Nepali art finds a new homeMoNA is a permanent space for Nepali artists to showcase their work in Nepal itself
Just entering into the basement museum inside one of the new blocks at the Kathmandu Guest House complex in Thamel, visitors may feel their eyes are playing tricks.
Is this the Rubin Museum in New York? Visitors can be forgiven for doubting if they are still in Nepal--the subdued lighting, elegant interior exude a perfectionist attention to detail, a place where modern melds seamlessly into traditional.
Right away on entry, there are paintings of Ganesh, the auspicious elephant deity, and right after that the eyes are arrested by Raj Prakash Tuladhar’s Five Yoginis, a depiction of the Buddhist guardian deities of Kathmandu.
The Museum of Nepali Art (MoNA) was set up by Rajan Shakya (pictured below), the CEO and scion of the Kathmandu Guest House (KGH) group, who believes strongly that contemporary Nepali art compares to the best the world has to offer.
“Religion and art are interwoven so deeply in Nepali society. Yet most people here do not know about art even as they worship idols and temples,” says Shakya. “Think about the hands of those artists, and the talent it takes to be able to invoke gods in idols, and inspire such deep faith in another human being.”
Shakya’s passion shows in the museum that he has helped create. He has long known that Nepali art makes the rounds in international exhibitions, and that buyers wait in line to snap up work by Nepali artists.
“I wanted Nepalis to know that there is a place in Nepal for Nepali art, and be proud of our artists, whether they construct temples, make paubha, or sculpt statues,” says Shakya whose MoNA houses contemporary and traditional art by living Nepali artists, around 85% of which is from Shakya’s private collection.
“There is nothing more meaningful to Nepali artists than having a permanent space in Nepal itself,” says Raj Prakash Tuladhar, whose paintings have been exhibited internationally.
MoNA’s walls are dedicated to contemporary art that spans styles and methods, from golden prints of Kathmandu’s temples to vibrant acrylic abstracts. Up-and-coming artist Rashana Bajracharya’s reimagination of Mona Lisa as a cancer survivor—serenely smiling, without hair—hangs front and centre, one frame away from Lain Singh Bangdel's painting of casually geometrical, multi-coloured roofs, titled Huts of Kathmandu.
Sarada Man Shrestha’s In Quest of Water, a murky mixed media piece portraying a woman at a ढुङ्गे धारा stone spout done in earthy browns and greens, hangs close to a pencil sketch of Queen Aishwarya.
“The museum was created for present-day artist, they should be able to enjoy fame in their lifetime,” says Shakya. But some of the paintings span generations of artists. Indeed, four out of six paintings from Manik Man Chitrakar’s Buddha’s Life series are on display at the museum.
Three paintings hang on the Arya Tara Wall of the museum, two among them completed decades apart by Anandamuni Shakya, the Nepali pioneer of 3D sketches, in 1938 and his grandson Surendra Man Shakya, in 2017.
The third Arya Tara painting, Samundra Man Singh Shrestha’s oil on canvas, compared with Anandamuni Shakya’s mineral pigment on canvas serves as historical documentation of how the traditional Nepali art-form, and 3D art, has evolved.
Shrestha’s Green Tara is so detailed, the gold ornaments against her skin so intricately painted, that one almost expects to feel the ridges of gold and gemstones should they reach out and touch the painting.
The museum is dedicated not just to showcasing art, but also to the work and resources that go into the process. Purna P Hyoju’s mineral paints are staged along with one of his incomplete paintings, as are Anandamuni Shakya’s paintbrushes, Surya Bahadur Chitrakar’s inkwell, and Raj Prakash Man Tuladhar’s eyeglasses, a way of connecting the art to the artist, and the artist to the viewer.
The museum also has sculptures ranging from floor to ceiling bronzes to black stone busts. Besides curated artwork, attention is also paid to the interior, the deep red walls providing a textured backdrop to some of the exhibits. There are carved wooden columns salvaged from a building destroyed by the earthquake.
Gold frames, sleek and streamlined, hold the contemporary artwork, while the ones that display the traditional paintings are ornate and detailed. The ambient conditions also need to be just right, and MoNA has humidifiers, air purifiers and temperature control.
MoNA opened in February 2020, but could not welcome visitors because of the pandemic. It did hold two online exhibitions during the lockdown: a virtual 360° Covid-themed show titled tangential stress 2020 was the first of its kind in Asia.
The year of isolation gave Shakya and his team the time to iron out the kinks for the physical opening after the lockdown. Shakya hopes to eventually set up different museums for contemporary and traditional art, and hopes to expand to Patan and Pokhara, while collaborating with museums internationally.
“Art is at the forefront of the preservation of our culture and heritage,” says heritage conservationist Alok Tuladhar. “But Nepali art is only accessible to the über elite, and we need to expand that circle so that more people appreciate the artwork and the artist.”
For people who are unable to visit the museum, all the artwork is available for free perusal online. Says Shakya, “In Nepal, visiting museums has never been an activity like shopping, or going to the movies or restaurants. Nepalis also need entertainment that is more stimulating and meaningful.”