Cut-outs of poles and cables were rearranged and glued together. A white square split in two and overlaid with rough cotton frays– a brick wall drawn on one half and a tunnel-like hole on the other; in the middle, a poem inside a pomegranate, an ode to the neighborhood fruit tree now buried under concrete. Hay sticks hanging from wires inside an art gallery. On the far wall, are video images of more wires and more clothes, this time on actual terraces.
Modern and contemporary art has evolved in ways that might seem oddly peculiar to most, difficult to correctly rule out what it is as we try to make sense out of images and symbols that feel distant at first. Yet, if you were to delve deeper into the actual thought process of such contemporary art innovation, it carries a great preponderance that reflects the spirit of the time, whether it be through unique metaphors and symbolisms that artists adopt, or through visually provoking contents that hook the viewer in intriguing ways.
In general, the value of art can be assessed in two main ways- “Aesthetic Value”, which is its ability to be pleasing visually or otherwise when consumed and appreciated. And “utilitarian Value”, which assesses art’s functionality in terms of how useful it is to a target group or society. While art in the traditional days, was associated more with its aesthetic value, measuring an artist’s technical skills to paint or sculpt with the right perspectives and dimensions or otherwise being consumed for its beauty and taste, contemporary art does something beyond it by serving as a catalyst for societal change, whilst also maintaining its aesthetic value. It serves as a tool for liberation, activism and advocacy by making certain political or societal statements and alluding directly to issues in the society like racism, sexism, feminism, etc.
In Nepal, it was particularly during the mid-19th century when Nepalese arts saw the shift from religious to secular arts, particularly with the rise of the Shahs and Ranas. During the Rana regime, secular themes, realism, and oil color replaced religious themes, symbolism, and traditionally made colors. There was an inclination towards European-derived art, with grand-scale oil portraiture and the courtly life of the Ranas.
Nepal’s political isolationism from 1846-1950 AD during the Rana autocracy led Nepal to open itself up, for the first time, to outsiders coming in; thus, modern ideas reached Nepal from all over the world. This collapse of the Rana regime shifted power back to the monarchy of King Tribhuvan Shah with the proclamation of a new constitution. From this point onwards, his taste dictated the style of art in Nepal. He also admired the aesthetic quality of modern trends coming out of Europe and imported these trends by allowing Western Neoclassicism to influence the art scene in Nepal. With the 1960s being the turning point of modernism in Nepal, modernist trends started embodying ideas of artistic experimentation and innovation – being popularized from Europe.
Artists felt the need to copy this trend and started inculcating the sense of western art movements like surrealism, cubism, and expressionism in their own artworks. Artists still belonged to the Chitrakar, or the painter caste group among the Newars, and among them, Bhajuman Chitrakar and Dirghaman Chitrakar traveled to Europe with the Rana prime ministers in 1906 B.S (1850 AD) to gain a first-hand understanding of European aesthetics, academic styles, and realism. The earliest documented artist in the 19th century is Rajaman Chitrakar, who was trained by Brian Hodson in the mid 19th century, the first orientalist British Resident to Nepal. Other artists such as Chandra man Maskey and Tej Bahadur Chitrakar brought the realistic techniques of portrait painting and landscape from Calcutta in the early 1920s. Their modernist tendencies were most evident in their introduction of a new subject genre: the urban life of the Nepali community as a self-conscious articulation of their lived experiences of schooling in urban cities like Calcutta in India.
The first historical exhibition of modern paintings by artist Lain Singh Bangdel, 1980-2058 B.S. (1924-2002 AD) was organized at Saraswati Sadan of Tri-Chandra College, inaugurated by King Mahendra, in 2018 B.S. (1962 AD) opened up new avenues for the artists. Bandel’s highest-priced painting was sold for Rs 5,000 (US$ 50) and most of the buyers came from the Rana families. This event marked the moment of transition when modernism was being experimented on in the difficult moments of history.
In the initial years of this opening, a kind of general euphoria prevailed in the country at the new freedoms – better education, opportunities and important art foundations came into establishment.
In 1961 AD, the “Royal Nepal Academy” (now, Nepal Academy) was established by King Mahendra. Also, an independent arts institution – Nepal Art Council was established with the specific aim of creating public gallery spaces for exhibitions.
In 2020 B.S. (1964 AD) the Nepal Association of Fine Arts, NAFA, under the auspices of the Royal Nepal Academy was formally established to create a platform for annual exhibitions of contemporary art, and the first contemporary art museum was also instituted. Bangdel was asked to serve as a representative at this institution, which also marked the formal involvement and acknowledgment of artists in such corporate areas.
Several art schools were established, among them, Lalit Kala Academy, established in 1950 B.S. (1894 AD), and Sirjana Fine Arts School, established in 2050 B.S. (2001 AD) are the most prominent. Despite these initiatives by the government, private institutions, primarily art galleries such as Siddhartha Art Gallery, Nepal Art Council, and Park Gallery also provided spaces for exhibitions and exposure to international shows. These art centers and institutions started providing an engaging, cutting-edge art space, enabling artists and art lovers to open up to new ideas and new media, cross-pollinating their fields with others and infusing the arts, as a whole, with great liveliness.
When modernism was introduced to Nepal in this decade, the creative landscape of Nepal was dramatically changed. Like in Europe, modern art in Nepal started as a response to the new lives and ideas innovated by the ever-expanding technological developments of the industrial age. These changes caused contemporary society to change rapidly, forging a new way of life, starkly different from life in the recent past. In response to this change, artists represented the novelty of modern life in suitably innovative ways. Gallery spaces brought about a new wave of consciousness, an attempt to connect contemporary art practices and ideals with the roots from where its entire foundation may have originated.
Aesthetically speaking, modern art is characterized by the artist’s intent to portray a subject not merely as it exists in the physical world, but according to how it is seen through their unique perspective – and it typically confounds the orthodox expectations of traditional art genres. Nepali modern art was a pursuit of westernization and gentrification of the art scene, coupled with the influence of Nepal’s long-lived traditional art, and the presence of ethnic spirituality and religious iconography, which has defined Nepali arts to date. Along with practicing western art movements and emulating the styles of western artists like Braque and Picasso, many started to understand that traditional handicrafts and traditional forms of the visual art form are just means of gaining a foreign monetary value. The art shifted from Realism to Abstractionism, public to personal, and objective to subjective. These were some examples of art forms that thrived during the age of modern art.
Only after the Nepalese were so much impacted by the British during the Rana rule, did Nepali art see a shift from painting on indigenous materials like cloth or copper to big canvases, which were and still are considered to be the ideal space where an artist’s strokes his brushes. With the state’s budget, a variety of art materials like canvases, easels, graphite, gesso, quality varnishes, etc. were imported to Nepal and artists were now fully able to incorporate a multitude of painting techniques like heavy impasto, woodcarving, etching, and mixed media. Such painting techniques are mediums, prevalent across a variety of western art styles, and began to dominate the way artists painted on canvases.
Although the Lichchhavi period during the third-ninth centuries was notable for Sanskrit theater produced in the mandapikas or pavilions adjacent to temples, Nepali theater art started seeing performative forms and new mediums in the mid-1980s. This was the late Panchayat era (no-party system) which restricted free speech. The collapse of the Panchayat system after its three decades of rule and the reinstatement of democracy opened new possibilities of free speech and expression. Whereas artists performed in groups or as an individual on open grounds with a literary skit, often inspired by some leading Nepali poets like Bhupi Sherchan or Laxmi Prasad Devkota, later on, artists started to build a formal stage and a set in theater houses where they incorporated various performative poetry recital as a part of their act.
Performance art also crosses artistic boundaries by mixing painting, music, text, and theatrical performance. All these different art forms reinforce the expression of the performing artist whose role is central in the artwork. All these art forms are simultaneously presented creating inter-art relationships and there is the coexistence of high and so-called mass culture.
In the present, performance artists such as Sundar Lama, fascinated by Nepali traditions such as Majipaa Lakhe, uses elements like gloves and clothes as he dances around a video screen complemented with live music being projected of himself. Artists like Lama challenge conventional art forms such as painting and sculpture with works driven by motifs of violence, chaos, and human agony.
Street art in Nepal was initially inspired by the profusion of political graffiti, usually initiated by political parties like the Maoists asking for votes. Graffiti and street art, at their initial phase, were not concerned so much with an artistic sense. When art modernism in Nepal was rising, gradually, street artists started to incorporate new styles into their artwork to make it artistically attractive and unique. Foreign artist visits to Nepal, owing to the absence of legislation against public painting, further intensified the entrance of western-style into Nepali art. The influence of Banksy, a western artist of social consciousness who has a special message to deliver to the large public has been no exception. Nepali artists learned, from Banksy’s art, to use art as a creative expression to comment against the deep-rooted social issues including government policies, religious conflicts, gender inequalities, economic disparities, etc. Artists also used his technique, satirical way of presenting the message, powerful tags along with imagery etc. to make their artwork appealing to the public.
Public places were slowly considered a medium to showcase the art. The artwork became more message-driven. Street art gave the artist the freedom to be able to use the bountiful spaces beyond a squared canvas, exploring their ability to play with the dynamism and vibrancy of such a medium. It made art more accessible to the general public, as artists represented ideas and themes in a humanitarian perspective, being close and upfront to an audience.
At the present, art groups such as artlab, artudio, and muralists like Romel Bhattarai, Kiran Maharjan, Sneha Shrestha (aka Imagine), and Aditya Aryal (aka SadhuX) have been promoting street art in Nepal by getting involved in numerous international projects.
POSTMODERN/ CONTEMPORARY ART
Similarly, since the advent of digital technology, digital and sound/light art have undergone a radical transformation. the rise of new media in art (installation, experimental film, digital art, etc.) has started to incorporate wonderous ways of creating art, which were once almost unimaginable and incomprehensible. Experimentative, yet innovative, these forms of art push the boundary of traditional art. In this sense, all of these art forms have brought new, radical ideas to the files of Nepali art just as they had radicalized western art worlds in the 1860s. Today, the following art genres thrive in the arena of contemporary Nepali art.
Installation art is a relatively new genre of contemporary art practiced by an increasing number of postmodern artists, which involves the configuration or “installation” of objects in a space, such as a room or a warehouse. The resulting arrangement of material and space comprises the “artwork”.
Because an installation usually allows the viewer to enter and move around the configured space and/or interact with some of its elements, it offers the viewer a very different experience from (say) a traditional painting or sculpture which is normally seen from a single reference point. Because of its flexibility and three-dimensionality, installation art is influenced by developments in computer art such as software developments in video and film projection – as well as techniques used in avant-garde theater and dance. Architectural and interior design are other influences. Along with their growing popularity they have taken art beyond the canvass and the gallery. Installation artists use objects in nature and culture to create their art and performance art seemingly dissolved the borders between theater and art. Above all, these are a form of conceptual art- a genre in which “ideas” and “impact” are regarded as more important than the quality of a finished “product” or “work of art”. However, an installation or performance art is purely temporary work of art, meant to be consumed for a limited period of time. Unless it is photographed or documented in some way, there will be no evidence of its existence. This ephemerality of such time-based art mediums is what adds another element of appreciably to these artworks. Such art pieces are engaging; they engage several of the viewer’s senses including touch, sound, smell, and vision too allowing often-times the viewers to be a part of the show or interact in one way or the other. Even the audience becomes the constituent element in their artworks where the viewers become creators. If a traditional work of art allows us to appreciate the craftsmanship of the artist, an installation allows us to experience the “artwork” and perhaps even rethink our attitudes and values. Contemporary artists such as Bhuwan Thapa, Jupiter Pradhan, Ashmina Ranjit, and Sujan Chitrakar to name a few have popularized installation art in Nepal.
Video/Sound Art and Light Painting
These art mediums feature the use of technology- monitors, cables, pressure pads, and sensors to produce experimentative works of art out of digital and electronic manipulation of software. Sound artists create visual images in response to sounds, allow the audience to control the art through voice activation, and use sound as a completely different dimension of art.
Newly emerging artists such as Kushal Pokherel use photography and Adobe software in light paintings and others such as Anil Subba, Ryan Rajbhandari and Sunil Pandey incorporate everyday found objects such as bells, glass bottles, matches, and incense sticks to create unique sound and visuals.
Artists such as Prabod Shrestha, working under the theme “Kathmandu; My Fascination” have used movements, incorporating motion-blurred images in video installation to emulate the chaotic and flitting life of Kathmandu which is always in a constant state of flux.
Painting, sculpture, pottery, and woodcarving have dominated the artistic landscape with their many practitioners and centuries of history and tradition. Digital art, by comparison, is in its infancy, but growing steadily. Most Nepali artists working primarily in the digital medium tend to be young and technologically savvy, using tools like Procreate and the iPad to create their distinctive styles of digital art. Straight lines, repeating patterns, color blocks, all representative of the digital world, are present in these works -often chopped, screwed, and manipulated to express something indefinable. The lines are cleaner, the colors more defined, the style is distinctly digital, artwork created on a screen, instead of on a canvas or a piece of paper, and manipulated using technology. It’s a bold new medium, more forgiving of errors and more responsive to an amalgamation of styles and influences.
While digital art forms have been the most accessible art form for many due to the easy availability of technological gadgets, the works of artists such as Keepa Manandhar, Dristi Manandhar, and Prakash Rajit stand out within the contemporary art scene of Nepali.
Contemporary Art as Activism- “Artivism”
Artivism is a relatively new term being used in Nepal’s context. This portmanteau, however, is not just used to represent the idea of activism through art, but also redefines the entire essence of contemporary art in terms of how it has become so much more, often changing the core motifs of artists when they initiate to produce new work. In the context of Nepal, art and activism show how Nepali art is not just about meticulously painted thangkas and paubhas or meticulously drawn mandalas all in the technically correct forms, but it can be something beyond its beauty and aesthetics, something that is meant to touch lives by redefining stories, challenging assumptions and stereotypes and giving a voice to the voiceless.
In Nepal, various examples of times can be found when socio-political art was in demand. Periods of change and social movements like the Dalit, Janajati, Madhesi movements, the fight against Nijgadh airport, etc. have demanded art intervention which has proven to create awareness and prompt actions for a positive change.
Similarly, the process of creating art itself can be a means of catharsis for many people. The power of art therapy to heal individuals come in part from this. Similarly, some art events and exhibitions, like Triennales, create a global community to interconnect art, diverse nations, culture, and human expression under a single roof. In such impactful ways, art can change lives and societies and help us cherish the true essence of being humans.
While it is indispensable to acknowledge the fact that the role of art in Nepali society has been prominent since the 50s and 60s, art intervention, in the present day, has certainly taken a more revolutionized and declarative path and has become provocative political and conceptual art. They embrace the subtle differences and nuances in the art scene of not only the past and present Nepal, but as a whole, in regards to how these different time eras blend together into one harmonized art world. Arts and crafts are developed as equal to social changes and political changes so research is to be developed into new trends with new social responsibility.
Artworks, in the contemporary day, are inter-generic because they are interconnected with earlier paintings, sharing techniques of other art genres like sculpture, literature, music, photography, theater, and film. These artworks are heterogeneous and open-ended, so their meanings are not certain but relative and multiple. Viewers ad art critics can have multiple interpretations of their own, which way art can be considered to be more engaging, interactive, and accessible.
Similarly, intertextuality, open-endedness, plurality and contingency are the key features of such contemporary art forms. These arts become inter-textual by recycling the myths and reintegrating the earlier art forms. We can find the creative appropriation of tradition along with the use of allusion and pastiche in the artworks. They refer to earlier art forms for allusion and sometimes use parts of other artworks in a single artwork to create a pastiche.
There is something about art and its aesthetics that deeply and powerfully resonates with human souls to help us comprehend and rationalize issues. Thus, art can serve as a common tool to express our humanity, empathize with those around us, spark conversation, inspire wonder, reimagine solutions, and promote action for positive changes, and contemporary art veers towards just that.