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Issue 228

Tradition Meets Modernity at Kathmandu Triennale 77

Organised across five venues, the fourth iteration of the event seeks to place Indigenous cultures and practices front and centre

BY Ashish Dhakal in Exhibition Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 28 MAR 22

Three photographs hang vertically on a green wall. The first shows hands holding a paintbrush, drawing two white lions on a naked back. The second adds more detail to the lions: red manes and tails, their fiery tongues lashing out of open jaws at a particularly violent-looking shingle rash. The third, a close-up of the completed design, reveals the inflamed skin flanked by the two ferocious beasts standing guard.

Lok Chitrakar’s Healing Lions (2019), in the fourth iteration of the Kathmandu Triennale 2077 (KT77), documents the artist enacting the ancient, and increasingly obsolete, practice of paubha painting. Subverting caste roles that placed painters below Brahmin vaidyas (healers and doctors), paubha artists would draw sacred beasts around wounds, hoping divine powers would cure them. Chitrakar’s photographs appear, to me, a fitting metaphor for KT77: on the one hand, there is the age-old tradition rooted in faith and historical customs; on the other, the body becomes a living, breathing canvas. Here, in the emerald valley, tradition meets modernity.

Chija Lama
Chija Lam, Collection of Rung Nga, undated. Courtesy: the artist and Kathmandu Triennale 77

In Chija Lama’s Collection of Rung Nga (undated), on view at Sundari Chowk of Patan Darbar Square, the artist employs a Tibetan Bön and Buddhist practice of buti from Nuwakot, a district directly northwest of Kathmandu, folding woodblock prints on lokta paper into healing amulets. Lama’s designs represent the many roles he and other healers – doctors, educators, monks, artists, confidantes – play in the community, illustrating art’s diverse socio-cultural and spiritual functions. In the Nepal Art Council, another KT77 venue, wax-printed lungi textiles (2020), sourced from the curators’ families and their own personal collections, serve as symbols of migration along the colonial-era Dutch trading routes by uniting West African wax-printing techniques with Javanese batik designs. When the Indigenous Gurung, Rai, Limbu and Magar soldiers from Nepal fought in the British Army, they would bring these garments back to their families, creating a new means of exchanging history, culture and fashion.

Matei and Mona Ta’ufo’ou’s exquisite, 32-metre-long, abstract painting Ngatu ‘uli (2019) unfurls on the top floor of the Art Council building. The image is pitch black with orange borders, another orange line bisecting it vertically. In contemporary Tonga, these ngatu (barkcloth) are means for women to generate capital, objects of economic exchange used in rituals and at significant events, such as funerals. Artisan lineage, a celebration of life and a reverence for death are all woven together in the work’s fibres, evoking the interconnectedness between us and our planet.

Lok Chitrakar
Lok Chitrakar, Healing Lions, 2019, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and Kathmandu Triennale 77

KT77’s artistic director Cosmin Costinas, with co-curators Hit Man Gurung and Sheelasha Rajbhandari, aimed to establish a decolonized language of art by combining a broad range of paintings (thangka, oil on canvas and acrylic), word maps, archival materials, installations and digital art in an inventive and meditative display. The triennial contains a world where borders are replaced by a comprehensive appreciation of comparative cultures, traditions and languages. In the vast, non-European expanse of directly and indirectly colonized nations, Indigenous art has been historically discredited and displaced, often to the point of erasure. Here, past and present unite harmoniously, suggesting that, while nothing lasts forever, art will endure.

Kathmandu Triennale 2077 runs across five venues – Bahadur Shah Baithak, Nepal Art Council, Patan Museum, Siddhartha Art Gallery and Taragaon Museum – in the Kathmandu Valley until 31 March.

Main image: Matei and Mona Ta’ufo’ou’s, Ngatu ‘uli, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Kathmandu Triennale 77

Ashish Dhakal is a writer based in Kathmandu.