Taking art out of the canvas

Features Issue 128 Jul, 2012
Text by Kapil Bisht

An artist who uses art for social change

In the early days of her career, Ashmina was frequently asked which artist she wanted to be like. She says she always wanted to learn from other artists, but never to imitate them. “To become like someone else is to go backwards,” she says. “Artists need to ask themselves, ‘Who am I?’ The answer should reflect in the art.”

Ashmina never worked to live up to the traditional definition of art. In fact, she believes art needs to constantly evolve and adapt to stay alive. “If artists begin to enjoy their comfort zones, they die. Nothing new emerges if they don’t challenge themselves,” she says. Until recently, Nepali artists lived in a bubble, shielded from the reality of the times they lived in. “For a long time in Nepal art was something you hung on walls. It was almost interior designing,” she says.

Ashmina says the times in which she lives and the events happening around her influence her work the most. Hence, her work was never disconnected from social and political issues. When she started out as an artist, her seniors, mentors, and colleagues always warned her to steer away from them. “Nepalese art never asked questions,” she says. She decided she would. The Civil War was at its peak. Deciding she couldn’t be a bystander as the country plunged deeper into crisis she and a few other people organized a project called Bichalit Bartaman in 2002. Over a hundred artists and other prominent personalities participated in the event to draw attention to the ongoing violence. “We wanted to take art out of the canvas,” she recalls.

The event was a huge success. Nepalese art seemed to have entered a new era. Although there were always people who derided this conceptual approach to art, refusing to even consider it art, many people liked it. “The civil war expedited the evolution of art,” says Ashmina. Although the Civil War wasn’t the only factor in this change, it prompted a few artists like Ashmina to push the boundaries of art, to ask questions through it. “The Civil War was one of the things that contributed to the rise of artivism,” she says. Ashmina was one of the stalwarts of artivism – using art as a means for activism – in Nepal. During and after this violent period in Nepal, art gradually went from being an “elites’ tranquilizer” to a creative force.

The Civil War in Nepal, Ashmina says, not only changed Nepalese art, but people’s understanding of it. Ashmina used a variety of mediums, including drawing, painting, installation, live art performance, and sound in the numerous events she performed and organized during this period. Art went from the bubble world of the studios and galleries to the real world on the streets. “Art became more accessible during this time,” Ashmina states. She remembers over 10,000 people witnessing one of her performances, which was held on Kathmandu’s streets, in 2004. “Many of those people had never been to a gallery,” she says. “They realized after that show how close art can be to their lives.”

Ashmina Ranjit can be contacted at ashmina@gmail.com. To learn more about her work visit: lasanaa.org.np and lasanaa.wordpress.com