Luigi Fieni: Activist Art Conservator

- through Fabrice Groult

Published on

Thupchen Monastery in Lo Manthang, Mustang, has been visited by Italian restorer Luigi Fieni for the past twenty years, on the initiative of the American Himalayan Foundation. From these stays spent in the company of the Loba villagers, whom he trained as painters and restorers, Luigi Fieni retains a bitter taste for classic restoration and its standards, which, according to him, do not meet the real needs of the inhabitants, but also a wonder at the discovery of Himalayan populations, for whom the image represents tutelary presences charged with spirits. Moved by the vivacity of Buddhist practices, Luigi Fieni feels the urgency of revisiting the conventional patterns of restoration, in order to meet the expectations of the peasants of Mustang. Shaken by his Himalayan experience, he chose to invest above all in projects with a spiritual dimension.

On what date did you start the restoration work and from whom came the request?

The Foundation asked the King of Mustang in 1992, what he needed, and he answered them: “Our culture, based on religion, will disappear if we do not preserve our monastery: we must preserve it”. So I started in 1999, and I'm still working on it.

What was the challenge of this project?

The most important challenge was to train forty peasants to become painters and curators, and to transmit knowledge to them when they had never been to school, and had no notion of geometry or design: this teaching required a lot of adaptation work.

How did the villagers receive the restoration proposal? What do these frescoes represent for them?

At first, they were opposed to it, saying to themselves: “More foreigners coming to tell us what to do!” But that changed when we showed the King the section of the wall we had cleaned, and he complimented us. We then explained to the villagers our work, they understood that they needed us and joined us. This is their place of prayer, which had been nothing more than a storage room since 1999. They are happy to pray again in this XNUMXth century monastery, which is very important to them.

What is the difference between a classic restoration and yours?

In the West, art is preserved for gain; in Asia, one restores so that the inhabitants return to pray: one must therefore be a restorer and a painter. In the West, restoration consists of working on the remaining artistic material, without “interpreting” it, because that would imply a modification of its meaning. Hence the obligation to restore only the remaining part of the work; if one half is missing, only the one that remains will be restored, without worrying about the entire work.

“In Asia, artists painted in monasteries not to glorify themselves, but so that people came to pray there. Today, who goes to the Sistine Chapel to pray there? The spiritual dimension of art has been forgotten. »

This is what we did from 1999 to 2004, when we carried out a Western-style, “colonialist” conservation, restoring only the painting and treating the monastery like a museum. At first, the monks were satisfied with it, then they told us: “It is not possible for us to pray there, because the Buddhas lack legs”. It is therefore an approach where art is more important than the meaning of the work. In Asia, artists painted in monasteries not to glorify themselves, but so that people came to pray there. Today, who goes to the Sistine Chapel to pray there? The spiritual dimension of art has been forgotten.

Has this experience changed anything in you?

She instilled in me respect for cultures. At first, I thought I knew everything, with a clear idea of ​​how to do it. Today, when I work abroad, I wonder what, in my skills and knowledge, can be used by others.

Has this construction site changed the relationship between the villagers, via this collective spiritual artistic activity?

This was indeed very important, because this collective activity represents good karma for the future life, the villagers being proud to work for the community.

As a restorer of sacred works, isn't artistic work on a spiritual theme a form of spiritual practice?

Yes, because you have to get into the spirit of what you're painting. Some villagers pray before going to paint, others have quit smoking, because one must not smoke to paint a deity. Because it is indeed a question of praying with painting. Finally, there is the concentration and the patience required by this practice, for which you really have to "enter" into the painting.

Are you going to continue this project?

I hope so, because it is an important message for the West: we must respect cultures and change the notions of conservation, taking into account the singularity of cultures, because each of them is unique and requires a specific approach.

Is it ultimately a form of activism for the preservation of spiritual identity?

Absolutely ! The Western restorer must respect the choices and decisions of a kingdom or a monastery. Because, often, the work of Unesco in Asia is a form of colonialism; we can't do anything about it, because we are imposed restoration standards, forgetting that these sites are used by locals and that they are not museums for tourists.

This activist artistic approach is a form of religiosity?

In effect. When I finish this project, I will write a book about life at the monastery, and this experience in Mustang that changed my outlook. The message I want to convey is respect for other cultures.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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