The portraiture and landscapes in Kathmandu galleries reflect an idealised Nepal that does not exist. Art must evolve to speak for all Nepalis and not just for its elite urban patrons.
What does it mean when a community’s artwork fails to represent the concerns of the community? The offerings in Kathmandu’s museums and galleries, and the traditionally made art in the stores, depict only serenity, beauty and harmony. But a day in Kathmandu will contradict the guide-book description of Nepal and Nepalis as peaceful and peace-loving. In whose interest is it to have institutions display nostalgic, even dishonest, art?
To arrive at some answers, the political and economic ideology of the city’s public and private cultural institutions must be examined, keeping in mind that artwork is necessarily shaped by the nature of its patronage. Only then can we understand the place of traditional art, the need for “honesty” in contemporary art, and why Kathmandu’s art increasingly tends to misrepresent Nepal.
THE PATRON’S AGENDA
Political systems partonise artists in different ways, and for different reasons. Throughout the history of Kathmandu, feudal systems have used art, particularly religious art, as a political tool to reflect and maintain their power.
The Malla kings spent money on art forms and architecture that fortified their divine rights. The beauty and richness of these creations glossed over the squalor in which the average citizen lived. The originality of Newari art came to an end when Prithivinarayan Shah conquered the Valley. A warring culture, the Gorkhalis did not have a strong artistic tradition of their own. Newari forms were patronised for various reasons but were not built upon.
The Ranas chose to emulate British Victorian and colonial Indian ways. Oil paintings, portraiture, mansions with high ceilings and columns, and Western features in clothing, were some of the results. From abroad, the arts of Kathmandu received a secular influence, but, unlike in the West, this new secular art remained at the service of feudal interests.
Since the restoration of power to the Shah dynasty, the conservative, sometimes feudal, but relatively more representative government professed interest in encouraging the cultural expression of all Nepalis, and some efforts were made to do so. But government efforts continued to yield art that was unrepresentative of Nepal’s cultures.
A major economic factor that helps shape current art in Kathmandu is the city’s extreme dependence on foreign money, in the form of aid and income from tourism. The practitioners cannot but submit themselves to the tastes of foreign sensibilities.
Another factor is the concentration of economic wealth in the urban center of Kathmandu, with its sophisticated cash economy, which is in stark contrast to the rural hinterland. The beer and cigarette commercials on Nepal TV are perhaps manifestations of how far Kathmandu’s art-patronising elite are removed from the rest of Nepal. The two cultures no longer share a common ground, and this is evident in the galleries.
MUDDLED MUSEUM MANIA
Though Western influence has done much to make Kathmandu’s high society appreciate the value of museums, indiscriminate acceptance of an imported understanding of what is new culture must be questioned.
In museums, the interaction between the viewer and the viewed is secular and educational. In temples, the interaction is sacred and irrational. Religious art thus has a “use value” that secular and archaeological pieces lack. The presence of religious Hindu objects at museums in the West, for example, disallows the very reason for which they were made. It would be equally inappropriate to place a Dutch still-life in a Kathmandu temple.
For this reason, the idea of barring the entrance of non-Hindus from Hindu temples is interesting. Though it more or less manifests as discrimination against non-South Asians, the rule is intended to keep unbelieving eyes from a sacred site, and to avoid having temples turned into archaeological sites and ethnological Disneylands.
Public museums preserving secular objects must bear the responsibility of representing the vastly differing arts of Nepal. As there is no objective rendering of the past, the information disseminated can be coloured by current biases.
In recent years, museums in the West have faced much criticism from feminist and Marxist critics, who contend that the history of women and minority groups has been suppressed in favour of the history of elite men. The National Museum in Kathmandu’s Chhauni is ideally suited for such criticism. Supposedly established to represent the history of Nepal, the museum displays on Malla king, all the Shah kings and their prime ministers. Those who go to the museum learn nothing of the history of “low-caste” peoples, ethnic groups outside the Valley, and women of Nepal.
The Nepal Association of Fine Arts (NAFA) is an example of an art museum that fails to recognise the vast economic and cultural gulf between Kathmandu’s art and that of the rest of the rural majority. Aimed at encouraging contemporary art, NAFA seems to be guided by several misconceptions, the first of which is the notion of “Nepal” itself,
In a country where the majority understands art to be of ritual or decorative use, it is alien to have a national institution display just easel paintings and sculpture. Nepal’s history of easel painting dates back to the Rana rulers who encouraged Victorian portraiture. After the Ranas went their way, “modem” (abstract) paintings became fashionable among elites im-pressed by modern art of the West. As such, painting is the heritage of few Nepalis.
NAFA’s definition of “fine arts” also demands inspection. In choosing only painting and sculpture for its walls, a distinction has implicitly been made between “fine arts” and “crafts”. The contemporary arts of rural areas, such as the cloth woven by Gurung women, or decorations on Tharu houses, are excluded because they are “crafts”. It is perhaps not arbitrary that this distinction has the effect of marginalising the arts of rural women and men, and aggrandising the arts of urban artists.
Further, the paintings that hang at NAFA leaves one with a picture postcard under-standing: happy natives and spiritual and natural wealth seem to mark Nepali life. This misrepresentation is due in part to the fact that the Kathmandu-based patronised artists naturally lack the ability to speak for the reality of all Nepalis. But it is also caused by the complacency that marks government patronage, for which art that supports the theory that “the natives may be poor, but they are happy,” provides justification for inadequacy.
It is natural that a government not held responsible to all the people should create aloof institutions that prefer unchallenging works of art. But the Nepali public can ill-afford to support urban-based “high art” institutions that fail to reach, represent or educate it. A representative government must begin to use museums to recognise and encourage all kinds of Nepali art, and to educate Nepalis about the many histories and cultures of Nepal.
The appearance of businesses which sell contemporary and traditional paintings marks another shift in the Nepali relationship to art. Instead of simply looking at objects, as in museums, viewers are offered the opportunity to own them. Enriched by development efforts, a small upper-middle class in Kathmandu can now afford to buy artwork as testimony to their cash wealth.
The gallery system originated in the late 19th century Europe, as a reaction to highhanded and conservative museums. Capitalistic in conception, galleries offered artwork as commodities for sale. Thus they were not bound by ethics as to what they could display, and they tended to show progressive, sometimes shocking works.
The emergence of galleries in Kathmandu could he an indication of a revival of contemporary art, and they do have the potential to en-courage original expressions. But the galleries, like’ the museums, display paintings that are overwhelmingly nostalgic, illustrating religious scenes or depictions of idyllic agrarian life. In their romanticism, they seem inspired by travel guides and posters promoting tourism.
Because idealised images of Nepal relieve them of the psychological burden of their privilege, Kathmandu’s elite patronises art that speaks kindly, if distantly, of Nepal. Artists cannot expect to make a living exposing the dark side of Nepal. Happy natives, untouched nature and marked spiritualism may not pertain to reality, but they sell well.
Because galleries will always supply what is in demand, it is up to the consumers to demand honest expression. Only when the gallery-going public is ready for challenging art will the galleries speak for all Nepal.
SHOPPING FOR THANGKAS
Creativity cannot flourish in a philosophical vacuum, and it is an indication of religious stagnation that few temples or religious arts have been created recently. The broad, inclusive Hinduism of the scriptures has manifested in Kathmandu as an archaic social doctrine with rigid caste, race and sex-based hierarchies, and in keeping, government and private funds have been directed more towards restoration of original religious work.
Increasingly, traditional artisans are learning to tap secular sources of income. At Patan Industrial Estates, for example, traditional art is being made for foreign markets and the urban elite. This work is important because it employs artists and encourages traditional skills, but it cannot be taken as art created with originality.
A relationship has been established between native and tourist based on the native’s need for money and the tourist’s need for entertainment. The native culture is made to put its ethnic identity and religious heritage on sale.
Thangka stores on Durbar Marg exemplify this relationship. Tourists and urban elite are offered their choice of motifs on their choice of colours, producing “designer” thangkas to decorate empty walls with. These thangkas are made by Hindu and Buddhist lay persons with imported, industrially produced materials such as acrylic paints, canvas, and rabbit-skin glue.
Thangkas are properly used as yantras, or spiritual diagrams, during motivation, and are covered when not in use. A foreign market, for which “ethnic” art is chic, hardly cares to respect the ritual use of the objects. Unable to resist the demand by undiscriminating tourists, Nepali arts are unable to grow and change at their own pace. Instead, they are transformed to exotic wallpaper in foreign homes, devoid of the depth of experiences they are meant to convey to the initiated.
Clearly, the ethnic art marketed in stores is no longer found in the lives of the natives, who would rather be like foreigners. While traditional Nepali artists are transformed into tourist memorabilia, the natives of Kathmandu are busy constructing concrete block houses and furnishing them with posters of foreign landscapes. To see the art patronised by the natives, one might have to look to printing presses in Hong Kong and. Bangkok instead of in Nepali galleries and art shops.
POSITION OF STRENGTH
In Kathmandu, feudal political ideology is being replaced by democratic ideology. In keeping with the spirit of democracy, the government must use its funds to encourage the arts of all Nepalis. Government restoration projects and museums must reach all segments of the population, and avoid reflecting a Kathmandu-centered, exclusionary attitude. The fact that Nepal has no less than 31 distinct ethnic groups and 26 different languages alone disallows a representative government from giving preference to any one cultural mind-set. Also in keeping with the spirit of democracy, the government must not only tolerate, but encourage, difference, diversity and dissent in artwork. Full artistic license will encourage representative art.
The economically disadvantaged position in which Nepal entered “the world” in the 1950s made it vulnerable to foreign influence. Un-guided by native wisdom, it has taken little time for genuine art to wither. Ideally, the arts of Nepal should be able to approach foreign influence from a position of strength. But this necessitates such measures as government subsidies for the production of marginalised arts of rural Nepal, and incentives for people to support them. Though the government will perhaps never be able to protect traditional cultures to the extent that, say, Bhutan does, it must relieve Nepali art of the pressure to conform to the foreign taste for cute, ethnic art.
Finally, artists must realise that it is not enough to be skilled. It is important to under-stand that traditional and recently-developed shills can be put to various uses; they can be-come propaganda for the cause of a powerful minority, or they can raise awareness among Nepalis of how they live. It is the message conveyed, not the medium, that is of primary importance.
Manjushree Thapa paints and writes in Kathmandu