, addressed assemblies, paved new paths through education and shaped opinion. The idea of reclaiming their place in public life is one of the most significant themes to have emerged. It also hopes to steer clear of the “canons" that get created, preferring to highlight the diversity within the feminist history of Nepal.

Meanwhile, Kakshapati believes artists in the contemporary space in Nepal are engaging with the socio-political evolution of the country in a deeper way. “However, not all of their work might find a place in the commercial space. So, we are all trying to negotiate our place within this larger art ecosystem, or create our own," she says. A natural outcome of the young contemporary art movement is the sense of camaraderie among artists. They support each other and there is no hesitation in guiding a potential buyer to fellow artists. During my trip to Kathmandu, I was taken around by artists to their colleagues’ studios—and it was heartening to hear their stories.

Rahul Kumar is a Delhi-based ceramics artist and curator.

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