Kathmandu Triennale: From poets to Shamans

Focussing on ideas and movements that have been marginalised both within Nepal and globally, including discourses of decolonisation, migration and displacement, indigenous knowledge, queer rights, feminism, and alternative world views, the Kathmandu Triennale 2077 (KT2077) to be held from December 4, 2020 to January 9, 2021 will be the largest art event Nepal has seen to date with works by over 100 artists, from more than 40 nations across six continents. It will be presented across multiple historical venues, public and communal spaces in Kathmandu.

Curators of KT2077, Hit Man Gurung and Sheelasha Rajbhandari, both practicing artists based in Kathmandu stress that the aim is to build an experimental and critical space in Nepal to engage in a series of artistic interventions — designed to interact with various audiences, spaces, and situations — to rethink and recontextualize the country’s past, present, and future in relation to parallel movements across the globe.

“The Triennale is crucially interested in indigenous knowledge that is active and subversive, working towards the upending of patriarchal structures and dominant national frameworks, creating a new global solidarity of places and communities of resistance. Works from across continents will be exhibited, placing Nepal on a different geography, beyond the regions that it is commonly considered in,” Hit Man Gurung tells IANS.

Adding that the Triennale wants to look at image — and object– making lineages that transversed or unfolded in parallel to the fractures of the modern and will witness appropriate frameworks of understanding and bringing together these multiple aesthetic and cosmological lineages, which are still active, Sheelasha Rajbhandari adds, “However, we also want to see beyond the dominant traditions in these contexts, to showcase materiality and media from communities often subjected to processes of internal colonisation by their own, often post-colonial, states and their official nationalistic or cultural narratives.”

Looking for first person narratives that revert or deconstruct the gaze that outsiders have projected upon their peoples, most of the participating artists the curators and Cosmin Costinas (Artistic Director of KT 2077 and Executive Director of Para Site) are looking at are from first nations, indigenous, adivasi and janajati communities and come from lineages of practices through which historically marginalized communities have resisted or subverted mainstream politics. “The participants are not only from the stereotypical ‘fine arts’ background but in fact researchers, activists, poets, performers, healers, shamans…. It’s beautiful how their works connect, communicate, coalesce with each other,” says Sheelasha.

Stressing that though there might be minimal support from the government and the private sector, they have a strong sense of community where self motivated and resilient artists are leading institutions, various arts initiatives, and collectives, Gurung adds, “Taking all the responsibilities on their own shoulders, artists themselves are in fact the backbone of the Nepali art community. In Nepal, like in other South Asian countries there is no welfare scheme such as social security, nor are there supporting mechanisms for artists, it is really important to realise the risks artists have to take to pursue their careers,” says Gurung.

Ask the young curators if the Triennale will give an impetus to the art community in Nepal, especially younger artists, and Sheelasha says that in her country, there is a deficit of institutions such as museums, art councils, foundations, organizations, research and archive centres, galleries, which seriously focus or promote the artistic practises. “Furthermore, the mainstream history of Nepal is monolithic and problematic, it’s all about rulers, politicians, religion, and men, in addition to being dominated by the rhetoric of privileged castes and classes. We have to rewrite and redefine history through the perspective of marginalised peoples.”

She adds that KT can be a platform to bring these diverse narratives, alternative histories and knowledge which mainstream systems refuse to acknowledge. “It is not just about the exhibition, but providing an experimental and critical space to engage in a series of artistic interventions -e designed to interact with various audiences, spaces, and situations e- to rethink and recontextualize the country’s past, present, and future in relation to parallel movements across the globe. So there are so many ways for the younger artists and art students to directly involve or learn from the Triennale.”

While the Kochi Biennale in India proved not only to raise the cultural quotient of the region but also increased the economic activity manifold, can the same be expected from the Triennale? “Well, Kathmandu Triennale is a fully independent initiative and does not have the level of government or corporate support that Kochi fortunately has. However, we are trying hard to collaborate with different government bodies. But sadly, within governmental departments, there is a lack of understanding about contemporary art practises, or even the format of art festivals such as Biennale or Triennale. It’s really difficult to convince them about the benefits and importance of such events. The focus of the Ministry of Cultural and Tourism Board of Nepal is more on religious and adventure tourism,” laments Gurung.

Stressing that despite the uncertainty which has come with COVID-19, they were optimistic, the curators insist that they are also inspired by individuals and communities who are developing ingenious ways to cope with the current situation.

“We have developed contingency plans where our programming will incorporate critical digital engagement, connectivity, and community building exercises by exploring collaborative practices. Any on-site production, curation, and exhibition events will depend on guidelines of the Government of Nepal and the WHO. We are also in conversation with Para Site, our key partner in Hong Kong to explore avenues for digital curation and tours, as is being done for the exhibition ‘Garden of Six Seasons,’ which is the precursory iteration to the Kathmandu Triennale 2077,” they conclude.