Nepali Art going placesLargest ever international exhibition of contemporary Nepali art opens at Weltmuseum Wien
Whenever Nepali art is mentioned, the first things that come to mind are thangka paintings or bronze Tara. Now, an exhibition at Europe’s foremost ethnographic museum in Vienna paints a surprisingly vibrant picture of contemporary art in Nepal.
The Nepal Art Now exhibition at the Weltmuseum Wien is the largest ever exhibition of modern Nepali art outside the country, and includes 130 paintings, sculptures, video art and installations by 40 artists from Nepal.
“This is an exhibition that showcases the creativity and energy of Nepali artists who redefine the influence of the West, and it shows how the local, national and global permeate each other,” said Christian Schicklgruber, director of the Weltmuseum Wien, who co-curated this exhibition.
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Schicklgruber and the late Dina Bangdel came up with the idea for a major exhibition three years ago. Bangdel died suddenly in 2017, but the project went ahead in her memory with co-curator Swosti Rajbhandari Kayastha of the Nepal Art Council. In the mezzanine of the Weltmuseum is another presentation of Maithil art by female painters, put together by Claire Burkert.
“The hardest part of the exhibition was to select art works from more than 800,” recalls Kayastha. “We worked extra hours to curate it, and had to leave behind many works by artists we knew. But these paintings represent the best of Nepali art today.”
Indeed, the works by Hit Man Gurung, Sunil Sigdel, Sanjeev Maharjan, Ang Tsherin Sherpa, Asha Dangol, Manish Harijan and Ashmina Ranjit, among others, represent world-class talent that blend traditional Nepali art forms like paubha, wood carving and metal work, with modern elements. Although ‘modern’ has come to mean ‘western’, the exhibition is proof that Nepal is now recognised as a centre for contemporary art that shuns western homogeneity, and has carved out its own space based on tradition, shared national history, and cosmopolitan influences.
“When you said Nepali art in the past, people expected traditional art forms. What we see at this exhibition is the vibrancy and creativity of contemporary Nepali art, the role of women, as well as the global and local impact of the works. Being an ethnographic institution, it makes sense to have the exhibition at the Weltmuseum,” director general Sabine Haag said at the inauguration here last week.
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Even though some of the art works are rooted in Nepali culture and traditions, they use modern forms of oil and canvas, installations and sculptures to address contemporary issues like exclusion, social justice, gender, conflict, the 2015 earthquakes, the commodification of religion, migration and the environment. In fact, many of the works are not just aesthetic or spiritual in their function but are imbued with deep socio-political commentary.
The inaugural ceremony of the exhibition at the Weltmuseum featured the Himalayan Quartet, led by Nepali composer Rupak Kumar Shahisamuda, which played several fusion pieces based on popular Nepali folk songs. The Weltmuseum is located in Vienna’s Hofburg, the winter palace of the Hapsburgs that became infamous for a speech given by Adolf Hitler from one of its balconies after the Anschluss (forced unification of Germany and Austria) in 1938.
Nepal’s traditional carvings and paintings by anonymous masters that adorn temples and monuments have been worshipped over the centuries, and are still regarded as embodiments of the divine. However, they came to be regarded as ‘art’ after being stolen and exhibited in museums in Europe and America, and were detached from their original spiritual value.
The contemporary Nepali art on exhibit here is defined not by its style, but by paintings, sculptures and installations that were created in the past 50 years, with diverse themes ranging from devotional, social commentary, abstract and modern.
Most of the artists have shunned ‘Western’ techniques, and gone global to develop a unique grammar of their own. Says Schicklgruber: “Modernism had Paris, London and New York as its traditional centres of art. In the postmodernist age other cities have joined this exclusive club. One of them is Kathmandu.”
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Before going to Vienna, Nepal Art Now was pre-exhibited at the Nepal Art Council in Kathmandu in December 2018. Most of the works on display are different from both traditional Nepali art and western postmodernism. You can see influences of Picasso, Matisse and Warhol, but almost as parody. Mona Lisa also appears in Manuj Babu Mishra’s famous ‘selfie portrait’.
Manish Harijan’s audacious renditions of deities duelling with modern cartoon characters are a critique of the commercialisation of religion, and got him into hot water with fundamentalists in 2012. Asha Dangol’s theme deals with disasters like earthquakes and environmental degradation.
One could say that Nepali artists are not influenced by the ‘West’ but by ‘trans-continentalism’, fusing Nepali religious and cultural visual metaphors with modern techniques giving our vernacular a new spin – turning the local into global.
Nepal Art Now
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Maithil folk art now
The mezzanine floor of the Nepal Art Now exhibition at the Weltmuseum in Vienna is devoted to Maithil art from the Janakpur Women’s Development Centre. The separate exhibit proves that contemporary Nepali art needs to look beyond Kathmandu Valley. In the 30 years since the establishment of the Centre, women painters in Mahottari have developed as individual artists, and used traditional techniques and styles to experiment with new expressions. The exhibit includes self-portraits of these ight artists, along with photos and their life stories in their own words: Anuraghi Jha, Remani Mandal, Rebti Mandal, Suhagbati Saha, Madhumala Mala, Manjula Thakur, Sailo Yadav, Sudhira Karna, Komal Purbe, Rajkumari Mandal, Nirmala Ram, Renu Yadav, Pano Das and Indrakala Nidhi. Their paintings are arranged by theme from traditional imagery to depictions of planes, motorcycles, radios, irons and sewing machines. The paintings are fresh, original, and give the artists of Maithil the recognition they are long due. Curated by Claire Burkert.
Read also: Mithila art with a message, Prakriti Kanel
The Chitrakars of Kathmandu
Ever since Arniko travelled to the court of Kublai Khan in the 14th century, Nepali artists have ventured abroad, and picked up new techniques. Raj Man Chitrakar did sketches and watercolours with British resident and naturalist Brian Houghton Hodgson in the mid-19th century and Bhaju Man Chitrakar accompanied Jang Bahadur to Victorian England in 1850. It was Dirgha Man Chitrakar who travelled to England with Chandra Shumsher Rana in 1908, and there is a long line of Newa artists including Tej B Chitrakar right down to Lok Chitrakar in the present day, whose pauba of Vasudhara is among the exhibits in Vienna.
Coinciding with the Nepal Art Now exhibition was Preserving a Legacy, an exhibition of photographs by four generations of Chitrakars at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. The exhibition, which ended on 12 April, included prints by Dirgha Man Chitrakar, Ganesh Man Chitrakar, Kiran Man Chitrakar and Swaraj Man Chitrakar.
Read also: An illustrated history of the Chitrakars, Sahina Shrestha