Coaxing the muses: an interview with Sujan Chitrakar

La.Lit | January 18, 2013

It was a pleasant September evening. The sun was setting and the lights around Thamel were starting to flicker.We came upon Sujan Chitrakar in front of a small thangka store, and interrupted his perusal of an intricately designed Mandala. One thing led to another, hours were adjusted and soon enough we were sipping some beer and munching on some popcorn at Sam’s Bar. What followed was a free-flowing discussion on art and aesthetics, life and language, jokes and delusions. For some strange reason, we decided to record our conversation. What is presented here is some of what was discussed before the beers took over.

La.Lit: … the thangka is part of our art history. The way I see it, there are a number of different ways in which art history can be viewed. There is the art history of the West, there are the Indian and Nepali art histories, and there are our individual and personal art histories. The first is academia, the last a personal quest, but Nepali art history, I think, is still searching for an identity. I think this identity will only come through when Nepali artists accept, understand and own their history through their personal art histories in negotiation with Western art history.

Sujan: I agree with this to some extent. For instance, my father and grandfather were both painters, so I grew up on art. But as a young artist, I used to look at art from the Western perspective and in a sense neglected our traditional arts as being limited. I just saw it as a part of our religious life and our rituals – the gods were to be worshipped and respected. I’ve gotten a lot older since then….

La.Lit: But our beer and our thoughts keep us young or at least allow us to maintain the illusion of youth…

(Mirthful noises, clinking of glasses and plenty of gulping)

Sujan: But as I was saying, and where I disagree with you, is that I think art cannot be categorized into these strict boundaries. Both the Western and the Nepali art traditions are equally my own. My personal art history emerges from how I have understood art and grown as an artist through all the art history I have studied and the art works I have seen.

La.Lit: Academia might disagree, but I accept that such boundaries need not exist within your personal journey through art. But I sense, to really understand this, you have to tell me how you understand art and whether there is a distinction between West and East in what is art.

Sujan: I believe art is a part of the collective human psyche and integral to our development as human beings. The real importance is not where it came from but what it can teach us and how we can grow from it. I consider everything from Australian aboriginal art to Damien Hirst to be a part of our collective art history and a testament to our commonality and uniqueness as human beings.

La.Lit: But I don’t get that sense in Nepal overall. Why is that?

Sujan: Well, I think one aspect is how art is learnt. One is the traditional way and the other is the institutionalized “Western” way. The traditional arts are passed down from father to son or master to apprentice. It is about learning to copy iconography and repeat what has been done for generations. On the other hand, art institutions teach through a history that is mostly not directly relevant to Nepali society. This tradition values originality, innovation and authenticity – a direct contrast to traditional values.

La.Lit: So it’s a matter of balancing the two? I’ve always found an appalling level of dislocation in many art works I’ve seen in Nepal. As if they are blind to what is around them. As if they had not even pierced the superficial layers of our society.

Sujan: Our very culture is based on this idea of respect and honour – in our society people still find it incredibly hard to question their own parents, and the strength of this is reflected in how hesitant students are to question their teachers. Within such an environment, questioning the gods is a difficult proposition. A good example is Karl Knapp’s plastic Buddha, which was not allowed to be displayed in Patan Museum because it was a recycled Buddha and was thought to bring in disharmony. This shows a deep conservatism in society. As a result it is hard for artists to question their traditions – partly because they might be too scared and partly maybe because they don’t know how to question. But artists can’t always choose to remain on the safe side, they do need to start questioning and if they don’t then there is a danger that art itself will stagnate.

La.Lit: Let art stagnate but let’s keep the beer flowing.

Sujan: Creativity might flow along too!

 (The beer continues to flow as popcorn replaces dinner)

La.Lit: Is this why in your exhibition ‘let’s talk about ART baby!’ you based your paintings on photographs of urban landscapes? What I see in your urban landscapes is a desire to document a society that is rapidly changing and constantly clashing and having to negotiate between the traditional and the new. In many cases the two do not stand face to face, in others they work closely together.

Sujan: The spaces and landscapes that I have chosen mean something to me. They are places where I have lived, drunk tea in, walked through and seen evolve. So my art works do have a historical context, but the context is not important for the viewer. For instance, I am working from an iconic image of the People’s Revolution taken by Min Bajracharya. It shows a woman rising up from the masses, screaming for democracy. What I have done is worked it into a context that asks – why wasn’t it or couldn’t it be a scream for art? Why can’t art be appreciated to such an extent that billboards start carrying huge paintings? Why can’t art be such an experience?

La.Lit: What inspired you to name the exhibition “let’s talk about ART baby!”?

Sujan: The title was inspired by Salt ‘n Pepa’s “Let’s talk about sex, baby”. The song was released at a time when talking about sex was still considered taboo, and it must have made it easier to actually talk about sex and HIV/AIDS.  “let’s talk about ART, baby!” is the title painting of my exhibition. It shows a couple sitting together, talking. I have imagined that they are talking about art. I believe art to be the output of a fundamental human characteristic. The appreciation of art and the production of art are both essentially human, but art suffers from a misunderstood notion elitism. The rituals, symbols, paintings and statues that form our culture are also a form of art, but this is not widely acknowledged. What is considered art is, thus, very limited. What I want to do is bring out the fact that art is all around us and we should talk about ART. As an artist, I think it is my responsibility to bring this out into the public and show that art can be accessible and should be everywhere. Thus, “let’s talk about ART, baby!”

La.Lit: Your idea almost sounds like art using propaganda for itself or to some extent using activism to promote itself. You have been calling this new series of paintings ARTivities (ART + activities) and claim to be involved in ARTivism. In doing so, you place yourself squarely as a social painter with an agenda. This emphasis on the social is a bit strange and a change from your earlier works, what brings this about?

Sujan: What I am playing with, is the idea of art being present in our daily activities. One of the key ideas behind my exhibition is the idea of taking art out into public spaces and engaging with people. One question I want to raise is why can’t random people sit around and get involved in creative activities that we call art? I once paid three tailors for a whole day and told them to make whatever they wanted. They made a huge mattress to cover the dabali (raised platform) they were sitting on. That is a form of a creative endeavour. What I want to do is show that you don’t need a huge deal of knowledge and specialized academic degrees to create, understand and appreciate art. I see this as a form of ARTivism – activism for art, while the artistic activities one gets involved in are ARTivities.

In this series of ARTivities, I have fantasized that people do talk about art. I believe people need to start talking about art – not just my art, but any form of art. I see this as important because without a cultivation of artistic appreciation, I do not think all this development and progress, in Nepal and globally, will result in anything but making us more barbaric. I am trying in a sense to do what social and political activism does – reach out and engage a mass of people – not on any issue per se but with art itself. What I want to do through ARTivism is get people to start realizing that art is as important as anything else in creating a peaceful and just society. On top of that, I see ARTivism itself to be a form of art…

The conversation continued late into the night, all other obligations forgotten, until closing time came upon us and we still had not had dinner. Thankfully, the roadside momo stands awaited.

 

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