I.M.A.G.I.N.A.T.I.O.N by Uttam Nepali

“I am not who you think I am, I am not who I think I am, I am who I think you think I am.” – Charles Horton Cooley

Meditation, Poster Color, 74 x 58 cm, MoNA Collection

In a society where we spiritualise the tangible through our imagination and creativity, we also turn into tangible art forms our spiritual experiences.

Traditional devotional art uses various imaginative forms to represent a thought or emotion: compassion, impermanence, detachment. To this day we echo the artists who thousands of years ago translated mudra, objects, and nature into iconography.

The very form of everyday devotion and ritual in our culture and religion is an abstraction of our imagination for practical, tangible, and visual purposes – most vividly in stones and rocks.

For example, an oval rock, when powdered with red tika, turns into a Ganesh. An oblong stone becomes a Shiva linga just by having milk sprinkled on it. Any roadside rock when smeared with vermillion and covered in flowers is revered as a deity. We dare not pass these totems without bowing our heads as a manifesstation of unshakeable faith.

This is because in those objects we see what is not there, and interpret it according to what we want, imagine, and believe.

Abstract art, on the other hand, is a purposeful collision of an artist’s conscious and subconsious minds to give instinctual expression. The subconscious mind is best understood as a recollection of actions and experiences, which the contemporary abstract artist piques when crafting and contemplating a masterpiece.

Jeevan Rajopadhyay’s Untitled, Rajan Shakya

Such is the case of Uttam Nepali’s I.M.A.G.I.N.A.T.I.O.N. which brings out untainted, unbiased, and unsolicited inquisitiveness in all of us. Staring in-depth into this painting screams out the purity of childlike innocence. The conscious and the subconscious instincts are unleashed, evoking a time when right and wrong were not determined by rigid rules, but through love and affection.

Uttam Nepali merged art and poetry into a kind of original expressionism not seen before in Nepal. The artist died on 21 July 2021 in a Kathmandu hospital aged 84, and as a tribute the Museum of Nepali Art (MoNA) in Thamel organised an individual and group viewing of his painting  I.M.A.G.I.N.A.T.I.O.N.

This is what we saw and what we felt, how this work by Uttam Nepali moved, and moved us. We were very lucky to have met and interviewed the artist about this particular work before he passed away.

The acquisition of I.M.A.G.I.N.A.T.I.O.N. came out of a necessity. I did not even look at the painting and I did not ask for its price. I had been looking to acquire one of Uttam Nepali’s pieces for a long time.

The only thing I knew was that I wanted his work in MoNA because a museum dedicated to Nepali artists would not be complete without Uttam Nepali in it.

The painting hung in my office wall for at least six months, and it was amazing to observe how a painting of this calibre speaks differently from different perspectives and temperaments. After all, moods and emotions dictate the emergence of different shapes and colours as a form of artistic expression.

Some days the red seemed prominent, other days it was the blue that provoked, and strokes of white suddenly made sense. When I am alone, I see something but when looking at the painting in a group, something else emerges. It feels like a different painting every time you look at it. What an investment!

Eventually, the painting becomes a part of the viewer's personality, and adds to it. How you explain this artwork to others hints at your own depth of understanding and place in the world.

I met Uttam Nepali only a month before he passed away, and at that time I.M.A.G.I.N.A.T.I.O.N. communicated with me in an entirely new way. Here was a man who had devoted his entire life to art and Nepal's art community. His studio stacks over 300 of his paintings. Some of the artwork is as personal as his representation of his grandchildren in the womb.

N A R Ì by Mukti Singh ThapaRajan Sakya

Uttam Nepali rarely sold his art. Instead, he presented them to people he met and who showed interest in his work. I was trying to persuade his family to allow us to hold a solo exhibition at MoNA of his incomparable contribution to the contemporary art of Nepal.

We had only given a day’s notice before visiting Uttam Nepali at his home. As we sat down, his son Udhyam told us how his father had become rather forgetful after a surgery five years ago. He was on oxygen support most of the time, and his memory was deteriorating day by day.

But when we showed him his painting that we were acquiring, there was a sudden sparkle in his eyes. He sat up and spoke nonstop for 20 minutes about when he made it, why he made it, and what feeling he had at the time. This is what he said:

“When everyone comes to a state of quietness and calm, every person shares a similar kind of impression and expression. However, they have different façades. The temptations on their faces are different. Their attitudes differ as well. Nevertheless, the emotions that they portray may be the same ... in the sense that everyone looking at the same painting will be observing the same feelings. The closeness of the visitor’s expression and emotions with what is depicted in the painting will be unavoidable after a certain time.”

He added, “Abstract art depicts something that is expressed without saying a word. It shows what is hidden. It is simultaneously easy and hard to understand. Hence, the power of impression and expression is like walking upon a dark alley without the light and discovering its rare and unique idiosyncrasy. It will have the verity of essence.”

MoNA manager Jenisha Maharjan is also moved by what the painting depicts, and the emotions it evokes in her. “At first glance, one can see half a face with its eyes closed,” she says. “They express serenity and tranquillity as the subject is in a deep state of meditation. Then upon deeper reflection, the face looks like the meditating Buddha.”

“The other half of the face has a darker coat. We also see brush strokes in the middle of the canvas with a red rectangular shape towards the edges, resembling a thumb with the nail painted red, maybe a woman’s hand. Could this be a modern depiction of Buddha Maar?”

Lain Singh Bangdel’s ‘Sigh’, Rajan Sakya

Maharjan says the grip looks very powerful, yet, surprisingly, the face remains calm, peaceful, and unbothered. “A little too dramatic and explosive use of colours,” she says, “yet amazing how even closed eyes can be so expressive.”

Ursula Manandhar is head of research at MoNA and says I.M.A.G.I.N.A.T.I.O.N. may actually represent what concentration, or trying to concentrate, may look like. It feels as if a person is struggling, or fighting their inner demons with brighter and more positive thoughts.

“The power of our mind and its capacity for imagination is so vast that it could be a joyous journey across, or overwhelming. Sometimes darkness overshadows the mind and at other times a bright light dispels the darkness,” Ursula Manandhar says. “The curiosity for abstract art starts in us before we even know how to speak or write. As toddlers we looked into the sky and interpreted the formation of clouds as we wanted and felt.”

But as we grow older our unique creativity is eclipsed by other people’s perceptions, and what is brought in front of us. Individual creativity has been blighted by the transient mass-market visualisations and the decadence of modern-day superficiality.

Rajan Sakya is the founder of the Museum of Nepali Art at Kathmandu Guest House, Thamel and contributes this monthly column For Art's Sake in Nepali Times. 

 Turkish Airlines has partnered with Museum of Arts Nepal (MoNA) to bring 33 Nepali artists together for a day-long live art congregation at Kathmandu Guest House, Thamel from 7-9 October. Visitors also have the chance to win a trip to Europe via lucky draw.  

Rajan Sakya