American artist Joy Lynn Davis talks about her famous 2015 exhibition, ‘Remembering the Lost Sculptures of Kathmandu’ and her unique method of commemorating Nepal’s stolen idols through paintings. She spoke to Kanak Mani Dixit on the Saglo Samaj tv magazine program. Excerpts:
Kanak Mani Dixit: You painted Patan’s stolen Laxmi-Narayan idol. Why that particular idol and how did you ultimately locate it at the Dallas Art Museum?
Joy Lynn Davis: I painted the Laxmi Narayan murti based on its replica in 2013 when I was living in Patan as an artist resident at Kathmandu Contemporary Art Centre. At that time, we knew that the idol had been stolen in 1984 and sold by Sotheby’s in New York in 1989. After that, no one knew its whereabouts as the sale information was private.
I was looking at a Google image, and came across a blurry image of a Laxmi-Narayan and my heart just jumped. I knew immediately that it was the same murti from Patan. The image was on a blog operated by a Nepali in Dallas, who didn’t know that the idol in the Dallas Museum was stolen.
Had you not painted it, would you have recognised it?
It was particularly extraordinary to have found the image online. The other co-incidence is my parents live right outside of Dallas. I was so close to it without even realising it.
Where are we on the return of the Laxmi-Narayan statue to Nepal?
It’s been a great privilege to be able to collaborate with the FBI and share the information I had collected. The Dallas Museum was not immediately open to returning the murti and the FBI was able to make a very strong case against them. It has now been seized and will soon be returned to Nepal. The day it arrives in Nepal, I will be the happiest person—so many people and organisations have worked on this.
But if we put out information about the theft, wouldn’t museums and collectors hide the statues, making their return even more difficult?
I absolutely agree. There are many sculptures around the world from Nepal. They are now housed in museum storage facilities. It is unfortunate. We need to get the word out there that Nepal is ready to accept them back. It would be ideal if the museums worked on it voluntarily, and we could help facilitate that. We can make replicas for them, document stories of the sculptures returned and their cultural significance. Museum visitors would find that much more interesting.
Why did you paint the stolen idols the way you did?
The goal of the project was to increase public awareness of the problem of illicit trafficking of Nepal’s cultural heritage. The other goal was to re-contextualise the stolen sculptures. As a Westerner visiting a museum, if I had not worked on the project, I would glare at the art knowing little about it, besides reading the information on the label. Visitors believe these sculptures were dug out of the ground and have no idea about their religious, cultural and spiritual significance. Through my paintings, I wanted to put back the stolen gods in their rightful places.
Why did you choose to use gold in your work?
First, gold becomes an easy visual language for viewers when they look at the painting and they understand that they are from these sacred sites. One painting of gold that I worked on was of Saraswati. The thieves had chopped off the head, and just the head was painted in gold—the collector returned it in 1990. Gold represents the commodification of the sacred. We are used to seeing gold in art and temples. Gold also symbolises wealth. Gold has the value of spirituality, and when sold, it turns to cold hard cash.
The original Laxmi-Narayan statue is covered in tika, but under the museum spotlight, it is a shiny black rock.
To see the sculptures in places where they were touched and conversed with, has more significance. For Nepalis, these aren’t just statues, they embody religious and cultural sentiments. In the West, these values are transformed. This murti will always have more value in its original place.
The reason statues are stolen is their market value. What should we do to ensure they cannot be stolen?
Nepalis should not feel bad that they were not able to protect their gods. These problems come from bidesi foreigners. The gods were saved for hundreds of years in their shrines, and then outsiders wanted to own them. I think the only way to protect them is to increase the awareness about their significance. We have a lot of work to do, Laxmi-Narayan is just the beginning.
(This interview with Joy Lynn Davis is based on the fifth episode of Saglo Samaj, a tv magazine program produced by Himalmedia which is broadcast every Monday, at 8:30 pm on Dish Home Channel 130. Go online to watch a trailer of the program.)