Art and the earthquakeWhere does art come in during a natural disaster when there are so many other needs to meet?
Is art important in times of disaster? This is a weighted question that will be answered differently depending on who you ask. Close to one year after the earthquake, looking back, it is clear that everyone with a will to help, and was able, managed to mobilise themselves on behalf of the less fortunate; made possible by the incredible circumstances, you could call it luck, that kept most of Kathmandu supplied with (albeit patchy) power, cellular networks, the internet, and running water. Civil society was at its best, people were out in the hardest hit communities that they were able to access, trying to make a difference.
So where does art come in when there are so many other needs to meet? Basics such as shelter, sustenance, clean water, and first aid were indeed placed paramount, even from the many artists who flung themselves into relief efforts.
The artists Hitman Gurung and Sheelasha Rajbhandari, along with their colleagues and friends, abandoned their coursework, trying to help people who were buried by digging through rubble with their bare hands in the initial hours after the quake. Later on they were able to focus on the community in Thulo Byasi at the northern entrance to hard hit Bhaktapur, where they created “Camp Hub” in conjunction with the community and their artist friends to create engaged art works that spoke directly to the effects of the quake.
Sujan Chitrakar, artist, curator, and professor at Kathmandu University (KU) worked tirelessly with his KU students and numerous other volunteers in Bungamati, a hard hit, historically important Newar community, to create temporary shelters, rebuild classrooms, and document and create plans to preserve and restore the medieval town that had suffered so much damage to its cultural heritage.
By Sudeep Balla
About a month after the quake, after scrambling to get relief to the hardest hit districts, The Yellow House group which started out as an unregistered but crucial hub in coordinating relief work organised an informal gathering of concerned people, with artists, experts, and otherwise, who were interested in introducing or incorporating art based therapies to affected children. Niranjan Kunwar, an educator, along with Sharareh Bajracharya and Jess Linton, the former an arts educator, the latter an art psycho-therapist, met at this gathering. Soon after, ArtWorks was formed, and they were funded by the Shikshya Foundation to make a trip to Ghyachchok, a hard hit Gurung village in Gorkha that had received very little aid. Kunwar’s moving account of the trip and the impacts of the three day long arts therapy workshop conducted there are a must read for anyone who is interested in the role that art can play in such times.
By Sheelasha Rajbhandari
Photo.circle was able to raise funding to give towards restoring the wrecked “paati” in Chyasal, in Patan, along with establishing an Instagram feed for the Nepal Photo Project (#nepalphotoproject) which allowed different photographers to upload photos in real time. In photo.circle’s founding member, Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati’s, own words, “The platform became a way to share real-time information in the immediate aftermath, that volunteers were using to respond to, and also provided a more nuanced narrative of recovery, relief, and rebuilding to counter the narrower representations in mainstream media”.
Another astonishing and heartening gesture was made by artists in Bangladesh who wanted to help their fellow artists in earthquake hit Nepal. They contributed 90 of their art works for a fundraiser at the Athena Gallery in Dhaka, a move that resulted in bursaries for almost 31 local artists from varied disciplines, and six-month long residencies for five artists at Bindu, Space for the Arts, and the Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre (KCAC). Two simultaneous exhibitions at the Nepal Arts Council and the Siddhartha Art Gallery showcased the works that were made possible from this support. Jeewan Suwal, a painter from Bhaktapur who also participated in Camp Hub’s community based art works, and lost his home and his father to the earthquake, was one of the many people who were allowed some respite as a result of this international donation to support the arts at such a time.
By Sudeep Balla
These examples are just a few of the many endeavours by the artistic community to engage with and provide support to those desperately in need of relief, comfort, and both concrete physical and emotional support.
Any artist will tell you that creating art is like second nature to them. Most artists have an extraordinary facility to be able to express themselves, hence their chosen profession. That ability to express what is going on inside of you is not a quality that comes easily to most people. Art can be used as a way to allow difficult emotions to manifest outwardly into cathartic creations, but more often than not, in a country where art is not incorporated into the school curriculum, the idea of trying to create, or use, the arts in a time of disaster, even if it is to help people express their trauma can sit uncomfortably in the face of so much suffering and misery which begs for more “useful” forms of aid.
By Lavkkant Chaudhary
The successes of Camp Hub, the Rebuild Bungamati initiative, and ArtWorks’ foray into arts therapy in remote Gorkha lies in the fact that all involved were exceptionally sensitive to community needs, helping to assess the situation first before gently introducing aspects of art-making and art therapy into the very real relief efforts that these groups were contributing to simultaneously. Nepal Photo Project’s Instagram feed was crucial for alternative documentation, the donations from Dhaka, which could have become a token symbol, were instead utilised to provide real, necessary monetary support and emotional relief. Above all, art was made secondary to human need, it was used a means rather than an end in itself.
Art can be both vitally necessary and sometimes extraneous. In dire times, art(it could be writing, painting, drawing, screaming in an act of performance) can be an outlet for grief, pain, and in the case of our own particular disaster, the trauma from seeing homes crumble, an insecurity that can truly destabilise the psyche. However, as Hitman points out in his Camp Hub statement, art must make its own case for validity in such times, a sentiment echoed by one of the co-founders of the Shikshya Foundation who initially hesitated at the possible usefulness of art in such times.
By Laxman Karmacharya
When it comes to things like dealing with the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake such qualified hesitation is justified, and sensitivity, accessibility, and sincerity must also be accompanied by coordination, professionalism, and sound methodology with defined processes and outcomes in mind, especially when it comes to creating art, or conducting art therapy.
That being said, there are not many ways to deal with the enormity of such events. While the government struggled to release relief materials from the airport, children, who are always among the most emotionally vulnerable, found themselves homeless and without any system or structure of support. Temporary Learning Centres and Child Friendly Spaces became a crucial way to provide these affected groups with a measure of security, just as playing and drawing, both activities used in arts therapy, became the only possible way to keep traumatised children busy.
Working for an organisation that deals with children myself, our programmes team, seeing the substantial benefits, quickly shifted into arts and play based trauma counseling workshops for teachers in Sindhupalchowk, a move that when first introduced was viewed with incredulity. Later, after their training was complete, a teacher expressed his gratitude at being taught these skills. Simply, but poignantly, he said that there was no way he could expect either himself or the children he taught to sit still and turn to a certain page in a text book; drawing and expressing (verbally or otherwise) was the only way that any of them could function at that point in time.
The Yellow House gathering that led to ArtWorks. Photo courtesy: Niranjan Kunwar
From these specific case studies, and other measurable outcomes, it is apparent that art does have relevance during the hardest of times. As stated before, art can be necessary or superfluous, but it can also be made easily accessible or difficult. It is therefore crucial to understand that art can be used as a powerful method and tool. Art can be as precise or as obtuse as you make it, serving as a very important signifier and cultural record of real life events, or, not mattering at all. In the end the relevance of art is up to the artists, curators, arts educators, and the artistic community who must decide how they will wield their chosen craft. The responsibility of art makers is as large as the burden they take on. In short, art is as important as you make it.
(Pandé is a regular columnist for The Kathmandu Post; she is the Head of Strategic Planning & Communications at Childreach Nepal)