Building an art movementArtists attempting to push the boundaries of their craft typically find themselves preaching to the converted, which in the long term creates an arts community that is insular and self-congratulatory
Earlier this week, two international art professionals spoke to a packed house at Yala Maya Kendra, at a programme titled Making Contemporary Art Exciting. The event was part of an ongoing speaker series hosted by the Siddhartha Art Foundation Education Initiative (SAFEI) and is part of a larger strategy to build an audience for contemporary art. The workshops conducted by SAFEI focus on art management and art writing, in an attempt to expand and professionalise the art industry in Nepal.
The keynote speakers for the event were Alberto Rey, a Cuban-American artist working in Kathmandu, and Bill McAlister who was visiting from London, England. Rey is the lead artist at the Bagmati River Art project, that brings together in equal parts, ecology, science and art. The project consists of researching and documenting the water quality of the notoriously putrid Bagmati River, while providing visual means to communicate its sad state to the larger public. McAlister is a long term creative animator and cultural activator with an extensive career in promoting community arts projects, in organisations like the Institute of Contemporary Art in London.
The event was moderated by Kanak Mani Dixit who opened the event with his take on the current status of art in Nepal, relative to its South Asian neighbours. “We must not compare the arts scene of Kathmandu to massive cities like Delhi or Lahore,” he explained, “rather we should compare it to a city like Lucknow. When seen in this way, Kathmandu, for its relatively small population, has quite an active arts scene.”
The two speakers at the event offered Powerpoint presentations and a recount of their extensive careers as facilitators of the arts and animators. The event was promoted as making contemporary art exciting, and while the content presented by the speakers was interesting and compelling, the format of the event was far from exciting, highlighting the struggle formal institutions face while making interesting and novel contributions.
While SAFEI, as an initiative, has been running for less than a year, Sangeeta Thapa, a curator and founder of Siddhartha Arts Foundation, has been working to elevate the status of art in Nepal since opening her gallery in 1987. With the same expressed aim of fostering a contemporary art scene in Nepal, Thapa has worked tirelessly to both mentor artists and build an audience. She explained that creating a thriving art scene is as much about developing an informed audience as it was about working with artists. Art is only as important as the emphasis placed on it by its audience. If the audience doesn’t know the context or have the background to understand how the work is furthering a dialectic, its meaning and importance will be totally lost.
With regards to this, Thapa acknowledged, “Artists create fancy installations and later bemoan that no one understands them. These (SAFEI) outreach projects then are also about sensitising the wider community and familiarising them with contemporary art practices.”
Contemporary art is meant to be challenging—because of this, art work that strays from the traditional figurative painting is a thing only understood by a small elite circle, and this is largely true around the world. The result is that artists attempting to push the boundaries of their craft typically find themselves preaching to the converted, which in the long term creates an arts community that is insular and self-congratulatory. This tendency, however, leads the wider public to dismiss contemporary art as something useless and elitist.
That the notion that dictates the creation of a vibrant contemporary art scene relies as much on the development of a sensitive and engaged audience as it does on the creation of new art illustrates a co-dependency of artists and formal art institutions. Artists are typically inept when it comes to marketing and audience building, and require the services of institutions. Institutions, however, may be hesitant to promote blatantly provocative work and to take risks that could isolate them from their audience.
Sujan Amatya, one of the key people working with SAFEI, took a different stance on the matter. He suggested that it was the artists who needed to take more risks in producing art across all media. “Artists need to take more risks, and not simply copy what others around them are doing,” said Amatya, “it is one thing to host these initiatives and pass on the information, but if these new ideas are not implemented, our workshops are of no real benefit.”
While Tuesday’s event was well attended and brought together many people from that small and elite circle of artists and enthusiasts, it ultimately failed to accomplish what it set out to do. It did not make contemporary art exciting. This is because formal events, despite being well organised and funded, hold to traditional modes of communicating and have little access to communities beyond the art bubble.
Bill McAlister, one of the speakers at the event suggested that a vibrant arts scene required a diversity of artistic offerings, and embraced a high percentage of the population, especially among groups that were usually excluded. “In my experience,” explained McAlister, “the really interesting things in London don’t come out of formal structures or art institutions, but from groups of artists starting something new.”
While initiatives like SAFEI offer platforms for arts professionals to share their insights into the industry, and the opportunity to connect with people from their field, for contemporary art in Kathmandu to truly become exciting, artists must not expect the formal institutions to lead the way. It is ultimately the artists who drive the industry, but they must come together to create something totally new, not just for the city, but for the world to see.
(Harris is the co-founder of the Art Haus of Kathmandu, Ekantakuna)