KATHMANDU, Nepal — The Kathmandu International Art Festival opened on a sunny November 25 morning in the grand ballroom of Yak & Yeti hotel in Kathmandu. Though this was the second international art festival (the first was Between Myth and Reality: Status of Women in 2009) to be hosted in the new republic of Nepal, in terms of scale, it was unprecedented, a rare non-profit and non-commercial endeavour showcasing the works of 95 artists from 31 countries spread across 16 venues.
Organized by the Siddhartha Art Foundation, the second edition of KIAF is called Earth Body Mind and is relevantly themed on the pressing issues of climate change and its impact on humanity. Incidentally, Nepal’s Himalayan location makes it one of the first and most affected countries in terms of climate change, though it has contributed perhaps the least to the global climate situation.
The artworks in the exhibition span a wide range and were mostly created specifically for Earth Body Mind and some are even site specific – like the gigantic “Naga,” or serpent, at the zoo constructed from salvaged plastic bags by the Cambodian Leang Seckon, and Dutch artist Maria Roosen’s luminous golden blobs of glass mushrooming from a felled tree trunk resting in the central courtyard of a 17th-century palace. But as I hopped from one venue to the next, I was struck by the persistence of painting as a mode. Surrounded by evocative installations and provocative video loops, paintings bloomed on unexpected surfaces — a wallflower next to a eye-grabbing 3D installation — but remained resilient in their authenticity.
The medium itself became a comment in Nepalese artist Lok Chitrakar’s piece. The artist takes his traditionally religious paubha genre a step ahead in Kamala, or “the Lotus.” Three lotuses in varying shades of frothy pink and sombre gray are painted against a traditional background, offering visual correspondence to humankind’s spiritual decay. A rather simplistic rendering — but then I chatted with curator Dina Bangdel and uncovered that Chitrakar has done a Sigmar Polke-ish pirouette in his use of arsenic and silver for the darker lotuses, which are slowly morphing into yet darker shades right in front of our eyes, a visual analogy to the ticking clock even as the world grapples with climate change-induced disasters. On a more journalistic note, Indian artist Vibha Galhotra has splashed murky sediment dredged from the dying Yamuna river in Delhi across a multitude of surfaces, including flat boards, one even bearing an imprint of the Indian national anthem, in an effort to engage our conscience.
As I toured the cavernous three floors of the Nepal Art Council, I encountered two-dimensional wall pieces with three-dimensional extensions hovering around them, almost as explanations of the original. Sagar Manandhar calls his assemblage “Earth:Body:Mind“ an installation, but given the rather illustrational nature and centrality of his acrylic-on-canvas triptych to the piece, I wonder whether or not the addition of extraneous material contributed to the experience much. Sunita Maharjan’s visual play on the planet / womb on canvas is lucid and evocative on a wall in Metro Park — but the accompanying globe of red balloons, though an attractive addition, falls somewhat short in terms of intellectual resonance. The works seemed to be trying hard to tear their way out of the confines of the wall but not really getting there. That was a feeling I had when I encountered yet another piece, the celebrated Ang Tsherin Sherpa’s “The Sacred Mother,” comprising 20 small canvases surrounding an object (in this case, a thermometer) and conveying a symbolic take on Mount Everest’s plight under the feet of obsessive Western climbers. Not very poignant!
In contrast, when Brazilian artist Priscilla de Carvalho’s mural of a garbage spewing city submerged in an apocalyptic flood oozes out through discarded cardboard box houses and overhead wire webs, the experience justifies an incursion into 3-D space. Hitman Gurung’s “How Long Can I Hold My Breath” is a relevant take on the immediate spectre of pollution, with paper strips jutting out of facemasks on portraits of 100 inhabitants of Kathmandu Valley. While Asha Dangol’s scroll bearing a 10-headed hybrid creature breathing through oxygen masks breaks out on the surrounding walls in a danse macabre of masked figures, reminiscent of an evolution chart. Next to it hung the seven gigantic canvases of Sunil Sigdel — his figurative works fall most neatly into the category of conventional painting, each piece un-hesitantly self contained. Right across hangs Narayan Prasad Bohaju’s ‘composition’ bearing drawings of everyday objects – exciting in its juxtapositions but insipid otherwise. And perhaps not very distant from Mekh Limbu’s rather tame acrylic-on-canvas representations of plastic and chemical waste.
One is left wondering whether these would have benefited from simultaneous excursions into other media. Which is certainly not the case with some! The curatorial agenda determining China’s entries seems to have leaned heavily towards the easy correspondence that illustrations offer. And though the American artist Maureen Drdak’s “Flying Nagas” formally bring repoussé and contemporary painting together, its structural lyricism does look a little dated.
Italian Tarshito’s utopian cartography is soothing to the eye and the spirit, but lacks formal justification. Blane De St Croix’s exquisitely detailed and massive drawings, though compelling and insightful, offer little solace despite a lot of conversation. Nepal’s Birendra Pratap Singh’s massive paper scroll bears imprints of an insane civilization being sent back to the ultimate source, the sun, by the artist. Strangely resembling a cave painting, the piece sure does succeed in triggering quite a few subliminal stimuli.
But what surprised me most is the relevance painting enjoyed within the vocabulary of international art, like the photographed images of Cecilia Parades. Paint is applied on her skin to blend her human form into the background wallpaper (which “always relates to a place or location where she has lived or had to move from or arrived to live in,” as the show’s release states) in a terse comment on the body’s existential crisis — both in its physicality and as an identity. It promptly reminded me of the camouflage pieces of Liu Bolin. The body and paint encounter each other in a later performance by Salil Subedi as well, where he characteristically smears himself with paint as he sings an invocation to a river — dredging up a queer blend of the primeval and the aesthete in us.
Which brings me to some of the most unpretentious paintings in KIAF, those of Erna Anema of the Netherlands. Dark brush strokes convolute, collide, and collapse seamlessly against pale backgrounds that bring back memories of Himalayan skies. Closer inspection reveals the brush’s quiver and stoppage after every inch or so, “in rhythm with my breath” explains Erna — the same rhythm she assumes when trekking across the Himalayas. Erna transmits the physiology of the breath onto her canvas in a gesture of supplication, supplication to the process of painting, and emerges cleansed and revived.
So where do I stand after my encounter with paintings at Earth Body Mind? When it self-consciously tries to snare external materiality, or be content in its figurative achievements, it falls short, perhaps. But when it embraces genuine experimentation or organically offers itself up to the process, painting as a mode is definitely alive and kicking!
The Kathmandu International Art Festival runs through December 21 in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu.