Nepal art debut in Venice

The curators of the Nepal Pavilion set to make its Venice debut in April (from left) Hit Man Gurung and Sheelasha Rajbhandari with the exhibiting artist Ang Tserin Sherpa. All photos: CHHIRING DORJE GURUNG.

Nepal is set to make its debut at the 59th International Art Exhibition (La Biennale di Venezia) with the inaugural pavilion titled ‘Tales of Muted Spirits – Dispersed Threads – Twisted Shangri-La’.

The exhibition is curated by Sheelasha Rajbhandari and Hit Man Gurung, and will feature the work of Ang Tserin Sherpa. The project is co-commissioned by Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, the Nepal Academy of Fine Arts and the Siddhartha Arts Foundation, with support from the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.

“There is a lot of projection onto Nepal internationally, and often our own voices are not taken into account,” Sherpa told Nepali Times on Friday. “The main agenda behind the Nepal Pavilion is to express these projections and their impacts in our own language, and take ownership of our own voice and identity.”

The pavilion will focus on the contradictory conceptualisation of Nepal and the broader Himalayan region brought about by the ‘fetishisation of a spiritual highland’. The multimedia installation will feature Sherpa in collaboration with local artists across the country to expose the intricate reality of interconnected communities with shared experiences of loss and displacement beneath the Shangri-La of bliss and longevity.

The Nepal Pavilion will also explore the systemic oppression and exclusion of the many indigenous groups of Nepal by colonial and regional powers in the 19th and 20th century.

‘International understanding of Nepali art remains plagued by a Western conceptualisation of the Himalayan region,’ Sherpa said. ‘A pervasive, romanticised vision that frames Nepal as static, pure and untouched by time and modernity. We need to create a space to reflect and re-evaluate these biases.’

Indeed, the Himalaya has often been seen through the lens of exotic mysticism that masks the complexities and diversity that give the region its identity. The communities of Nepal are often portrayed as wise but primitive, sturdy but poor, lacking in historical data but rich in spiritual wisdom.

“While it has been encouraging and inspiring to see the art scene thrive in Nepal at present,” says co-curator Rajbhandari, “there is still a disconnect in dynamics between the global art world and Nepal. Venice can be a platform to mediate that lack of communication.”

Ang Tserin Sherpa was born in Kathmandu and trained in thangka painting by his father Master Urgen Dorje. Influenced by his own experience in the Himalayan diaspora and the nomadic history of its peoples, Sherpa’s œuvre has grown to feature a rich vocabulary of Buddhist iconography paired with pop-culture references, to reflect the interplay and tension between what is sacred and secular, and what is traditional and contemporary.

This is related also to the increasing commodification of traditional art in Nepal whereby artworks have been reappropriated as mere objects to be marketed and showcased.

“These are our cultural heritage as well,” says Sherpa. “We cannot rely on other people to uphold and preserve our culture, our history when we ourselves overlook and forget them.”

To renegotiate and reexamine this trend is a larger theme with Sherpa’s work at the Biennale. He adds, “My plan is to collaborate with many Nepali artists and artisans, and initiate a dialogue about our heritage, skills and contemporary art.”

The application process for Nepal’s pavilion at the Biennale began in June 2021, and was pushed forward by seed money from the Rubin Museum in New York. But because of various delays, it was not until November that the work finally began.

“In Nepal there is no proper support system for artists to get international exposure,” Sherpa added. “But this is not a one-time thing. Funding is still an issue but hopefully this initiative can inspire artists, communities and corporate bodies to be involved together.”

This resonates with the burgeoning push for the global visibility of Nepal’s contemporary art scene in the international arena, as was seen at the Nepal Art Now exhibition at the Weltmuseum Wien in 2019 and the ongoing Kathmandu Triennale 2077 set to begin on 11 February.

“The inaugural Nepal Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is a historical moment for the contemporary art of the region,” said Fabio Rossi of Rossi & Rossi who represent Ang Tserin Sherpa. “Though Tsherin will be the focus of the pavilion, it will also be a collaborative effort which will bring greater visibility to the diverse artistic and curatorial expressions that can be found in Nepal.”

Jorrit Britschgi, the Executive Director of the Rubin Museum of Art, believes that the pavilion will help to raise the Nepali profile as a vibrant country for the production, promotion and presentation of contemporary art.

He said in a statement: ‘The Nepal Pavilion will provide artists with an invaluable international platform to showcase their work whilst positioning the country to contribute to a broader narrative on contemporary art that moves away from a Eurocentric art history and discourse.’

First founded in 1895, La Biennale di Venezia is one of the most visited art exhibitions in the world today. The Nepal Pavilion will be presented at Sant’Anna Project Space One, located on Fondamenta S. Anna in the area between the Arsenale and Giardini – the two main venues of the Biennale, which will run from 2 April through 27 November 2022.

Ang Tserin Sherpa is hopeful of the precedent this attendance sets. “It is not that there are fewer artists in Nepal or less production of art, but that there are fewer avenues,” he said. “Venice is a first and I believe this can inspire our second involvement to be an even more organic event, bringing together communities, artists and institutions.”

Ashish Dhakal