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.