In My Art Practice I Adopt An Inclusive Lens

By Sangeeta Thapa

Sangeeta Thapa, a prominent figure in Nepal’s art scene, discusses the profound influence of art in Nepal’s transition from monarchy to democracy in an interview to SIGMA. She delves into the historical connection between art and the royalty, the impact of dissent on artistic expressions, and its role in addressing contemporary social and political issues. Thapa highlights the importance of the arts in representing diverse voices and promoting democratic values. This conversation sheds light on how art has served as a powerful force in shaping the democratic discourse in Nepal. Excerpts from the interview: 

Q: What drew you to establishing the Siddhartha Art Gallery (SAG) and becoming an art curator in Nepal? 

A: In 1983, I had returned to Nepal, just days before my wedding, after living abroad nearly 22 years. Restless and young, my life took a turn when I visited Shashikala Tiwari’s exhibition at the Nepal Association of Fine Arts in 1984 and explored the October Art Gallery in Vajra Hotel. These experiences ignited my passion for art. Soon after, I co-sponsored a Nepali artist exhibition at the October Art Gallery in London. In 1987, Shashikala and I founded the Siddhartha Art Gallery to support both Nepali and international artists and create a platform for artistic dialogue.  Running a gallery demanded administrative skills that I learned through trial and error. I had no formal training as a curator, but I gained experience by collaborating closely with artists, earning their trust, listening to their stories, and finding the best way to showcase their work.

Q: Tell us a little about SAG and the Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre (KCAC)’s contribution to Nepali society. 

A: Established 36 years ago, Siddhartha Art Gallery has curated over 600 exhibitions, promoting local and international artists. It has been pivotal in advancing Nepal’s contemporary art scene and nurturing emerging talents. Collaborations with organisations like the Australian Himalayan Foundation and the Himalayan Light Foundation support young artists. In 2006, the gallery initiated a peace project during a period of conflict, creating a “Manifesto for Peace” from children’s poems, later turned into songs.

The Kathmandu International Arts Festival in 2009 marked Nepal’s first major art event, while the Siddhartha Arts Foundation, founded in 2011, aims to elevate Kathmandu’s cultural status in South Asia. The Foundation manages the Kathmandu Triennale and focuses on training future arts leaders.

In 2009, the Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre (KCAC) was co-founded, making it Nepal’s first international contemporary arts centre. Thereafter, KCAC provided studio space for artists and bursaries for Nepali artists. Additionally, KCAC launched the Kalajatra arts carnival in 2013 to promote freedom of expression. KCAC also aided Nepali artists affected by earthquakes and initiated projects like the Nepal Photo Project and ARTREE NEPAL to support recovery efforts.

Q: How did art in a royal setting differ from that in a democratic society, and how was it influenced by royalty?  

A: Throughout history, artists have often relied on the patronage of monarchs, aristocrats, and the affluent class, and Nepal is no exception. During the Rana oligarchy, freedom of expression and any form of dissent were harshly suppressed. Notably, the artist Chandraman Maskey was imprisoned for satirising the Rana rulers, and Newa writers who composed in their indigenous language, such as Chittadhar Hridaya, Siddhi Charan Shrestha, Phatte Bahadur Singh, Kedar Man Vyathit, and Dharma Ratna Yami, were also incarcerated.

After the overthrow of the Rana regime in 1952, King Mahendra established organisations like the Royal Nepal Academy and the Nepal Association for Fine Arts, which were intended to support and promote arts. Nepal’s relative isolation until 1952 preserved its traditional art, which has had a profound cultural and spiritual influence on society.

Artists like the late Lain Singh Bangdel and Laxman Shrestha, who were based in Europe, and the late Ambar Gurung, who lived in Darjeeling, were summoned by King Mahendra to return to Nepal and contribute to the development of the arts. In the 1960s and early ’70s, many artists who had received training abroad in countries like India, East Pakistan, France, and Russia returned to Nepal and began to make significant contributions to the arts scene. Art galleries gradually replaced the traditional patronage system.

By the 1990s, there were clear signs of discontent with the political system, which found expression in the form of paintings and literature. This dissent was visible in the works of artists like Durga Baral and Ragini Upadhya. While dissenting writers and activists were imprisoned during the Panchayat regime, it is worth noting that no visual artist was arrested for dissent during that era.

Unfortunately, now the State is again cracking down  on musicians, rap artistes, comedians, and vloggers who convey “anti-establishment” messages in their work, citing concerns about “disturbance of communal harmony”.

Q: How do you see the arts playing a role in the promotion or expression of democratic values in Nepal? 

A: In Nepal, some artists expressed scepticism about the Panchayat system. During the decade-long bloody civil war, the arts became a powerful tool to lobby for peace and usher in a democratic Federal Republic of Nepal. Today artists are using the medium to address the pain of ethnic minorities and indigenous people, they are also addressing important issues like climate change, violence against women and gender related issues. Some artists are expressing their disenchantment with the political system. All this provides healthy discourse for a democratic system to endure and creates an atmosphere for repair and healing.

After Nepal became a federal republic the Royal Nepal Academy was divided into separate artistic disciplines—fine arts, music and theatre, and literature. The Nepal Association of Fine Arts was renamed the Nepal Academy of Fine Arts. Instead of royal appointees, artists with political affiliations, members from different indigenous communities, different faiths and women are being selected to technically lead these academies to “democratise” the system and provide a wider inclusive lens and platform for the arts. Freedom of expression also comes with responsibilities. 

   

Q: In a democratic society, there’s often diversity of opinion, values, religious beliefs, etc. How does traditional or contemporary art ensure that these diverse voices are represented? 

A: No democratic state or society can claim to be perfect or without ruptures. Today Nepal is a secular country where friction between different religious groups, ethnic groups could flare up at any time. However, Nepal is well known for its religious tolerance compared to its South Asian neighbours. The danger is that this status quo could change when internal and external political individuals/groups with different agendas step in to exploit the system. In 2006, Siddhartha Art Gallery launched its “open doors” project to call for dialogue between political parties and disparate groups at the height of the civil war. In 2007 it launched its continuous open doors project when ethnic violence erupted in the Terai. On various occasions it has been the contemporary artists, writers, theatre artistes who have addressed these issues through their work. As the director of an arts space, I like to ensure that in my art practice I adopt an inclusive lens and showcase works by indigenous artists, traditional artists, women artists, etc. I am mindful that traditional art is not relegated to the handicrafts bracket , after all, it has a rich historical legacy. Even the Kathmandu Triennale in 2022, which is a contemporary arts platform, celebrated the works of indigenous artists from around the world.

Q: Have you faced any challenges or censorship issues because of the social or political situation in the country? How have you provided support to artists as an art curator?

A: In 2012, Siddhartha Art Gallery hosted Manish Harijan, an artist in residence at the Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre, for an exhibition titled “The Rise of the Collateral”. This event faced a significant challenge when a religious fundamentalist group called for the arrest of the artist and gallery director on blasphemy charges, resulting in the gallery’s closure. Many artists rallied to support freedom of expression, and I’m grateful for their solidarity. Manish had to go into hiding, and the situation was eventually resolved with the Central District Office, leading to the gallery’s reopening. The City Museum later faced a similar backlash with Aditya Aryal’s work as Sadhu X. My role as co-founder of KCAC and SAG was to ensure the safety of Manish Harijan, the protesting artists outside the CDO’s office, the gallery premises which were padlocked by the CDO’s office, and the subsequent reopening of the gallery.

Q: During the civil war, you and your family suffered many losses. However, your greatest fear was the muzzling of free speech and artistic expression. In this light, what was the effect on art in Nepal? 

A: The period you describe was undeniably a challenging and traumatic time for the entire nation. Many people suffered devastating losses, from loved ones to their homes, businesses, and means of livelihood. Nepal, as a developing nation, had to contend with the dismantling of infrastructure that had been painstakingly built over three decades during the Panchayat era. Schools were taken over and repurposed as military barracks, disrupting the education of countless young children. The Maoists’ forced induction of women and children into their army added to the distress, and young men who resisted or chose to stay in their villages faced harassment and suspicion from both the army and the Maoists.

Consequently, a wave of young men and women began leaving the country in search of better opportunities. This mass exodus not only left a profound impact on Nepal’s demographic landscape but also affected the economy, as Nepali migrant workers often had access only to menial jobs in other countries. Even today, efforts to restore infrastructure in rural areas are ongoing, and more than 3,000 Nepalis continue to leave the country daily in pursuit of better prospects.

The shadow of Maoist brutality cast a long and intimidating influence, resulting in self-censorship for some, particularly among journalists and schoolteachers who were targetted and killed. However, the artistic community demonstrated resilience and courage.

Q: How has the growing influence of religion in India affected your art, your personal life, and the overall state of democracy in your country? 

I am Hindu and I recognise that religion can have a powerful influence on people’s lives. Any interference with religious beliefs can have significant consequences. Incidents of intolerance are on the rise globally, and the spread of fake videos, as witnessed recently in India, has led to needless violence. Nepal has also experienced incidents where videos have gone viral that showcase an indigenous community in the east slaughtering a cow, which is our national animal. This act was a form of resistance or protest against the dominant Brahmin Chettri majority who imposed the concept of the holy cow on them. Another video fuelled tensions between Hindus and Muslims in Nepalgunj, near the Indian border. In both cases, there was potential for escalation among Hindus and Muslims from India, leading to a broader conflict. It’s imperative to emphasise the importance of dialogue and communal harmony. Additionally, in this digital age, monitoring AI and fake news on social media is crucial.


About the author: Sangeeta Thapa, co-founder of Siddhartha Art Gallery in 1987, has curated over 600 shows, bridging Nepali and international artists. A consultant for Nepali art collectors, she spearheads community art projects. Serving on the Patan Museum Board for six years and as a Fellow of the De Vos Institute of Arts Management, she initiated Nepal’s premier art event, the Kathmandu International Arts Festival, and founded the Siddhartha Arts Foundation in 2011. In 2016, she co-curated Nepal’s first contemporary art exhibition at the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark.


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