Every month, an opportunity to learn about Nepal’s contemporary art movementsIf we care about raising individuals who are concerned about Nepal’s civil society, the Nepal Art History Discussion Series could prove to be a good starting point.
“We need to participate in this revolution…,” veteran artist Kiran Manandhar reminisced as he sat down with a group on a recent February afternoon at Martin Chautari. Manandhar was referring to the 2006 people’s movement—a period marked by unprecedented potential and possibilities for change—and remembering an evening on the rooftop of Sita Bhawan in Naxal. The city was gripped by all kinds of protests then—there were demands for ethnic rights and writers had also joined the movement with their own concerns. Over the decades, the fine arts movement in Nepal had proceeded by fits and starts and during the phase after the 2006 revolution, there was once again an opportunity to do something: primarily a need to recreate a public institution devoted to artists.
Manandhar was speaking at the monthly Nepal Art History Discussion Series, initiated by Kathmandu Triennale, held at Martin Chautari, the Thapathali-based research institute. The session was the fifth instalment of the series and focused on the chancellorship of Nepal Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) since 2008.
The Triennale describes the series as “a long-form project that aims to bring to the fore the histories, work, and perspectives in Nepal, told through its artists and arts professionals” and an attempt “to fill the lack of proactive documentation and archiving of Nepali art histories and practices.” By participating in these micro-discussions, the larger Nepali audience can learn about the history of art trends in Nepal as well as forge new bonds with the artistic community. This can, in turn, lead to further possibilities—because the arts can provide powerful ways to inquire, critique and respond to dominant discourses and state structures.
A brief history of Nepal Academy of Fine Arts
NAFA was first established in 1965 by Birendra Shah when he was the crown prince. And even though artist Chandra Man Singh Maskey was appointed as the chairperson of the academy, almost no one in the administrative body could gauge the quality of artworks, Manandhar explained. Due to the restrictive and oppressive political climate during the Panchayat years, Birendra’s gesture was viewed as tokenistic, even though the gesture stirred the artistic imagination of the public and a momentum, albeit gradual, started. The monarch had also donated the historic Sita Bhawan to NAFA but in 1977, due to an unfortunate restructuring, NAFA came under the total control of the Royal Nepal Academy. Bureaucrats with close ties to the palace were given administrative responsibilities; artists were pushed to the fringes and NAFA became completely stagnant.
Frustrated with the situation, a group of artists established the Kalakar Samaj (Artists Society) in 1985 and appointed Manandhar as their leader. By that point, Manandhar and a few other senior artists had studied abroad and were exposed to the international art scene. They had witnessed, firsthand, how government institutions dedicated to fine arts could support emerging artists and organise large scale exhibitions. On one hand, this kind of public institution played a crucial role to cultivate art appreciation among the public and on the other, it also created a community that critiqued and challenged various socio-political norms. Despite genuine efforts by these artists, it would take more than two decades to release NAFA from the clutches of the Royal Academy.
During the transitional period after the people’s movement, artists organised themselves with fresh determination, walked down alleys and main streets, splashed public walls with paint, made their presence felt and voices heard. After much political lobbying, the new avatar of NAFA was born with its own administrative body. Kiran Manandhar was appointed as the first Chancellor in April, 2010, and under his leadership, NAFA started organising regular National Fine Art Exhibitions and putting together annual catalogues that compiled the work of prominent Nepali artists. In addition, NAFA also hosts exchange programmes with artists from South Asia.
During the February discussion, Manandhar was also accompanied by Ragini Upadhaya Grela who succeeded him as the Chancellor in 2014 and KK Karmacharya who took up the position in 2018. All three expressed that their work gets constantly interrupted by politics and bureaucratic hassles. For example, they have had to constantly negotiate with the government in order to protect the 22 ropanis of land owned by NAFA. And soon after Upadhaya succeeded Manandhar, Nepal was struck by the devastating earthquakes in 2015. Sita Bhawan was badly damaged by the quakes and Upadhaya had to lobby with politicians in order to retrofit the historic building instead of getting a new one constructed, a project that would be more lucrative for developers. Upadhaya also managed to increase NAFA’s budget from Rs 30 million to over Rs 50 million and organise an exchange programme with Bangladeshi artists as well as artists from other SAARC countries.
The arts and social action
What started as the Kathmandu International Art Festival (KIAF), organised by the Siddhartha Arts Foundation, in 2009 was renamed Kathmandu Triennale in 2017 with the intention of bringing together local and international artists to create exhibitions and encounters. For this year’s festival, Cosmin Costinas is the artistic director, Hitman Gurung and Sheelasha Rajbhandari are the curators while Sharareh Bajracharya is the director.
The first session of the discussion series part of the Triennale was held in October, 2019, with a retrospective look at the emergent Nepali art scene during the 1960s and 1970s. The second session, titled ‘Exhibiting Nepali Modernism: the 70s-90s’ featured veteran artists Shashi Bikram Shah, Krishna Manandhar and Batsa Gopal Vaidya from SKIB-71, regarded as the first modern art collective in Nepal. SKIB got its name from the initials of the four founding artists’ first names. Indra Pradhan, the fourth member, passed away in 1994. The final group exhibition of SKIB took place in 1995 but by that time all four artists had established themselves firmly in Kathmandu’s thriving modern art scene. At the beginning of the talk, Shah’s grandson shared his grandfather’s archive which he has been working on for the past two years and it includes old photographs from the artists’ younger days in Bombay as well as catalogues from art shows.
Representatives of various artist-led initiatives such as Kaasthamandap Artist Group, LASAANA/NexUs Culture Nepal, Gallery McCube, Bindu, and Bikalpa Art Center presented their works and answered questions during the third and fourth sessions of the series. Speaking about challenges and successes, prominent artivist Ashmina Ranjit highlighted the entry of the feminist dialogue in the Nepali art scene. She also commented on the changing perception of fine arts in the late 1990s. During a period when only painting and sculptures were regarded as art, Ranjit, in collaboration with other artists, introduced novel forms such as installations and performances. Ranjit also mentioned that all these initiatives were driven by passion.
In a society where school education is viewed merely as a means to attain “world-class” technical achievement rather than creating a community of learners, youngsters should be encouraged to attend these discussions so that they can participate in the larger dialogue related to the Nepali art scene and social change. If we care about raising individuals who are concerned about Nepal’s civil society, this series can prove to be a good starting point. In a capitalist climate driven by technological advances and material gain, when a kind of a social pathology has swept over youngsters, this kind of inquiry into social movements, historical conditions and the shaping of public institutions works powerfully against such pathologies. And as Ranjit mentioned, learning about passionate leaders from previous decades might inspire everyone to follow their own passions in order to create a vital and just society.
The art history discussion series, part of the Kathmandu Triennale, takes place on the first Thursday of every month at 3 pm. The discussions are also available on YouTube.