20-26 December 2013 #686

Lost and found in Kathmandu

I have always been an artist, but when I visited Nepal in 2003, I felt an identity crisis. I finished a Bachelor’s degree in art, however, I felt disenchanted with the contemporary art world. Much of what I had seen – even created – didn’t move me, didn’t do any good in the world, and wasn’t accessible to a wide audience. I considered giving up art entirely.
But encountering the Kathmandu Valley, I was enamoured by the rich and meaningful cultural heritage kept alive by artists today. I was inspired to paint again and learn all I could about Himalayan art.

The 15th century stone sculpture of Lakshmi-Narayan (left) in Patan was stolen in 1984. The head of Saraswati (right), stolen from Pharping in the early 1980s, is currently at the Chhauni Museum.

In 2006, I first noticed thefts of sacred art. Through research, I found a few publications: Lain Singh Bangdel’s Stolen Images of Nepal, Jürgen Schick’s The Gods are Leaving the Country, and Kanak Mani Dixit’s Gods in Exile. They give striking photographic evidence of the thefts of 120 Buddhist and Hindu sculptures. They also raised some unsettling questions: what has happened in those communities since the thefts, does worship continue, have replicas been made?

Since 2010, I started visiting sites of previously documented thefts. I recorded the memories shared by people and inquired about additional thefts. I kept a database, which will be published at www.rememberingthelost.com. I strongly feel devotees should be able to continue traditions of worship just like generations before them and artists should have access to exquisite works created by their ancestors. My paintings in ‘Narratives of Faith and Memory: Remembering the Lost Sculptures of Kathmandu’ bridge present and past states of these sacred spaces by realistically depicting the sites as they look presently and then visually ‘repatriating’ the stolen sculptures back into those sites with 23 karat gold. The gold represents the commodification of the sacred and provides a visual language for identifying which sculptures have been lost. The paintings also convey the intangible – the relationships people have with the murtis and the longing they feel at their absence.

Despite people’s devotion and love for their local murtis, it is difficult to protect against theft. I am hopeful though, that through awareness and cooperation on all levels – in communities, with local government, and international laws and support – illicit trafficking of sacred cultural property can be slowed and the gods can safely live in their home communities again.

After exhibiting in Nepal, I intend for my paintings to travel around the world, offering people the chance to see where these murtis originate from and hear stories shared by those communities.

Joy Lynn Davis is currently an artist in residence at Kathmandu Contemporary Art Centre in Patan. Her exhibition ‘Narratives of Faith and Memory: Remembering the Lost Sculptures of Kathmandu’ will run until 21 December at Patan Museum.

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