23-29 December 2016 #838

The art of preservation

A Canadian-born Finnish artist tells everyday stories and struggles of craftspeople in Nepal
Smriti Basnet

Pan Lan

Canadian-born Finnish artist Gary Wornell was introduced to local artisans in Patan during one of his trips to Nepal in late 2014, and it was then he decided the world needed to know about Nepal’s endangered crafts.

As a photographer and print maker, Wornell has 25 years of experience as a ceramic artist. He felt real admiration for Patan’s craftsmen and worried that it was a profession that was disappearing.

“I found a calmness and peace in their work, it was like a kind of meditation,” said Wornell who was awestruck with the beauty of the process and the people, seeing them work with such grace equipped with barely any tools or facilities.  

It could have been this connection to fellow artists that opened Wornell’s doors to the world of Nepali artisans leading him to understand, connect and visualise their stories. 

What originally started as an idea for a series of stories for in-flight magazines eventually took the form of a book with profiles of skills such as copper casting, thangka painting, wood and stone carving, drum, jewellery and paper making and gilding. Treasure of Nepal will be launched at the Kathmandu Triennale in March 2017. 

Having stayed with many of the artisans, Wornell shares photographs of them working. He also tells everyday stories and struggles of craftspeople like Nepal's only female stone sculptor and gives unique insights into their world.

GARY WORNELL

In addition to the book, an exhibition of Nepali handicrafts that Wornell curated is being currently showcased in Lahti Art Museum in Finland. The exhibition, that will continue till 29 January, has already got 5,500 visitors.   “I wanted to bring Nepali craftwork to Europe to show that if you learn to use your hands there is so much pleasure you can gain from it,” said the artist who thinks the burgeoning IT industry and visual culture has increasingly pushed the Finnish people away from nature.

Hoping to recapture the essence of Nepal, the museum space in Finland has been decorated with prayer flags with sections of the walls dedicated to a specific skill. Each segment has the name of the craft painted in Devanagari.

But Wornell’s motives go far beyond just the exhibition in Lahti and the book. Seeing that there is no institution in Nepal that teaches traditional crafts, he worries that the knowledge and skills will die out in 15 years.

“Family traditions which have been passed down from one generation to the next for hundreds of years will break down rapidly,” said Wornell, who cannot hide his disappointment at seeing Nepal’s priceless traditions and the customs slowly fade away.

“For craft to live, it will have to evolve into something that makes a statement about where Nepal is now as a country,” said Wornell. He feels this can be done through institutions teaching such crafts and the willingness of the artisans themselves to morph traditional and contemporary techniques. 

Wornell himself has learnt from Chinese methods for some of his clay work and feels it adds to one’s wider understanding of its form and function. “When you train then you can take all those things and start to make your own work,” he added. 

Chronicling art forms which will soon disappear if not preserved, Wornell feels his Lahti exhibition of Nepali craft is unique and hopes to take it to China and other parts of Europe.  

For now, Wornell is back in Nepal and actively involved with communities in Sindhupalchok and Makwanpur as part of Tearfund, a UK-based Christian relief and development initiative to help locals make video documentaries using mobile phones.

Read also

Crafted in Kathmandu

Be Jewelled, Smriti Basnet

Taking art out in the open, Smriti Basnet

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