Whose art is it anyway?

Rabi Thapa | August 26, 2014

The sattal at Purohitghat by the Bagmati river is located on a long stretch of stepped embankment that did not start to be architecturally articulated before the 1790s. The sattal at Purohitghat was one of the smaller endowments, but probably the most fascinating one. The baluster columns and the cusped arches of the arcade follow early 19th- century prototypes, but the first floor windows went beyond the scope of carved window frames. The notion of a lintel as a bearing element can only be recognized on the central rectangular opening. The semicircular arches are for the first time not incorporated by a bearing frame but are bearing members themselves. The frames of the side openings add to the stunning design, contributing to a move that culminates in the flower motifs that crown the central opening. In a playful manner, curled appendages frame the entire window, flush with the wall.

– Architecture of the Newars, Volume III, Niels Gutschow

In May 2014, Seb Toussaint and Spag from the Outside Krew visited the Bhaisighat slum on the banks of the Bagmati at Teku and asked residents to choose words that they would want to be painted on walls in their neighbourhood of ragged brick, banged-up wooden planks and corrugated tin. ‘I choose the colours, I choose the design…I choose everything but you choose the word,’ Toussaint is seen telling kids in a video for Share the Word, the crowd-funded project he has been taking to urban settlements around the world. Many locals allowed Toussaint to spruce up the walls of their ramshackle settlements with such uplifting words as ‘Welcome’ and ‘Dhanyabad’, and some even joined in the fun.

At some point, it was decided to make an exception to the ‘unwritten rule’ the Outside Krew had regarding not painting temples and churches. They wrapped up their project by spending close to a week spray-painting the façade of the sattal of the 19th-century Shiva temple in Purohitghat, which overhangs Bhaisighat and is visible from the new bridge that crosses over to Lalitpur. This is the same structure praised so wholeheartedly by art historians for the extraordinary design of its windows. The sattal dating from 1883 is, Saphalya Amatya maintains, ‘famous for its unique window’, and Niels Guthschow describes its design to ‘demonstrate not only the never-ending willingness but desire on the part of Newar craftsmen to develop new forms and décor’. By any standards, the Purohitghat sattal would qualify as heritage worthy of preservation. Yet Seb Toussaint and his band of urban warriors saw fit to distract from this remarkable window frame by framing it in technicolor cartoons. Why?

courtesy nepalnews.com

courtesy nepalnews.com

According to Toussaint, the sadhu who looks after the temple asked him to include the façade in his project. According to the Nepal Children’s Art Museum (which facilitated Toussaint and Spag’s stay here but claims to have had no knowledge of their intention to paint the sattal until afterwards), the locals welcomed the change as it cheered them up as they went about their prayers. The sadhu, meanwhile, freely admits that he asked for the home improvements not just because it looked nice, in his opinion, but because after years of asking the authorities to restore the sagging, dilapidated façade, he wanted to grab their attention.

It may have taken a while, but he has everyone’s attention now. When photos of Toussaint’s handiwork appeared on nepalnews.com on Sunday, 24 August, Nepali social media imploded with indignation. Sujan Chitrakar, Programme Coordinator at KU Art+Design, spoke on behalf of many when he praised Toussaint on Facebook for his work in the community but lambasted him for cultural insensitivity and a lack of foresight in painting the sattal:

The Shiva Temple, though not on the World Heritage Site List, has something to contribute to the remarkable cultural heritage and legacy of Nepal. Any kind of intruding and defacing it would be overlooking history of the place and hurting sentiments of my people.

you have given wrong message to people and you will defame the entire artist community. There are many emerging Nepali artists who see hope in the streets and street art. Your “one wrong” move can severely sabotage their dreams.

Other commentators defended Toussaint’s aesthetic and his collaborative work with the otherwise neglected Bhaisighat community, and privileged their right to determine the development of their surroundings and the temple they used. They also wondered why it had taken so long for anyone to notice the supposedly sacrilegious act – surely that suggested a broader national apathy towards heritage? The subtext of the outrage, they implied, was an elitist hostility towards the idea that slum-dwellers should be able to claim national heritage as their own and, in so doing, dispose of it as they saw fit.

For his part, Toussaint expressed surprise at the delayed reaction of commentators such as myself, so unlike the instantaneous delight of the local community, the only people who seemed to be aware of the temple. He maintained that he was glad that a debate was taking place, bizarrely comparing his act to the vandalizing of reproductions of ancient statues at the Louvre Metro station in 1992 (http://sebtoussaint.com/2014/06/29/hindu-temple).

Yet the fact that people became belatedly aware of the defacement does not justify it. The existence of innumerable other heritage sites that we have been unable to preserve does not give anyone the right to indulge in such acts of artistic squatting either. And surely a single community (however unified in their support) cannot have exclusive say over the treatment of a public monument, a distinct part of our heritage and one that predates Bhaisighat by at least a century?

At an animated discussion at the City Museum Kathmandu that evening, both Sujan Chitrakar and Sangeeta Thapa warned that if individual artists did not exercise due care, they could well face a backlash – not from fellow artists, but from extremist elements and the state. The state itself was represented at the discussion by the Kathmandu Metropolitan City, keen to publicize a planned heritage path along the river. They had been caught unawares by Toussaint’s project, but were positive about the future of the area’s heritage.

Many of the artists present, including Dishebh Shrestha and Aditya Aryal, agreed they would never consider painting over a temple as they ‘knew their limits’; it was crucial for visiting artists to consult with local artists to get a handle on what was appropriate. Karl Knapp and Taka Otsu pointed out the difficulties in containing such art forms as graffiti – in the absence of a specifically Nepali tradition of street art, future incidents could well arise with younger artists seeking to define their own limits. What if they did not possess the requisite ‘common sense’? The consensus, ultimately, was that a negative act should be transmuted into something positive: it was decided that research was needed to find a way to restore the façade of the Purohitghat sattal, in concert with experts and the authorities. This collective act – to take place on a date to be announced – will be documented to raise awareness about the nature of cultural heritage, our attitudes towards it, and the role of public art.

When the story broke on social media Monday morning, several people responded to my frenetic posts with a shocked ‘Yikes!’ If indeed the sight of Toussaint’s work offended so many, one can only hope that it was an eye-opener in the best possible way. The message is clear: if we wait for others to ‘take care’ of what we claim as our own, we should not be surprised if they do just that.

Thanks to Tom Bell for digging up the history of the Shiva temple at Purohitghat

16 Responses to “Whose art is it anyway?”

  1. Lena says:

    of course preserving heritage is really important but it is also very difficult and a lengthy process. I would strongly advise involving KVPT or at least seeking advise from them if people decide to do something to preserve this building. just painting over the piece of art will not preserve it. And the Department of Architecture might not have the right funds or skills to do something about it… (they also work with KVPT) http://www.kvptnepal.org/

  2. Streetclickr says:

    First of all, It is “sattal” meaning a public rest house. It’s not a temple.
    Now continuing into discussion, this sattal was ignored for many years and condition look like it is about to fall down. Nobody cared the history neither it’s architectural value before. Maybe even if it has gone down to dust, I am sure no article would have been there to discuss about it because it had been forgotten already. Now this guy, who has responded with his art, when caretaker asked him to has become target of all the criticism we can garnish? What kind of world are we living in?
    Art is objective. Thing I like, others might not like. So there is whole another debate if that art there is good or not. But this criticism/debate just for the sake of it after more than 2 months of the art seems a total farce to me.
    Talking about street arts, let’s talk about the most famous street artist: Banksy.
    He has painted all over the world raising awareness about different political issues, published his own currency note featuring princess Diana as queen, hanged his painting without permission in museums, murals in Disneyland, daily exhibition around new York recently and countless others which had divided opinions about his art to two faction. One faction sees him as a vandal who destroys everything while other faction pays thousands of dollars to buy his art. So the point here is that line to be drawn is imaginary. And that imaginary line become even more like a farce if we begin to draw it 2 or more month later and make it feel like real line. The line also depends on how we perceive that art too, so it is totally objective. If the locals and the guy who has taken care of that place for many years does not mind and instead admire that art, who are we who passes same place many times before and choose to ignore it every time to complain?

  3. Seb Toussaint says:

    As I’ve said before, we never wanted to hurt anyone. I do feel like not enough attention is brought to Bainsighat and its temple that no one seemed to have noticed until now. I’m very surprised to see negative reactions now, after getting so much positive feedback when we were painting it, including from the military who pass along the small road. Is it that people from different neighbourhoods think differently? Or was it by chance that we didn’t meet anyone against the idea? I don’t know. However, as I’ve said before, I respect everyone’s opinion, and above all, thank you to those participating in the date, (and thank you for this article) if the Kathmandu Metropolitan City actually decides to do something about the buildings along the river, then that’s a great thing!

    Now I hope that the debate and our paintings can also bring some attention to the 800 people whole live in difficult conditions in the slum.

    Just a few other things:

    – “Seb Toussaint and his band of urban warriors”. Only Spag and I painted the temple.

    – Painting the temple was nothing like what happened at the Louvre. I was replying to someone who asked me what I’d think if there was graffiti on the Louvre. The graffiti in the Louvre metro station is what we call “bombing”, it was without anyone authorisation, and done quickly at night. We painted the temple in 5 days, taking our time, and I repeat once again, no one told us that we were doing something wrong, and we got invited for tea many times by the locals (living inside of outside the temple).

    – “Share The Word” in Nepal was not crowd-funded.

    • Streetclickr says:

      Hi Seb,
      For a change, I liked the art you did there and I do not consider it a vandalism at all. As you mentioned before, you did it with permission from the person responsible there and the art is obviously admired by the local people and the people passing by when you were taking time to paint it. Just because some people begin to feel “need” to feel the need to save the same “cultural heritage” after two months of art work, which they would ignore every day while passing by, and would not even feel to need to write an article even when it is about to fall down, please DONOT take it as all of our opinion. Maybe there are many people who admire your work like me and they are praising your work which has brought the building ignored for so many years to our attention. Please keep on doing your good work and finally thanks for all of your clarification on sensitized article.

  4. Thank you Rabi Thapa, Sangeeta Thapa?, and Sujan Chitrakar? for engendering a very long overdue discussion–and hopefully mobilization–regarding the need to invigorate cultural preservation and community awareness. While I was in Nepal, my unending admonitions and remarks delivered to young Nepali artists on this subject frequently were met with apathy or inferences of vestigal “colonial” sensibility. Now we have this “elegant” example of what an alternative future could look like if safeguards and community stakeholding are not established. Quoting from an old Joni Mitchell song; “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone…?”

  5. Dor Bahadur Bista says:

    “The aristocratic rebel, since he has enough to eat, must have other causes of discontent.’ – Bertrand Russell

    Since when did values of the Kathmandu bourgeoisie became the common sense values of us all? Why this indignation over a painting on otherwise crumbling and dilapidated temple in a slum where none of us will visit or even knew existed before? And beside if the slum dweller who visit this temple daily asked for it to be painted and who seems to like its new avatar then who are we to say otherwise?

    There are dozen or so temple like these crumbling into a heap of bricks just along the bank of Bagmati river, neglected and have turn into a drug den and some they have turn it into abattoir where they slaughter pigs by the dawn’s early light while the Purohit of the temple is going about his business and the early morning air is thick with sweet sickly smell of camphor incense and stench of rotting aborted foetuses half eaten by emaciated dogs with open wound festering on it skeletal body.

    In some of these crumbling temple you can see sick people left to die by their relatives while the care taker (who are usually not a relative but paid to put three drops of polluted water from Bagmati river when the sick person draw his/her terminal breath) look listlessly through that “Famous unique window” and patiently waits for the sick to die . Isn’t this a desecration too? so where is the outrage? ( If you don’t believe me take a walk around Tripushwor to Sanepa along the bank of Bagmati)

    So why so uproar over this one particular temple? is it because they see every painted brick as a threat to their status quo and their cultural hegemony? threat to their way of life and culture (Whose Culture is it anyway?) which has been forced on us for centuries? This uproar, this indignation, this false consciousness is far more dangerous than apathy, this will sow the seed of Cultural fascism, fan the dying amber of Fascist Hindutva and will be turn into a giant flame that will engulf us all. And above all this visceral reaction will only reinforce small group of Kathmandu elite’s idea of culture, art and what constitute as an art on the rest of us.

    And for the rest of us we have to reject this idea of culture which has been handed down on us from the top if we are to bring any changes to our mode of thinking and our system that we know is obsolete and is not working. It is like Dr. Ambedkar once said “……you must not forget that if you wish to bring about a breach in the system, then you have got to apply the dynamite to the Vedas and the shastras, which deny any part to reason; to the Vedas and shastras, which deny any part to morality. You must destroy the religion of the shrutis and the smritis. Nothing else will avail. This is my considered view of the matter.”

    Too bad that one who is lighting the dynamite is a French guy but then again French have the habit of exporting revolution since 1789.

  6. Conifers says:

    Unfortunately I was not able to attend the debate hosted at the Kathmandu City Museum. Nevertheless I still feel that I must voice my dissent against this article. The above commentators have aptly detailed the problems with such a discourse on the overlap of street ‘modern’ art with classical ‘skilled’ art. But I would like to highlight that the author has to failed to critique the neo-colonial concept of heritage. With international organizations, it has evolved into something that every ‘self-respecting’ third world hopes to inculcate to earn brownie points from the west for money that will only be circulated in a select part of their own society. I question such initiatives and whether the preservation of this particular sattal as a ‘heritage’ fossilized into a monument-building and to be placed outside their intimate lives is at all in the interest of the local community who have a history of engaging with this space. Preservation projects are like golden chains. Pretty to look at, but stifling for the purposes of social mobility. Like other communities around the region, this particular one will only be displaced with the advent of such a ‘preservation’ project, to be hobnobbed by the higher-ups who have been brainwashed into that notion that art is static. Instead of the KVPT, perhaps the interested can take a leaf out of Ratish Nanda’s preservation projects around Delhi, where they first work on the surrounding communities before tackling those derelict buildings.

    • Dinesh says:

      Sure, the concept of heritage can be used for all kinds of conservative ends but what is an alien cartoon, masquerading as street art, permanently erasing the facade of a very-old house of worship, if it isn’t neo-colonial?

      Let’s resist the temptation to fetishize the “local community.” The artist himself admits that it was only the words that were chosen by locals. Everything else was up to him. Do we really want our public spaces overtaken by this kind of vampiric individualism?

      This is only the most egregious example. Let’s not let other graffiti-entrepreneurs off the hook, since they too operate under the same pretext, and receive massive amounts of donor funding in the name of “art and culture” to whitewash and paint over walls that used to be spaces for political expression.

      It’s the neoliberalization of street art.

      At its best, preservation is about safeguarding the public realm, and the multiple layers of our collective history, against erasure. It is quite astonishing that preservation remains under-funded while mostly mediocre artists have free reign to deface the city.

  7. Nepal ko Choro says:

    Let’s get few of the facts out of the way that we all can agree upon.
    – Government is unable to do anything about it. They have better and bigger challenges to tackle like providing electricity, water and other basic necessities.
    – communities could come together and raise money and support to do what they think is best. But wouldn’t we rather raise money and support kids living on the streets, hooked on sniffing glue or countless orphans and victims of the “revolution.” And even if we were to do this, who is going to take leadership roles in these projects to make it successful? Local artists who “know their limits” and wouldn’t want to go outside the box. I don’t think most people would touch these projects if they didn’t make money from it. And I don’t blame them, if I had to choose between feeding my family or renovating a temple, I’d feed my family. Most artist in nepal, I’d say, will have to choose.
    – foreigners could help, financially and provide know how and support. But of course we wouldn’t want to that. We are not beggers, we are proud nepal ko choro. Of course, if they just want to handover a check with a specified amount without any conditions, our leaders will figure out a way to accept that without hurting national pride but that money won’t make it out of their pockets.
    The point is these buildings are in this situation because NO ONE CARES FOR IT. If they did, we wouldn’t be in this position to begin with. I think few people do care but they don’t have resources and wherewithal to do anything about it.
    So where do we go from here. We can choose to keep it status quo and do nothing about it and let the buildings fall to the ground. Or we can let people who are willing to step up, do something about it.

    My view is, I’ll take anything. Anybody who is willing to try to make it better and useful. Communities are going to have to figure out what is “better and useful” and communicate that with said people/groups who are willing to do something. And that is exactly what happened here. Local artist complaining about “foreigners defacing our cultural heritage” seems hyperbolic. I couldn’t be happier about this incident and all the questions and answers that have come up. Only when we push these buttons, can we get people to react and wake up. I don’t think the artist was trying to push any buttons on purpose, more like stepped on it by accident.

    Also, the whole thing about what is art and valuable is very personal and cannot be defined. I couldn’t agree more with Dor Bahadur Bista on his views about few of the elites trying shove their idea of art and cultural heritage on people who are living in slums without clean water, electricity and food.

    So to answer the question, the art and the structure belongs to the community and people surrounding it.

  8. Sancho Panza says:

    I think this moral-outrage over what is art is started by those same bunch of small group of people who went racing for their emergency hashtag over another temple in Hadigaun when there was a road expansion going on.

    We have more temple than hospital and school in Nepal most of which are willfully neglected and will crumble on itself or one small earthquake, which will happen sooner or later and will reduce it to a pile of dust.

  9. Roshni Shah says:

    All i see is butt-hurt Nepali artists who are jealous of these 2 guys for getting more international recognition for the work they did in Nepal than what the entire nepali artist community combined gets. No one cared before and people do drugs and defecate in these sattals all over Kathmandu. No one gives a shit when there is literal shit inside these “heritage sites” but when someone paints over it, all hell breaks loose?

  10. Toussaint says:

    Since this is where the debate seems to be taking place, I’m copying here, a message that I received on my facebook account.

    Sujan Chitrakar: ” On the behalf of my friends and concerned people, I am writing to you regarding your “Share The Word” project around the slum area in the vicinity of Satyal Sattal of Purohitghat, Kathmandu, Nepal, which was built in 1883 and is considered to be one of the notable architectures by many scholars. I appreciate your initiation to mobilise local community and engage them in your art making process. I think you have done a commendable job. However, your so-called-artistic-intervention in a heritage site (though its been neglected for various reasons) is an unacceptable act. Though myself and a larger section of people are completely shocked and appalled by this insensitive act, we don’t want to blame you as its been a collective failure – a failure from your part because you seem to be completely ignorant of the importance of a heritage site and you engaged in a sporadic intrusion for the sake of your own interest. And failure from our parts as we were not there nor anyone who were present at that moment could tell you the importance and stop you. A personal interest of a priest or a local community does not give right to deface a heritage site anywhere in the world and it applies to Nepal too. Hence we are mobilising people in Nepal to give back Satyal Sattal its actual wall or if possible restore it. Hence, your MUST involvement for this correction is anticipated.”
    Sujan Chitrakar

  11. Seb Toussaint says:

    Thank you for your message! Here’s to make a few things clear. Our intention in paiting the Sattal was the same as for the whole project. Through art and through the people of Bainsighat’s words, we wanted to make the place more colourful, inspire kids, and bring attention to the community in collaboration with the community. I’m saying this in case people are thinking that we wanted to be provocative in painting the sattal. The discussion we have started about the sattal was an accident. If you heard the comments we got while we were painting it, you’d never have thought there’d be a whole disscussion about it.
    “a failure from your part because you seem to be completely ignorant of the importance of a heritage site and you engaged in a sporadic intrusion for the sake of your own interest.”
    We did not paint this in the sake of our own interest. We were asked to paint it. I’m repeating myself here, but we wouldn’t have painted it if no one had asked us. We admit that we are ignorant when it comes to Nepali customs and culture, and Bainsighat’s way of doing things, and this is why we get the people to give us walls to paint and to tell us what to paint on them (a word or a symbol). We did this for free, we did it with our own money, and I cannot let you say that this was for our own interest.

    “A personal interest of a priest or a local community does not give right to deface a heritage site anywhere in the world and it applies to Nepal too. “

    That’s an interesting point. Who do you ask for permission when you do something in the public space? When you put up an advert somewhere, when you build a building, or when you make street art, who do you ask? You can’t possibly ask every person who will ever see it, and therefore you know that some people might like it, and some might not. We asked the local community, the priest and Dr D. (who’s another community leader). We talked about it with other locals too before we started (it took some time since we had to get a ladder build for the purpous, and buy more paint). I will simply argue that these people are the ones who use this sattal, who live in it, who use the temple and who see the building everyday. To us, the community is what matters most. I understand now that other people are cross about what happened, and I respect their point of view. However in this particular case, I think the voice of the community is more important. They care about their sattal and their temple more than anyone.

    Also, it’s probably best to talk about Nepal only in this discussion. Heritage sites in other parts of the world have had their appearance changed after the decision of a very few people, it’s the case with JR’s recent work on the Panthéon for exemple, or his work on the Ile Saint Louis. (Here I’m not comparing our work to JR’s work, I’m just giving an exemple).
    I’m glad we are having this discussion, but I do feel that the most important voice is the voice of the community itself. I do think we should listen to them, and I do think they have a right to express themselves. Restoring the temple is important, but we wouldn’t want to get rid of the mural that the people asked us to pain it, and thanked us for it. We don’t walk in to a neighbourhood with the intention of telling people what to do. It’s their community. Altough the people there did eveything they could to make us feel at home, we always knew that was is their neighbourhood.
    I now understand that the mural wasn’t of eveyone’s taste, and I’m sorry if people were hurt. I’m glad if all this can make things change. However, I’m dissapointed that we are only talking about the sattal, and not the community. It isn’t just the sattal that people haven’t noticed. It’s also the 800 people living in difficult conditions that people are ignoring. I don’t know what it will take for people to notice, but I hope someone will do something about it because it’s proper urgent.

  12. Dinesh says:

    “Who do you ask for permission when you do something in the public space? When you put up an advert somewhere, when you build a building, or when you make street art, who do you ask? You can’t possibly ask every person who will ever see it.”

    It is because you can’t ask every person for permission that we have national laws to protect old buildings and public spaces; of course, state failure to implement these laws is another story, compounded by lack of local representation, especially in a neglected part of the city like this one.

    I would caution against relying on the currency of this dangerously vague term “community.” This plays into the idea of the community as pre-existing raw material for you to “inspire” and “collaborate” with.

  13. Dear Seb, Dor Bahadur, “Conifers”, etc.
    The painting on the mandir is simply an ugly, puerile, talentless example of low-brow animation cum graffitti cum low-brow art, which–appealing to those with innumerable resentments and grievances (all listed lovingly in the above missives) is elevated as an example of heroic easthetic action undertaken on the part of the ignored slum dwellers (read proletariat masses) by the innocent and selfless artist who is emotionally broadsided by the reactionary ruckess voiced by those who refuse to view the results as a valorized statement on behalf of the “real” owners–the locals. Give me a break. This kind of stunt–“warrior artists indeed”–masquerading as an act of artistic valor is a cynical vehicle for the fleeting celebrification of the artist–and as we all know, and as Wharhol predicted–the fame will last the proverbial fifteen minutes….but the resulting eyesore will go on and on…and by the way, the delapidation of the mandir is in no way positively improved, a condition which seems to be the cause of much puffery and outrage by the socially and politically contentious commentators above. Perhaps Seb’s creative efforts would have been better applied at fund-raising for the restoration of the mandir? A nice thought, but then the bubble gum colrs, the candy hearts etc. make so much more of a “powerful social statement” against government neglect and class oppression than a concerted effort to actually improve through restoration a communal building worthy of the act–and act which could involve the employment of local craftsmen in the process.

    • Dor Bahadur Bista says:

      “The painting on the mandir is simply an ugly, puerile, talentless example of low-brow animation cum graffitti cum low-brow art”

      That is rich coming from artist like you who is co-opting Tibetan culture to produce shitty art and who needs to be funded.

      Omnia sunt communia All those mandir belongs to the people and if they want it to painted over than so be it, instead of restoring it and then turning it into a cafe or musuem where people like us can’t even visit without paying a hefty sums of money.

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