What I learned about Nepalese art after the opening of the Kathmandu Art Biennale

- through Francois Leclercq

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Kiran Manandhar, Pancha Tatva (2023). Burlaps printed in copper on canvas. Image of the author

Paubha by artist Rajani Sinkhwal Mahakala (2023), a worthy successor to his father's traditional legacy. Sunan Dangol's striking vision of a tower of deities atop a chariot (Rato Machindranath 2023). Mahima Singh's installation of the Buddha's first sermon, with emphasis on light and impermanence (Transcendence through simplicity 2023). The works of art on display at the Museum of Nepal Art (MoNA) are a testament to the creativity of which the Nepalese spirit is capable. They are part of the Kathmandu Art Biennale: Spiritual Edition.

The biennial and the MoNA itself are the brainchild of Kathmandu Guest House (KGH) hotel group owner Rajan Sakya. Sakya inherited the national hotel chain from his father and has managed eight hotels for decades. By his own admission, he is more interested in artists than in the art they create. In recent years, since finding his calling, he has devoted his resources not only to channeling the country's artistic energy into the biennale (more than 80 artists have been exhibited) but also to helping the Nepalese people to appreciate the art of the country, to attract it. to the celebration of locally produced beauty.

One of the directors of MoNA, Shaguni Sakya, has many insightful perspectives when it comes to art appreciation. During the pandemic, she undertook studies in art history, as well as being a partner and mother, and she was one of the biennial's most eloquent participants. Failing to find art historians in Nepalese universities, I discovered Shaguni's ideas on how artists have depicted spiritual subjects over the years extremely useful. What I learned from her and colleagues at MoNA, and from my visit as a whole to the opening of the biennial, is that the Nepalese art world has the intellectual tools necessary to understand self: it just needs to spread them from high academies and universities to the right people, especially when appreciation of local artists (and lack of awareness of their work) is lacking in the country.

The author speaks with the biennial artists (from far left): Sunny Shakya, Samundra Man Singh Shrestha, Anil Shakya, Suman Shakya and Raj Prakash Man Tuladhar. Image of the author
The author speaks with the biennial artists (from far left): Sunny Shakya, Samundra Man Singh Shrestha, Anil Shakya, Suman Shakya and Raj Prakash Man Tuladhar. Image by Rebecca Wong

The theme chosen for this first biennial gives a certain indication, by Sakya and Shaguni's own admission, on the character of “Nepalese art” as a national classification. Encountering Nepalese art is, to a certain extent, also encountering a spiritual creation, imbued with tradition and religious life as the Himalayan region has been for centuries. Yet the term "spiritual" does not require belief or religious affiliation, and it can also be surprisingly modern, as many examples presented at the biennial prove: Abhijeet Prajapati, Mukesh Shrestha and Sundar Lama are a few of my favorite examples.

“There are two main categories of art in Nepal today, one being contemporary art and the other traditional. In the latter case, we suffer from a shortage of raw materials of such magnitude that paubha proliferated in what we now call modern Nepal. One estimate, however hagiographic, is the story of how the princess of the Licchavi kingdom, Bhrikuti Devi, was married to the Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo, as well as the Chinese princess Wencheng. At the very least, this legend gives an idea of ​​the type of Nepalese art introduced to Tibet at that time,” Shaguni told me.

On the basis of this admittedly fragile historiography, traditional Nepalese art and that of Paubha The antecedents correlate, but do not necessarily correspond, to the period of architecture and aesthetics that gave rise to Jokhang Temple, built during the reign of Songtsen Gampo. “From the 1940th century until the 1904s, there was no systematic study of Nepalese art, only a continuous transmission of traditional art. Then Ananda Muni Sakya (1944-13), influenced by Western painting styles, received a commission from the XNUMXth Dalai Lama for his exquisite paubha art. Unfortunately, this period came to an abrupt end with his untimely death, just as he was on the verge of launching a new artistic style,” Shaguni said. She says there was a sudden and prolonged pause in the evolution of traditional art from the death of Muni Sakya until the 90s.

Shaguni Sakya. Image courtesy of Shaguni Sakya
Shaguni Sakya. Image courtesy of Shaguni Sakya

The case is different for contemporary art, where the first generation of artists appeared in the 60s and 70s, with Lain Singh Bangdel (1919-2002) who redefined Nepalese art by introducing Western-themed art with his exhibition in 1962. era” was followed by pioneers like Kiran Manandhar, who articulated (and continues to articulate, as part of her contribution to this biennial, Pancha Tatva 2023, proves) for current and future artists emotions in art, from joy to sorrow, reflections on social issues and impressions of abstract concepts like truth and love, peace and violence.

“We can see that contemporary art is beginning to influence new generations of paubha artists,” Shaguni said, invoking the failed legacy of Ananda Muni Sakya. “Over the decades, more and more paubha the works begin to demonstrate a more human feeling and flow, and no longer appear completely two-dimensional. Here we see the beginnings of neo-traditional paubha.” Conversely, the influence of spiritual motifs animates the work of contemporary artists, from Buddhism to Hinduism to local Nepalese folklore. A mutual synthesis thus emerged, this harmonious interaction between the old and the new expressed in the installations and paintings of the biennial.

Shaguni is realistic about the activity of mapping art as a commentator or historian in a spirit of critical inquiry: “Studying art history is a luxury,” she concedes, “and most artists don't have time to study history, even that of their country. own profession. However, the strength of Nepalese art lies in its authenticity, linked to its small-scale local heritage. Many Indian and Chinese visitors tell me how looking at Nepalese art gives them a sense of inner peace. This is thanks to years spent honing our soft strengths: heritage, tradition, spirituality – and our lack of commercialization.

A row of Buddhist-themed artwork at MoNA. Image of the author

If commercialization does not necessarily go hand in hand with popularization (which the biennial hopes to do with its artists), we find everywhere concerns about balance: communicating and publishing in Nepali versus in English, expressing one's inner world versus adhering to traditions. established artistic practices and abstraction to contemplate the universal rather than making art for specific ritual purposes. One of Shaguni's favorite works, embodying the unity of new chic and venerable old, is the work of Manish Dhoju. Royal Gold Window (2023), one of the first examples of hyperrealism in Nepal. The question of the future is that of the balance between the contemporary and the traditional, as it is directly linked to the way in which present and future generations relate to art.

“Gaining global appeal will inevitably lead to a certain degree of ‘commodification’ of Nepali art, and we do not want to lose our soul,” concludes Shaguni. “Traditional art has its advantages: today's young artists do not have the same strengths as the masters of yesteryear, such as their concentration and their ability to memorize. » Everything requires a delicate balance, underscoring in a way the fragility (and authenticity) of the Nepalese artistic landscape: Nepali artists want their viewers to tell the story of what is depicted on the canvas. The traditional will always be there. Now that the world is coming to Kathmandu for the biennale, the question that arises is how Nepal will reach out to the world, bringing with it its magnificent artistic heritage.

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photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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