Culture is inextricably interwoven with nature in Nepal, but this connection is being slowly lost. Indigenous groups are being forced away from their cultural and natural heritage because they are undervalued by a globalised economy, and poor domestic planning and governance.
Natural resources that could be sustainably harvested are disappearing nearly as fast as the people who are skilled in using them. The 2015 Earthquake accelerated this loss – both in monuments as well as intangible heritage like festivals and community cohesion. Much of the reconstruction has been generic, cultural spaces and neighbourhoods have lost their charm.
Several artists from Nepal and around the world have responded to this steady erosion of nature and culture by engaging with local populations in innovative ways. The vision of these artists transforms aesthetic opportunity into social outreach and liberated dialogue, and some of them even help improve livelihoods.
One collective in Janakpur demonstrates women’s empowerment through group dynamics in painting and street theatre. The Mithila people adapt traditional architectural clay paintings to native lokta handmade paper. Loss of natural areas is combined with the loss of respect for such art forms in a technological world. Both the cultural practices that were based on nature and the resources that sustained them are vanishing.
An American artist living in Nepal collaborates with community members across caste lines in Mustang, establishing a rural learning centre. Her work facilitates artist residencies and environmental education, exploring alternative approaches that are directly engaged with indigenous, local knowledge systems.
American curator Lillian Ball was moved to organise the exhibition after meeting several artists during visits to Nepal where she was involved with an ongoing project at the Lumbini Crane Sanctuary.
“These diverse artists share many concerns and creative ways of working with distinct populations which have inspired me. The art we make reflects the complex threats development poses,” she says.
In Ball’s case, video, photography, and objects relating to the Sarus Cranes come together in an exhibit of the symbiosis between an endangered sacred bird and local villagers who have lived amidst Lumbini’s wetlands for over 2,500 years.
She shows that Buddhism has an inherent respect for nature that is being undermined as Lumbini becomes a mass tourism destination. Venerable Metteyya and the Lumbini Social Service Foundation are working to halt environmental destruction that affects humans as well as wildlife in Lumbini, which already has some of Nepal’s worst pollution.
Joseph Beuys’ concept of Social Sculpture provides a framework for a wide range of practices as an exhibition in a contemporary art context. Some artists function as organisers, actively uniting participants. Some facilitate training workshops for rural people to cooperatively transform livelihoods. Locally gathered clays, plant substances, and dwindling horizons are reflected in painting, sculpture, media, and performance.
Sustainable attitudes are fading along with traditional skills, self-sufficiency is replaced by global markets. When an ethos based on biodegradable materials shifts to plastic, the waste stream brings destruction all over the land and oceans. Culture, natural landscapes, and material resources required for daily village life are then at risk.
The exhibition at Taragaon Museum will be accompanied by parallel events and performances. A catalog on the exhibition has been published, documenting the perspectives of the curator and artists which places the work squarely within the ambit of contemporary art and social practice.
This unique exhibition seeks to more than just display visual traces of engagement: it offers opportunities to share resources, approaches, and experiences.
Engaged Arts in Nepal
Taragaon Museum, Boudha
Open daily 10 am-5pm