There is something quite amazing unfolding in Kathmandu at the moment. And if you take an interest in art, you will have already caught a whiff of it. The second Kathmandu International Art Festival (KIAF) is two weeks into its four week-long presence and it has transformed, to a large extent, the cultural landscape of the entire city. Kathmandu is thriving, at once, with a wonderful and diverse array of art that beckons, dazzles and makes a statement.
Organised by the Siddhartha Arts Foundation, the festival’s theme has been ‘Earth|Body|Mind’—and it focuses primarily on the impact of environmental degradation and climate change. A tour of the several venues for the ongoing exhibitions gives a sense of a vibrant international community of artists that have, at the heart of their works, a deep concern for the earth.
But even before we delve into the theme, the prospects of having real-world access to the works of 95 artists (including 24 national artists) at once in our hometown cannot go without notice. There are paintings to look at, but also installations that play on multiple senses. The first week also brought live performances from several artists, both to view and to participate in. Perhaps because of the ease of portability, festivals of film, music and theatre have been taking place in Kathmandu for many years now, but the KIAF is a triennial festival that brings artists and their original artwork from around the world to the Capital, to be put up at various venues that have so far been displaying local work on a much smaller scale. To see life-size figurines, larger-than-life paintings you’re used to seeing on small computer screens face-to-face—KIAF undoubtedly delivers an exhilarating experience for those who want to feast in the arts.
Take, for example, the centrally-located Nepal Art Council which has undergone an impressive make-over and is brimming with so much art it will make you giddy. The festival has made remarkable use of the second and third floors that, unbeknownst to many, are perhaps the best spaces in the building for displays. A sincere request to the NAC—run more rooftop exhibitions, please! Mulchowk at Patan Museum is a melding of traditional spaces and abstract contemporary works. Metropark’s spacious gallery is filled with a whole host of paintings, photographs, multimedia and site-specific 3D installations.
On the top-most floor of the NAC, lit brightly with natural light pouring in from windows, numerous sculptures from Gopal Das Shrestha (Kalapremi)’s People Being Cooked and Sold are on display. These stunted fellows with grotesque gargoyle-like faces—embodying the human consciousness reduced and commoditised—are discomforting to look at, perhaps what the artist intended.
As you descend the stairs, you encounter Brazilian artist Priscila De Carvalho’s site-specific installation that is a delightful explosion of colours, even as it contains a story of struggle. In the Midst of Darkness Sunlight Persists is mostly painted on the walls, but spills into the third dimension in cardboard boxes painted as buildings and poles erected to support wires. Her work is inspired by the city of Rio, and the tightly-packed uneven clusters of buildings jutting from the surface, as well as the careless entanglements of electric lines, will likely remind Kathmanduites of their own chaotic city.
At the other end of the spectrum—defined by colour, vibrancy and vitality—are Adeel Uz Zafar’s (Pakistan) illustrations (at Metropark) for Perana and Lal Peela, a children’s book in the making that narrates the story of Himalayan-born Perana who befriends a parrot that takes her on a journey to the ocean. Capturing ecological concerns and aspirations from a child’s purview, the story instils viewers with a hope of camaraderie between nature and humans spanning different geographic regions.
Jean Antoine Raveyre’s Historique project envisages a post-civilisation unearthing of today’s world, compelling us as viewers to imagine and accept our end. A similar strain characterises Peeter Laurits’s photoseries, also on display at the NAC—one photograph, The Final Snack, recreates the striking image of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper while subverting it with pop-culture overtones and a prevailing decadence.
Hitman Gurung’s mixed-media masked portraits (at the NAC) are not only a powerful statement about air pollution, the most apparent of afflictions encumbering urban life in Kathmandu—and therefore most easily accessible to audiences here—but also so very beautiful to look at. Crisply flattened polythene bags create an ironic backdrop to unwavering (and angry? resilient?) eyes. Compare that to the melted black polythene that strangle and suffocate Maureen Drdak’s copper snakes in Flying Nagas (at the SAG). Gurung’s installation also serves as a contrast to French Soazic Guezennec’s Oxygen Tree over at Mulchowk, where oxygen masks hang from the ceiling, and resemble leaves of the peepal tree. She welcomes viewers to try on a mask—a rare opportunity at the festival where ‘Do not touch’ signs tag along most works.
It is possible, like that, to draw connections between themes and motifs that run across the works of several artists in different parts of the city. British performance artist Gaynor O’Flynn notioned towards how the global art community still considers spirituality a taboo in art during the first day of the art symposium. “You’re allowed to say the ‘S’ word,” she asserted, half to herself. But art has always blended effortlessly with spirituality in Kathmandu, and the festival brings artists from all over who not only feel ‘responsible’ towards the earth, but feel equally ‘connected’ to it, where their art and aesthetics are both shaped by this connection.
I was stirred most by Finnish photographer Juha Arvid Helminen’s people-centric Triptych: Because We Entered; a collection of photo prints defined by the presence of haunting images of faceless individuals dressed in black, masked in black cloth and posing against black backgrounds. The black absoluteness of these images creates an eeriness that dehumanises the subject as well as the viewer; each photograph reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic world, where people are no longer people, but archetypes of doom.
What feels like a triumph of art at KIAF is not just how invested much of these works are in driving home crucial messages about our responsibilities towards the environment. Yes, there is activism, there is criticism as well as offerings of solution. But equally, the festival encompasses works that ask larger, more difficult (and unanswerable) questions, and here and there, you get the feeling that some of this art is also resigned to a fading human destiny, has accepted and embraced it with a grace that transcends our desire to set things right. While activism is an important direction for art to take, it is that other kind of art that risks not being so straightforward that can often be more compelling and have more profound consequences on the viewer.
Walking in and out of galleries this past week, I have discovered a rather conservative audience in myself, enjoying the more traditional forms of art, while feeling unease at the more experimental works. It will perhaps take me time, as it will for a wide majority of the local audience, to slowly accept increasingly radical and abstract notions of what constitutes art. For Kathmandu audiences, the abundant sight of massive flex boards (made of what else but plastic), generators, and the thought of multimedia playing on endless loops for the span of the entire festival may also prove a little disenchanting. Even as the theme will change during the next festival, organisers will do well to incorporate their concern for the environment within the process of organising the festival.
Nevertheless, the abundance of art—stemming from the individual as well as cultural experiences of artists from almost every part of the world—brings to Kathmandu such a diverse range of aesthetics as well as fresh perspectives on the human-nature relationship, that there is probably something to suit everyone’s taste.
KIAF 2012 is on till December 21
Posted on: 2012-12-08 11:07