A Single Brushstroke


Jerome Edou’s monochrome ink exhibition A Single Brushstroke marks the first physical exhibition at Siddhartha Art Gallery in nine months. Nepali Times got a glimpse as Edou and director/curator Sangeeta Thapa were busy making final preparations ahead of its opening on 11 December.

Chan paintings or Zen in Japanese, are inspired by the Chinese Contemplative Buddhist Chan school and are characterised by the Qi—the Sanskrit prana that means vital energy— the simplicity, the suggestion, and the emptiness of life and nature. With only a few brushstrokes, Chan painters seek to express the inspiration of nature through their paintings rather than imitating and reproducing nature, or delving into much detail and technicality. The lack of colours plays into the simplicity of the painting, as the monochrome style removes all noises from the artwork. Painters use a lot of empty space to visually express the silence of nature.

Chan painters use Chinese paper, water, ink, and about 10 different brushes—made from different animal hair. “Brushes made from goat hair are almost watery and not very strong, unlike those made from the hair of wild horses,” says Edou. Chan painters also make their own ink, which the Chinese papers absorb very quickly. “It’s a complicated process,” he adds.

There is no discernible style or theme to Edou’s paintings—he paints brooding cliffs, beautiful flowers, sprawling landscapes. An entire wall is dedicated to bamboo paintings. 

Bamboo shoot contains a fragment of the universe, say a couple of his paintings. In fact, bamboo is an integral part of training in Chan paintings. 

“In Zen painting, the bamboo is really the first exercise that shows the subtlety, simplicity, and the resilience of life. Some painters have been doing bamboo all their lives. I love it because it has a certain magnificence and simplicity to it,” says Edou. “Before moving up to birds, or landscape, you constantly paint what we call the Four Gentlemen, which are chrysanthemum, bamboo, plum trees, and orchids.”

Years worth of work are on display across two floors of the gallery. Edou jokes that it took him 15 years, as well as 10 minutes to complete all his paintings. “15 years of practice and 10 minutes to actually do the painting, the paintings themselves are done very quickly, but they require extensive training.” he explains.

Edou studied Buddhism intensively and is a translator of Tibetan texts and teachings. But hadn’t delved into paintings until he was 55 when discovered Chan paintings by chance in France as he was exploring Chinese calligraphy. For the next 10 years, he learned to make Chan paintings at the International Academy of Ink Painting in South France. After graduating in 2018, he began teaching ink painting himself. 

A symbol stamped in red is striking against the minimalist, contemplative, sometimes bleak monochrome of Edou’s paintings. It is his seal, inspired from an 11th century Chinese practice. He has added calligraphy too in some of his works. 

He has built his crevice of a rock, his mind is at large, says one artwork—a Chen saying in western calligraphy. Going to see the silence—another one says in French. “I was trying to see if it works, and if there is a style to be found there,” he adds.

One of the paintings that he did at the academy has seven seals, put there by his friends and teachers. “It was partly a joke, but it was also recognition of our achievements that we put in each other’s paintings,” he notes.

But why aren’t the seals stamped to the back of the painting instead of the front? Edou smiles and thinks for a moment. “For that I have no answer,” he says. “For one thing, the seals become a part of the painting, and for another, the precise pattern makes a contrast to the suggestive nature of the paintings.”

A painting of Buddhist prayer flags titled Gone With the Wind is very close to his heart. One can almost hear the flags fluttering silently in a breeze. “I never managed to do another one like this,” Edou reflects. “I like it because it is my own inspiration, not something I reproduced.”

Edou reflects on the small community of Chan painters, and the relative anonymity of the art form. “This practice is outside the mainstream,” he says, and that the idea was never to be a professional or to make a living out of it. 

“We are often called eccentrics, and cut off from academic circles. But eccentricity means thinking outside the box, being more concerned about inspiration and less about the technique or style. And I like being eccentric,” he adds, laughing.

Despite the Covid crisis still looming large, Sangeeta Thapa is set on going ahead with socially distanced exhibition after being shut for almost a year. “If I’m not hopeful, I might as well shut down this place and wait until the vaccine is here. But people have started to go to malls and restaurants," she says. "Why should art have to suffer? The art must survive. Livelihoods must go on.”  

Jerome Edou's A Single Brushstroke opens at Siddhartha Art Gallery on 11 December and ends on 10 January.

Shristi Karki


Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.

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