Nepali art and imitationWhat we think or create might have already been conceived by someone else,” says veteran art teacher and writer Madan Chitrakar, “It is like the old saying:
What we think or create might have already been conceived by someone else,” says veteran art teacher and writer Madan Chitrakar, “It is like the old saying: There is nothing new under the sun.” Even artists who are hailed as ‘highly original’—from the painter Pablo Picasso to Nobel laureates TS Eliot and William Faulkner—have implied: All artists steal. The production of art is after all based on traditional norms and forms—and as such is inherently repetitive. And this repetition, according to Chitrakar, is important because it leaves room for the possibility for something old to be cast in a new form, giving birth to fresh perspectives, which then gets termed as original.
So, if the hypothesis that all, or at least most, works of art is inherently derivate is entertained, then it becomes crucial to differentiate between an authentic attempt at derivation (ie, a striving towards authenticity and originality) and mere reproduction. As such, identifying the difference between authentic derivation and reproduction is necessary and urgent in Nepal’s expanding art sphere because it helps one understand how the art culture is growing and being shaped.
Authenticity of a work can be determined, according to art critic Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, if the work of art emits an aura. The aura, according to Benjamin, is the aspect of the work of art that points the observer “beyond the realm of art” and places the art-object as a historical marker of the tradition it evolved from.
So, how do the Nepali artworks being exhibited today emit what Benjamin termed as aura? As a reference point, let’s examine artist Shyam Krishna Shrestha’s recent solo exhibition, Amulya Thopa.
The exhibition, held from December 16 to December 24, at the Nepal Art Council, Babarmahal, was, in artist Shrestha’s own words, “possibly the biggest sculpture exhibition to be held indoors.” Out of the 22 exhibits on display, the massive nine-feet-tall statue of Shiva riding a bull was an immediate draw for the people who visited the exhibition. The sculpture depicted an angry Shiva riding his mythical bahan, as if he is charging on a battlefield.
In the days following the inauguration of the exhibition, art critics and reporters published reportages where Shrestha was lauded for bringing images invoked by the Hindu Purans into reality. And indeed, Shrestha was able to artistically respond to the religious tradition that defined his childhood, and provided an important cultural marker for modern Hindu iconography in Nepal.
While the Shiva statue was the biggest installation at the exhibition, there were several smaller sculptures that were equally thought provoking. A group of such sculptures had exposed skeletons as a recurring motif. These set of sculptures reminded the observer with an often overlooked fact: Existence is conditioned by its inevitable decay. One such sculpture, Bivatsa Parinam, is laid out like an open book, where instead of words, one saw deposits of dead soldiers being sedimented on top of each other. “There is death in every history book,” said the artist during the exhibition to indicate that feuds and battles are the human activities that are most likely to make it into the annals of human history.
In the catalogue of the exhibition, Shrestha writes, “My sculptures have had some influence from the works of Zdzislaw Beksinski,” but a quick web search of the name showed that at least three of Shrestha’s sculptures, particularly the ones with the motif of decay, were detailed imitations of Beksinski’s paintings through the medium of sculpting.
Speaking about the discrepancy, Shrestha says, “It is an accepted practice in the art fraternity to call ‘that’ inspiration.”
Chitrakar, however, doesn’t agree with Shrestha’s interpretation. “Imitation is an accepted practice in art schools around the world,” Chitrakar says, “It is used to teach students the technical language of the art-form. Imitation helps students acquaint themselves with the various art movements around the world.”
However, according to Chitrakar, it is not common practice to present imitative work in a gallery, unless there is a substantial variation in the concept and execution to call the work one’s own. Shrestha did not use the nomenclature that is often employed to indicate a derivate work—when a painter is ‘inspired’ from a book, she calls them ‘illustrations’ or when a filmmaker makes a movie based on a book, or a short story, it is called an ‘adaptation’. By not doing so, did Shrestha keep his audience from a valuable lesson? That a great work of art is not just born out of an artist’s struggle in isolation, but emerges from a long tradition of artists who preceded him or her. “Many artists start their work by being ‘inspired’ from a particular work, but it ends up becoming imitative work,” Chitrakar claims, “This problem is also aggravated by a lack of critical inquiry into what constitutes as inspiration and as plagiarism.”
While the question of what constitutes as authentic art drives the issue of derivate art in Nepal, market forces have invited a new set of problems for the Nepali art community. Two traditional (Paubha) artists, Samundra Man Singh Shrestha and Raj Prakash Tuladhar, have discovered that their paintings are being mechanically reproduced and being sold in the market without their permission. Paubha art is based on a rigid compositional structure; however, Samundra says that he “spent months perfecting a single work with the hope that its sale will help financially.” The value of an artwork, according to Samundra, is determined by its rarity, and when reproductions are rampantly sold then it diminishes the market value of the original work.
“It is possible for two artists working separately to make similar paintings, but we [Tuladhar and Samundra] discovered that our paintings were scanned and printed on canvas paper,” Samundra says, “The worst thing is that the prints can give impression as if it were hand painted.”
Historically, there has always been an acknowledged imitative market, where people buy and sell imitation of great works of art. But, as Benjamin points out in his essay, unchecked mechanical reproduction destroys the aura of an artwork and thus diminishes the value of the original. And Samundra is worried that mechanical reproduction of traditional art will soon uproot traditional
artists. However, how do we reconcile with the fact that reproductions help popularise an art practice, which allows for an evolutionary extension of the art form?
As there are no proper legal procedures to solve the creative and financial issues of derivate art in Nepal, it becomes imperative for the art community to engage in the dialogue to find a solution. Chitrakar suggests that the dialogue “begin with a diagnosis, because there is still a lack of a clear understanding on the depth of the problem.”
Ghimire tweets at @nepalichimney