Line of Thought: Conversations on Nepali Art

Shefali Upreti | January 15, 2020

Kathmandu University Department of Art and Design’s (KUDAD) line-up of panel discussions and faculty exhibition, ‘Line of Thought: Dialogues on Pedagogy and Personal Practices’, running at the Nepal Art Council in Babarmahal until Saturday, 18th January, 2020, intends to start conversations, some beyond pedagogy and practice. A sweep of the exhibition offers vivid political impressions and the longing to care for traditional roots in a quicksilver city, as marked in Sagar Manandhar’s collection of large canvases, ‘Saa: An Oil Mill’. Infusing his fascination with the traditional Manandhar occupation of oil extraction into oil paintings, Sagar Manandhar layers dark dabs and splotches, light run-offs, watery and viscous textures of oil in an oil press. Kriti Man Shakya employs smithing and inspiration from Buddhist and Newar art and architecture to make miniature sculpture-like jewelry.

Protest which is implicit or explicit, personal or communal, boils to the surface. While Shyam Prajapati’s ‘Images of Ideal’ paints monochrome portraits of a pantheon of Nepali humanitarians onto traditional ceramic plates, asserting that “transformation of a society or country is not always defined by political strikes”, Anil Ranjit’s close-ups from the protests by Madhesi and indigenous compatriots against the Federal Public Service Commission’s slanting of job postings towards the Khas community narrows in on the cyclical violence inherent in seeking change. The collection of six photographs begins with the determined face of a Terai Madhes National Council member and moves to the ranks of Armed Police personnel beating back protesters, stomping out the burning effigy of a commission member. The half-burned effigy, stamped with boot-marks, is discarded on the road. Then the glorious and bewildering revelry of protest begins again; the effigy is ablaze and a protester dances, a foot high in the hair, a grin emblazoned across his face.

Anil Ranjit’s photographs from 2019 protests against the Federal Public Service Commission.

“When minorities get pushed to the edge, their resistance to the unethical acts of government bodies appears as a protest,” reads Ranjit’s artist’s statement, though it shies from articulating the cyclical nature of protest. Resistance recurs in ‘Eclipse’ by Sagar Chettri, where the ambivalence of identity as a consequence of violent suppression is symbolized by young, sullen faces, the silhouette of a boy behind a haze of fire, someone standing with a captured eagle, its wings spread over their face. In ‘Confrontation’ by Bunu Dhungana, where tools for women’s hair removal – the hot wax and strip, the taut thread, the tweezers – are photographed like instruments of torture, a woman’s face is caught in a moment of twisting pain.

Subliminal warnings thrum as background noise throughout the exhibition. Pratima Thakali’s work on liminality implores viewers not to ignore the complexities in objects and stories. Shraddha Shrestha’s high-contrast comic strip, ‘The Restless Ground’, shows a girl crouching at a doorway, anticipating the next shudder of the 2015 earthquakes. “How can the land move by itself?” she questions, and conflates the mercurial violence of the Earth to the hopeless shambles of Nepali politics. Anil Shahi’s triptych shows a crumpled body, riddled with arrows and prone in death, floating above the clouds. Arrows spare only the feet and a head full of a cityscape – the body is ravaged by insidious dreams of a big city. Salil Subedi’s installation of the three-foot long didgeridoo, a conical Australian wind instrument fashioned from eucalyptus wood, mounted above a neat mound of red mud, surrounded by white clothes crinkled with dry paint stains, also tears away from the city. Preferring wilderness for performances, feet planted into the ground, Subedi smears, splashes, streaks paint over himself in reaction to the bloom of nature around him, the gait of animals, and the song of the didgeridoo, whose insect-like drone to him is the sound of the Earth. To imagine the landscapes that would demand such rich color – patches of red, moss and chartreuse, browns and blacks of loose soil and loam – the circular timbre of the didgeridoo and the growls of large mammals is a heady experience. It shows us all what we miss in our lives so insulated from nature. It urges us to break away from smoky factories and dusty consumption to seek roots in wilderness, feet planted into the Earth.

Salil Subedi’s ‘Feelings of the Moment’

This breadth of experience, though, is only possible in conversation with Subedi: the same vigor is absent from his formal, fact-listing artist’s statement. The installation seems flatter. On ‘Challenges of Writing about the Arts in Nepal’, a panel discussion attended by the artist and writer Madan Chitrakar, prolific art critic Mukesh Malla, Arts and Culture reporter for The Kathmandu Post Srizu Bajracharya, and Salil Subedi himself, Subedi agreed with Bajracharya that in failing to portray their art and process in their statements with heart and clarity, artists cloud experiences their art might have evoked, and in turn make the job of the reporter tougher, even though, as Subedi says, information about the artist’s process and the story they want to tell is crucial for a reporter of the arts to be able to connect the audience to the artist.

But mere descriptions of the artwork and the process aren’t enough, Malla and Chitrakar argued. Like the artist’s statement that falls flat without meaning attached to it, reports that skim the surface of an artwork fail to create any connection between the artist and the viewer. A connection, as Chitrakar put it, his voice rising, inflections growing forceful as he reached the crux of his argument, that relies on analysis. Whether the purpose of art writing would be to aid galleries in advertising to collectors, or to analyze the political bearing of an artwork in the lives of the public, only through analysis can meaning, myth and narrative attach itself to art; only then can the public form a link with the artwork, and only then can art thrive.

The value of artwork, then, seems also to depend upon the words we grant them. Forming and delivering narratives of art is not just the task of the art writer, however – it is an occupation also shared by curators. A panel discussion moderated by KUDAD visiting faculty (and assistant editor at La.Lit) Pranab Man Singh probed experiences in curation with curators channeling three separate kinds of engagements with the arts. Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati from photo.circle, among other things, organizes the Photo Kathmandu photography festival; Roshan Mishra from Taragoan Museum builds focused experiences within confined spaces; and Swosti Rajbhandari from Nepal Art Council refers to the root meaning of curation in her work, which is to care for artworks that otherwise lay scattershot and out of focus all around us. The disparate purposes of their curatorial work is lined by the effort to build a singular narrative, one that will deliver the art to the audience, the collector or the public, and start conversations.

Two questions posed by KUDAD visiting faculty (and assistant editor at La.Lit) Prawin Adhikari, moderating the panel on art writing, lingered through both discussions, unaddressed by the critics, journalists, and curators. Is the purpose of art writing and curation to sell to a collector, or is it to drive social change? And when our art, like the ‘Line of Thought’ exhibition, is so imbued with politics, why aren’t our conversations on art politically driven? Indeed, the conversations around ‘Line of Thought’ were, perhaps rightfully so, mainly congratulatory, as though the theme of the show was meant to be nothing besides a marker of KUDAD’s fifteen years of achievements. Assistant Professor Kirti Kaushal Joshi said, at the opening of ‘Line of Thought’, that the exhibition intends to serve as “encouragement to professors to continue their educational practices”. Madan Chitrakar offered high praise, saying he was “flabbergasted” by the scale of the exhibition, the challenges it posed to him.

If a true connection to art, as doubly stressed upon by Chitrakar and Malla, is formed by an interpretation deeper than description and praise, by stepping beyond, “The artwork is beautiful, so you should come see it,” the conversations that congratulate artists and mark achievements would have created no meaningful connections with the viewers of ‘Line of Thought’. What is the myth behind the eagle wings spread over the face of a child in Sagar Chettri’s ‘Eclipse’? Are the careful acts of regenerating roots in Sagar Manandhar’s paintings, in Shyam Prajapati’s ceramic art, or in Kriti Man Shakya’s jewelry the same kind of push against conforming to the mindlessly manufactured consumption of city life suggested by the works of Anil Shahi or Salil Subedi? Why should the congenital mammalian trait of body hair become a political statement?

Luckily for the audience of Line of Thought, the artists will be around until Friday for us to interrogate and set flowing the trickle of overdue conversations on the political intention of such an exhibition.

 

Featured Image: Saa: An Oil Mill by Sagar Manandhar. Photos by Bishal Yonjan. 

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