Robert G Powell, 1948-2020

Rob Powell in his Koh Samui studio.

Last Wednesday, 16 December 2020, marked the passing of a visionary artist who shared his unique perceptions of Asian architecture, art and culture with the world. 

With an eye beguiled by beauty and a heart attuned to the strange and ineffable qualities of physical heritage, Robert Gordon Powell was a magician with pen, pencil and brush.

Born in Australia in 1948, Rob was teaching art and studying architecture when the Baul clan from just divided state of Bengal in India, came to perform songs, dance and rituals in his university town. 

This initial introduction to the human-spirit world deeply intrigued him, and the Bauls, who stayed at his home, recognised in him a kindred soul. Laxman Das Baul invited Rob to visit their Bengali village. 

Arriving at the teeming Howrah train station, riding the branch line through idyllic rice paddies and ending with an hour-long rickshaw ride deeper into mud-walled thatch-roofed villages, the young man from ‘down under’ was transported into an utterly different reality.

While sketching and experiencing life in Bengal, Rob heard that Ladakh had recently opened to foreigners, and determined to visit there as well. His camera disappeared en route, being fate’s way of telling him that hand drawings were to be his primary means of documenting what he encountered. 

This foray immersed him in Himalayan culture which became his most famous subject matter. He first documented Ladakhi buildings painstakingly with dots, the lightest possible method of rendition, well-suited to a patient artist and perfectly suited to the high mountain light, soft palette of colours and often eroded surfaces of Ladakhi architecture. 

Rob recorded architecture in Swat and Kalash Valleys of Pakistan, evolving a still detailed but faster illustration of light and shadow through cross-hatching in ink. 

He documented the shamanistic culture of Western Nepal, portraying the initiation of a female shaman who meditated all night on a makeshift perch of perilously few small branches lashed high on a pole above her village. He drew drums, amulets and drumsticks - ritual implements that shamans used to mesmerise the world and captivate those journeying with them.

These ethnographically rich locales were sparse in material comforts, and Rob found his way to Kathmandu to more comfortably complete and develop paintings from his sketches. Here he became familiar with the Newa brick, wood and plaster architecture of the Kathmandu Valley. He recognised that temples and residences follow traditional shapes, incorporate sacred proportions, and create a feeling that resonates with community, professional, and visitor. 

He turned to red pigment watercolours to depict the रातो माटो brick and tile work, and used browns, creams and greys to show how time tempers wood, plaster and stone. He was commissioned to design the Green Pastures Hospital in Pokhara, a comely complex resembling monastic quarters in layout, with the warm detailing of a traditional, welcoming inn.

Early in Rob’s three decades in Kathmandu, he encountered the German government’s largest development project in the world at the time – the restoration and conservation of the traditional city of Bhaktapur. 

Fortuitously meeting its leader, the Austrian conservation architect Götz Hagenmüller and his wife Ludmilla before they departed on holiday, they commissioned Rob to produce eleven drawings of Bhaktapur, including the Kuthu Math priest’s house that they would later renovate as their exquisite residence. These drawings were exhibited at the Vajra Hotel art gallery. 

The most challenging piece was a small Kuthu Math room which had been used for years for distilling छ्याङ beer. The first sketch showed it cluttered and with blackened walls. After careful cleaning, Rob painted it as the three-century old puja room it originally was — every inch of wall richly decorated with sacred Krishna-Lila murals.

Rob’s Bhaktapur work generated a lifelong friendship with Götz, and professional recognition that brought further work in cultural heritage. His skills had arrived at a moment when the world was athirst for all things Himalayan, including the Kathmandu Valley’s ten World Heritage sites. Rob deeply appreciated the works of the great traditional Newar Malla artisans and honed what he saw into radiant compositions that elicited ancient memories and enticed new perceptions.

Before long, Rob was engaged by the Nepal government’s Department of Archaeology to accompany their team to Mustang. He travelled on foot and horseback to Lo Manthang, sketching the luminous, mineral-laden mountain-scape. 

At the town of Lo, he spent hours on site, absorbing the forms and feelings of the buildings. He celebrated the rich red, white and black colours painted and poured down walls, to call forth the protection of the gods, Manjushri, Avalokitesvara, and Vajrapani on vulnerable building corners and doorways. He vividly highlighted the ram skulls and horns that are positioned above an opening to protect the inhabitants against malicious spirits.

When Rob met Mary Slusser, cultural researcher and author of Nepal Mandala, she was impressed with his virtuoso artwork and arranged for him to show at the Sackler Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. 

That exhibition, ‘Earth Door, Sky Door, Paintings of Mustang’ in 1999 introduced the global art world to Robert Powell. His works embraced and slipped beyond the boundaries of ethnography into apparitional forms that reflect the essence of the Himalaya. Michael O’Sullivan of The Washington Post said it well, 'Robert draws buildings in an animistic way that reveals something that lies beyond what can be seen.'

In 1992, Rob married Lieve Aerts, a Belgian woman and teacher of yoga and chi qong, who became his partner for life. After three decades happily settled in the centre of the culture that he portrayed so well, Rob contracted a lung infection that left his health vulnerable. 

Rehabilitating at length in Europe, he was advised not to return to the poor air quality of Kathmandu. Rob and Lieve moved to Koh Samui, Thailand, where he designed the Kamalaya spa and an exquisite home for themselves that encompassed huge hillside boulders, lush trees and a sublime view over the Gulf of Thailand. As the inside trees grew, so did the building, with some roof sections rebuilt several times to accommodate the surging foliage. 

In Thailand, Rob expanded upon the Himalayan themes that had fascinated him. Rams’ horns that protected the doors of Lo Manthang grew to a full, fantastical wall of hornery. 

Mountainsides that had housed the awesome Bamyan Buddhas in northern Afghanistan were re-depicted with dakinis, looming, sensual female figures with small fangs to ward off treacherous foes. 

He discovered new media, moving into acrylics to capture the brilliant, evanescent skies and water around them, and to explore singularly potent spiritual symbols.

In 2019 Andrei Jewell made the documentary, Enchanted Matter, capturing Rob’s life, art and philosophy. Sadly his health gradually deteriorated. He passed away with Lieve at his side, in a room brightened by a view to a brilliant, orange-flowered tree, with music and candles to accompany his final journey.

Robert will not be forgotten. He will live on in our memories as a beloved, gentle being and a prodigious creator of wondrous works of art, who encouraged us to let the strange and beautiful lift us into enchantment.

Linda Kentro and James Giambrone are founders of the Indigo Art Gallery in Kathmandu.