Returning to a year without exhibitions‘Last year was tough for Nepal’s art community and this year is unlikely to be any different,’ says Sangeeta Thapa, director of Siddhartha Art Gallery.
For almost eight months last year, galleries in Kathmandu Valley remained closed due to the pandemic. Like every other sector, the pandemic dealt a devastating blow for the arts sector as well, remembers Sangeeta Thapa, the director and curator of Siddhartha Art Gallery.
“Having to distance ourselves from the very people we open our shows for wasn’t easy,” says Thapa.
The prolonged closure of art galleries left many artists and art curators with no choice but to abandon their plans and wait for some semblance of normalcy to return.
As the nationwide lockdown, which began in March last year, kept prolonging, by July, gallery owners started getting increasingly worried.
It was only in December last year that art galleries started reopening and began the long road to recovery. To gain momentum and pull visitors, galleries held art exhibitions every week and it appeared that the worst was behind.
But by mid-April, daily Covid-19 cases in the country started skyrocketing. On April 29, prohibitory orders were enforced in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur. Prohibitory orders still haven’t been lifted in the three cities.
“It’s sad that things are back to how it was in 2020. But this time, the situation looks more serious than ever. The worst part is we as a nation are still unprepared to deal with the rising cases. We have lost so many people in just weeks,” says Thapa, who spoke to the Post over the phone.
The stress in Thapa’s voice is discernible. She pauses now and then to find the right words to describe the challenges the art community has been dealing with since last year.
“We have been able to build some momentum after we reopened post the lockdown. Now we have lost all of that again and we are back to square one. The pandemic has had devastating consequences to the entire art community,” says Thapa. “The hardest hit are the full-time artists because business has been hit very, very badly.”
It was in 1987 when Thapa and Shashikala Tiwari, one of the first internationally acknowledged Nepali painters, started Siddhartha Art Gallery. Today, the gallery is one of the leading art spaces in the country with a wide local and global network.
“When I started the gallery initially with Shashikala ji, it was important for me to find my own space and create a community I felt at ease and comfortable with. Many of my life’s fond and good memories were made in the gallery,” says Thapa. “The gallery has provided me many opportunities to get to know so many artists, and I am really grateful for that.”
In 2006, Siddhartha Art Gallery brought together artists, poets, musicians and people from different backgrounds for a community art project ‘Khulla Dhoka’ to initiate dialogue by demonstrating full-size doors as a symbol to encourage openness during the backdrop of Maoist insurgency. It was one of the biggest community art projects of its time. And over the years, the gallery has hosted many memorable exhibitions and has also amplified public dialogues.
“Siddhartha Art Gallery has played a key role in encouraging the contemporary art scene in the country. And Sangeeta Thapa has always supported young artists. Her gallery has always served as a platform for artists like us to build local and international networks, which is very crucial for us,” says Asha Dangol, a Kathmandu-based artist and the founder of E-Arts Nepal, an online gallery and art shopping store.
The reopening of Siddhartha Art Gallery after the first lockdown, says Dangol, served as a motivation for artists to start working again.
“It was so good to see art communities pick themselves up again after a long, distressing year,” he says.
While many artists continued to create artworks during last year’s lockdown and some even took part in virtual exhibitions, for curators like Thapa, it wasn’t easy to continue working because of the many restrictions that the lockdown posed.
“So many of the artists and creatives went virtual but I couldn’t do that. There were just too many variables to think about. What I have realised is that when it comes to art exhibitions, physical exhibitions are much more effective than virtual ones,” says Thapa.
For gallery owners like Thapa, closing their venues for almost the entirety of 2020 posed a huge economic challenge.
“Even though there was no business at all, operational costs still had to be paid. I am fortunate that the landlord of Siddhartha Art Gallery decided to waive off a few months rent,” she says.
The prolonged lockdown forced her to make difficult decisions. One of them, she says, was having to decide to permanently close Kathmandu Art Gallery in Le Sherpa. Thapa started the gallery in 2019 in an attempt to build a new art space in the country. Thapa says she also had to deduct her staff’s salaries for a few months.
“We also had to abandon many of our plans for that year,” she says.
Before the last year’s lockdown, Thapa and her team were also hard at work planning the Kathmandu Triennale Festival, of which Thapa’s Siddhartha Arts Foundation is the principal organiser. But the pandemic left them with no option but to postpone the festival to 2021.
“In January this year, we knew that chances of holding Kathmandu Triennale Festival in the first half of 2021 were very slim. So we decided to postpone it to the end of October and we started preparing accordingly. And then the prohibitory orders were enforced and now things are uncertain once again. When our plans get pushed like that, it really drains our motivation,” says Thapa.
As Covid-19 continues to spread across Nepal in 2021, Thapa says her focus is now more on the harsh realities Nepalis have had to face.
“I am frustrated and tired of the uncertainty. Making things much worse is the lack of planning on the government’s part to import vaccines into the country. The government system that’s supposed to come to people’s rescue in times like these has failed us miserably,” says Thapa.
On the work front, Thapa is aware that things are only going to get more difficult as the lockdown extends.
“I am still thinking about how I can make my gallery sustainable. I feel challenged and I don’t know for how long this pandemic will go on,” she says.
Across the world, the pandemic has dealt a huge blow to the art community. The pandemic has already forced many art galleries and museums to shut down permanently.
In a country like Nepal where there are only a handful of galleries, closure of even a few galleries could deal a severe blow to the art community.
In the absence of art galleries, the whole ecosystem of the art world gets weakened significantly, says Dangol, the artist.
“Galleries provide artists like us with a space to communicate our ideas, and the creatives involved with the galleries promote our works and help us connect with art enthusiasts and buyers. The more such galleries are there in the country, the better it is for the art community,” says Dangol.
Priyanka Singh Maharjan, a recent art school graduate, recalls the challenges she had to face in getting her work out there during last year’s nationwide lockdown.
“With art galleries closed, I had very limited options to share my work with viewers,” she says. “I did participate in a few online art exhibitions during the lockdown but I think people—the majority of whom are so used to visiting a gallery for art exhibitions—are finding it challenging to get used to virtual exhibitions.”
Maharjan’s work ‘In the realm of recollection’ was the second exhibition Siddhartha Art Gallery hosted after it reopened in December 2020.
“Since the pandemic was still ongoing, not many people visited. A lot of artists did visit and many of them were happy that exhibitions were happening,” says Maharjan.
For Sangeeta Thapa, curating works of artists and hosting exhibitions once again meant a slow return to some semblance of normalcy.
“When we reopened and started hosting exhibitions again it gave the art community hope that things were improving,” she says.
The Siddhartha Art Gallery reopened in December last year with Swiss artist Jerome Edou’s ‘A Single Brushstroke Chan Mind Spiritual Painting.’ It also exhibited Kabi Raj Lama’s print works ‘Cycles of Impermanence’ from February to March. But by the time Neera Joshi Pradhan’s exhibition ‘The Beauty of Nepal’s Floras’ came to an end in late April, it was clear to Thapa that she would have to close her gallery again.
It was a painful decision to make all over again, she says.
Artists are now once again on their own, and many creatives are still wary of the effectiveness of virtual platforms.
“We started E-Arts, an online art gallery about some years ago, and during the first lockdown we focused on using the platform to keep engaging in art activities amidst the pandemic, but we haven’t been able to get the desired outcome out of it,” says Dangol.
Artists like Dangol believe that prominent galleries like Siddhartha Art Gallery have an important role to play in promoting art and keeping art-related discussions alive in times of crisis.
“If renowned galleries like Siddhartha Art Gallery focus online, they will be able to make much more impact. But given how serious this second wave of the pandemic has become, people haven’t been able to think much about anything apart from taking care of their health,” says Dangol.
The only way forward out of the situation, Thapa believes, will be a country-wide vaccination drive.
“Even if the prohibitory orders are lifted tomorrow and galleries open, there will be a very limited number of people visiting art exhibitions,” says Thapa. “Until or unless a large number of Nepalis are vaccinated, normalcy will not return to the country.”