5 MIN READ
A series of printed paw prints on the floor led me to an exhibition hall where each wall carried a story, a vision, a creation that had something to say. My mind was dazzled: where was I even going to start? I chose the easy route, walking to the nearest art piece on display.
On the two floors of the Nepal Art Council in Babarmahal, a concentrated blend of art awaited me. This was the annual final exhibition of Kathmandu University School of Arts’ Bachelor of Fine Arts program, titled UN/CONFINED, and open from November 17 to 22. I came to the exhibition to soak in an artistic world and hopefully, gain some inspiration for my own pursuits as a writer. I knew I wouldn't be able to leave before a few hours had elapsed.
Visitors flocked in and out of the exhibition space as I wandered, their mobile phones snapping pictures. Bright focus lights lit up the art on display, which consisted of paintings, portraits, photographs, animations, picture books, comics, art installations among others. The smell of fresh paint lingered in the air. Each artist had a corner, a wall, a space to make their home. Every year, it isn’t just the exhibits that change but also the space. The walls are redecorated, new props installed; what was is destroyed to make way for what can be. Perhaps the insides of the building itself are art in the making, morphing every time a new exhibition opens.
Twenty-six exhibits were on display, a mix of graphics and studio art. As I started walking around the first exhibition hall, I noticed a corner with animal drawings - ‘Hands for Paws’ by Spriha Shrestha, the same exhibit whose series of printed paw prints led me inside the hall. ‘Hands for Paws’ is an illustrated storybook about stray dogs.
I walked back to the first exhibit – a portrait. Whenever I come across a portrait, my first thought is always ‘I can't draw’. I don’t know how true that is but the thought always seems to find its way through the neural pathways of my brain. I moved slowly, from one wall to another. The exhibits changed and so did the mood, the colors, and the themes. Some were about the outer world, its chaos, and cruelty, and some about the inner enclosed lives we all share and yet never utter a word about.
In ‘44700: Graffiti & Street Art of Nepal’, Shulab Thapa had documented Lalitpur’s graffiti and urban art, thus the name 44700 – the zipcode of the city that is also my home. Art from the streets of Jawalakhel, Jhamsikhel, Pulchowk, and many other places I couldn’t even recall began to form new patterns in my mind, inviting me to see my home in a different light, on a different medium.
In ‘Nubri Valley’ by Tsewang Gyurme Lama, I was greeted by traditional crafts and designs that are on the brink of extinction. The Nubri Valley remains one of the most isolated areas in the Himalayan region bordering Tibet.
In ‘Reverie’, Aishwarya Shakya provided visitors a glimpse into her space filled with greens. The installation of hundreds of ceramic flowers over the green walls became a portal to a different dimension.
A process book was available by each exhibition. Flipping through the pages, I could see the process of the artist, the rambling of the mind, and the taming of ideas. The books dispelled the romantic notion of the artist who creates perfect art with a single touch. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous, disciplined labor. I sit at my desk and I work like a farmer, and that's how it gets done.” The process is the unglamorous side of the artist's life, likely filled with doubts but also moments that make it worthwhile to do what one is doing. The journey from the amorphous to the concrete is a laborious one.
It is both a strange and beautiful time to be observing art. As an observer, I have as much agency to incorporate and define the meaning of art as the artist themselves. I am not just a passive viewer; in the process of observation, I too am creating, defining, and forging meaning.
Between the many exhibits on display, one special wall was covered with hundreds of photographs of the artists and their moments - the classes they’ve taken, the simple yet memorable shenanigans they’ve put up, and the joys they’ve experienced together. These photos could make anyone smile, nostalgic for their own college days. But the wall served a greater purpose than mere documentation – it was the mark of a community, a support system in what can otherwise be an isolating vocation.
As I looked over more exhibits, a question arose – which is the ‘best’ one? It seems that a desire to quantify, compare, and establish a hierarchical order never fails to seep in. I quelled the question with kindness. Each piece of art speaks to someone, I say, but the question doesn't go away. It branches out instead – what if your creation never speaks to anyone else? A sacrilegious question, one that every artist must contend with.
Just then, Tolkien's words come to the rescue. In 1954, JRR Tolkien wrote in The Fellowship of the Ring: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Perhaps a rephrasing of this line might help answer the question: All we have to decide is what to create in the time that is given us. It is impossible to completely eliminate the desire to have our art mean something to someone other than ourselves. Yet, often, there is the very real possibility that what we create will only ever be ours.
After almost two hours, I walked out, my mind shaken. I had witnessed six months of tireless work, hundreds of hours of craft, including idea generation, research, and refining, all of which were gathered together for hundreds of curious eyes each day. As I leave the created world behind, what did I take back to the ‘real’ world, I ask. Art is as much about the process as it is about inspiration. Art is a lot of work. And this ‘work’ might be among the few aspects of art that we can consciously choose as artists - the power to make things.
Alfa M Shakya Alfa is a writer, trainer, and digital artist. She runs her blog thewordcastle.com and is also a Toastmaster.
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