Asia Art Archive’s Mobile Library Opens Up Discourse In Nepal’s Art Community And Beyond

Mobile Library: Nepal first location, Bikalpa Art Center. Image courtesy of Mobile Library: Nepal.
Mobile Library: Nepal third location, Kaalo. Image courtesy of Mobile Library: Nepal.
Fellowship for Art Educators workshop meeting with mentor Niranjan Kunwar (right), writer and art educator. Image courtesy of Mobile Library: Nepal.
Printmaking workshop with BFA students, led by artist and art educator Saurganga Darshandhari. Image courtesy of Mobile Library: Nepal.
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Asia Art Archives Mobile Library: Nepal project is not just a physical library circulating text, it also serves as a repository of ideas. Speaking with Sangeeta Thapa, Founder and Director of Siddhartha Art Foundation and Sharareh Bajracharya, Director of Kathmandu Triennale, we delved into how the project encourages decentralised discussions in the community ahead of Kathmandu Triennale 2077 slated to take place in 2022.

TEXT: Kitty Kong
IMAGES: Courtesy of Mobile Library: Nepal

 

When we think of Nepal, perhaps what most comes to mind is the country’s ethnic cultures, the breathtaking Mount Everest, or its deadly earthquakes and incessant civil wars. But what about its contemporary art scene? Given the complexity of Nepal’s socio-political and cultural context, how and where can we begin the discussion? Mobile Library: Nepal provides one answer.

Now in its fourth iteration, Mobile Library was first initiated in 2011 to provide a platform for the exchange of ideas and has been held in Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Presented by Hong Kong’s Asia Art Archive (AAA) in collaboration with Kathmandu’s Siddhartha Arts Foundation, Mobile Library: Nepal has been running since February this year and will continue through June 2022. Mobile Library: Nepal circulates books and reading materials to local universities, artists, and independent arts organisations within and outside of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. The library contains around 400 books, including catalogues, periodicals, and monographs from across Asia, with a thematic emphasis on topics such as innovation in contemporary art, gender and representation, among various others.

 

Mobile Library: Nepal first location, Bikalpa Art Center. Image courtesy of Mobile Library: Nepal.

 

From a vibrant and flourishing series of online and offline events such as monthly Reading Circles, Fellowship for Art Educators programme, talks, archive-building workshops, teacher-training programmes, university modules , pop-up exhibitions, and more, Mobile Library : Nepal also builds on the research and efforts of the curatorial team at Kathmandu Triennale 2077—the largest presentation of contemporary art in Nepal to date, which is slated for 2022.

Taking a deep dive into Mobile Library: Nepal, we speak with Sangeeta Thapa, Founder and Director of Siddhartha Art Foundation, and Sharareh Bajracharya, Director of Kathmandu Triennale 2077.

 

How would you describe Nepals current art scene in comparison to other countries or major cities in Asia?

Sangeeta Thapa (ST): Back when the British were here, Nepal was so paranoid about becoming a colony that we declared a policy of self-confinement. So until 1852, the borders of Nepal were sealed. Our contact with the rest of the world had been very limited.

During our time of isolation, I think the traditional arts really thrived and prospered. After Jang Bahadur’s first visit to England in 1850, he brought back Western ideas, so it was the only time when the Western ideas came. Then in 1934, the first Nepal art school was established, alongside a museum and a zoo. All of these happened around the same time in the 1930s. If you compare that to, let’s say Hong Kong, which was also a former colony, the institutions were already there for the arts. But our experiment within temporary action is still new. [The art scene] is now very vibrant.

 

Why do you think Mobile Library is crucial to Nepal under the current cultural and political context?

ST: Well, first of all, what’s happening is that when people talk about South Asian art, there’s even a South Asia Institute in Chicago, or other institutes in England and other countries. Somehow in that discourse, they never feature Nepal. It’s like we exist only on the periphery, and that also goes for Afghanistan and Bhutan. If you look at landmarks of the Indian subcontinent, we’re all connected. Yet, the colonial mindset still exists today. We haven’t been able to break it.

I think Nepalese art is not as visible as it should be. The wars did so much to us, demographic shifts happened because of it, and naturally, migration is a human story for many impoverished nations. All sorts of things are happening in Nepal, and it’s been documented and articulated by our artists, which can be archived through Mobile Library.

 

What are some of the challenges of promoting Nepalese art? How are you tackling them?

ST: I thought about it back in 2009, because it seemed that we were really stuck. We weren’t included in many discourses. And then we had a civil war going on in our country. So, we began the first Kathmandu International Art Festival (KIAF), where 111 artists from 25 countries were showcased across different venues. I knew that from the outset, funds would be a problem, so we decided that it would be a biannual event.

There should have been the next editions in 2012 and 2015, but we had great earthquakes where so many lives were lost with so much damage. At that time, there was also an earthquake in Nepal’s art world—how do we move forward? Instead of becoming just a festival, I decided that it would be important to morph into a Triennale format because in this way, the world would take more notice of the work that’s happening here in Nepal. Now, the Triennale is definitely one of the main platforms that harness international attention for Nepal.

 

Mobile Library: Nepal third location, Kaalo. Image courtesy of Mobile Library: Nepal.

 

Thank you, Sangeeta. So Sharareh, as the director of the Kathmandu Triennale and Mobile Library project, what does it mean to you to build a unique archive and initiate a circulative library project within the Nepal community?

Sharareh Bajracharya (SB): I think access to information has always been our problem. And it was a historical problem because we went into a period of decided closure. Though we opened up in 1952, that was only to some extent with limited liberties. All of this has really changed since 2006. The Internet played a huge role—nobody could stop all the information from coming in, which also meant more access to artists’ archives and information.

The Mobile Library project has opened an online platform for people.  A lot of them would come to visit our library, take a book and read, find all these keywords, and then they would go through the Internet and start finding all the artists that they’re interested in. So it’s like opening up a window for us. It’s quite exciting.

Secondly, the collection of books in our libraries, especially within the art academies, has been rather oriented to the West. And that is one of the things we asked [to address] with this Mobile Library. As soon as we start thinking beyond Nepal and consider art history from Asia’s perspective, we can blur definitions and make it easier to argue that Nepalese art have a longer history than we thought. It’s not just what came from the 1950s onwards or when the artists were taken to the UK or India to learn how to make portraits. That’s not our beginning. There are lots of other art forms and art practices that justify our art history beyond that timeline. So the type of books included in the Mobile Library is a departure from those that were collected before.

So for us, this connection through Mobile Library is bringing us into the debates that are happening all over Asia and it’s really exciting. You can tell from the reactions of our students, visitors and people who are joining the programmes. The whole idea of the library was to bring up these debates, to activate and to have conversations about them. That’s been really effective and we’re hoping that this will continue.

 

Fellowship for Art Educators workshop meeting with mentor Niranjan Kunwar (right), writer and art educator. Image courtesy of Mobile Library: Nepal.

 

In developing the project, you decided to take Mobile Library within, and outside of, the capital, Kathmandu. What are you aiming to achieve through this?

SB: A lot of the discussions we’ve been having were about how we can move out of Kathmandu. Kathmandu is a place of central governance and is metropolitan, but not everybody actually comes and lives here. And in the art scene, there are other art universities located outside of this region.

So, while we have a government body that’s supposed to represent nationally, we don’t have a lot of support for the art scene in other parts of the country. And this is something we’ve been talking about a lot in the Triennale as well. Our curators have also been researching different parts of the country and we thought, “Oh, well why shouldn’t we take these books to different places? What if we activated these spaces?” So in Janakpur, the Triennale also works with the Janakpur Women’s Development Center, where we learnt a particular art form called the Mithila. Janakpur is definitely off-centre, even for the art scene, because the contemporary art scene is usually modernised.

 

What are some of your most memorable experiences during the project?

SB: The Fellowship for Art Educators programme. It’s the idea of having young people for young people. If we’re going to activate the library, it can’t be just a small group of people that designed the library or the ones who activated it—it should be [other] people who read it too. The fellowship has been an amazing opportunity to give ownership completely to these six young people and say, “What’s interesting to you? How would you like to design workshops? How would you like to activate the library?” And they just did a whole series of workshops right now, each of them was reaching out to other young people their age. The idea was to do peer-to-peer workshops, which is similar to the reading circles. So to me, the programme represents the idea of continuity and knowledge passing on. I think that is the very core of what we want to do.

The bibliography project, which we are working on at the moment, is also significant in the way that we “unlock” the libraries through digitising art writings and art publications, initiating non-judgemental discussions.

 

Printmaking workshop with BFA students, led by artist and art educator Saurganga Darshandhari. Image courtesy of Mobile Library: Nepal.

 

Are there any challenges you have encountered along the way?

I think the cliché is because of COVID-19, we’ve had to go online while the library was supposed to be visited in person. I think that’s been the biggest challenge, but I think we’ve done really well, and in many ways, the online platform has increased access. So it made us think bigger, but it also meant that people can’t go through the books, and we’re hoping that things are loosening up now.

The vision with Mobile Library from the beginning has been the saving grace. This isn’t just about an eight-month project—now it’s become like a two-year project—but it’s not going to end like that.  All of these programmes are to activate, to start getting people to know what’s in there so that they will find it useful and start using it for their regular curricula in their teaching, and that artists would also have a place to come and just hang out to look at works from Asia.

 

What’s the importance of showcasing the Nepalese art scene to communities outside of the usual museum context?

SB: It allows organic discussions rather than boxing in the answers. We found that young people have lots to say, while many artists have been doing so much work yet they never enter the museum. The art world is constantly moving and evolving, and it’s not just about the institutions where they sit, we can allow a lot more discourse to open up. Since Nepal hasn’t had so much of a say in how we want our art to be seen, the ways in which we have been talking about are largely part of other people’s discourses. I think it’s going to be very interesting to see how we will define ourselves over the next 10 or 20 years because now the language is much more nuanced and people are starting to get exposed in many different ways.

In the Mobile Library, different themes are like platforms for people to have these little conversations. And then what happens after is up to them. They don’t have to enter the museum if they don’t want to. If they want to be independent practitioners, that’s absolutely fine, and that’s just as much part of what’s important about art. Artists do need to be independent to create new things. So it’s really important to have this outside the museum as well as inside. There has to be some flexibility so that institutions would change over time, but changes usually won’t be brought on by them. They usually begin from the outside and we should cater to that.

 

 

 
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