When one peeks into a gallery that is entirely and so meticulously adorned by masterful artworks of a rich line of participating artists from all over Asia, the Pacific, and Europe, one is filled with wonder, awe, and astonishment. One feels tranced, amazed as well as deeply intrigued. The bright warm colors on an array of canvas painted in modern Mithila evoke a soothing feel; these canvases of blooming flowers and dancing figures, set against a soulful white backdrop of the Nepal Art Council gallery walls interplay to captivate one’s eyes through subtle and minimalist aesthetics. About four feet away, you see a massive installation of handmade backcloth, stretching over an enormous wooden ceiling-length structure, almost camouflaging itself as a drapery of window curtains and inviting its viewer to reflect on abstraction as an art vocabulary with multiple lineages.
In an adjoining room, you see a crowd of like-minded art enthusiasts shooting words of “wow”, “damn”, as a big screen projector in front of them screen surrealist cinematography of soul-piercing massif; and in another one, one is haunted by the sound of some women performing witchcraft as they chant some ecclesiastic words to summon an ancient extra-worldly creature — such is the multidisciplinary vibrancy of the Kathmandu Triennale 2077, a large scale exhibition happening in the Kathmandu valley, which encompasses not just a diverse group of Nepali artists, but also a wide variety of artists’ backgrounds from all across the globe, constructing a kaleidoscopic global reality, and interconnecting art, nations, culture and human expression under a single roof.
In doing so, the exhibition adopts a vibrant and collaborative approach that encompasses not just such a variety of styles, but also a multitude of different art mediums across five culturally and historically significant venues in the valley. Every sector of Nepal’s art world, whether it be poetry, performance, or painting has boomed with creativity and uniqueness, and one key reason behind this is that each area of Nepali art richly infuses itself with some key similarities- they have didactic values, they are religious, ethereal and anthropomorphic all at the same time. Our values stick firmly to these aspects, which we appraise very much to align with our historical, religious, and societal principles. Nepal has particularly undergone historic and dramatic changes after 2006, including its shift from a monarchy to a federal republic, with progressive debates and tensions around the basis of re-establishing the nation after the devastating earthquake and its economic and social perils in 2071 B.S. (2015 AD). These moments of reckoning have placed the country and its diverse ethnic, cultural, social, and caste groups, including Indigenous communities and identities with a long history of marginalization, in a demanding position to reimagine ways of living during the uncertainties of our time. On the other hand, however, the ultra-modernist tendencies of Nepali societies – ranging from an advanced education system, diplomatic set of mindset, to the liberal outlook towards family structures, lifestyle, and career, have started to demand a more revolutionized and declarative art intervention in the society, asking for cutting-edge innovations and avant-garde artistic concepts, that deal with various issues that concern them today.
In such cultural moments of transition, Kathmandu Triennale, therefore, serves as a source of inspiration from the recent past and a guiding perspective for the future. It acts as the largest and most ambitious artistic project staged in the country to date, becoming a key event for contemporary arts in Nepal even beyond the exhibition’s duration. Amidst the rethinking and adaptations brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, each work in the event honors with great regard the collective feeling of deep loss, and equally, the paramount hope, sense of community, and imagination that have remained constant in our lives. And in terms of defining exactly what art means to the contemporary world, the Triennale becomes the perfect and the most exemplary vocabulary.
After having perused all four floors and their rooms that brim with so much creativity at the Nepal Art Council, one of the prominent venues of the Triennale, I was left feeling emotionally and intellectually engaged, personally inspired to embed my own subjective and psychological feelings with the multitude of threads and subjects each and every artwork at display resonated to. So immersive and vibrant, the council, which was founded by leading Nepali modern artist Lain Singh Bandel in 1962 CE under the patronage of King Mahendra, makes full use of each and every space it can possibly host. Walking past the large entrance doorway owing to a massive 7-feet tall event monograph, one could see the ceilings on the central hallway drape with colorfully and intricately woven fabric, which tell a distant story of the weaving traditions of an indigenous Thangul community of Manipur, paying tribute to the secular communities ravaged by state violence. The whole of the gallery itself is incorporated as pieces of art in such a way that the art is free, almost taking its life in a form and shape unique to the everyday elements of the gallery— its windows, doorways, stairs, and its walls: everything becomes a powerful convention that assists rather than contradicts the illusion that the artist is trying to create. The exhibition turns the building into an extraordinary architecture, and its contents, into embodiments of various realms within and outside of the artist’s physical world.
Walking past this installation exhibit towards the stairs, which look ordinary at first, but grandly invites you to the upper floor – where, ahead of you stands a massive flex printed artwork depicting the huge fire that engulfed Singha Durbar in 1917 B.S. (1973 AD) and the following mass demonstration held in front of the court– almost making you a part of the scene, next to pictures of dead bodies and chalk outlines which we today see as a historical mishap, but are reminded of its gravity and preponderance as equally as it did in the past. Grouping together montages of such landmark events, inspired from the pictorial depictions of ancient Nepal and the contrast between then and now, the gallery space uses its aesthetics to hang different sizes and shapes of frames together, forcing us to reflect on, as well as process historical events in particularly unique ways.
As you enter the main hall, labels on the walls direct your way to various different corners, each bedecked by a range of different art mediums– different artists– different backgrounds and different subjects, but a common motif- all adopting a central position that prompts the viewer to build and dismantle ideas, to clamber around inside them, to swing off them, and see how the world looks from that conjoined vantage point. These artworks deal with and lean towards retrospecting the roots, origin, and diversity whilst bridging the thread of modern contemporary aspirations from the early ‘60s to the current neo-national ultra-modern context. It embraces the subtle differences and nuances in the art scene of not only the past and present Nepal, and other communities across all the continents that might often have been marginalized in global discourses of contemporary art, but also as a whole, in regards to how these different worlds and time frames blend together into one harmonized art world. In that sense, the Triennale appreciates, but looks beyond the dominant traditions in these contexts, showcasing practices from communities that have often been subjected to processes of internal colonization by their own often post-colonial state and its official cultural narratives.
When looking at how the Triennale is interested in indigenous knowledge, both active and subversive, the works of two Nepali women particularly stand out. Blending together the facades of ancient and contemporary Nepali Terai community, the artists Madhumala Mandal and Sudhira Karna recollect fondest of their memories growing up in the Mithila region of Nepal. They go beyond the depiction of the daily lives of women with their reimagining and reassertions of the role of women in society.
Hearing stories of women riding motorcycles in neighboring villages and running their own businesses all while raising children, the artists depict female protagonists in colorful scenarios that challenge traditional gender norms. With the portrayal of animals drawn from their own imagination, using them as motifs rather than human figures in otherwise human day-to-day scenes, their works also show the growing agency of women in their villages, including their ability to now travel independently in bicycles and contribute to the local economy.
The use of vibrant colors, many sacred Mithila symbols, and anecdotic depictions of Mithila women make the paintings brim with positivity and optimism, hope and luck, and nature and purity as the artists fuse the relics of ancient Mithila style with elements of modern art, showcasing life as a whole. Their practices root themselves in Mithila art to critique the gendered lens through which labor is valued. These paintings become a symbol of empowerment in that the will to take a stance, as artists, on choosing art as a feasible career and as women, on advocating for self-dependence despite the social constraints in typical Mithila villages is suggestive of their strong willpower within the context of conservative and patriotic Nepali society.
The feminist undertones portrayed in the paintings, however, don’t resemble toxic femininity, nor do they sabotage others while advocating for personal worth and women’s societal status. Instead, all that they do is simply embrace stories and the existence of Nepali women’s demography, while painting their life experiences under the themes of struggle, happiness, and love.
Other artworks dealing with the theme of patriarchy redefine the meaning of women’s empowerment based on a similar central motif but shift their medium to a totally different direction. A group of three artists explores together, various stories of the internet through poems played on resounding loudspeakers at a corner as the voice of the artists constantly reverberates around the gallery walls, echoing amongst wall-hung artworks to which the similarity in concept and idea form a parallel line for conversation. The personification, exploration, and visualization through similar subjects and motifs depict the varying emotions and experiences of the different persona in the poems and their narratives of their ideal internet.
A chiaroscuro of the medium, but the similarity in theme is again seen through a montage of three separate canvases with pixelated images, looking at which one confuses them with an old LCD monitor, but then slowly begins to decipher how the artwork is an actual painting made in realistic-looking pixels. These show the censorship of women’s nipples and menstrual blood by social media companies as a part of their guidelines, hinting at the patriarchal idea that women’s sexuality should not be a conversation to be held in public.
Similarly, one comes across a life-size crossword puzzle named “Feminist Raila”, which deals with a fun and explorative space to engage with aspects of the feminist internet and thereby bring awareness to the normalization of women’s sexuality.
Another similar political statement is made by a series of beautiful hand-woven artworks by Pranika Koyu, who, inculcating a common household item, underscores a political message of racial domination. Voicing the principles of freedom owed by democracy, she documents, under a bold and outspoken title: Colors of Ex(Inclusion) the time occupied by various speakers in virtual panel discussions organized during Nepal’s COVID-19 lockdowns. Further incorporating patches that reflect the panel’s diversity in terms of gender, caste, and ethnicity, women from the indigenous and Dalit (untouchables) backgrounds who were sidelined during such talks, she subtly accentuates how men from higher castes continue to take up space in public discourses and create a self-serving echo chamber at the expense of others and their participation.
A series of archived photographs of ordinary people at their daily scenes stitched together into a long and narrow art piece by the Nepali artist Karan Shrestha (featured photos) form a strong metaphor for deep-rooted social differences after a decade-long conflict (1996-2006 AD) that ended with Nepal being the Federal Democratic Republic. The artwork “Waiting for Nepal” acts as a grave reminiscence about the prolonged times when the people of Nepal had been forced to wait for accessing essentials to basic healthcare and education, compensation, and legal justice following the period of political unrest and weak governance.
Similarly, a canvas-sized artwork “Luingarnla Kashan” (translating to a traditionally made garment) pays tribute to a woman named Ms. Luingarnla of a village in Manipur who was shot dead while resisting rape by two officers of the Indian army. The message behind such grave misfortunes that happen to countless suppressed women around the world attempt to at least be aware, if not exposed individually, the personnel who use state power to shield themselves from prosecution for such crimes committed against civilians.
Projecting an issue of mass emigration, which is so resonant to Nepal, an artist named Mircea Cantor from Romania exhibits an installation of woolen tapestry woven in centuries-old traditional style weaving with only two primary colors that resemble a code-like pattern. The aged blankets show numbers in decreasing order- an intimation to the reducing population of the country, who, like many Nepalese, choose to emigrate to “first world “ nations. Her work “Hands are adjectives to the number” creates this parallel between age-old traditions of handcrafting and her nation’s status of demographic problems, which, because of its resemblance to our own country, acts as a shared experience of contemporaneity and a community of memory alongside Nepal and other various other geographies, from Southeast Asia to Latin America, which the Triennale seeks to represent.
Mementos of society and history act as a key interdisciplinary subject in this exhibition and textiles as such serve as relics of symbolic and memorable past in multiple contexts. An installation of colorful lungis (sarong) acts as a meaningful reminiscence of our soldiers of the Royal Gurkha Rifle, who, during the wars, returned home from their stations bringing back lungis as gifts for their families. While lungis came to symbolize that someone in that family is a Lahure, a Gurkha Rifle soldier, many communities across Nepal adopt it to date as a local attire. Not just that, the manufacturing and stylizing of lungis as a garment as such can be traced down to antediluvian times when the Javanese traveled trade and military routes to Malaysia and Singapore. And by representing such a basic commodity in a meaningful convention, the exhibit celebrates how closely intertwined with it are metaphors for rich artistry in many other African countries or a symbol of memorable homecomings for Dutch soldiers.
Another artist from Syktyvkar fuses ideas of Ethno-futurism, an avant-garde movement demanding innovations in literature and art in liberated Estonia, with elaborately stylized images of beings and objects associated with archaic Uralic beliefs and value systems. Intertwining with the themes of national liberation and empowerment, as represented by the Triennale, his paintings depict mythical worshiping of ethnic clan animals within a dynamic and futuristic style of visual elements and aesthetics that bridge the past and future of contemporary ethnic culture.
The Triennale fully accepts art being one of the most powerful and accessible ways of shaping social consciousness, pursuing a new constellation of coordinates in representing Nepal through an aboriginal lens. Exploring the concept of Adivasi Futurism, inspired by various other movements such as Afrofuturism, Indigenous Futurism, and various Adivasi, Janajati, feminist, Queer and Dalit movements, filmmaker Subash Tyhebe Limbu in his film “Time Travelers” features an indigenous astronaut time traveler from the future with a sci-fi and futuristic nation that would appear magical for those from the present. Considering his work to be science fiction through an indigenous lens, the artist explores the notion of time, space, and memory and how realities could differ from community to community, person to person, reimagining indigenous people like the creators of interstellar civilizations of the future.
On an exuberant yellow background, plays another single-channeled screen, a contrastingly grave depiction of two young boys with a focused and deadpan expression naively mimicking the guttural rattling of an automatic rifle used in wars. Alluding directly to the foreboding reflections of the enduring and all-pervasive effects of conflict and war in Afghanistan(the artist’s home country) and similar other war-torn nations, this eerie accuracy of the motions of the boys and their learned behavior directly probes the prospect of their innocent futures, and as the title “Rehearsal” suggests, questions what exactly are they rehearsing for.
As eccentric and ethereal as it may look and sound, equally alienating, but mesmerized it makes you feel once you enter the dark corners of the gallery room wherein a large three-channel video projection depicts a utopian idea and principle of Roma futurism, which is characterized by a new ritualistic language and conveyed through the poetry of modern anti-racist discourse to heal and empower Roma communities. “Giuvlipen”, a new-aged word in Romanian for “feminism”, after which one of the artists’ theatre group is named, inspires and enables her to project in front of us, indigenous perspectives operated in the field of technology, where bodies and traditions are queered against folklore symbolism of counterculture and criticality.
Absorbing, semi-autobiographic, and fantastical, another short film by Andrew Thomas Huang alludes to the difficulties of the Asian queer community, following an ordinary Asian-American restaurant worker’s painful, yet the liberating journey of self-discovery as he embarks on extraordinary sexual awakening. These films, among many others which focus on the marginalized like growing up in Ladakh, transgender love, and the crisis of Rohingyas and Dalits, take time to dwell on social injustices and delve in-depth into the structural reasons for discrimination, inequality, and exploitation. Herein, the filmmakers tend to give voice to the voiceless, show the plight of neglected or abused people whom the mainstream media ignores.
But at this bustling venue, one doesn’t always need to find the art in large projector screens or brightly painted canvases, an ordinary A4 sized Lokta paper also becomes a rich embodiment of meaningful advocacy when bold letters in Nepali portray a poem “Ragat Timro Pani Raato Cha” (lit. Your blood runs red too); a poem exploring the systematic culture of exclusion, oppression, and violence facing the Tharu community since the beginning of Nepali state. Artist, writer, and activist Indu Tharu, extract a part of the activist movement, demanding inclusion of and anti-discrimination towards the Tharu ethnic state of Nepal.
Such multi-dimensionality shows how the same issue or concept can be dealt with using various mediums, how although artists resonate with each medium, they vest the ultimate power on the hands of the end audience to grasp and dissect the personal motifs and intentions behind each artwork that is being created. As a retrospective, the exhibition fosters a healthy art ecology that is based on the exchange of knowledge through an expansive art exhibition as well as a robust educational and public outreach event. It exemplifies itself as the true meaning of “contemporary”, not just in terms of art expression within and beyond a canvas, but also in terms of a nation’s history, its socio-politics, and its modern iconography. For artists as well as the general public, exhibitions such as the Kathmandu Triennale 2077 act as a medium, making you feel an immersed part of the larger community, touched by the beauty of communal glory, and moved by the freedom of expression and transformative solidarity.
Well at least for me, that was exactly how I felt– as a liberal arts student about to pursue my Bachelor’s degree in Europe, and a mixed media artist myself, interested in the correlation between various art genres and social and contextual issues of the present and past, it opened a new horizon on itself to help me accept the contemporary, without forgoing the deep-rooted values that have been framed along the centuries and that, which seems to slowly fade away as we progress so much along the path of modernism. It helps me assess my own perception of art within the fields of the humanities while also acquiring a knowledge of the key intellectual works and developments of the disciplines of the social sciences and the practicing arts. It truly helps me contextualize the contemporary art scene of my home country, its significance to the global art world and vice versa, while still being governed by my own art practice. These observations help deepen my level of understanding of how practicing arts and humanities interplay with each other while intellectualizing art matters.
Among many of my experiences of gallery visits that I can recount, attending the Triennale at the Nepal Art Council was definitely something truly magical. Not only has it left a long-lasting impression on me, but it has made me believe how well the contemporary art scene in Nepal has fostered. It has given me the personal power to reassess, create and empower, to which not just I, but my nation can identify.