Everest's natural heritage on canvas


A painting of Mt Everest could have only been unveiled on Everest Day 29 May at the iconic Hotel Everest View in Syangboche.

The triptych by British visual artist Sacha Jafri shows the panorama of a discoloured mountain range, the black of the rocks seeping into the fluid snow, against a sky progressively deeper the higher it goes.

Below are reddish-brown hills gathered for a conference of sorts, their heads ever so slightly bent as if they are listening and thinking. At the centre lies a pool of water so blue it seems to be collecting the whole sky above.

The painting appears as an almost abstract expression of the mountain rather than its reflection. It is Jafri's subconscious journey to the Himalaya, and there can be found immediately something childlike, innocence without pretense - a theme recurrent in his other artworks as well.

The Everest painting is one of 50 Jafri is creating for the Art Maze project in partnership with UNESCO, and commemorates the 50th anniversary of the UNESCO Convention concerning the Protection of the World's Cultural and Natural Heritage signed on 16 November 1972. The Convention then came into force on 17 December three years later.

“This comes at a time in the world, with climate change, the pandemic, the geopolitical flux, to reflect on the next 50 years and ask ourselves what we truly value as individual, societies and countries, and what should be passed down to the future generations,” says UNESCO Representative to Nepal Michael Croft.

As such, the UNESCO’s The Next 50 campaign forms the foundation for the Art Maze, and 34 of the paintings of World Heritage Sites, including the Acropolis in Greece, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Hyrcanian Forests in Iran, the Saint-Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, the Pyramids of Egypt, and Lumbini in Nepal have been completed.

The paintings are characterised by their unique assortment of colours, which is reminiscent of lively crayons from childhood. Textbook realism has no place in these canvases, as the paintings are stripped to their essence.

“We over analyse, become pompous and over-intellectualise art,” Jafri explains. “But all art, at the end of the day, is rubbish and superb.”

This apparent contradiction finds reconciliation in the artist’s intent with which they create. “And I think if you focus on your intentions, then everything you create will be perfect,” Jafri adds.

There is a sublime simplicity to Jafri’s method and work, enabling viewers to be more conscious in their world, their lives, and be open to love and compassion.

The Art Maze curated by Marcus Schaefer is a 12x12m steel labyrinth gallery with Jafri’s paintings, giving visitors the opportunity to choose which path to take and create an experience where “the journey is the destination”.

For over 25 years, Jafri’s work has been about reconnecting with the soul of the earth. His Journey of Humanity (2020) is dubbed the world’s largest and took him a year to create during the pandemic.

That is the process of being an artist, Jafri believes – a journey where things continue to evolve, and one eventually creates something. “It is not about the moment of creation,” he adds. “It is the journey that has allowed it.”

Journey of Humanity is a striking play of bold, vibrant colours, incorporating artworks by children from 140 countries, and spread over 1,700 square metres – roughly the size of two football pitches – and it’s aim as profound as its span: to raise around $11 million – it ended up raising $62 million – to help children across the world in need of education, health care and digital connectivity.

The idea behind the painting was re-connectivity, which then expanded into the Art Maze. When Schaefer approached him with the concept, Jafri found it resonated with his own. Jafri then thought perhaps the project would be even more poignant if it was about the World Heritage Sites.

The Maze was then launched on 23 March at the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah Helipad in Dubai with 30 works, and will be travelling around the world with plans for a Nepal stopover next year.

“I thought if I represent these World Heritage sites in an art maze we could reconnect humanity to our natural and cultural heritage, to our ancestral past, to the custodians of our cultures, and we could start communicating again on a deeper level,” Jafri says.

The Maze and the Next 50 campaign also come at a time when Nepal is changing rapidly, trying to balance development with nature. Everest itself continues to be affected by the climate crisis and mass mountaineering.

At the unveiling, Bishnu Rokaya of the Sagarmatha National Park said: “While Mt Everest and the park are already well-known, the painting will help us reach even more people, share our stories, and promote tourism and conservation efforts.”

According to Michael Croft, the campaign and Art Maze represent a strategic exercise to work with youths and Indigenous communities, not just in Nepal but around the world, to have discussions on sustainable living, successfully adapting to climate change, and hopefully push back against environmental degradation.

“Nepal is an intensely diverse country and people with different identities and languages and experiences are able to identify themselves as Nepali, and that gives hope. If all this can exist and work, it is a positive story for the world,” remarks Croft.

Raza Beig, executive advisor to ArtFi Chairman of BoredPuma has bought the Everest painting and plans to house its three panels in a museum and share it with the world. The profits from the sale of Jafri’s paintings will help communities living in the Heritage Sites they represent.

His son Aly wrote to Nepali Times: “We feel Mt Everest and Sagarmatha National Park to be one of the most spiritual places on our planet, and now we get to look at it every day and share it with the world.”

Ashish Dhakal