This week, Nepal will be making its debut at the 59th Venice Biennale alongside fellow newcomers Cameroon, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Namibia, Oman, and Uganda. For its inaugural national pavilion, the South Asian country will present Tales of Muted Spirits – Dispersed Threads – Twisted Shangri-La, a multimedia installation of work by contemporary Nepali artist Tsherin Sherpa, curated by fellow artists Sheelasha Rajbhandari and Hit Man Gurung. Sherpa, who was born in Kathmandu, Nepal in 1968, makes work informed by his training in traditional Tibetan thangka painting; his intricate depictions of deities incorporate pop cultural iconography as well as references to the artist’s lived reality within the Himalayan diaspora.
Nepal’s participation in the Venice Biennale, alongside initiatives such as the Kathmandu Triennale, is part of the country’s efforts to promote its contemporary art scene and disabuse the West of what Sherpa described in a statement as “a pervasive, romanticized vision that frames Nepal as static, pure and untouched by time and modernity.”
The pavilion was appointed by Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation and co-commissioned by the Nepal Academy of Fine Arts and the Siddhartha Arts Foundation. Lead global support was provided by the Rubin Museum of Art, a New York institution dedicated to promoting the art and culture of the Himalayan regions, marking the first time that the museum has worked on a Venice Biennale pavilion presentation.
“The idea for the inaugural Nepal pavilion was discussed in 2019 when Tsherin Sherpa visited the 2019 Venice Biennale with his gallerist Fabio Rossi,” the museum’s executive director Jorrit Britschgi told Hyperallergic. “The Rubin was invited to consider getting involved in early spring 2021, and it felt like an important project to be a part of.”
In September 2021 — just a few months after seed money from the museum facilitated the Nepal pavilion’s application — the Rubin Museum, which has a robust collection of some 3,400 objects spanning 1,500 years, found itself in hot water. Lost Arts of Nepal, an anonymous online group devoted to advocating for the repatriation of Nepali cultural heritage, identified two objects in the museum’s collection — a 14th-century flying wooden gandharva and the upper section of a 17th-century wooden torana — as looted.
After the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign (NHRC), for which Lost Arts of Nepal is an advisor, echoed these concerns, the Rubin Museum collaborated with scholars and the consulate general of Nepal in New York on provenance research and ultimately determined that the objects were indeed stolen from Yampi Mahavihara and Itum Bahal, Buddhist monasteries in the Kathmandu Valley.
This January, the Rubin Museum repatriated the two artifacts. The following month, the institution additionally announced a partnership with the Itum Bahal Conservation Society and Lumbini Buddhist University that would support the documentation of Itum Bahal’s collection and create three permanent display galleries for the objects within the monastery complex.
“We had committed to supporting the Nepal pavilion before we learned about the claims of the two objects in our collection,” Britschgi said.
Erin L. Thompson, a professor of art crime and Hyperallergic contributor who is on the advisory committee of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign (NHRC), says “it’s hard to walk the line between cynicism and cheerleading” when it comes to the Rubin’s sponsorship of the pavilion.
“To the museum’s credit, they seem to want to have ongoing relationships with source communities, instead of purely extractive ones; for example, they didn’t just return the looted objects to Nepal, they also supported the development of exhibition spaces to display them,” Thompson told Hyperallergic. “And it’s fantastic that they’re supporting contemporary Nepali art — Nepal didn’t only make great art in the 12th century!”
“But that can easily slide into cynicism for me when the museum isn’t addressing the existing problems with its collection,” she continued. “For the Nepali sacred objects in the museum’s holdings, there is just no good explanation for why they should be out of the country.”
In a forthcoming paper on the role of academics in the illicit antiquities trade, Thompson and Emiline Smith, a criminology lecturer at the University of Glasgow who is also on the board of the NHRC, flag that a 13th-century figurine in the Rubin Museum’s collection was likely stolen. (Smith is also a Hyperallergic contributor.) The gilt copper alloy sculpture, which depicts the goddess Durga slaying a buffalo demon, was acquired by Dorothy G. Payer Shepherd, the elder sister of the Nepali art history scholar Mary Slusser, during a 1967 visit to Kathmandu.
After Slusser’s death, the Rubin Museum published an in memoriam blog post that referenced the story of the figurine’s acquisition. Collections Management Head Michelle Bennett Simorella recounted that Slusser had told her:
“One of the dealers came by with a few things while [my sister] was there. Among them was the Durga image. Thick with grime and offerings of ritual pastes, powders, and food, it very likely had come directly from some family’s private chapel. The asking price was a thousand dollars but after bargaining would likely have dropped to three or four hundred. But to my shock, my impetuous sister said at once ‘I’ll take it’ and paid the full price.”
When Thompson read the blog post in December 2021, she tweeted: “Tell me I’m not seeing a museum blog about how sacred artwork in their collection was stolen from a family shrine and smuggled out of Nepal like it’s a charming anecdote…”
By cross-referencing a 1975 exhibition catalogue, Thompson and Smith confirmed that Shepherd, who was the curator of textiles and Ancient Near Eastern art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, was the object’s purchaser. While Shepherd was presumably aware of the ethical issues around the figurine’s export, Slusser, as a prominent scholar of Nepali art and culture, would have certainly known that the debris on the object, paired with the low price tag, meant that it had likely been removed from an active shrine in a family home without permission.
Thompson and Smith believe that Slusser likely advised her sister on the purchase, and note that Nepali artifacts purchased by or with help from Slusser can be found in institutions including the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (which happens to currently be hosting a major Tsherin Sherpa exhibition) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Britschgi told Hyperallergic that the museum “[has not] received any serious claims against this object,” adding that “provenance records are strong.”
“The Rubin Museum vehemently opposes the trafficking of stolen or looted cultural items and does not acquire any material known or suspected to be stolen or looted,” Britschgi said. “If the Rubin learns, through its own research, or by another party, that objects in its collection are claimed to have been stolen, looted, or illegally excavated, the Rubin would immediately address these claims on a case-by-case basis, carefully and seriously.”
Sherpa has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.
The pavilion presentation, which will feature work made by Sherpa in collaboration with artists throughout Nepal, will intertwine past and present as it confronts the “Shangri-La effect,” or the reductive lens through which the West sees — and commodifies — the Himalayan region.
“In contradiction to a mythical utopia — shrouded in happiness, longevity, and bliss — is the reality of an intricately interconnected peoples who have repeatedly experienced displacement, loss, and the insurmountable task of reconstituting their lives,” said curators Rajbhandari and Gurung in a statement, adding that the pavilion will address the role that regional and colonial powers have historically played in oppressing Nepal’s Indigenous groups.