by Satvika Khera

You can’t miss this year’s Kathmandu Triennale. Here’s why…

In the words of the Native American poet, Paula Gunn Allen, “the root of oppression is loss of memory”.

For this edition of the Kathmandu Triennale, artistic director Cosmin Costinas and curators Sheelasha Rajbhandari and Hit Man Gurung traversed space and time to remind the world of the stories of its people.

“We wanted to focus on not just the voices of indigenous Communities here but also bring solidarity from all over the world,” says Sheelasha, referring to their “intentional and strategic” decision to bring artworks from as far as the Amazon state, home to the Yanomami people.

“We have researchers who have been looking into and expressing the politics of center and margin and who gets to define what is center. And fluidity in the trans-Himalayan region and, in fact, how the construct of nation-states is a problematic idea for many other regions and also for communities who have been fluid and transhuman for thousands of years,” she shares.

“This is a solidarity in which we want to question the Eurocentric canon and narrative, of how art has been defined for hundreds of years by the West, and how they viewed and categorised US,” Sheelasha adds. The Triennale will spotlight these artists’ work through first-person narratives, reversing colonial narratives of what is considered “high art.”

“In South Asia, people who were singers, dancers, and artists were categorised as the lower caste and untouchables, creating this hierarchy where people who wrote and conducted prayers were the high priests and, therefore, the most intellectual and Upper in the hierarchy,” says Sheelasha, also acknowledging the power dynamics within traditional art forms.

Challenging the patriarchal status quo, the curators are spotlighting the voices of female and feminist artists who are “politically conscious about their positions in society” and reflect it in their works.

“We have artwork by indigenous artists who are trying to reclaim their indigeneity. We have feminist artists and queer artists,” she adds.

One of the venues of the Triennale, the Nepal Art Council, is located near the Maitighar Mandala where Nepali people have historically held protests to call for justice and be heard.

“Therefore, curatorially, we have included artwork which is political in nature,” she shares.
Sangeeta Thapa, the founder of the Siddhartha Art Gallery and an organiser of the Triennale, says the event comprises “socially aware art practices”.

“We can’t change the world with what we do, but we can surely make time stop for a second and make people think about the issues at hand,” she adds.

The Triennale will be held at five different venues wherein each space is “interconnected theoretically and conceptually but also has its unique curatorial concept.”

The organisers hope to avoid any more delays in an uncertain climate and open the venues to the public on March 1.

“Because of the pandemic, we have had to downsize. We had also considered the Hanuman Dhoka and the National Museum, but the pandemic works in mysterious ways. It is a bit like shadow boxing where you don’t know where the next blow is coming from,” she shares.

Acknowledging trauma

As one of the sites for the Triennale, the Siddhartha Art Gallery will host artworks that reflect the trauma and uncertainties of the devastating 2015 earthquake as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, along with work from Haitian artists.

Another section at Sundari Chowk will talk about the relationship between art and healing.

“How art through making amulets, thangkas, and various practices, including ritualistic practices which have been captured on video by multiple artists, have been central to human civilization and communities, to give some comfort and hope and for healing,” says Sheelasha.

Sharareh Bajracharya, the director of the Triennale, hopes the event provides a sense of continuity in the lives of artists and viewers during this pandemic.

“Not to speak for other people, but it almost feels like you keep putting a brake on life,” she says. Sharareh believes a non-commercial event, such as the Kathmandu Triennale, provides artists with a platform to express their true feelings and be heard.

“We are not here to sell work, so we are here to listen to others. So that is the real goal of a Triennale or it should be, at least in our eyes,” she shares.

Also, to lessen the sense of isolation, the Triennale will bring together people from across the world to see artworks that have been years in the making.

“These are narratives beyond the pandemic, but they are also getting accentuated by it,” she adds.

Viewers can attend the Triennale from March 1 to 31 physically and virtually in light of the pandemic. “We don’t want to be insensitive to what is happening in the country. We want the experience to be safe. We will be worried about the safety of our team and the visitors who come in,” says Sangeeta, adding that some artists and art professionals will be traveling to the event for the opening week.

“This is a very interesting marker not just in Nepal but the entire region itself,” adds Sheelasha.
Besides the physical and virtual exhibitions, the organizers are working on a publication that will live “beyond the exhibition” and be sent to art institutions across the world.

At the Taragaon Museum, the team is hoping to push the boundaries of “what the medium of art can be” while also acknowledging those mediums that have existed since the beginning of civilization, the land and the plant.

“We will be talking about seed politics, the economics of mining, and how seeds have been used as tools for colonization,” says Sheelasha, who is also one of the founders of ArTree Nepal, a collective formed by artists from diverse indigenous backgrounds.

“We are talking about how agricultural lands are turning into plots and plots are sellable and consumer goods, and how, in that process, we are losing plants, animals, and insects and entire ecosystems,” she adds.
The Triennale will also host artworks on Indigenous Futurism and Roma Futurism. “We have the Roma artists who are trying to reclaim the witchcraft from a feminist angle,” she shares.

According to Sheelasha, the Patan museum is one of the most important venues, curatorially. Another space in Patan, the Bahadur Shah Baithak, will showcase artworks on mapping and navigation.

“They are not just geographical mapping artworks which talk about mapping the body but also mapping and envisioning the universe. We talk about the indigenous technology of navigation which was pretty much abandoned and bullied by western colonizers to the point that it almost collapsed,” says Sheelasha.

Censorship in art

“We have had problems with censorship in the past of a religious nature. Otherwise, artists have been free and able to critique the government and express themselves. So in that respect, we hope that the issue of censorship does not come again, but you never know who is in power and who reacts. It depends on how artworks are interpreted,” says Sangeeta.

Sharareh believes context is important.

“Putting up an artwork without context can lead to misunderstandings or not understanding the intention behind the work. So when somebody is presenting their work, how do we try to make available as much information as possible?” she shares, talking about the importance of using bilingual labels.

The future of the Triennale

“It is a whole process, and I have to be honest that just doing one Triennale will not change everything magically in one night, but it is a process that we are very conscious and consistent about,” says Sheelasha.
This year, the Triennale has been jointly organized by the Siddhartha Art Foundation and the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Civil Aviation.

“This is the first time in the history of the Triennale that we have had support from the government. When Biennales and Triennales happen around the world, the governments are always involved,” says Sangeeta.
The curators of the Kathmandu Triennale are also the curators for Nepal’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale, a historic first for Nepal. The Venice Biennale is in its 59th edition. “It is the Biennale and Triennale format that all the world has emulated,” she shares.

“This is something that we need to build on if we want to impact change,” she adds.

Hosting a Triennale of this magnitude is no easy feat. “The teams are doing condition reports for every single artwork that comes in. There are all kinds of works that go behind an exhibition like this, so a shout out to the Triennale team itself,” says Sharareh.

“The people who are supporting it will hopefully lead it someday. Hopefully, the funding will get easier over time. We hope that something like this makes the value of artists’ work go up and supports their livelihoods and convinces people that art is important,” she concludes.

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