To measure the impact of a contemporary cultural event is a tricky business. Some put out numbers; others capture reactions through photos and videos. We believe that one of the primary goals of an event – in this case an arts festival, the Kathmandu Triennale – should be to leave an enduring mark on the hearts and minds of people. In other words, to urge its citizens, young and old, to begin imagining possibilities for change. When the Triennale was in its second week, some of our editors went on a retreat with a team of young poets and thinkers. Before departure, the participants were asked to go to the Nepal Art Council. During the retreat, each participant attempted to describe their experience of an artwork. We wanted them to examine the artists’ intentions carefully; more importantly, we wanted them to examine their own thought processes in relation to the artwork. Four reflections will follow in the next few days, beginning with the spoken word poet, Ujjwala Maharjan.
Ujjwala Maharjan on Sheelasha Rajbhandari’s I Still See that Same Old House of Ours in My Dreams
I paused in front of Sheelasha Rajbhandari’s exhibit for the same reason I pause whenever I see old women with Newar features. Rajbhandari’s exhibit about her grandmother reminded me of my own. The soft audio recording of her grandmother speaking in broken Nepali in the background and the sanduks placed in the middle of the exhibit added to the nostalgia. I was taken back to my childhood – growing up in my mamaghar, where we had similar sanduks – and with a grandmother who loved us unconditionally and who spoke in even more broken Nepali while telling us stories about her past.
I Still See that Same Old House of Ours in My Dreams centres around Rajbhandari’s maternal grandmother, Chiniyaa. The artist lets us into her family history through stories that Chiniyaa narrates to her. The narrative revolves around Chiniyaa’s recollection of her old maternal house, her own grandmother, her life and the city.
The multimedia exhibit had three main components – the audio recording, the three sanduks and old photos with texts handwritten over them. The photos were framed and hung on the walls. I was immediately attracted to the sanduks and their components. Each of the sanduks contained miniature household utensils, meant to resemble bhādākuti, toys children play house with. Next to some of these objects were recent photographs of Chiniyaa, wearing a nasal cannula to help her breathe. These photographs depict Chiniyaa looking at the miniature utensils and caressing them, almost as if she were playing bhādākuti again. One of the photos shows both Chiniyaa and Rajbhandari looking at a miniature utensil and smiling – maybe they are sharing a fond memory from their past. Back in the old days, Chiniyaa’s grandmother had bought a house in Bhotahiti. This was where Chiniyaa lived till she was married. The old house was recently brought down to make way for a new one. Many household goods were lost, including the three sanduks that had Chiniyaa’s bhādākuti and other utensils in them.
The photographs displayed on the walls were framed inside old-style silver lined frames. Each photograph, however, was much smaller than the frame, with a significant amount of white space around it. On some, Rajbhandari had scribbled a few lines from her grandmother’s narration – emphasizing how Chiniyaa still remembers the old house and keeps seeing it in her dreams. The text mimics Chiniyaa’s broken yet colloquial Nepali, commonly spoken among Newar-language speakers. These pieces of text shifted my focus from the photographs to the story. Maybe the artist intended this. Some of the frames didn’t have photos, only text.
One of these relays a story about how when Chiniyaa’s grandmother bought the house, her husband beat her so badly that he broke her arms. In another frame, Chiniyaa speaks about being married to a stranger and thinking, for months, that he was just a family friend. The next frame tells us about her having to quit her studies after marriage. These personal stories are interwoven with stories about how the city was changing, how one could see Swayambhu and Ghantaghar from one’s terrace, or how sparsely populated Kathmandu was back then.
Apart from paying tribute to her grandmother, Rajbhandari has a larger agenda. Her artist statement notes that following her own father’s death, her mother and grandmother looked after her. Socially and officially, however, her dead father and grandfather were accorded more importance than the women who “sacrificed so much” for her. Through her personal history, she exposes how our national, collective history discards women’s experiences by always focusing on paternal family history and lineage. Through this project, she retells history by tracing her maternal family’s history, “by giving credit where it’s due”. I felt that she had done so successfully.
By the end of the exhibit, I couldn’t help thinking about my own dead grandmother. I missed her even more. But Rajbhandari’s work not only tugged at my sentiments, at my longing and nostalgia, it drew me beyond my own memories and into a larger world of shared history, a history of our mothers, grandmothers and the women in our society.
Nischal Neupane on Belu Simion Fainaru’s Black Milk
Belu Simion Fainaru’s Black Milk is a rectangular floor installation composed of white pieces of crockery filled to the brim with coal-black burnt oil. The white crockery that forms the rectangle – an assortment of plates, platters and lidless teapots of various shapes and sizes – look like they have been lifted off a restaurant’s kitchen shelf. “They look like they were made in China,” a friend commented. The tranquil lustrous-black liquid is the darkest shade of worldly black and reflects the silhouettes of curious onlookers who hover above and around with their cameras.
The installation sits quietly at the centre of a naturally lit room (not the case with every exhibit) on the second floor of the Nepal Art Council. It shares the room with other art works prepared by the same artist. Fainaru juxtaposes the banal (the “Chinese” tableware) with the bizarre (the deathly black burnt oil), and makes a damning commentary on human dependency on oil. His choice of the shape of the installation (rectangular), probably alludes to the form of a regular dining table. By placing the burnt oil-laden crockery in that rectangular formation, as if they are being readied to be served, he reminds us that we, especially the inhabitants of the urban mess that Kathmandu has become, sit at our tables and essentially eat and drink oil on a daily basis.
This particular art installation was conceived in 2012 and is a detail from the globally exhibited Nothingness – The Poetics of the Void. It deviates from the Israel-based Fainaru’s work in that it is more “global” relative to his other pieces, which address issues surrounding Jewish culture and society. The idea behind the work, a direct reference to the legendary land artist and nature reverent Richard Long, struck a chord with me – a middle-class Nepalese urbanite who lives in a city completely devoid of the dark brown of the soil (there is a difference between dust and soil) and the green of plants among the brick-red and grey concrete colours that paint the cityscape. It also reminded me of my disgust about my own dependency on petroleum and all its products, a fact that becomes even more glaring during the frequent periods of petrol shortage.
While staring at my own hovering silhouette in the black liquid in that sunlit room, I heard my own little self-righteous, pious bubble burst. The cheap crockery reminded me of my culpability, and my part in the giant machine that oil powers. It also seemed to indict me for my lack of sincere effort in living a more responsible life.
I know that most of the objects I use on a daily basis – to read, to write, to bathe, to sit, to sleep, to walk, to carry, to (insert verb here) have travelled hundreds and thousands of miles before getting to me, all made possible by oil. Even oil is brought to me by oil. This black milk, as Fainaru aptly names it, fills my plates and my water tanks, takes me places, clothes me, lights up my rooms, sparks and sustains the engines that make my wai wai and fake Nikes. It brings to me my kitchen sinks and bathroom fittings, my toothbrushes and my toilet paper rolls. The world that I live in functions because of oil. While I can’t discount the ease of life that comes with it, I can’t turn a blind eye to the damage done to the world we live in by our continuing dependency on this black magic. Worse, there is almost nothing I (can) do about it.
While I sign petitions and use public transport or walk and use the least amount of plastic possible, and try my best to eat things grown close to home (harder with each passing day), I know I am barely making a dent. Fainaru’s piece evoked in me a sinking feeling, the sense of helplessness that follows knowing that you have in fact gone a bit too far. It is not too hard to know I am in the realm of incorrigibility, along with the world, when I know I won’t even be able to eat if I decide to move away from oil for even as little as one full day.
Despite massive environmental concern, the numbers indicate that Black Milk is here to stay. A recent report in Scientific American predicts that rapid growth in the BRICS economies will drive the uninhibited consumption of oil for at least the next two decades. The amount of carbon coughed up will warm our world and in the process push hundreds of species to extinction, take too many (mostly poor) human lives before their time, and make the world a more precarious place to live in. Fainaru’s piece stood out to me because of its simplicity and the blatant manner in which it speaks of the treacherous future we are headed towards.
After the exhibition, I went home to have dinner with my family. We ate rice brought from Sarlahi, dal from Nawalparasi, and vegetables from Banepa. That evening, I couldn’t help but notice a faint smell of oil in everything that I ate. The worst part was knowing that the smell was going to stay with me for a while.
While exploring the Nepal Art Council exhibits, I found myself inside someone’s room. The room was lit with a yellow light and had a TV next to the door. On top of this was a box of lubricants and a flimsy-looking book. Clothes – a scarf, a kurta, a dress – were on a hanger. A few photos of a family, a couple with two children, were hanging on the whitewashed brick walls. There was a door to another room. But right next to the door was a table joined to a half-body-length mirror. A stack of old magazines and notebooks, a bottle of talcum powder, almost empty mineral water bottles, nail polish and such were on the table. A long, black wig hung next to the mirror. I looked around the room, now focusing on nothing in particular. A sense that this room belonged to someone, a real person, was about to settle in my mind when I became aware of the smell of fresh plaster in the air.
The room was actually an installation, part of Bangladeshi artist Mahbubur Rahman’s exhibition for the Kathmandu Triennale. In this artwork, he has documented the dual lives of a transgender woman living in Kathmandu. Who was this person? The answers, I realized, were in the next room, a dark space illuminated by the faint light coming from projectors that showed two videos playing simultaneously. The videos, whose edges met at a corner of two adjacent walls, depicted the two lives led by the protagonist – one was Tirtha’s life, the other one was Pinkie’s.
The placement of the videos made it difficult for me to fully comprehend what was going on. The confusion created by the artist was an interesting experience for me. At first I tried watching both the videos at once. I registered bits and pieces of information in my mind. Family. Friend. House. Children. Room. Transgender. Makeup. Laughter. I was already beginning to feel moved by what I saw and so, I did what I thought this art piece demanded of me. I walked to the end of the room, across from one of the videos, and sat down to watch it properly. In this video, Tirtha was transforming into Pinkie, transforming from the man she was supposed to look like to the outside world and becoming herself. She was talking to her friend Manisha while putting on her clothes and makeup. The two were having a casual conversation through which we learned little details about Pinkie’s life. The phone rings, Pinkie makes some arrangements. At some point in the video, she addresses the people behind the camera. “I am the mother and she is my daughter,” Pinkie jokes, once she has finished dressing up. The video ends in a photoshoot where Pinkie and Manisha pose and pout and smile at the camera.
I moved to the other side of the room to watch the second video. This one was a peek into the life Tirtha lives as a husband and a father. We see Tirtha talking to her children while they eat lunch, trying to get the children ready for school, cleaning at work.
Even when trying to concentrate fully on one of the videos, my mind tended to travel into the other frame. As a result, I was concentrating very hard. I was the only viewer in the room until I noticed in my peripheral vision that a man had walked into the room. He sat down on the other side, filming the installation with his cellphone. I didn’t pay much attention since I was trying hard to not lose focus. Just then, the man blurted out in a tone that hinted that he was overwhelmed, “What do you think?” He was talking to me, but I didn’t want to be disturbed at that point and only responded with a turn of my head towards him. “Tell me something about this,” the man spoke to me again.
“I am also a viewer, so I don’t know much,” I said honestly, but also with an intention to be left alone.
“But what do you think? Can you tell me what’s happening here?” he asked me again.
I gave up trying to watch the film and turned my head slightly towards him. Wide-eyed, he was half facing the film and half facing me.
“Umm, this is one of the exhibitions. There are other exhibitions upstairs as well. This is by a Bangladeshi artist who documented – ”
He cut me off mid-sentence. “After looking at this I feel that they have been so misunderstood. We were given wrong information about them,” he said. I listened. “I will go tell my friends about this. I will tell them how mistaken we have been.” Both of us proceeded to watch the films.
When the second film ended, I left the video room. On my way out, I took a quick look at the installed bedroom. The setup felt even more familiar to me then. I took a few photographs and left. A new window in my mind had opened.
The newspaper prints covered most of the walls of the large room at the Nepal Art Council. They could almost pass as wallpaper, a backdrop to the prominent replica of the rath (chariot) made up of a mesh of wires on metal frames. I took some time skirting the rath-replica to examine the text and pictures on the newspaper print. There was a rhythmic racket coming from a manual knitting machine that spewed out colourful stretches of cylindrical knitting, part of another artwork that shared the same space.
The newspaper spread documented Bart Lodewijks’ chalk-work, drawn on the surfaces of public and private spaces in Kathmandu, Rio de Janeiro, Gent and other places. The work displayed was mostly line drawings on walls, doors and pavements. The lines were drawn in such a way that they looked as if they belonged in the picture. They either ran parallel to the lines already present in the picture or ran across them. Sometimes, they offered a perspective different from that originally present in the architecture. Some lines were long and consistent, others ran short and haphazardly, like the one on the exterior brick facade of the Art Council. I had to stare at some pictures for a few seconds longer before I could discern where the artist had drawn his lines. The focus of some pictures were objects and people rather than lines.
A few books from Roma Publications had been left on the floor for visitors to browse through. They documented, in pictures and in the artist’s own words, the process of creating his art and the interactions with locals that ensue. Some texts from the books had also been put up as part of the exhibit, punctuating the flow of the pictures. The essence of the artwork appeared to lie in both the artist’s impermanent chalk line drawings as well as his documentation of interactions. For the latter, the artist seems to have followed an organic process guided by his own responses to the interactions. All in all, Lodewijk’s work provides a commentary on the culture of the spaces where he creates his artwork.
At a cursory glance, the work seems futile. Lodewijk spends long hours, sometimes days, drawing lines, sometimes letting weather run its course. If rain washes away parts, he starts over until the work is complete. The sense I got from the drawings is that the simplicity of these lines probably eases the interactions. I felt like I could draw these lines as well. When the interactions happen under the premise of an artwork, the artist is leaving a lasting impression. He’s making them think about why he is doing the things he does, and in extension, making people think about why they do the things they do.
Both the process and the product of his artwork have the ability to move people. Incidentally, one of the pictures on display from Nepal happened to be of the spot where my ancestral home stood prior to the 2015 earthquake. The picture shows a bunch of people warming their backs in the sun, including an old man with a dhaka topi, flanking the artwork without really being aware of it. A simple, bold chalk line stands perpendicular to the ground, drawn on a slightly tilted wooden pillar amidst the ruins of the house. Although my family moved out of the house when I was very young, I have a lot of special memories of the place. That’s why I actively avoided witnessing the dismantling of the house following the earthquake. The picture made me wonder how I would have perceived this artwork on the ruins of my home had I not known of his work; or if I would have even noticed it, much less be affected by it. Or, I wonder how I would have reacted to Lodewijks drawing on the pillar had I been there when he was working instead of seeing this picture at the Triennale.
Each newspaper spread was pinned to the wall with thin nails. When I went to view the exhibition halfway through the Triennale, I saw that a couple of the nails had come off, which left some corners dangling. I requested one of the volunteers in the room to fix it, annoyed at the flimsiness of the exhibit. I was also bothered that the other exhibits overshadowed this one. In hindsight, it made more sense to use the nails and newspaper print to display Lodewijks’ work because of its impermanent, if impactful, nature. The state of the display as I saw it also commented on the way we, as a Nepali audience, view artwork. The way Lodewijks gently pulls in and pushes away patterns – in both his artwork and its documentation – was also reflected in the Triennale exhibition.
Lodewijks’s work made me think about how one can channel one’s inherent artistry into something meaningful and significant, how an artist is viewed, and how we value art, monetarily or otherwise. The documentation added value to the artwork; it provided information but left enough room for personal interpretations and reflections.