Art for the people

Art Issue 122 Jan, 2012
Text by Benjamin Graham / Photo: ECS Media

An increasing number of people are taking art out of the galleries and to the public.

In the beginning, I would walk into the middle of the bahal (courtyard) with a backpack full of art supplies and the kids would come running,” Sharareh Bajracharya says. “Paint supplies were more difficult to manage, so we made a lot of collages with whatever we could find.”

That was two years ago, when Bajracharya was still a student at the Kathmandu University Center for Art & Design (KUArt). Today, she’s a professor at KUArt and the small project she started as a student is now the Neighborhood Arts Center in Yatkha Bahal.

Six mornings a week, children ages 5 to 14 gather in a rented room that opens into the bahal. Bajracharya hands out supplies and gives the students a few instructions, but she mainly encourages them to be creative. For her, the art is not the point, it’s a means to an end. With three separate degrees in education, Bajracharya identifies herself primarily as an educator, not as an artist. Yet in her opinion, Nepal’s education system could use a lot more art. “Art is basic. It helps kids right where they’re at,” she explains. After she had been running the Neighborhood Arts Center for a few months, some of the parents asked if she could help the children with their homework after school, and leave the art for before school. “It was a mess,” she says of the experience. “There were students in third grade who couldn’t sound out words. A lot of them had been pushed through to higher grades before they had actually learned what they needed to learn.” “I could never work in a school,” Bajracharya says. The focus is on the textbook, or “reciting,” as she calls it. The system helps advanced students stay ahead, but leaves those who are already behind, further behind. In her opinion, art addresses the whole child. “You can’t lie when you’re making art. Kids are allowed to be honest, and allowed to think outside of the box.”

Bajracharya plans to develop an artist residency program in Yetkha Bahal in the future. Aspiring artists would act as volunteer teachers in the morning and after school, and would be able to use the space as a studio during the day. Like the rest of the arts center, she plans on paying for this out of her own pocket. While the art classes will help the students develop their creativity and sense of individuality, the residency program would expose the larger community to Kathmandu’s contemporary art scene as well. Sujan Chitrakar, program coordinator at KUart, shares Bajracharya’s aspiration to bridge the gap between contemporary art and the average Nepali. “Contemporary art is more about individuality and the ego, whereas most traditional art in Nepal revolves around religion,” Chitrakar explains. His most recent project, entitled ‘Let’s Talk about Art’, directly addressed the minimal exposure the former kind of art garners. Chitrakar, who was one of the professors that helped Bajracharya develop her Neighborhood Arts Center, has used a variety of methods to work towards this basic goal. As part of his last exhibition, the artist attached a note card baring his simple slogan to balloons and released them into the air. His hope was that a conversation about art would begin wherever the messages landed. “In school, they tell you this apple should be red and you need to stay in the lines. Teachers even expect your words to be the same,” he says. “Exposing regular people to art is empowerment. It allows a person, no matter how small, to express his or her own voice. It helps you to think differently, or at least independently.”