Home and awayTwo exhibitions with two different ways of looking into how migration has affected Nepalis
The oil paintings hang in sharp relief against the white walls at Siddhartha Art Gallery, and have a distinct sepia tint reminiscent of historical images from the early days of photography.
And just like the sepia tone protects prints and keeps them from ageing, artist Mann Gurung uses the warm monochrome tint to preserve the history and identity of his indigenous community in the mountains of central Nepal.
Gurung’s collection of 24 burnt umber paintings titled Lost in Translation II is a continuation of his 2019 exhibition of the same name. His art depicts real men, women and children from up country villages in his native Gorkha district, and are as much an act of cultural conservation as a homage.
Born in Gorkha’s Khorla village, Gurung grew up away from home to attend school in the neighbouring towns. As a child, he would draw pictures of gods and goddesses and create his own comic strips, which eventually gained the attention of an INGO worker who suggested he study art in Kathmandu.
For a long time after he left home, Gurung took comfort in the memory of his village where people still wore their customary jama, bhoto, lungi and cholo, sang dohori during Dasain, and were self-reliant in agriculture and trade.
But when he returned after completing his Master’s in the United States, Gorkha had changed. The district was just getting over the trauma of conflict, and traditional attire and customs had given way to new influences. T-shirts had replaced bhoto, film songs on mobile phones had taken the place of dohori and ghatu. Just like he had, many young men had left the village, and only the elderly, women and children remained.
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“Our identity was being wiped out in front of our very eyes with no visual reference point and archive,” explains Gurung. “I knew that if we did not document our history and culture, they would become a mere memory.”
The artist travelled through 13 villages in Gorkha documenting what he saw for his Lost in Transition exhibition in 2019. And in 2021, he started work once again to create a second collection.
Gurung paints his subjects as if they are posing in front of a camera, a calculated choice to reflect the indigenous community’s unfamiliarity with modern devices even as they move towards modernity.
Their smiles are careful, stances self-conscious. An elderly woman looks out at visitors, clad in lungi, cholo, ghalek, and patuki. Her head is covered with a pachyeuri, and she wears gumboots. Another man has a tungna strapped to his jacket, and a patuki around his sweater, and smiles beatifically as he glances away.
But the most striking work in the collection is the only one in which Gurung deviates from his monochromatic style. A single family of eight women and children are standing as if to get a family portrait taken at a photo studio. The men are present only in the background, in colourful signages of remittance companies.
In another part of the gallery, Himalayan Light Award 2022 recipient Riti Maharjan is wrapping up her own migration-themed exhibition, Awaiting. The theme here is more contemplative, and portrays the longing and waiting for a faraway relative.
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Maharjan uses vibrant colours that are also poignant, and feature women and children as they wait for their migrant sons and husbands and fathers to return home.
Maharjan completed her Masters in Fine Arts in China, and that was the first time she had been away from her family for an extended period. She says, “It hit me that many Nepalis are far from their loved ones, and on return I began to notice that there wasn’t a family in my community that didn’t have someone living abroad.”
Born in Kathmandu, Maharjan married into a family in Lamjung after graduating. On visits to her in-law’s village, like Mann Gurung in Gorkha, she noticed that there were only women, children and the elderly.
She also noticed how the women tended their homes with dedication and care, painting murals on the walls that are traditional to Brahmin communities in the region. “These women might not realise that they are folk artists, and I felt that their work should be honoured,” adds Maharjan.
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Geometric murals are a recurring motif in her paintings which have rich reds, yellows and greens, providing a backdrop for a depiction of a young girl longing for her father as she sits in her mother’s lap. In My Father’s Hat another toddler has on his father’s too-big Dhaka topi while his mother looks on at a framed photograph of her previously intact family.
The Melting Emotion shows an elderly woman standing and waiting for somebody, longing etched in her wrinkled forehead. Maharjan has painted her as if she is dissolving away with age and grief, her entire being dripping with tears.
Curator Sangeeta Thapa of Siddhartha Art Gallery notes that although migration is the central theme in both exhibitions, the artists employ differing stylistic approaches which provide entirely different perspectives.
“Both of these collections are representative of how communities are impacted by Nepal hurtling from tradition towards modernity for the last seventy-odd years, while our culture and traditions have failed to catch up,” says Thapa. “What we need to figure out is how we balance progress with preserving culture and identities.”
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Mann Gurung’s Lost in Transition II is on exhibit at Siddhartha Art Gallery until 18 July. Riti Maharjan’s collection, Awaiting, can be viewed online here.
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.