Artistic tourismArtists are skilled communicators and can be among the loudest and most effective critics of injustice and corruption. As such, these kind of people can be both key defenders of an open and just society, and a nuisance to those in power
Nepal has long been a destination for tourists from around the world because of its natural beauty, awe-inspiring mountains and friendly, unique culture. For nearly two centuries, the Himalayas, and the people who inhabit them have captured the imaginations of Westerners seeking an imagined Shangri-La. From Russian artist Nicholas Roerich who travelled the mountains studying the culture and painting hundreds of landscape in the early 1900s to the artists of the 1960s who hung around Kathmandu’s Freak Street, there is an allure and mystique about Nepal, and the Himalayas in general. Over the years, modern myths about famous visitors to the area have developed to claim that Jim Morrison sings the words “Pokhara ko ganja” in the song Roadhouse Blues, that The Beatles stayed in the Kathmandu Guest House , and that Jimi Hendrix left a stone plaque in Jomson during a trip in 1967. While this era has long since faded to memory, the stories continue to intrigue and attract artists from around the world who come to Nepal for a short time to find inspiration, create new work, and shake up their normal routine.
One such artist who has found her way to Kathmandu is Nicole Gagnon, a songstress who makes music under the name Woodley. For her, the trip to Nepal was a rather spontaneous decision that provided the opportunity to record songs at a high-end studio in the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory for much less than it would cost in Canada. Drawing on a network of artists affiliated with the Art Haus of Kathmandu Nicole is currently producing a four-song EP of her original music. She describes her style of music as indie folk-pop, and sings about love and loss with an ethereal tone, powerfully sung over stripped down acoustic instrumentals. The recordings used musicians living in Kathmandu at the time, who were Nepali, English, and Finnish; making it a collaboration with musicians from three continents. In this sense, Kathmandu is quite cosmopolitan in that it hosts a wide range of international artists, while being relatively small. Many of the people who come here do so because they love Nepal, and while they may be grateful for the creative opportunities here , no one is without their criticisms regarding the conditions in its capital city. “I have a real hard time with the choking pollution and obvious lack on urban planning,” said Nicole, “So I’m writing a song about Kathmandu, and it’s not exactly a positive one.” Still she acknowledges that being in Nepal has allowed her to see the world through a different lens and learn about different ways of living and being.
Writer Lee Eames, from New York City, also commented on the opportunities provided in Nepal. His primary motivation for his extended stay was about enjoying the leisure time provided by an inexpensive lifestyle. “The cost of living in Kathmandu is considerably cheaper than Manhattan, so coming to Nepal gave me the necessary free time to focus on writing and finding myself.” Artists coming to Kathmandu enrich the city, not merely by the dollars they spend, but by what they contribute to the culture of the place. For example, street art in Kathmandu began after European artists took to painting murals in public spaces, while the Jazz Conservatory in Jhamsikhel has seen several international musicians come teach, perform, and promote the genre. These contributions in the end help beautify the city while diversifying what it has to offer musically. Such cross-cultural exchanges only broaden the perspectives of all people involved.
The only problem with them, is that artists are skilled communicators and can be among the loudest and most effective critics of injustice and corruption. As such, these kind of people can be both key defenders of an open and just society, and a nuisance to those in power. With the current climate in Nepal, following the deportation of a Canadian twitter user, and the arrest of British artist Martin Travers for his alleged involvement in a recent political demonstration, Nepal is sending a message to foreigners that while they may observe or serve the Nepali society, they are forbidden from actually participating in it. This cements an idea that Nepal is for Nepalis only, which is at odds with the global trends of multiculturalism and integration but quite common in the fringe far-right nationalist groups of Europe and the United States. To add some context if one were to translate this idea so as to say, Germany is only for Germans, we find a key platform of old European fascism. That is why this notion is largely dismissed by sensible people as being bigoted and xenophobic, yet in Nepal, a similar argument is being embraced and communicated by the government itself.
Beyond that, I can say no more because I love Nepal and I would like to remain here.
Harris is the co-founder of the Ekantakuna-based Art Haus of Kathmandu