Kathmandu’s contemporary art scene is driven by its conservative past and reaching out for a global audience.
Mention Kathmandu anywhere in the world and snow capped Mount Everest would inevitably crop up into the conversation. Sometimes, the image of pagodas, the silhouette of stupas and the ramshackle old city buildings may feature in the talk of travelers who have been to Nepal. The country is marketed as a place rich in culture, steeped in heritage and redolent of times past, where silversmiths and thangka painters continue to weave their magic in the same way their ancestors did for centuries.
However, under the cloak of tradition beats a very contemporary heart which energizes a new breed of artists who have chosen to express their sensibilities in ways which go beyond the language of the old. In keeping with the spirit of contemporary art, they respond to the challenges of modern living by creating new ways of seeing, feeling and understanding the world around us. They seek to provoke, to entertain, to titillate and to push us to think more deeply about the subject matter they are dealing with. This is in keeping with the global trend of contemporary art which is more socially conscious than art from any previous era. Name it, and it is certain that some contemporary artist has tackled it through painting, photography, music, poetry and performance. Multiculturalism? Globalisation? Genetic engineering? HIV AIDS? Global Warming? Nationalism? It is a ‘yes’ to all, and more.
Take artist Will Kwan’s installation called “Flame Test” which saw thirty-six official size outdoor flags of different nations printed with images of flag-burning protests compiled from the photo archives of international news agencies for the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art in 2010. It was a powerful evocation of street protests and flag burning rituals which we have seen around the world, leading us to question the meaning of the act. It is all the more relevant in current times with the rise of fundamentalism. There are also the French artist JR, and the almost mythical English artist Banksy, who use public buildings as their canvas to depict their take on poverty, hypocrisy and oppression.
Contemporary art generates the frisson to move our thinking beyond the square. While it is true that there are some skeptics who scorn the artistic value of many of these art works, there are more who are patrons of the contemporary art scene. Here in Nepal, a big seed for the contemporary arts was planted with the establishment of the Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre in Kathmandu in 2010 by Celia Washington and Sangeeta Thapa. One of its missions is to bring contemporary Nepali artists to the attention of the world, an ambitious but not unrealistic undertaking.
Contemporary Nepali artists can easily draw upon the creative inspiration proffered by a country which is stumbling slowly towards modernity while still shackled in many ways to the iron grip of the past. However, they face numerous challenges in bringing their expressions to the global audience, not least of which is the lack of recognition from within their own nation. Gopal Kalapremi Shrestha articulates this best when he says that there is a need in Nepal to dispel the notion that art is only for a select few – “As artists or art lovers, we have to educate people and erase the notion that art is only for a specified group of people.” A good start would be to insitutionalise art as a subject in all schools, and not just view it as an ‘easy’ and ‘unnecessary’ option. It seems a sad waste to neglect the artistic sensibilities nurtured through centuries, and expressed through the magnificent architecture of our old cities and exquisite carvings, paintings and statue work. The new nation of Nepal should not only be able to provide the figurative bread, but also roses, to its people as development of the nation must include not only economic development, but also development of the arts.
There is beginning to be some recognition of the need to embrace the contemporary arts scene through the government’s support of the 2012 Kathmandu International Art Festival (KIAF). Scheduled to take place between November 25th and December 21st, KIAF will bring together an exciting group of contemporary artists from Nepal and over 30 countries to showcase their take on art and the environment. From installations to be made with waste from Everest, to paintings and photographs depicting our interaction with the environment, this festival promises to get its audience thinking about ecology. This is one way Nepali contemporary artists can gain exposure not only within the country, but also globally. It is also another way of giving Nepali artists the opportunity to network and share with their global counterparts, thereby enriching their future works. It is hoped that this festival, and others to come, will facilitate the maturing of the contemporary arts scene in Nepal.