‘These are disheartening times, but we must do what we need to do’Things are about to get worse for the art business, anticipates Saroj Mahato, founder and curator of Bikalpa Art Center.
The world outside is yet again silent with movement restrictions reimposed in many parts across the country. But the world on the internet is as busy as ever, as it's where social life and businesses are sustaining amid the pandemic.
This was also why Bikalpa Art Center took their art store online. On July 31, it launched its new online store, Bikalpa Store, in between growing tensions of economic sustainability in the worsening pandemic. The store was launched through a physical exhibition, A Portal to Nepali Contemporary Art after Covid-19, that brought together the works of 22 artists. The website, however, now features the works of 40 artists.
Saroj Mahato, who is the founder and curator of Bikalpa Art Center, started the centre with his wife Mahima Singh Mahato, as an alternative art space in 2013 after they returned from South Korea where the two were studying art. Their art centre has been known for community projects like ‘Women or Objects?’, ‘Panorama 24’, ‘Nepal Then & Now’ for which it had collaborated with Nepal Picture Library and ‘Panorama 60s’ which focused on how modern Nepali art began. And over the years, the art space has also been known for its artist residency programmes and its coworking space.
In this interview with the Post’s Srizu Bajracharya, Mahato talks about the significance of having policies to strengthen the art scene of the country and what the art community requires as the pandemic deeply affects the economy of the country.
How has the journey been like so far?
It’s been a good six years, where a lot has happened in the art scene of the country in these years. Our idea was to make Bikalpa Art Center a space to bring together communities and artists. We also added a cafe and a co-working space which helped bring in a completely new set of people to our art environment. Our activities initially focused more on new media programmes, and over the years we have also managed to exchange ideas and knowledge between international and local artists through our residency programmes.
But in 2017, when we saw a lot of art galleries and centres open, we wanted to alter our focus a little: we wanted to build a narrative of the Nepali art scene to promote it in the local and international market. The questions we were looking at were: When we talk about Nepali art, what does that mean? How do we build interest and engage diverse communities with Nepali art and artists?
So, we started designing programmes to build on that narrative. Moving forward, that’s what we want to achieve with all our projects—a better interactive art scene.
It’s a difficult time for businesses, even more so for the art sector. Why did you choose to launch the store now?
We had been sitting on this idea for quite some time. A few years back, when we were just beginning, we had thought of starting an e-commerce website but at the time it was not feasible and its importance was still not realised. And opening a dollar account was also a lot of hassle. But after Covid-19, having a virtual space to promote art felt really necessary, so we started working on the idea in April.
The website works as an archival space, which can also work as a portfolio for artists and a platform to sell their works. At the moment, the website features about 45 artists and we showcase a variety of work—from traditional art to postmodern art. To launch the store we hosted the physical exhibition, but of course there were no visitors just us and some artists. We felt this was the right time as everyone is now more engaged on the internet.
This is also a platform for people to interact with artists’ works, we can present artworks as a product and at the same time discuss and promote their works. It’s a platform through which we can keep the conversation of art going.
But going back to your question, things are definitely not looking good for art businesses as the commercial market for art suffers because of the pandemic. And in six months if things don’t work out properly, we might even need to close down. But what can we do?
What are the biggest challenges to running an art space in Kathmandu, economically?
It’s very difficult—to make it short. One example I can give you is how artists are treated internationally. Governments abroad encourage artists to keep at their work through specific programmes or financial support in stressful times, which is not the case in Nepal. Instead, here we are made to feel that there is no scope for art in the country. There is no support from the government at all to run a space like this. And then our community too does not encourage us. It’s a very disheartening time. We can’t expect anything right now but just do what we can.
What can people do to support art galleries and art centres?
The government, of course, will not be able to support us, as it hasn’t even been able to give support where needed. But hopefully, people can. Once the lockdown is eased, our co-working space can be put to use and our café. That’s the only way an art centre like ours can get through this time. But to really develop and boost the art scene I also think we need to work on policies to promote the art and culture of the country.
But I think what could also help to promote art is writing about art to talk about art. Without dialogue, art is incomplete. The more we create a buzz around art the more people will be willing to understand it and give time to it.
But we lack research-based art writing, which is needed to push conversations. While there are so many new artists entering the art scene, we need to address why haven’t we seen more art writers? Why don’t we see more writers pursuing art writing for more than three months or a year? Such support can really help the art scene, moreover to strengthen the narrative around Nepali art and build a market for it.
When you say policy to promote art and culture, what sort of policies are you talking about?
My answer might create conflict as there are many people who say there are policies related to art. But my question is if there are, why don’t I see them in practice and why are they not working to promote art.
But when I say policies I am thinking about systems that will ask businesses and companies, even the government, to invest in art. Policies that will ensure that art is a part of city design and infrastructure development. Policies that ensure the engagement of artists in the tourism development of the country.
I remember when I was in South Korea, the state government had at a point made a mandatory law for the state to invest at least 2 percent of their budget in art. That policy helped the state incorporate plans on artistic development but over time, it instilled a habit in people to invest in art.
That is something we can do in our country as well. Plus, we are culturally and ethnically so rich. Just think about having cultural and art museums in every city, and how that can boost tourism and help businesses by attracting tourists.
And that will eventually help the market of Nepali art. That shift will push us forward in the international scene. If we are to enter and do well in the international market we have to first enhance and work on our local market, create an ecosystem that supports and promotes Nepali artists.
And our Bikalpa Store is just a small initiative towards that aim, another brick to building a block, to help our art market. Of course, this initiative can close down any moment, as many other initiatives have in the past, but in the end, having made that effort will be for the better. It will mean that we have done our part to push this market forward and build a better art scene.