By following the chalk outlines of human bodies, which are part of Ashmina Ranjit’s immense work “Happening; Current Situation,” Prem Krishna Prajapati, 64, seemed amazed by the artwork. Ranjit’s work depicts the chaos and trauma of Nepal’s decade-long civil war.
When Prajapati walked into the Nepal Art Council (NAC) that afternoon, he had no idea that the venue was hosting an exhibition of the 2077 Kathmandu Triennale, which exhibited artwork at the NAC, the Siddhartha Art Gallery, Bahadur Shah Baithak, Patan Museum and Taragaon Museum). The month-long festival ended on March 31.
As Prajapati moved from one work to another, he looked captivated, bewildered and lost all at the same time. “I had come to the Babarmahal region for a job. As an art lover, I decided to visit the Nepal Art Council as the gallery usually holds exhibitions,” said Prajapati, an artist potter based in Bhaktapur. “I am pleasantly surprised by the works presented in this exhibition. It seems that our country’s understanding of art has come a long way. I’m so happy to have arrived here today,” said Prajapati.
Throughout March, the Post visited the five venues that hosted the Kathmandu Triennale 2077 and spoke with visitors to understand the general public’s thoughts on the artworks in the exhibits.
According to the organizers of the Kathmandu Triennale 2077, one of the main aims of the festival was to break down the divisions of what might be called art and to deconstruct Western-influenced notions of art. To drive home this point, the festival showcased a wide range of art forms and mediums. The artworks also covered many social and cultural issues ranging from caste, sexual violence, the internet, identity and indigenity to the hierarchy of power and culture.
“Our indigenous communities have always made art, but their works have always been called craftsmanship [or traditions]. By showcasing artwork from indigenous communities, we wanted to dismantle the idea of high and low art, which are also western concepts,” said Sheelasha Rajbhandari, one of the curators of Kathmandu Triennale 2077. “ With this event, we wanted to break the concept of the “artistic gap” that we believe exists between us and explains to people how our language, our ways of life and our practices are enveloped in artistic cultures.
Inside the five locations where the exhibitions were held, visitors could be seen discussing the social and cultural issues raised by the works.
“It was refreshing to see artworks that raised a wide range of social issues, especially artworks that discussed the taboo around women’s sexuality and nudity,” said Tsering Dolma Lama, a visitor to the Nepal Art Council. “I also love how the festival exhibited art from different mediums.”
At Bahadur Shah Baithak, one of the five places, Janesh Singh arrived with his aunt in the hope of better understanding the art. Janesh said he finds it essential to understand art because his young son started taking art lessons in school. Janesh and her aunt roamed the halls of Bahadur Shah Baithak, observing works like Mary Dhapalany’s huge orange and yellow woven rug, which hung on one of the walls.
“The works exhibited here are very different from my definition of what constitutes art. I am surprised and confused by the diversity of works and of what can be called art. Although I struggled to understand some of the works, I enjoyed the exhibit,” said Janesh, a surgeon.
Janesh and her aunt said they found the work “Quieto Pelo, 2008” by Colombian visual artist Liliana Angulo Cortés, which is a series of photos depicting braids, the most striking of all the works on display at the exhibition. Cortés’ series documents “the tradition of hair care and the global sense of identity [the braiding culture gives] the diversity of the African Diaspora.
At the Siddhartha Art Gallery, Isha Chaudhary and his friends exclaimed how the exhibition has broadened their understanding of what makes art. “I thought the exhibition would only feature paintings, but the wide range of art forms and mediums showed me the endless possibilities of art,” Chaudhary said. “To be honest, we came here to have a fun time, but the exhibit became more of a learning experience about art and several pressing social issues.”
According to visitors the Post spoke to, the vast and complex work of the Triennale also became an exciting revelation to many about what art can do for people and the role art could play in the launch of a critical social and political discourse.
As expected, the exhibitions were visited by many young art students, and many of them said that the festival venues also served as places for reflection and reflection on art.
“For a young art graduate like me, the exhibition turned out to be a fascinating experience because it broadened the perspective of how I can make art. This allowed me to see many tangents to the life of art once it is served to the public. There were a lot of visual projections and it was the first time I considered textiles as an artistic medium. What was also interesting to see was the wide range of topics covered in the exhibits, such as feminism, intersectionality, natural disasters, indigenity and identity,” said Sujata Khadka, an artist.
Khadka was also one of the participating artists at the Triennale. His featured work, ‘Why Censor! 2021’, depicts pixelated body parts of a woman and incites how the ruling patriarchy (including social media companies) prohibits women from expressing their sexuality and experiences.
“I think the Triennale provided a platform for emerging artists to understand art and access it much more deeply,” Khadka said with satisfaction.
Professor Abhi Subedi, a keen observer of the Nepalese art scene, believes that major art events like the Kathmandu Triennale have the potential to upend the understanding of art. “These events embody a performative element necessary to spark interest in art; they grab people’s attention and encourage more engagement. Such events help to bridge the gap between art and audience,” said Subedi, playwright and art critic. “Festivals like the Triennale are important because they open up opportunities to see things differently and bring people closer to art by emphasizing their participation.”
But after witnessing the 2017 Kathmandu Triennale, which brought art to the mainstream by showcasing murals and art installations in public spaces and thereby facilitating the engagement of the general public with art, Subedi said he hoped festival organizers would do something similar. with the Kathmandu Triennale 2077.
“I just think that when we hold exhibitions in closed spaces like galleries, there’s less opportunity to intrigue people who don’t consider themselves art enthusiasts,” Subedi said.
For this year, the Triennale has organized the exhibitions recognizing that “contemporary art and culture [are] far better served when the boundaries of what constitutes “art” are open or ignored altogether.”
The festival organizers shared that the changes seen in the Nepalese art scene lately prompted their decision to focus on this theme.
Rajbhandari and his team believe their show is a culmination of the many discussions and processes taking place in the Nepali art community and the need to create a more inclusive art world where art does not exclude people and their practices.
“We cannot see the Triennale as a separate and exclusive event; I would say that the credit for everything that happened – the exchange and the discussions about the art – was made possible by the attempt of the artistic community to bring Nepali art to the international stage. The credit goes to people asking for changes to existing systems,” Rajbhandari said.
In her review of the Triennale, Hera Chan, an Amsterdam-based writer and curator, writes how the Triennale plays with the underlying social issues of “indigenousness, caste, class and power” by bringing together “extensive timelines, processes and perspectives of the world”.
Chan also goes on to explain what this means for the art world. She writes, “The triennale (sic) moves toward the possibility of another canon, asking us to look at our world from the perspective of a future winning resistance.
In an email interview with the Post, Yasmin Afschar, a Swiss-based art historian, curator and writer (who was here to see the exhibition last month) wrote: “At the Kathmandu Triennale 2077, the demarcation between ‘outside’ and inside[r]’ has become obsolete, which is rewarding and liberating. Afschar also drew attention to the fact that the festival brought together “a lot of militant practices” that made the exhibition familiar and accessible to people.
According to Afschar, festivals like the Triennale introduce people to the realities of the world and the ways people can relate to it. “They are like translators; they allow people to engage with topics relevant to their own realities through various forms of expression…and help develop new perspectives on the things we know,” she said.
As one of the largest art exhibitions in the country, the Triennale brought out in all feelings and emotions what art can be.
“I went to see the works that appealed to me, and I just walked past works that I didn’t understand,” said Shanta Singh, who visited the exhibit at the Patan museum. “I think there’s beauty even in this inconsistency, and I don’t think everyone has to understand everything. The existence of the various works of art in this room and the awareness of the how art has changed is what I think is important.”