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A sheet of white parchment paper, inked with triangles in red and blue that resemble tiny arrows, stands tall at the Bahadur Shah Baithak in Patan. The sheet resembled rolled wood or a field in the heart of a forest bordered with trees, some standing tall and others cut down. I didn’t quite understand it, but it drew me in.
The parchment is in fact aute, a kind of mulberry paper utilized by the Maori of New Zealand. It is part of an artwork by Nikau Hindin, a barkcloth maker from New Zealand who grounds her practice in Matauranga Maori, the Maori knowledge systems that include the lunar calendar, the language, genealogy, and so on. The arrows represent the movement of celestial bodies as signs of both direction and time as part of the lunar calendar. Hindin’s artwork attempts to question the Gregorian calendar, which is a solar calendar, a time system enforced by the United Kingdom on its colonies. She believes that Gregorian time has limited our ability to connect and interact with the environment.
The linearity of time
Can art challenge the ways in which we think about time? This is the central question that the ongoing Kathmandu Triennale 2077 is attempting to answer, or at least interrogate. The title of the Triennale itself is an attempt by the organizers and curators to question the concept of linear time, where the year 2020 in the Gregorian calendar corresponds to 2077 in the Nepali Bikram Sambat calendar. Because 2077 is still half a century away in the Gregorian calendar, the title evokes curiosity while also drawing attention to the simultaneous presence of many different ways of measuring time. The convergence of the two dates embodies the spirit of “both a cemented, stagnant time and a fluid, unpredictable variant,” say the organizers.
The Triennale, which is in its second iteration, was supposed to take place in 2020, hence its title. But the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted any such public art exhibitions.
“Once the pandemic hit, it was important for us to not panic but rather reflect on our strategy and reorient the Triennale,” said Sangeeta Thapa, chair of the Triennale and founder-director of the Siddhartha Arts Foundation.
While aiming to deconstruct the idea of time as linear and history simply as knowledge of the past, the Triennale also seeks to refocus attention on how art helps us preserve the meaning of a given phenomenon and its possible historical significance for the present and the future. Through its selection of artworks and thematic issues, the Triennale urges that history be viewed not just as artworks recounting the past, but as a narrative that confers upon past actualities a possible future perspective.
“We wanted to show and look at time, art, and artworks not just in the past, but in a more prospective way. We sought to look at the fluidity of belonging and the flexibility of identity,” said Sheelasha Rajbhandari, co-curator of the Triennale.
With the Triennale, director Sharahreh Bajracharya, artistic director Cosmin Costinas, and co-curators Rajbhandari and Hitman Gurung look at shifting conventions such as identity, art practices, and meaning. The Triennale also celebrates practices that have been systematically excluded from the realm of art, designated by a colonial ethnographic gaze as craft, folklore, or at best, ‘traditional’ art, even though these practices often perform analogous cultural and social functions in their communities as ‘fine’ art does.
The when and where
The Triennale was launched virtually on February 11 and opened physically to the public on March 1 across five different venues in the capital city: the Patan Museum, Bahadur Shah Baithak, the Nepal Art Council, the Taragaon Museum, and the Siddhartha Art Gallery. With a focus on locating Nepali art and artists within the global discourse in art, the Kathmandu Triennale 2077 showcases the work of roughly 100 artists and more than 300 artworks from across 40 nations.
“We want to put Nepal on the international art scene. Our artists are already being shown all over the world and collected in international museums. But our own public hasn’t seen them yet,” said Rajbhandari. “The Triennale has been curated for Nepali people to witness Nepali artists and their artwork along with that of international artists.”
Art as collective memory
One such artist whose work many Nepalis might not be familiar with is Bal Krishna Banamala, whose series of paintings titled ‘God Loss Childhood’ is being showcased at the Patan Museum. The paintings depict the significance and the detrimental effects of the Navadurga Jatra, which takes place over 11 months. The festival is a tantric mask dance involving 19 devgans (traditional dancers) from 16 different castes. It is unique to the city of Bhaktapur, performed in and around it.
In Bhaktapur, the Navadurga is chosen akin to the Kumari and is forbidden from reading, playing, writing, drawing or engaging in any other activity that children their age enjoy. They are compelled to walk around barefoot, sacrifice sleep, and follow a set of duties that come with the role. Banamala himself took part in the jatra this year in order to experience firsthand the lessons and challenges that come with it.
“The perils of the young children who take on the role of the Navadurga and sacrifice their childhood are the subjects of my paintings. The colorful Navadurga in the paintings represent a sense of superiority that these young children imbibe in themselves while the negative space represents their grief and dark destiny,” said Banamala.
By showcasing practices from communities that have often been subjected to processes of internal colonization by their own state and its official cultural narratives, the Triennale puts on display the political effects of history on gender, community, and race. These are shown in parallel with an effort to highlight artworks and practices from indigenous communities such as the art of tattooing in Tharu culture, whose urgency to decolonize their cultural narratives has long been overdue.
Urmila Gamwa Tharu and Lavkant Chaudhary, along with Artree Nepal, have been researching the significance of the art of tattooing in the Tharu community. Excerpts from their research in different forms, such as a poem, photographs, and a wall filled with statements from the community on the significance of the tattoos, are being showcased at the Nepal Art Council as a part of the Triennale.
“During our research, we found that Tharu women wore tattoos on their arms and legs for different motives, such as beautification, a sign of identification, hidden messages, etc. Some also wore tattoos because it was believed that nobody would marry a Tharu woman without one,” said Tharu.
The tattoos were inked in different patterns with icons such as cooking pots, peacocks, temples, etc., signifying hidden symbols for some and memories for others. Urmila said that the tradition has begun to fade away, owing to the perpetuation of labels such as the women being witches and even being arrested for the same.
“We’re trying to bring out the realities of where the art of tattoo making in the Tharu community is rooted and change the narrative around it so that the community can reclaim its practice and take ownership of the narrative,” said Chaudhary.
Urmila also brought into focus how, in recent times, tattooing has become fashionable amongst young Nepalis who see it as an art form that came from the West, unaware of its roots in their own culture.
In this way, the artworks at the Triennale also reflect on how art carries collective memory and art practices enable the bringing forth of new modes of productions, experiences, and circulations in daily life.
Technology and the arts: Past, present, and future synergies
In an interview with the artist Uriel Orlow, whose works The Fairest Heritage 2016 and After Yellow are currently being showcased at the Taragaon Museum, he said, “When I started working on the project for the Triennale, I turned to local people and experts engaged in architecture and agriculture because they have the most knowledge about the location. As I talked to them, I found that the Khokana region in Lalitpur — known for mustard cultivation — has long been fighting the threats of urbanization. I had several rounds of such conversations with them and started to think about how we could pay homage to this beautiful landscape and its indigenous technologies to support these people. That’s how we came up with ‘After Yellow’.”
After Yellow is basically a garden sown with mustard in the pattern of a traditional mustard mill, an ode to the people of Khokana and their practice of mustard cultivation which is slowly disappearing due to rapid urbanization. Mustard farming is rooted in the local seasonal cycles of change as well as traditional farming calendars and serves as a testament to the history of human-plant relationships.
When asked what is going to happen to the mustard plant installation after the Triennale, Orlow said, “The mustard seeds will be taken back to Khokana to make oil. The size of the field was calculated to make one bottle. The mustard seed is annual so the plantation will not continue.”
Orlow, who lives in London and Lisbon, drew on indigenous Nepali practices in order to produce the installation, which is something that the Triennale encourages. The exhibitions are a perpetual zone of education, production, and criticism that bring actors from across the world together. A variety of different artists have thus had the opportunity to develop new artworks, test ideas, and experiment with social and aesthetic possibilities in relation to the vision of the curators and the curatorial team.
Patrizio Di Massimo, an Italian artist, brought pieces that he had crafted especially for the Triennale – ‘Infermento’ is showcased at the Bahadur Shah Baithak and ‘Untitled (The Ethiopian Leg), 2019’ at the Patan Museum.
The Italian word infermento translates to ‘in turmoil’ in English, which is essentially what the artist has tried to capture in his artwork.
“In the painting, infant Jesus holds the planet earth tenderly but firmly; the planet is in uproar: limbs emerging from its crust and buildings collapsing. The painting, however, refers to both the past and the future that was born from the past: the destruction of the Earth. It also speaks of geological changes. In Infermento, the human civilization is in turmoil,” said Massimo.
The rise and fall of civilizations throughout history demonstrates that what goes up must eventually come down. If the fate of previous civilizations can be a roadmap to our future, what does it indicate? In the past, collapse was confined to regions but today, our increased technological abilities have given birth to new, unprecedented threats of global collapse.
But technological advancements have also made it possible to explore the potential of mixed media in creating artwork. The presence of digital technologies in society and its unpredictable advances have also left their mark in the art space. The Kathmandu Triennale’s recent edition is no exception.
A cursory scan of the Triennale reveals an emporium of screens, digital prints, and mixed media. Andrew Thomas Huang’s film ‘Kiss of the Rabbit God’ at the Nepal Art Council and Vvzela Kook’s ‘Columbus of Horticulture’ at the Taragaon Museum are captivating in their aesthetics and presentation.
When asked about his art process and what influences his work, Huang said, “As a third generation queer Chinese American, I have learned that the only pathway forward in my artistic journey is to look backward to ancestors and predecessors in my heritage who paved the way for queerness and to bring their stories to light. As a filmmaker and video artist, I am always seeking ways for queerness to be animated in some way, whether it's through fictional storytelling, mixed media, puppetry, or digital art.”
The triennale also serves as a witness to rising populist nationalism all around the world, at a time when social traumas and political earthquakes have increased anxieties about the future in unprecedented ways, and individual freedoms have been cornered in various parts of the world.
“Since my work often deals with themes of Asian immigration and displacement, it is very important to me to showcase my work alongside diverse artists of the Asian diaspora from around the world. I am honored to have my work in conversation with others who deal with similar themes, as I feel like platforms like the Triennale provide an opportunity for our voices to intersect and vibrate together,” Huang said.
Artists from across Nepal and the globe have come together to explore various thematic elements. While some have worked in collaboration, others have sought to produce their own highly personalized vision of the Triennale’s themes – time, indigeneity, and memory. It is a spectacle that is worth witnessing.
Kathmandu Triennale 2077 is currently showing at Taragaon Museum, Siddhartha Art Gallery, Nepal Art Council, Patan Museum, and Bahadur Shah Baithak. The festival will go on till March 31 and is free for all visitors. Visit kathmandutriennale.org for more details.
Nishi Rungta Nishi Rungta is a Research and Development Officer at Pad2Go Nepal. Along with her part-time job here, she also co-runs a marketing agency and clothing label Lucid Inc.
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