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In Nepal, After Revolt, ‘Art Was Changed Forever’

By AMY YEE (NY Times): The sea-green mural at Lasanaa, an arts center here, has familiar elements of Nepali art: images of snowy Himalayan peaks and curlycue whorls representing wind in Buddhist thangka tapestries.But it is the unconventional images that reflect the anxieties of a country in painful flux. A floating fuel tank and a gas pump symbolize Nepal’s chronic fuel shortages. A retreating bus in the mural is a sajha, a cheap, popular mode of public transportation here that is now defunct in the wake of government instability. Tucked inside an urn is a visa — coveted by many who seek opportunities overseas.

The mural was painted by 22 Nepali artists in “Redefining Katmandu Valley,” an exhibition on view last month at Lasanaa, which means “art” in the Newari language here. The show aimed to break clichés and give a sociopolitical edge to art in Nepal, said Ashmina Ranjit, an artist and founder of Lasanaa.

Common themes in the show captured the zeitgeist in the capital of this mountain nation between India and China. Urban landscapes choked by electrical wires and labyrinthine roads evoked the chaotic congestion of Katmandu.

One work re-interpreted the eight auspicious Buddhist symbols with a modern bent. Mounted on eight-foot-tall panels, or 2.4 meters, the re-imagined symbols hinted of urban decay. The conch shell was fashioned from the battered body of a motorbike, like the tens of thousands that buzz and shriek through Katmandu’s streets. The lotus — a symbol of purity — was made of papier-mâché of old newspapers. Buddha’s footprints in the lotus’s center were a pair of plastic flip-flops. The infinite knot was made of frayed rope bound with black electrical wire.

After a civil war that lasted from 1996 to 2006, Nepalis went to the polls and ended a centuries-old monarchy in 2008 in favor of democracy. But the promises of democratic government have not come true. A constitution is pending after four years of squabbling by numerous political factions.

Now 14-hour power cuts and frequent strikes cripple the country. Infrastructure and services have crumbled for lack of governance; roads are potholed and the air is hazy with pollution.

Given this turmoil, art would seem the least of Nepal’s concerns. But artists and art organizers in Katmandu said it was relevant and necessary. During the civil war, “there was so much pain in Nepal that art was changed forever,” said Sangeeta Thapa, founder and director of the Siddhartha Art Gallery here.

“Artists couldn’t separate pain from work,” she added. “They began to question Nepal society for the first time.”

Despite Nepal’s troubles, contemporary arts in the capital are percolating. Lasanaa’s new Live Art Hub, opened in December on the grounds of the Martin Chautari institute in Thapathali, in south Katmandu. It is Lasanaa’s first semi-permanent space since the arts trust was founded in 2007 by Ms. Ranjit. Over the years Lasanaa has received support from the Danish Embassy here, the Danish Center for Culture and Development in Denmark, the Ford Foundation, the Arts Network Asia of Singapore and the U.S. Educational Foundation’s Fulbright program in Nepal, among others.

At Live Art Hub, simple thatch walls turned the institute’s front yard into an al fresco exhibition and gathering space for talks, performance art, workshops and readings. Long burlap curtains and a corrugated roof over a new cement floor sheltered artwork.

Nepal has a legacy of traditional arts, as evident in the seven Unesco world heritage sites in Katmandu Valley. Magnificently carved palaces in the capital’s Durbar Square are famed symbols of the country’s artistic and cultural heritage.

But under the monarchy, a century of political isolation until 1951 meant Nepal remained closed to the world. Contemporary artists in neighboring India, Pakistan and Bangladesh benefited from art academies set up over the years by the British Raj, but Nepal’s isolation stunted development. Contemporary art focused mainly on conventional, staid notions of beauty, such as pastoral scenes and beatific Buddhas.

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