Pasa Pi : Artists for the peopleArt in its highest ideal can reflect society back on itself, and artists, then, act as public servants
Over the past two weeks, a travelling art exhibition by a collective of young painters, has transformed the temple steps in Kathmandu Valley’s iconic durbar squares into temporary art exhibitions commemorating the one year anniversary of the earthquake. The show, titled Naksha, featured works consisting primarily of water colour and oil paintings made in the weeks following the earthquake. The paintings depict striking images of broken houses and public landmarks, and were created by a group called Pasa Pi (friends in Newari).
The show’s name, Naksha, is a Nepali word used mainly for architectural drawing, and came from the response of people who watched on while the artists went about creating the artworks. As the average viewer had little insight into the larger reason behind the project, they simply noted the realism and technical precision of the work, and so grouped the paintings in with images. Prabin Shrestha, one of the artists, explained the decision to limit the work to realistic depictions and to avoid work that leaned toward abstraction as following a philosophy of making art that can be immediately be understood by an audience with no previous exposure to contemporary art practices.
The Pasa Pi collective was formed by fine arts students at Lalitkala Campus in Bhotahaiti. After the quake, this group of students came together and began to visit some of the devastated areas, making art and conducting geological survey with the help of a geologist in Kathmandu, Gorkha, and Sindhupalchowk. When asked why they had chosen not to display their work in a gallery, but in the public squares, Pal Saud, a fourth-year student, explained, “We make our work in the public and we show our work in the public.” In the months prior to this show, I had the opportunity to visit Pal’s studio nestled above a guard station in Tribhuvan University, at Kirtipur, where he had relocated following the destruction of the art campus in Bhotahiti. Pal showed me nearly 100 water colour illustrations from the time of the quake, many of which were included in the Project Naksha Exhibition. I was struck by the fact that he kept them sitting in the corner of his studio and was in no apparent rush to sell any.
The pieces in the Naksha Exhibition are extremely valuable because they will soon become relics of history, providing a clear insight into what some artists did during this tragic and transformative event. The work is beautiful, and well executed, and bears a distinct stamp of their historical and geographical context. Given this, galleries around the world should have no problem finding an audience for the collection and fetching high prices for the work. When asked directly if he had sold any or planned to, Pal explained at that time that he had reluctantly sold only one, to a tourist who watched him paint in Basantapur, and offerred a handsome sum of Rs 30,000 for the piece he was working on.
But Pal is not alone in his reluctance to release his art to the market place. In fact, everyone in the Pasa Pi collective has agreed to hold their paintings until their project, which they described as having three distinct phases, is completed. The first two consisted of painting ruins, and displaying the work in public spaces. The next step is to eventually return to the same locations and paint the result of rebuilding efforts to create a final exhibition that will illustrate both destruction and renewal. At the end of this third phase, the artists conceded that they would then consider selling their work.
The idea of making art accessible, by placing it in public squares, and understandable, by avoiding abstract and conceptual art demonstrates the social focus of their art, and defies the predominant market-based logic that guides many visual artists pursuing a profession in the arts. This market-based logic argues that art should be sold, and that the success or status of an artist can be gauged by what galleries show their work, by who buys their work, and ultimately by the price paid for the work. By these standards, the Naksha project was not successful, but that was the point of the show. On this topic Shrestha acknowledged that, “Art galleries are places for buying and selling, but we are more interested in creating value.” By resisting the temptation to sell (as many offers to buy have come in), and by making art for the wider public with little emphasis on developing their careers or status in the art market, the artist in Pasa Pi collective are living the principle that art is not a business but a vocation and a higher calling. Art in its highest ideal can reflect society back on itself, and artists then, act as public servants.