Let’s Talk About Art, Baby!

Pranab Man Singh
The Kathmandu Post
Saturday, January 15, 2011

The artistic output of a society is a reflection of its aesthetic consciousness and the socio-economic structures within which these works are produced. Given this, the artistic production of any society is a window towards its self-awareness, appraisal and sophistication. until recently, most of nepal’s traditional artistic output was commissioned and produced within strict religious or craft-specific guidelines. the scale and complexity of such productions, especially the temples and courtyards in the valley, are representative of the power of the commissioners, structures of society that provided the skill and manpower, and the economic impetus that funded these constructions.within this historical background, independent artistic productions have a short history in nepal and are still negotiating between nepal’s historical arts and those that are filtering down from an increasingly globalised art industry.

the ongoing art exhibition in one of nepal’s upscale galleries, let’s talk about art baby! by sujan chitrakar, dwells within nepal’s aesthetic consciousness. what comes out of this introspection is an attractively packaged event and product that utilises the tools and technology of advertising and marketing while delving into deeper, darker concerns with the disintegration of aesthetic appreciation in the valley. post-modernists might rejoice in this flattening of the aesthetic through the death of depth and the fall of high art—which considering the trend of artistic production these days, is the predominant aesthetic trend in nepal. but the concerns that chitrakar raises are genuine. without the narratives of history, discourses of identity, and challenges of society, we stand to create an aesthetic culture akin to the skin of a chocolate wrapper bereft of the wholeness of the chocolate.

these concerns are obvious to anyone in tune with the city. the architectural atrocities that we are subjected to live with speak of a people who have not put any thought into making this their home. billboards speak only to the crassness of commercialism without an ounce of respect for our sentiments. even propaganda works produced here—state sponsored, political, or social—show a production aesthetic that lacks originality, is mono-dimensional, slapstick and often plain ugly. all artistic productions are made within limited resources, the originality and aesthetics of any production comes from the choices in how one uses them. for instance, while snowboarding yaks who save people from starvation might make a good plot for disney, as a statement for wfp’s work—it’s an aesthetics skin, much akin to a nice sack with rotten rice. to misconstrue the façade for the aesthetic is to think beauty is skin deep.

in a painting entitled “there is a walk on the street”, chitrakar uses a decade-old photograph by ashok shakya. he photoshops the image to replace the central painting of buddha’s eyes with picasso’s guernica and painted it on the canvas. this painting provides several perspectives towards its aesthetic appreciation, from its presentation to its production process to its usage of content. it acts as an instance of an art exhibition packaged and wrapped to be one product, let’s talk about art baby! the first level engagement, at the wrapper level, is the various publicity and promotion tools used—invites, posters, radio show, stickers and the like. the wrapper, which carries with it a strong social message, is yet another instance of the exhibition. this isn’t just about painting 10 street children and calling it “children of the streets.” beyond the words, the wrapper states, individually and combined, that there is a reason and vision behind this exhibition, that these paintings are the products of an intellectual pursuit.

like all the other paintings that make up the exhibition, the guernica work relies heavily on technology. photography, the ability to digitally manipulate it and then project it onto a canvas are all facets of the technological age we live in. within this framework the paintings ask, is there a difference between smudging acrylic on canvas versus printing canvas-sized photographs? in an age where technological boundaries are falling apart—what distinguishes the painter from the photographer from the graphic artist? who is the true artist in these works—or is it a collaboration as the artist seeks to claim it to be? this article will not answer these questions, but the exhibition certainly does. at another level, the exhibition states, we might hesitate to call cubism a part of our artistic tradition but we certainly have no qualms about calling photography ours. the inter-relation and contrast between ideas and technology plays out here. but important perhaps for an artist is the question of picasso—is he a part of our artistic tradition or is he indra’s white elephant? this is not an enviable role, one has to tread both paths with equal delicacy—the west as the source of individualism while the rest as what we are born with. to negotiate this is to negotiate the essence of being nepali in today’s world of global consumerism. to address this is to forever be challenged.

to conclude, the guernica work has been picked partly because of the expansiveness of its content and the contrasts it provides. of the original photograph, only the painting is replaced. the eyes of the buddha give way to one of picasso’s masterpieces. the all seeing eyes of our gods and an emblem of the hippy exotic nepal is replaced by the horrors of modern, technologically-driven warfare. strangely, both are symbols of peace. using culturally loaded symbols, there are a host of interpretive elements from nepali identity and history to the role of art and technology that interplay within the painting. i end without even having the space to analyse what surrounds the painting.

who art thou?

Big signboards painted on fabric greeted the viewer with this question last week in Babar Mahal Revisted: who art thou? usually, the answer would be: thou art part of the expatriate crowd, the upper middle class and the poor journalists who frequent the openings at the siddhartha art gallery. this gathering, fortunately, was a bit more mixed—it had attracted a substantial number of people from the nepali art world, along with little girls decked out in fashionable outfits who had come to view their cousin’s art opening.

sujan chitrakar, the artist, has published an entire text to accompany his artworks. the text, titled “utopian introspection: random expressions within defined periphery” is heavy reading, but as you read along you get flashes of insight, kind of like a hammer hitting a nail on the head. sujan chitrakar, along with colleagues salil subedi, and saroj bajracharya seemed to have spent a lot of time introspecting in front of mirrors, musing on the concept of nails and hammers, and arranging votive earthen diyas in perfect formation. in between, they thought long and hard about the question of life, which seems to have led them to the “mystery of man” as envisioned by fyodor dostoyevsky. even dostoyevsky, however, might have been alternatively baffled and amused by what his words had inspired. the final art products, which must be seen to do them justice, are polished, technically sophisticated and full of the chutzpah that would make them equally at home in new york city as they do in kathmandu.

the excitement of installation lies in its novelty, its use of mixed media, its daring breakage of narrative. in kathmandu, installation is still a new art form, still in the act of destabilizing the supremacy of painting. in western countries where art has fallen over the edge, climbed up and mutated every season since then, installation itself is starting to take on a dated look and feel. walking through a gallery in new york city, one starts to see installations that evoke deja-vu of a genre, like seeing yet another monet inspired painting on a mcdonald’s wall.

paintings may be “sooo last season!” but in spite of it all, old media (paint and canvas, photographs, film) are here to stay. perhaps the reason why traditional media has stuck around for so long is its coherence, and accessibility. the challenge with installation, as with any other art form, is to capture this magnetism that keeps certain media like paint, photography and sculpture solidly entrenched in the popular imagination.

the other challenge is more difficult—indigenizing a borrowed form. chitrakar makes liberal use of recycled tinned milk cans as prayer wheels. in a corner of the gallery, one can find a panel pasted with objects that inspire memories—trinkets and junk one can only find in nepal. as a viewer, i wished there had been more of these playful, juxtaposed forms that play with the notion of nepal and nepaliness, and less of the shiny hammered and nailed works that carry the stamp of generic transnational art that fill the main gallery. the enthusiasm of the artist dispels any confusion. sujan chitrakar is direct, engaged and intense as he talks about his art. meditateonself.com, an online website that is part of this exhibit, is a satire on how meditation is being commercialized and being brought straight to the home, like take-away food. his mixed media work include within them symbols of four religions—islam, hinduism, christianity and buddhism. he feels it is important to be introspective, and create an utopia within oneself, and not look outside for this divine place. he wants to share this idea with his viewers.

a work of art is the interface that allows a viewer to commune with the thoughts and ideas of the artist, its creator. like “being john malkovich,” chitrakar’s utopian introspection often gives the viewer entering the caverns of his thoughts more than they bargained for. taking the advice of the artist then, perhaps the best thing to do after a viewing is to sit down, take a deep breath, and introspect.

Published in Nation Weekly followed by “Art Matters” by Sushma Joshi

Samuel Thomas

art of installation
samuel thomas for nepali times 2000
(two young nepali artists come of age with breath-taking exploration of identity and space)

now, this was an exhibition with a difference. it departed from tentative attempts and was possibly kathmandu’s first effort at “firming the ground” for installation art. but above all it was an innovative exploration of ideas and interactive space that is so crucial to this genre.

the artists, sujan chitrakar and binod shrestha, underwent formal training at kathmandu’s fine arts campus before pursuing further studies at a couple of india’s finest art institutes.

confluence, as the exhibition is aptly titled, mirrored this assimilation of a varied artistic and human experience, tempered and filtered through a modern consciousness. the themes draw inward (with that sense of drifting, of moving back in time, exploring questions of identity) and also looking outward at experience, at the morphing of ideas in the crucible of our time.

the core ideas in the exhibition dealt with experience and the search for ones identity. both artists repeatedly use masks (365 in all, one for each day of the year), to explore the question of identity in time and space.

with sujan, the masks that represent our multiple identities are innovatively presented to highlight the “phantasmal realm into which one plunges, on adorning the mask…the false reality one projects in order to hide the dark demons which lurk below, and the mirror as the projector of that dark truth.”

the bhairav mask represents an inward experience. the symbol of the divine protector becomes a metaphor for the protected inner self which can either be false, evil, good, wise or a beholder of the truth.

e deliberate use of the red mask, contrasted with the black (to symbolise the artists self), represents the true self reflected by the truthful mirror.

an interesting exhibit of sujan’s redefines gallery space. a white room is used as a painting as a whole, and the deliberate use of colour to mark cardinal directions and the placement of masks on the panels form parts of that whole.
the artist also experiments with modern technology (the use of a video monitor to capture the moment and recreate it, the use of photographs and the use of contemporary materials).

another of sujan’s interesting works, titled “which one shall i wear”, had a man lying under a glass table propped up by beer bottles, the masks of nine colours atop the glass top representing the navarasas (the nine emotions of art, according to classical indian tradition).

a friend confessed he “felt like a fool” when he looked into the “room with a view”, an exhibit that takes you back to that part of childhood (through a recurring metaphor-a paper boat) and yet invites you to look inward through the fractured images of yourself in the mirrors and through the mask that stares back at you.

its varied themes, drawing from history, myth and contemporary life, give this exhibition an added dimension. the first exhibit, titled “fish, pyramid and sea”, is an aquarium-topped brick pyramid with the sound of the sea in the background, combining an early christian theme (the fish associated with both christ and bio-history) with the pyramid as a symbol yearning to reach god.

another, titled “are you the betrayer: the last supper”, has 11 moulds made of different materials, with christ represented by an empty gold frame crowned with thorns. the exhibit is complete when the viewer places his face in the empty frame (making him the last disciple). the question then follows: is he the betrayer?

says binod, “it is not the end product that matters…but the process, the process in which i develop a relationship with the surface, material and the subject.”
this consciousness, from which emerges the sound that accompanies the pyramid exhibit, drew him to record the sound of the sea off the southern coast of india, and thereby imbue the exhibition with its recurrent theme of the paper boat-signifying experience, the fragility of a life afloat, of journeying and drifting.

this fine creative effort called for a refined artistic sensibility without being obnoxious. its communicative strength, subtle and strong, marks an adaptation from the rarefied and extremely abstract nature of installation art in the west.
the response has been mixed, and whether or not the exhibition conveyed its true character and message in a place where the first looks appeared quizzical, it stood up and applauded itself.

the exhibition was well presented and curated by preeti joseph, art historian and critic. the exhibition was on at the nepal art council last week, and may be extended if there is popular demand.

the artists held interactive sessions with visitors during which they discussed the exhibits, and are more than pleased with the response.

samuel thomas | http://www.nepalitimes.com.np/issue/3/arts/11269

In search of Nepalipann in contemporary art

KATHMANDU: There is no Nepalipann in these paintings”, “these works are too modern for Nepal” — comments like these about the ongoing exhibition of Sanjeev Maharjan and Sunita Maharjan at the Kathmandu Contemporary Art Centre (KCAC) in Jhamshikhel made Sangita Thapa, one of the Founder Directors of KCAC, raise a question — should contemporary Nepali art reflect Nepalipann?

To get an answer to this an art criticism and debate session on the exhibition was held at KCAC on September 5. Art critic Mukesh Malla, Sujan Chitrakar, Academic Programme Coordinator Kathmandu University Centre for Art and Design (KUart), artist Madan Chitrakar and Thapa were the panellists at the discussion.

Issues like do contemporary Nepali art require the presence of Nepalipann, the evolving of Nepali art in the last five decades plus indicators of Nepalipann in contemporary art were some of the topics discussed at the event.

“There is Nepalipann but how shall we look for it is the question,” said Malla who further talked about the effects of Western influence on art. He emphasised on bringing about changes in the schooling process itself. “If you talk about Paua art, the artist knows the technical aspect but not the philosophy behind it,” Malla added.

“Everything has to have a root, so we need to find the root of our Nepalipann,” he pointed out.

Meanwhile, Sujan Chitrakar expressed that in a multi-lingual and multiethnic nation like ours, Nepalipann is a rather abstract term. “It’s about visual form and if an artist works living in Nepal, there are bound to be Nepalipann in his creations,” he said.

Giving an example of Sanjeev’s collection on pigs he remarked, “We all have seen how pigs are sold, showcased and slaughtered on the streets here, so these paintings very much have Nepalipann in them.”

When asked, Thapa cited that Nepalipann is more of a “state of flux”.

According to Thapa, the phase from late 90s till now has been an interesting time for her since “artists in this time have been questioning the Nepalipann or the traditional practices like Asmina (Ranjit) questioned the whole way of treating women during menstruation. The questioning and challenging the existing society is what they are doing through their artwork.”

Another art critic Ramesh Khanal opined, “Artists should make their creations in their own style because their style is Nepalipann. Sanjeev has done exactly that and his paintings reminded me of my hometown Dharan.”

On the topic of indicators of national identity, Sujan Chitrakar pointed out two aspects of art — visual and psychological — and said, “To look for Nepalipann in visual representation is not right. Look for Nepalipann by going beyond the visual aspect of the painting.”

While the discussion was going on, Basanta Ranjitkar from the audience expressed his displeasure at the topic and said, “It is more of a political topic and artists should be kept out of politics.”

The issue of globalisation where not only Nepali artists are learning from the Western world, but Western artists are finding influences in Nepal was also discussed.