Saturday Features

A summit in the plains

  • Using slates, shawls and stories, three Nepali artists told indigenous tales at the 2018 Dhaka Art Summit

Feb 17, 2018-

Subas Tamang was born in Amardaha, a town in Morang. His mother, a Bhojpur native, had moved to the district to set up house with a stone-carver. But the elder Tamang frequently travelled through the eastern hills and plains, turning rocks into roofs to make ends meet. He led an itinerant life; he was familiar with strife. 

Eventually, the couple moved to Sunsari and Subas came to Kathmandu to study. He registered at Lalit Kala, practiced printmaking, and gradually started carving. He made friends and became part of an artist collective. They participated in workshops, exhibited their works.

Several months later, they founded a studio in Tripureshwor; they would split the cost. And so, about a year ago, I went to see their place. I wanted to talk, to look at their work. Subas had assembled a roof made of slate. On it, he had carved his parents’ portraits. I want to die in my own house was the title of his artwork, a tribute to his mother. The others were busy with their own projects. They were preparing to open up the space for a public event. The artists had decided on a date and printed pamphlets.

In April, visitors poured into Kathmandu for an international arts festival. Subas and his friends had deftly scheduled the Open Studio to take advantage of this flow. Among their guests were a curator and a prominent couple. They had flown in from Bangladesh; they were planning their own art show. After examining his project, the patrons decided to bring Subas to Sylhet, Bangladesh. He would replicate the work, install it as a sculpture. He would present his parents’ story to a new audience. The elements were important pieces of the larger regional narrative.

A few months later, the details were finalised. To expedite the task, Subas recruited two other members from his collective, ArTree Nepal. In early autumn, they boarded a plane to Dhaka, then got on a bus. They needed new slabs of slate, so they made arrangements from India. Once again, the portraits were first printed on paper. As planned, the images came out pixelated. Light and shadow was digitally sorted. Then they placed sections of the paper on top of corresponding pieces of smooth bluegray rock. For weeks, each artist held a hand drill, composing fragments of faces, blowing off dust. Once the work was completed, the slabs had to be transported. At the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, the fourth edition of the Dhaka Art Summit was getting prepared.

I met Subas the morning after the opening. It was a Saturday, February the third. We stood in front of his slate sculpture; the early arrivals had started to trickle in. Two other ArTree members, Hit Man Gurung and Sheelasha Rajbhandari, were also with us. Their artworks were also on display, but on another floor. Both of them had also used portraits, but in a slightly different way. Sheelasha had captured images of her maternal grandmother and great-grandmother inside photographs. Both women wore versions of the famous Dambar Kumari shawl, sourced from Benaras. Next to these pictures was the artist’s self-portrait. She also wore a shawl, but her fabric had numerous other pieces. Tags from international brand names like Gap and Zara dangled from her body. Hit Man’s work was more sinister. The faces of his subjects were covered with white bandage. They each held an identity card. The captions described them as the Tharus from southern Nepal. They were faceless, featureless; but the stamp of the Nepali flag on the identity card was red and stark.

Earlier that day, I had first been greeted by Jean Paul Sartre. His quote—“We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made of us”—had beckoned me into a gallery. The quote was part of another exhibition, ‘A Utopian Stage’. I learned about The Festival of Arts that took place decades ago in Iran’s Shiraz. There were many other objects, images salvaged from the past, snippets of stories that were buried or destroyed.

“What for?” you might ask. “What is the point of all this?”

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled,” John Berger, a prolific thinker, once wrote.ArTree members are invested in creating meaningful dialogues around critical subject matter. They want their work to have social utility. They intend to shape emerging communities. Sheelasha’s work is not merely about the women in her family wearing shawls. There is a story there, a story of change, and stories of labourers toiling inside garment factories, stitching expensive branded tags on cheaply produced clothes. One look at Sheelasha’s artwork would be enough to compel a thoughtful visitor to reflect on his shopping habit. If the visitor cared about ethics, he might bring up the topic with friends and families. At the very least, he might ask himself, “Whose side am I on? What do I care about? What matters?”

On the other hand, Subas and Hit Man are examples of Nepali men refusing to live lives dictated by others. These artists chose to pursue their passions instead of going to Qatar or joining an army. As Berger wrote, they trust their own sensitivity to dwell on those aspects of their lives that capture them intensely. They could be role models for hundreds of young people struggling to imagine a future. Courage, compassion and conscientious risk-taking are useful traits for students growing up in a new republic. These art projects tell deeply personal stories, stories that millions of South Asians can relate to. And since they are relayed in visual language, even those who are not literate in the traditional sense can interpret the ideas. Furthermore, they represent stories of people who are not empowered to tell them. Hence they deserve a spotlight; they deserve discussions so that we can move towards a more equitable and just world.

A vital, engaging arts education curriculum and practice brings a person closer to her environment, and thus has the dual potential of benefiting the individual as well as her community. By promoting values such as responsibility and understanding, the arts can facilitate connections and instigate action. During the past decade, several high-calibre art events like the Dhaka Art Summit, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and Nepal’s own Kathmandu Triennale have popped up in South Asia in order to provide spaces to artists and thinkers, writers and educators. These events continue to attract practitioners from various corners of the globe. The materials are novel; the stories are narrated in new styles and in languages long excluded and oppressed. While art festivals in countries like India and Bangladesh are largely supported by governments or private endowments, Nepali leaders, both in the government and private sectors, have yet to take bold steps forward regarding a major, genuine commitment to support the arts. At the very least, it is the state’s responsibility to provide spaces—mental, physical as well as financial—so that citizens can place themselves in wider social and historical processes, for the sake of social justice, for the sake of infinite creative possibilities. 

Sheelasha Rajbhandari: My Great-Great Grandmother’s Shawl (2018).

Subas Tamang: I want to die in my own house (2017).

- Niranjan Kunwar

Kunwar writes about arts education and its connection to social issues. He can be reached at

Published: 17-02-2018 08:18

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