A Tale of Two Galleries

Features Issue 19 Aug, 2010

Gallery Nine
The idea of starting a gallery had rattled around Kathmandu photographer Mani Lama’s head for years.  When he rented space for his darkroom and studio off of a peaceful courtyard behind the main road in Lazimpat three years ago, he took an extra room that could be used as storage- or just maybe, someday, a gallery.

The room- and the idea- mostly collected dust while Mani kept a busy schedule as one of the most sought out photographers in the Himalayan region.   But occasionally he would mention it to one of the many friends who dropped by his studio to pick up their own photos, seek his input on projects, and chat.  Around last December, a kind of critical mass began to develop, involving friends Mani Lama, Basanta Thapa, Sudarson Karki, Kim Hong Sung, and Tashi Jangbu Sherpa, who shared a common practice of photography and a broader interest in many art forms.  Almost every day, they gathered at Mani Lama’s studio for discussions.   “Sometimes its difficult to find places to exhibit,” explains Sudarson Karki.  “We were thinking about how to put up a show properly; with good lighting, in a clean, intimate space, centrally located, and not too expensive.”  Mani adds, “I said, look, this is a nice place- it has its own aura, like an oasis, yet its lying idle.  Why don’t we do something together?”  Basanta Thapa noted,  “I’ve seen people hanging around on the pavement in front of Mandala Book Point: professors, scholars smoking, talking on the pavement.  These people don’t have a place to congregate; they go there because they are readers.  People need a place to rub shoulders,  a common forum where you can bump into a writer, a painter, a poet, a photographer.”

Basanta brought in his friends, writer Manjushree Thapa and installation artist Ashmina Ranjit, who immediately took to the idea of a gallery collaboration.  The momentum built as poet Viplob Pratik and writer/editor Deepak Thapa also joined the group determined to actually launch the gallery. After they had struggled and settled on the name ‘Gallery Nine’ to honor their collaboration and signs were being made, a tenth friend, travel businesswoman and art lover Banti Nima Sherpa, heard about the project and asked if she could be a member.  Since the gallery could readily use an outside perspective and the additional investment, Banti was warmly invited to join the gallery group without altering its name.  Everyone is happy with the results: ten people with creative minds, well known in the community, combining their talents and networks to bring in a wide variety of talented artists from all over the region.  Manjushree explains,  “Having so many people from different fields involved, we really break down this segregation between literature, music, and visual arts that is so common in Nepal.”

Besides developing a showcase and forum for arts, the collaborative wanted an informal, welcoming place that wouldn’t be intimidating to people. Sudarson Karki says, “People don’t have a habit of taking leisure time for cultural events, but now if you have half an hour you can come to the gallery and learn about culture, social problems...”  Manjushree adds, “We want to be the kind of gallery where everybody meets.”

Gallery Nine opened in April with Mani Lama’s exhibit, ‘Moments’, a collection of photos capturing many facets of Nepal with a particular eye for the various ways light infuses a scene and creates meaning and poignancy.  For the first week, there was an event every night, including a poetry reading of a mix of Nepali and expat poets in several languages; an art history presentation; a slide show by photographer Nick Dawson; a film showing (‘Frida’, about the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo), and a concert of Nepali popular and classical music.   The response was overwhelming.  “We were expecting  only about thirty people for each event,”  reports Sudarson.  “Instead, we had more than sixty guests each night, and ninety-five people came to the concert.”  The combination of guests also matched the hopes of the gallery organizers:  a healthy mixture of artists and writers, expats and Nepalis, business people and NGO workers filled the main gallery room and verandah and spilled out into the shady courtyard for wine and snacks.   And collaboration and inspiration were in the air.  While Mani Lama was reviewing his photos to make selections for the exhibit, Manjushree and Ashmina noticed a print of a woman nursing a baby while another child watched from his mother’s arms.  They advised Mani to make an unusual crop on the photo that emphasize the longing of the second child made the finished piece long and narrow.   The new version of the photo became one of the most popular in the exhibit.   In addition to such direct collaboration, Sudarson notes, “We can really learn from each others styles. I got some good ideas from Nick’s slide show: using water droplets, getting a micro view.  You don’t need to go so far off to get great photos, you can just sit in your garden and see interesting things.” The gallery has continued with shows by a Maldives painter and premier Bhutanese photographer Chimi Dorje,  both from nearby countries who have similar challenges to Nepal in finding sufficient outlets for talented artists.  During these exhibits, the Gallery Nine space has continued to be used for other events that bring in the broader public, including the showing of a film on efforts to clean up the Vishnumati River.  As is the case with Lazimpat Gallery Cafe,  the initial exhibits at Gallery Nine have been financially successful for the artists.  The gallery itself is a totally not-for- profit venture.  “The real challenge,” says Basanta Thapa, “is to make this self sustaining; we need to strike a balance between supporting artists and making it affordable to show their work.”  The hope is that the gallery can continue to break down segregations between  connoisseurs and artists of different mediums, encourage collaboration, and build support for all mediums.   Just as the poetry reading helped to draw a crowd to see the first exhibit, it is hoped that the backdrop of visual art will be helpful to draw wider attention and support for Nepali literature.

Manjushree Thapa  remarks,  “The publishing industry in Nepal is very chaotic; a book gets published and nobody knows about it, so nobody buys it. One of the most prolific writers I know says the most money he can earn as a writer is just enough to buy petrol for his motorcycle!  We hope to publicize literature and have readings here,” to help fill the gap.

Mani Lama’s lingering dream has become a reality, and he and his nine friends are already beginning to fill many important roles, and to shape a more promising future for the Himalayan region’s artists, and the people of Kathmandu.

For more information about Gallery Nine, call 4436944.

Lazimpat Gallery Cafe
A little more than eight months ago, an empty shop near his flat in Lazimpat called to Alan Rudderham: someone should do something with that space. After four years as a VSO volunteer (most recently working with Prisoners Assistance Nepal), Alan had found that NGO development work sometimes got rather heavy and ponderous. “You can really get lost in meetings, planning and objectives,” he explains.  He wanted to do something to shift this energy, for himself and all the other people who were working to help Nepal.

He had the idea of opening a gallery that had a simple stand for coffee and tea, where people could come to relax and be inspired by art and each other. He admired the bounty of traditional art in Nepal and wanted to expand on that, to have a gallery that was “about creativity, about expression, about identity, about knowing who you are”.  When he shared his ideas with his friend Mark Jordans, an aspiring painter married to a fellow VSO worker, he met with great enthusiasm and was encouraged to turn his vision into reality.

In November, Alan opened the Lazimpat Gallery Cafe.  The bright orange sign and cheerful garden outside are a warm invitation to enter.  Inside comfy chairs with simple tables and lush plants are strategically scattered to allow all patrons a full view of the artwork on the walls while creating symbolic privacy in the open space.

Right from the beginning, Alan envisioned and implemented a many faceted community art space.   “It couldn’t just be an art gallery, it had to be an eclectic mix with lots of things going on,” says Alan of his early decisions.  The first month there were poetry readings, a video series and a book club began, and there was a full schedule of a wide variety of art exhibits, especially by groups of emerging artists.  Student groups also came to see the art and take part in poetry readings and dialogues.   When Nepali cyclist Pushkar Shah returned from his trip around the world, he told his stories through a photo exhibit at the Gallery Cafe.  Keeping up his support for Prisoners Assistance Nepal, Alan even arranged for a one day exhibition of drawings and paintings by children of prisoners living in group homes.   Alan smiles, “All the kids came and saw the art; they were so excited to see it up on the wall.” But most of the time the gallery cafe is a peaceful spot to have a meal or a snack and chat with friends.  The comment book is always available for those who wander in for a cup of tea and stay to take in the artwork.  Alan notes that for his cafe customers, “coming here is a good way to get to know the paintings; you get to live with them and know them over time.”  This is one of many ways the gallery and cafe are complimentary to each other.

Mark Jordans was delighted to work with his friend to present his first ever showing of oil pastels at the gallery last month.  It is a series of bright, sharply drawn but still often dreamlike images of Kathmandu vendors, sporting baskets of chickens or huge barrels on their red or blue heads. Mark says, “This place is really great.  I love the idea of combining a gallery with daily life.  Its a nice place to come for coffee, a nice place to be.  There’s a great inflow of people and very nice energy; ... and its not too big for a first show.  Even established artists can still do a decent medium sized exhibit here.”

The combination of gallery and cafe also works financially, always a concern in both worlds.  Alan says “I wouldn’t be interested in running a cafe separately, but having the two together makes both viable.” Almost every artist has had success selling their work through the gallery.  Mark reflects, “I felt my painting building, and friends told me they were beginning to be good enough to show, but I also felt the awkwardness of having them up...  In the end I sold half the paintings, and I didn’t expect that.”   And Alan doesn¹t forget his commitment to caring for the poor and marginalized in Nepal; half  of the commisions from the shows go to support Prisoners Assistance Nepal.

At this point, Alan says the gallery is gaining a life of its own.  It develops according to the people who come in.  Right now these consist of both expatriates, especially volunteer types,  and younger, more educated Nepalis, especially from the neighborhood.  He hopes to draw people from further away and a wider spectrum of the public to expand the directions and capacity of the gallery.  “We’re learning as we go,” he concludes, beaming. 

For more information about Lazimpat Gallery Cafe, call 4428549