Elen Turner considers the street as a new space and context for art in Kathmandu
Aside from the hidden stupas, pagodas and palaces tucked away down backstreets, Kathmandu is not an aesthetically pleasing city. The Bagmati River is a thick, grey-green toxic sludge for most of the year, and the air quality so poor that the snow-capped Himalaya, so near behind the Kathmandu Valley rim, usually cannot be seen through the smog and dust. Urban development has been haphazard, most of the city consisting of poorly constructed concrete structures that will not withstand Kathmandu’s next major earthquake, which is said to be overdue.
Splashes of colour can be found throughout the city, however, thanks to the street-level initiatives of a number of arts organisations. Some works are as small as 30-centimetre-high spray-painted stencils, others occupy 500-metre-long and two-metre-high walls. While the motivations behind the different projects vary, they all share one intention: to get Kathmandu’s residents to think differently about art.
“Nepal has a very traditional understanding of art,” said Kailash Shrestha of Artudio, who initiated some of Kathmandu’s first street art projects in 2011. “To most people art is painting and drawing, so we want to change their understanding.” Thus, Saran Tandukar, as part of his graduation project at the Kathmandu College of Fine Arts, has decorated the railings of a bridge with painted and varnished scraps of fabric, contrasting markedly with the tin-roofed animal shelters and stinking canal below the bridge. Less than half a year old, some of the fabric pieces are already missing or peeling off. “It’s possible to get weatherproof varnish,” he mused, “but not people-proof varnish.” Though Tandukar’s art beautifies the city, many residents just don’t understand its presence.
Stencil art is also visible throughout the city, from small tags (Kailash’s own personal stencil-tag is a pig) to life-size ones. Artudio’s “I’m you” stencil, dotted around in various locations, is a full-length figure hiding its face, with a sign that reads, well, “I’m you”. The meaning is left to the viewer to determine, the faceless representation suggesting that anyone can identify with the work and bring their own emotions to it. But the masculine hands, clothing and stance—even though the figure has no face—raises questions about subjectivity. Are the streets of Kathmandu still, predominantly, a man’s domain?
Kathmandu’s street artists were initially inspired by Nepal’s profusion of political graffiti, as well as the film posters that adorn many public spaces throughout the country, as in the rest of South Asia. Eventually, some artists tired of seeing the same groups’ logos and slogans, and thought Kathmandu needed an injection of a different sort of public art aesthetic. As Yuki Poudyal, director of Sattya Media Arts Collective, stated in the introduction to the stunning Kolor Kathmandu, an alternative guidebook to the city that documents 75 of Sattya’s murals, “Kathmandu has been bombarded by the visual manifestations of political rivalries and the ubiquity of consumer culture. Big billboards preaching doctrines of consumerism engulf entire buildings, and loud political slogans leap out from the city’s walls, espousing hollow rhetorics.”
ArtLab’s 2013 “Prasad” project summed up the effort to present Kathmandu with an alternate aesthetic: several artists painted stylised portraits of alternative Nepali heroes, aimed at showing young people that they can achieve great things and need not flee their country in search of a better life, as an estimated 1,300 young Nepalis are said to do every day. The heroes include Jhamak Kumari Ghimire, a young award-winning writer who was born with cerebral palsy; Laxmi Prasad Devkota, a poet from the first half of the 20th century who has been given the title Maha Kavi (Great Poet); Hari Bansha Acharya, one of the most successful and respected Nepali actors/comedians; Sangina Baidya, a taekwondo champion; Binod Shahi, an educator working in Nepal’s far west, an eight-day walk from the nearest road; Pushpa Basnet, a social worker upholding the rights of children whose parents are jailed; Narayan Gopal Gurubacharya, a singer and composer; Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, who in 1993 became the first Nepali woman to climb Mount Everest (she perished on the descent); Satya Mohan Joshi, a writer and scholar; and Laxman Singh Kadka, Kathmandu’s “banner man”, a political protestor with a difference. The heroes were and are ordinary people who put their talents to good use for the betterment of Nepali society, or are simply good role models. In conjunction with painting the walls, ArtLab organised the clean-up of the areas in which they worked.
The murals of the “Kolor Kathmandu” project, initiated by the Sattya Collective and completed with funding from the Dutch Prince Claus Foundation, are currently very visible. Polluted, relatively wealthy, yet groaning-at-the-seams Kathmandu is a strikingly anomalous place in Nepal, a country that is still largely rural. Poudyal has stated that as the footprints of urbanisation spread through Kathmandu, the city is distanced from the realities of the rest of Nepal. Plus, it’s largely ugly. “The public spaces and the streets belong to us, the people. So why not make them beautiful and colourful?” said Priti Serchan, artist coordinator for “Kolor Kathmandu”. The project completed 75 murals by over 65 Nepali and international artists, each representing and depicting a different region of the country, building a connection between the capital’s residents and more far-flung areas that sit outside of the dominant urban imagination.
Many layers of street art exist in some places, as works are painted or plastered over, only to be replaced by new iterations. Remnants of party slogans can still often be seen beneath newer murals—a deliberate gesture by the artists to show what has inspired them, what they are painting in response to and the contrasting layers that comprise contemporary Kathmandu. The Prajatantra Bhitta, or Democracy Wall, near central Kathmandu’s Ratna Park, has been a place for protest since the Panchayat era (1960s–1990s). Most slogans painted in this highly politicised space last no more than a few days before rival political groups paint over them. “Kolor Kathmandu” did not expect American artist Dustin Spagnola’s painting of a woman and child—a statement about how the needs of the people should be prioritised over political infighting—to last the several months that it did (it doesn’t exist anymore). The wall itself has been encroached upon periodically by the authorities, shrinking the public space available for protest. However, the boundaries of public political protest are now being redrawn in the city, with this new crop of street artists spreading far beyond the confines of the Democracy Wall.
Numerous works by Sujan Dangol directly manipulate the existing political slogans that adorn walls throughout the city. The lettering of such slogans can often be almost a metre high, so literate locals (and Devanagari-literate expats) cannot help but take notice of them. Dangol isolates a word or two from the slogans, borders it with a colourful pattern and whitewashes the surrounding text, thus reclaiming a word for a different purpose. Unlike some street artists who consider the political slogans an inspirational—if not exactly benign—presence, Dangol perceives them negatively, and is therefore driven to extract something positive from them. He was commissioned to represent the Rolpa district for the “Kolor Kathmandu” project, so he isolated the word safal (successful) to represent Rolpa’s successful recovery from the damage it suffered during the decade-long Maoist insurgency. Similarly, Dishebh Raj Shrestha and Ujala Shrestha have also reclaimed what visual language represents in public, painting lines of Siddhicharan Shrestha’s poetry on the steps of a pedestrian bridge in the Ratna Park area. Seeing Nepali typography painted in public spaces is nothing new to Kathmandu’s residents, but this work catches the attention of passers-by because of its unexpected import.
Unfortunately, any painting of public property, however aesthetically pleasing, is technically illegal. Artudio’s first initiative, a mural produced to publicise a children’s helpline, only lasted a week before it was painted over. Nothing can be done to stop government officials whitewashing walls or demolishing them in the name of a recent road-widening project, or political parties from reclaiming wall space as their own, or even to prevent the pasting of film and other advertising posters over the art. Kathmandu street art is ephemeral; this adds an extra dimension to its appeal: to find the works now before they are destroyed. “Nobody owns the art,” said Kailash Shrestha. “It is public so we do not own it, and we can’t stop it from being destroyed.” More art will replace that which is destroyed, in the same places or elsewhere. It is an evolving process, as the number of artists interested in producing this type of work approaches critical mass.
Unlike other works of street art, however, depictions of deities are generally safe from destruction or concealment. The “Shiva Wall”, painted in 2012, shows signs of natural deterioration—peeling paint, crumbling stone—but little evidence of human-inflicted damage. It was devised by Artudio and placed where it was because facing it is a perimeter wall of the Narayanhiti Palace—where the Nepali royal family lived until they were gunned down in 2001—which leads to the Passport Office. Queues for Nepali passports are long and start early, yet no toilet facilities are provided. To prevent people from urinating on the outer walls of the palace grounds, tiles depicting deities were embedded in the walls (a common South Asian device) and the “problem” ceased. The artists of ArtLab, intrigued that this simple action could change public behaviour, added their own deities to the street. The “Shiva Wall” is one of the longest-surviving works of street art in Kathmandu. This reverence for the images of gods and goddesses is common in parts of South Asia, but their appropriation into street art has an added significance in Nepal, where a traditional form of ”public art” is the often colourful murals within Buddhist gumbas.
While it is easy to lament how quickly and easily street art can be destroyed, this is also what makes it so fascinating. Kathmandu’s murals, stencils, lettering, patchwork and so on, should be sought out today, as some of the most beautiful pieces will not exist tomorrow. The only thing of permanence in contemporary Nepal is the Himalaya, and we cannot see that from Kathmandu most of the time.
Elen Turner is an editor with the Kathmandu-based Himal Southasian magazine. She is an avid reader of South Asian literature, and her work on the topic, as well as gender issues, has been widely published. She is currently somewhere in the sky between Kathmandu, Canberra, Whangarei and Buffalo.