Against the grain aesthetics
Art during the emergency in Nepal
The contemporary art scene of Nepal covers a wide range of art activities, exhibitions, and events. Since it is impossible to analyze the entire range of those manifold art practices, this essay specifically analyzes few nonconventional art events that served to highlight Nepal's armed conflict dispositions. While the conflict period saw a decade-long chaos, including bloodshed and destruction, it also raised hopes for positive changes and better future for underprivileged citizens.1 In addition, this period was also for many to question conventions, and to some extent, disrupted dominant social ideologies.
Nonconventional, or alternative art forms that challenged the conventional art biases and struggled to reinvent itself through new social/political as well as aesthetic values, flourished under such pressing circumstances. Challenging both the mode of capitalist consumerism and the concept of conventional aestheticism, a number of contemporary alternative artists exhibited their works at different parts of Kathmandu valley during the period of armed conflict. These artists, inspired by the activist agenda, often adopted a middle path that resisted state's oppressive measures and condemned rebel violence.
Nepali artists, for whom art, at one point, seemed impossible without the transgressive spirit, not only experimented with new mediums, but also questioned the significance of the 'exclusivity' that society assigns to art and aesthetic understanding. Aligning aesthetic goals with that of the sociopolitical ones by incorporating the techniques of contemporary multimedia strategies to give voice to their relevant discourse, they not only found alternatives to traditional two dimensional surface that is a canvas and overused run-of-the-mill imagery, but also became free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman.2 At odds with artists who are seeking newer forms of expression, however, there were and still are many other (contemporary) artists who believe that aesthetic of art is essentially a depoliticized value. They believe that art should have rasa (aesthetic aspect), which they perceived as a set of essential and unalterable qualities, inscribed in a particular art piece. While I am aware of such debates, however, leaving the discussion of aestheticizing aside, I will focus on the activist impulse of contemporary Nepali artists, who, through nonconventional art practices during the severe national upheaval, conceived art as therapeutic measures and also as acts to throw open some dialogues in the public sphere. The most amazing aspect of these alternative arts practices, during the national crisis, was mustering an ability to create art in the context of national crisis, which could only have been possible with the help of the activist agenda. Interestingly, this agenda never lost steam throughout the emergency period. From 1997 to 2005, the state forces and the Maoist rebels were at loggerheads – armed confrontations continuously rocked the nation. Print media such as Kantipur, The Kathmandu Post and Himal were restrained by the government-imposed censorship. And those were the times when the artists, with conspicuous activist and reformist undertones, continued their activities. This, in turn, was responsible for the zeal to redefine art in the public space as alternative art exhibitions which were organized in the most open of public spaces. During the conflict period, the alternative artists were not only making silent statements regarding many social concerns, but their artworks also underlined the very spirit of the people by giving voice to resistance and subversion.
The phenomenon of art intersecting activism is not new in Nepal. The belief that in artworks, aesthetic concerns could combine with social-political activism by rethinking and reorganizing its elements inspired by a vision of a just society, are what shaped the mindset of many an artist. In the article, 'Understanding Installation Art', Sangeeta Thapa writes that installation art gained momentum in Nepal with the input of Jyoti Duwadi with his multimedia installation titled Myth of the Nagas and the Kathmandu Valley Watershed in 1993. 3 In the work the artist had combined art and myth as means to address environmental issues in the local contexts. Also in 2001, a small group of artists momentarily put aside their canvas to experiment with newer form and expressions employing installation and performance to express their outrage over the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Kathmandu. Adopting the nonconventional mediums, the same group of artists did installations titled Icon of Peace, Hope and Resolution to denounce the loss of cultural heritage of Afghanistan.
It was probably this connection between aesthetic and socio-political concerns that prompted Binay Ghimere, a columnist, to write a newspaper column where he contended that, 'art does not stand in a void.'4 Works of contemporary (both conventional and nonconventional) artists like Durga Baral, Ragini Grela Upadhaya, Kiran Manandhar, Manish Lal Shrestha, Sunil Sigdel, Ashmina Ranjit, Sudershan Rana, Jupiter Pradhan and others, reflect the national mayhem and political turmoil of the period, showing that art can be devised as a form of intervention, or as plain investigation into the situation arising from a crisis.
While many take art and activism as alien from each other as chalk and cheese, contemporary artists using alternative mediums sought to bridge the gap between the two during the conflict period by focusing more on the concept rather than merely upon its visual presentation. The non-market-driven installations and performances of contemporary artists like Jyoti Duwadi, Ashmina Ranjit, Sujan Chitrakar, Sudershan Rana, Govind Azad, Gopal Kala Premi, Manish Lal Shrestha, and Jupiter Pradhan among others have apparently been stimulated by activist/nationalist agenda. In their presentations the emphasis was on the concept of addressing the social by the means of the neo-aesthetical or anti-aesthetical means. Underlying their nonconventional artworks, there was this will to bring the art world with praxis of life. As for the new forms of expression which mirrored bewilderments, pathos and traumas, the conflict period gave rise to some occasions for the artists to reject the aestheticism of the conventional languages.
In 2001, Sudarshan Bikram Rana exhibited an installation titled Ghatana (Incident) in Nepal art council Kathmandu. While, spectators waiting outside the gallery hall expected to see walls decked with paintings, they were shocked to see thirteen funeral pyres all around the hall instead. The visual installation, accompanied by recorded sound of wailing in anguish, sparked a lugubrious atmosphere – inciting an emotional response among the audience akin to real life experiences. The tragic incident of the royal massacre that took place same year was still fresh, and this was also the time when the government had deployed army to confront the militant forces. In the real world, the retaliations from the both sides –Maoist rebels and armed police force –had caused massive human casualties while in Rana's installation it is recreated – emphasizing the moments of confrontations, deaths, and the utter grief that followed. The installation pushed the viewers to their limits and created a space for performativity to take precedence over representation. For many spectators, audio news clips of armed confrontations and wailing sound of mourners revived the experience of listening to actual media report concerning war. Contrary to the sombre mood, a popular Nepali song was played in another corner. In happy circumstances the dancing rhythm of the song might have had people twirling on their toes, however, combination of audio report of war carnage and wailings created a sobering effect. Rana's installation had cathartic moments for people who lost their dear ones in the armed conflict, while for others it was a warning that destruction and chaos is not behind them.
Joyti Duwadi's two installations titled Value: Visualizing the Cost of Violence in November 2001, also addressed the issue of violence with an intercity of a public event. In his work he placed a mound of rice husk with a replica rifle on the top at the Basantpur Square (a public square), representing hunger and pain of the citizens who live below the poverty line. His aim was to show how much rice can be bought with the same amount of money that it costs to buy a rifle. For many spectators, the cathartic impact of the installation also came from the fact that the image of the rifle functioned as a grim reminder of the palace massacre that killed the entire family of king Birendra. On another level, Duwadi's installation of husk rice and rifle display indirectly questioned the value of all forms of violence, even though often violence is justified under utopian political goals. In his second installation, he had jute sacks packed with husk rice with the names of countries that, like Nepal, had undergone armed conflicts. In his second installation, the rifle was laid at rest on the side of the mound to suggest that the end of the violence can mean food to many people. The installations carried subtle meanings and urged both groups (state and rebel) to rest their weapons and work towards an agreement to restore peace in the country.
In August 2002, armed retaliations – by police force and rebels –were on the rise and death tolls spiralled. The government declared an emergency banning all political rallies. In October of the same year, Gyanendra Shah (then monarch), summarily dismissed country's Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba and assumed full executive powers postponing the elections for an indefinite time. Outraged by the repressive measure of the government, multi-media artist Ashmina Ranjit planned an art event Bichalit Bartaman (Disturbed Present) at Basantpur Square. She executed her happening with the assistance of artists and theatre activists Anup Baral, Subina Shrestha, Manish Lal Shrestha, Erina Tamrakar, Sangi Shrestha and many others. This was the time when the newly imposed state of emergency had barred people from forming protest groups, as also from participating in peace marches or processions in the public places. People could not walk in more than a group of four. Ranjit's artwork resisted government's repressive laws at two levels: first, she intended to attract flocks of people that would have violated the emergency law, and second, she selected a public space for her exhibition which again was a violation of emergency. Her exhibition at the public space resisted and subverted the restrictive bans that prohibited people from gathering around.
Another Nepali artist followed suit with installations, performances, and paintings illustrating state's repressive laws. In one of her performances Ranjit had asked each participant, both viewers and artists, to bring domestic tools resembling weapons to the site. It is important to note that people could have been jailed for carrying anything that resembled a weapon, even a domestic knife, during the emergency period. Undeterred, however, many brought rods, sticks, kitchen knives, and screwdrivers to the site and took turns to throw them at the Basantpur Square to suggest that peace talk was possible if the warring groups discarded their arms. Yet, in another installation, she placed Anup Baral, a theatre activist, inside a circle of barbed wire, thus restricting his physical movements. This performance was a protest against the restrictive curfews imposed by the government. Manish Lal's painting of bell and the accompanying installation also sought to address the issues related to violence and peace. The portrayal of faded blue steps, in another installation, reflected the vanishing hopes of peace negotiations amid aggressive political surroundings.
In 2004, Govind Azad Shah came up with his installation-cum-performance, Conflict of Peace in Nepal at Basantpur Square illustrating traumas of the period. One of the two boys, in his installation, had bandaged head covered with red colour resembling blood. The other boy, wrapped in the national flag, sat silently. There was a small mound of rice and a gun in front of them; they looked no older than twelve years. A caption accompanied the performance –One gun one bullet=how much rice? Azad's installation-cum-performance highlighted the failing economic conditions and violence toward children. There is no denying that poverty was one of the main causes that led to the armed conflict in the first place. However, a decade-long conflict only worsened the economic misery and accelerated internal migration. Instead of addressing the dire need of people suffering from acute food-shortages, especially in the far Western region of the nation, the government decided to purchase more arms to repress the rebels; a plan that seems preposterous, especially when judged with the hindsight.5
Cases of child soldiers were also on the rise. Whether children were conscripted voluntarily in the militia groups or enrolled forcefully into those military units, they were dying in armed confrontations. Children who lived in rural areas under deprived socio-economic environments had not many options. For some, their enrollment in the militia group at least promised them dreams of a just society. Within the militia camp, they were assigned combat and noncombat roles as porters, cooks, spies, sentries, messengers and entertainers. Regardless of their roles, the enrollment of children in the military units was not only a question of 'violation of 'human rights' but also an issue that needed attention, and Azad's performance provided a portal to that reality alongside a critique of the circumstances that led to such an extreme condition.
In the same year, Ranjit also had another event titled Happening, a collaborative effort where she invited artists from different disciplines. Her installation-cum-performance took the form of a peaceful procession that started from Tri-Chandra College gate and ended at few feet's distance from Singh-Durbar (the location of parliamentary building and the centre of national politics) gate. This was the time when the nation staggered under the economic blockades, failures of peace talks, hours of curfews, uncertainty concerning general elections and repetitive bandhs. Happening began with stacks of books, chained and locked in front of the college gate, signifying closure of educational institutes due to perpetual bandhs. The members of Arohan theatre group including Sunil Pokharel and Nisha Sharma, with faces smeared in black paint, sat in front of the college gate, tearing pages from books. Members of civil society, student union members, politicians, columnists, writers, theatre artists and many volunteers formed the procession as it began from the gate and proceeded towards the parliament building.
While the procession was on the move, some participants took turns to lie down on the road and others outlined shapes of the fallen bodies with white chalks as if marking the number of human casualties. All FM radio stations (around 55 of them) had agreed to postpone their scheduled programmes for an hour and played one (same) mourning tune when the procession was moving toward the parliament house. On Ranjit's request some local residents agreed to turn their radios on full volume as the procession passed through streets which were soon covered with shapes and sizes of dropping bodies. To assist the performance, locals also placed buckets of water on the streets. The participants mixed red colour in those buckets to make it appear like blood and splattered those blood red liquids on the road. Even as bodies were dropping dead symbolically, blood was being splattered on road and the sound of wailing aired on all FM stations, the procession moved towards its final destination under the watchful eyes of security personnel. Shocked, confused, and entertained spectators must have had a number of questions teeming through their minds as they watched the happening procession. I don't know if everyone in the audience understood the performance in the same manner, but they must have had numerous, perhaps differing answers, to those questions. The gloomy and mournful procession finally ended with an optimistic note with the lightening of candles, probably signifying hope amid an atmosphere of dread and trauma.
There were many other art activist events addressing the national crisis and condemning the repressive measures, violence, and bandh. Among them were Tamas: The Darkness and Nepal is burning by Ashmina Ranjit, Departure One and Departure Two by Om Khatri, and Red Series and Nation Building by Chirag Bangdel. Like the frontline warriors, many artists, theatre artists, writers, poets and intellectuals refused to accept the sociopolitical oppression of the conflict period; rather, they adopted multiple mediums to address devastations, depressions and dislocations and their innovative approaches and artistic transgression created a space for social-political discourses.
In his book, Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World's Frontline, William Cleveland illustrates how artist have contributed to the conscious striving towards a greater good – devising ways to give the expressions of the collective will towards peace in several war infected countries. He brings in the references of Cambodia where artists from different fields, along with members of the media and intellectuals, struggled to address the disaster stemming from cultural holocaust that partially destroyed works of 900 years old Khmer visual culture. Similarly, in South Africa, 'The AhR group' of activists, artists and intellectuals collaborated to raise their voice against the (covert) apartheid system and also worked to spread awareness concerning discrimination relating to AID(s). Also in Los Angeles, after the ashes of the Watts riot, three pioneer poets rapped, hip-hopped and improvised new musical forms to distract youngsters from the post-riot hostile environment. In 1967 in Australia, artists, former soldiers and members of the aborigine communities, collaborated to protest against the adverse impact of radioactive contamination following the British nuclear testing of atom bomb at Maralinga in 1956.
A Guatemalan artists' project, Wall of hope, is also worth mentioning. This project also used installation, sculpture, print making, as well as dance and theatre to address traumas of men and women who survived horrors of conflict in Latin America. In 2008, this group facilitated the project, Recovering Historic Memory with Indigenous Women depicting the pains of those who survived sexual violence during armed conflict.6
Art-activism nexus may seem inartistic and even a bit on the utilitarian side to many, however, one must realize that contemporary, nonconventional art practices have evolved all around the world during conflict and post-conflict periods. And artists, like frontline activists, have worked against tremendous political odds to redraw newer artistic boundaries with activist agenda. Contrary to the concept of art without social functionlessness, as is the norm within the twentieth-century bourgeois cultural hierarchy, art combined with activist agenda utilized the mimetic and didactic functions to cut across the contemporary issues in Nepal. By disregarding the decorative and eschewing all aestheticizing principles it redefined the artistic processes and repositioned artistic productions regarding their functions in the society.
What were the motivations that led individuals and groups to embark on art activism at great personal risks during emergency in Nepal? During the critical (national) periods, on various occasions, these exhibitions paid little heed to government laws by gathering spectators on the pretexts of art making; at times the participating audiences were threatened by the possibilities of army interruptions and arrests. Despite such threats many of them voluntarily attended these events as in the case of Ranjit's Happening. Was it all because the approaches delivered what was otherwise restricted during the emergency regime?
While these questions might have varied answers one thing seems certain, that the works of contemporary artists can function as examples of transformational creativity and that they can bring about a transformation during crisis. During the period of national crisis, the contemporary artists of Nepal, as elsewhere, proposed aesthetic solutions to socio-political problems by using mediums which were never employed before. Since nonconventional art forms have elements of unpredictability and unexpected impossibilist surprises, they were often able to attract peoples' attention and interest, and also inspire transformation in the ways in which people relate to the historical events. This merely reflects what Marget A Bodin contended in her essay 'Creativity and Conceptual Art,' to say that if the works of art really do arouse 'impossibilist surprise' in the viewers, it would follow that conceptual art is transformational.7
Also, to some extent, the above discussed works must have evoked emotional fortitude because some of them had cathartic elements and therapeutic values. Eleonora Belfiore believes that the formative role of art lies in making audiences less susceptible to the consequence of pity and fear by making them accustomed to disruptive effects of misfortunes so that audiences confront ghosts of their past memories that keep haunting them as nightmares. Referring to the theatrical performance, in the essay, 'Rethinking the Social impact of the Art: A Critical Historical Review,' she writes about art and impacts of emotional fortitude. She stresses, 'the audience grows emotionally stronger by living through theatrical experiences based on the very emotions (pity and fear) that are toughened in the process.'8 The reduction of emotional susceptibility is in itself the ultimate goal of installations and performances related to armed conflict.
Art as activism has been criticized by many, including conventional artists, as mere example of 'just more politics.' Just as Nietzsche believed that art can be redemptive, art activist Bill Cleveland also argues that in times of upheaval and cultural dislocations, art can infuse into the social bodies positive values that might have not been possible otherwise. In the end one can always be contented with the fact that the Nepali alternative art practitioners were at least able to illustrate and reflect the complex constellation of political and emotional themes generated during the period of armed conflict. There activism also shows that artists are not isolated beings, nor are they enmeshed into elitism as members of the creative community, rather they are reactive, agents of resistance who possess the capacity to seek recourse to the means to resolve historical traumas that befall a nation.
- Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. USA Blackwell Publisher, 1994.
- Boden, A Margaret. “Creative and Conceptual Art”. The Philosophy of Conceptual Art. ed. D. Goldie and E. Schellekens. Oxford: Oxford Press, 2006.
- Cleveland, William. Arts and Upheaval: Artists on the World's Frontline. Oakland: New Village Press, 2008.
- Expressions of Independence: Sri Lanka, New York: Mona Bismarck Foundation, 2008.
- Malla, Mukesh. Uttar Aadunic Nepali Kalako Abhilekhan. Kathmandu: Arohan Gurukul, 2009.
- Marzona, Daniel. Conceptual Art. ed. Uta Grosenick. London: Otterlo, Kroller-Muller Museum, 2005.
- Recording Conceptual Art. ed. Alexander Alberro and Patricia Norvell. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001.
- Stallabrass, Julian. Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art. Oxford: Oxford Press, 2004.
- Period of armed conflict that was also referred as “People's war” was a conflict between armed rebel (Maoists) and government forces. The aim of the rebel force was to overthrow century old monarchy and establish “People's Republic of Nepal.” A decade long conflict saw its end towards 2006.
- S. LeWitt. “Paragraph on Conceptual Art” Artforum Magazine 5 no. June Issue (New York: 1967. Pg. 79-83.)
- Sangeeta Thapa, “Understanding Installation Art”. Nukta Art: Contemporary Art Magazine of Pakista (Vol 4 Issue 2 Oct, 2008). Nukta, is an art magazine that is published in Pakistan.
- News paper art report by Binay Ghimere, “Records of Nepali Post-modern Art”. Nepal Republica Media, (16 Oct 2009).
- India, UK and US were the suppliers of military equipments to the military and police force in Nepal. The rebel groups smuggled their fire arms and explosives from neighboring countries. Later, the US postponed the shipment of lethal equipment to the military in Nepal in 2005.
- Wall of Hope is an alternative art space that works with installation, sculpture, printmaking, dance, and theatre. The artivist agenda of the project addressed the issues of political refugee and survivors of torture throughout Latin America. This alternative art project was created in 2005 by Claudia Bernardi, an Argentine artist and human right activist. Ms. Bernardi has worked with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, Guatemala and Ethiopia. In 1981 one thousand unarmed children and women were killed by soldiers in El Salvador and she was in the panel of exhuming mass graves of those in 1992.
- Margaret A Boden's “Creativity and Conceptual Art”. The Philosophy of Conceptual Art ed. D. Godie and E. Schellekens. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, pg. 4.)
- Eleonora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett, Rethinking the Social Impact of the Arts: a critical social-historical review, Research Paper- 9 (Warwick: Centre for Cultural Studies, 2006, Pg. 77.)
ARCHANA THAPA is a writer and chairperson of Akshar Creations Publishing House. She has completed her M.Phil in English Literature and currently working on her PhD dissertation. She has compiled, edited and published two collections of Nepali women's personal narration Telling A Tale in English and Swaastitvako Khoj in Nepali. Her critical, analytical and research articles in Nepali and English literature, culture, art and theatre are published in various national and international journals and magazines.