Over a fortnight starting 24 March, the inaugural edition of the Kathmandu Triennale hopes to transform the Nepalese capital into a studio for 70 artists from 25 countries. Responding to the theme of “My City, My Studio/My City, My Life”, these artists are engaging with notions of the city—as an archive, an urban hub, a social organization and a living organism. “In some cases, the city itself is an artist, engaging in a dialogue with other artists,” says Philippe Van Cauteren, artistic director, SMAK (Museum for Contemporary Art, Ghent, Belgium), over the phone. Curated by Cauteren, the triennale, organized by the Siddhartha Arts Foundation (SAF) and SMAK, with venue support from the Saraf Foundation, seeks to integrate Nepal into the dynamic art ecosystem of South Asia. “The nature of Kathmandu is very different from Kochi or Dhaka. It would make for a wonderful addition to the contemporary art space,” says Cauteren.
Efforts in this direction have been made since 2009, when Sangeeta Thapa, co-founder and director of SAF, started the Kathmandu International Art Festival. “We did a second edition in 2012, but couldn’t organize it in 2015 because of the earthquake,” says Thapa. “Artists who took part in the festivals said the scale was similar to a biennale or a triennale. Riyas Komu (director of programmes of the Kochi biennale) and Philippe advised that it was time to refine our commitment to the arts, and that’s how the idea of the Kathmandu Triennale came about.”
Instead of going the regular route of identifying artists, selecting their artworks and shipping them to Nepal—a cost-heavy proposition and a non-engaging one for the artist—the team decided to invite artists to create works on site. Artists such as Alice Fox, Ang Tshering Sherpa, Bhuwan Thapa, Francis Alÿs, Shilpa Gupta, Mithu Sen, Mahbubur Rahman and Lida Abdul are showcasing their work at either of four main venues: the Patan Museum, Siddhartha Arts Gallery, Taragaon Museum and Nepal Art Council.
The Taragaon Museum is one of the first modernist, contemporary art spaces in Nepal. Designed by Austrian architect Carl Pruscha, the building was initially meant as a hostel for foreigners. It was opened up as a museum in 2014. Namita Saraf, founder-director of the Taragaon Museum, has been observing how artists have used the facade and other aspects of the building in their work. “An artist is creating chalk drawings on the facade. Mithu Sen is also creating an on-site work in our museum,” she says.
Saraf is also enthusiastic about a soundwork that can be experienced at Basantapur and Nanglo. Curated by Gaynor O’Flynn, it brings the viewer into the performance arena. If you say your name, its vibrations are converted into circles of light, which are then projected into a physical space.
Other works dwell on the artists’ personal histories and their intimate engagement with the city. “For instance, Sheelasha Rajbhandari is recording stories of her grandmother,” says Cauteren.
In addition to the exhibition, the triennale features five collateral events, one of them being the research curatorial project “Built Unbuilt”. “A lot of Nepali workers go to Qatar in search of work. Many of them die there (due to bad working conditions). Nearly six coffins arrive every day, carrying the remains of the workers and their aspirations. The project focuses on that,” says Thapa.
Another project to watch out for is by Karachi-based illustrator and graphic designer Sana Nasir. A Night Walk In Patan, an audiovisual installation, revolves around the experience of losing a sense of identity through the act of walking in the dark.
The triennale also seeks to provide a platform to upcoming artists from Nepal. “Seventeen of them have been commissioned to create artworks,” says Cauteren. “We want the Kathmandu Triennale to be a tribute to the city, the artist, the risk that an artist takes in creating something. During my discussions with Nepali artists, I urged them to be courageous, to represent what it means to be an artist in the complex world that we are living in today.”
The Kathmandu Triennale is being held across four venues till 9 April. For details, visit Kt.artmandu.org.