Nepal’s pavilion afloat in Venice

Nepali art makes Venetian debut. All photos: RICCARDO TOSETTO.

Through the windows of a traditional Venetian building, one catches a glint of bronze. Drawing closer, it begins to take shape: a dramatic knot of hands and feet, in various mudra, with coils curling around and through them. It floats in mid-air, like a yellowish-red mass of cloud – defying gravity, defying expectations.

Muted Expressions is one of three components of the inaugural Nepal Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale this year. Further in is a loom installation Entangled Thread which weaves together the rich stories and languages of the artisans behind Nepali rugs and textiles. Then in the back is Views of Luxation: 24 canvases that together show a fragmented Garuda – a playful spin on iconography with frames that hold eyes, limbs, beaks, a vajra, all in a puzzling order.

Together, the pavilion is titled ‘Tales of Muted Spirits – Dispersed Threads – Twisted Shangri-La’, curated by Sheelasha Rajbhandari and Hit Man Gurung, and exhibited by artist Ang Thserin Sherpa. The project is co-commissioned by Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, the Nepal Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and the Siddhartha Arts Foundation, with lead global support from the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.

“Muted Expressions” in the foreground, peeking from behind which stands “Entangled Thread”. At the back, far-left, is “Views of Luxation”.

The ongoing Biennale is hosting 202 exhibitions, and Nepal is among the 82 countries to have national shows

“Ours is a modest pavilion in comparison to other countries, many of whom have permanent pavilions in Venice,” says Chancellor of NAFA, Kanchha Kumar Karmacharya. “Regardless, it is a matter of great pride that Nepal could participate this year. We feel that our pavilion was able to represent the state and history of Himalayan art.”

In 2019 Nepali art was also featured at the Weltmuseum in Vienna, one of the most renowned ethnographic museums in the world. This was a first-of-its kind exhibition to bring the best of Nepali contemporary and traditional art to the global audience, and the first major exhibition of Nepali art outside Nepal showcasing 100 artworks by 37 Nepali artists, including Ang Tsherin Sherpa. 

“And because Venice is close by, we also got the opportunity to go to the Biennale that year,” says Sherpa.

Ang Tsherin Sherpa

There were several first-time pavilions that year, from Pakistan, Ghana, Madagascar and Malaysia. “We wondered how we could possibly have Nepal participate in the Biennale, especially as it would shed a huge spotlight on Nepali art scene,” Sherpa says of the time.

But Sherpa was also aware that it would be difficult to get funding domestically. Given that art is not often prioritised, he was not sure the government would be willing to set aside a budget for the project.

In Spring 2021, Sherpa and his gallerist Fabio Rossi approached the Rubin Museum in New York where, back in 2010, he had had his first international exhibition. Sherpa himself was also appointed to the Rubin Museum Board of Trustees this week. 

Says Jorrit Britschgi, the executive director of Rubin: “When we heard of the project, we realised that it aligned with what we are trying to do as an organisation, to further the understanding, to promote the Himalayan art.”

Details of “Muted Expressions”.

The objective of the pavilion is not about a single artist getting the spotlight. With focus on collective memory and the rejection of the fetishisation of a spiritual highland, it is rather that Nepal, as a centre of art, the confluence of multiple ethnicities, indigenous cultures and histories, take ownership of its voice and identity.

“The driving question behind the pavilion was what story we wanted to tell about Nepal, and from what angle,” explains Sherpa. “Wherever we are today is rooted in the past.”

Indeed, contemporary and traditional art forms co-exist, reacting to one another. To this effect, Sherpa and curators Rajbhandari and Gurung brought together local artists Vijay Maharjan, his team, Mt Refuge, Asha Rai and Sunil Bahadur Moktan, to create a striking response to the contradictory conceptualisation of Nepal, challenging the stereotype of it being both an impoverished backwater and a Shangri-La.

In the last few decades, Sherpa adds, the artwork, metal craft, wood carvings have all been commodified and collectively termed as ‘handicraft’ and ‘ souvenirs’. “But that is not who we are, and even though these industries have economic value, that is not what our art is limited to,” he says.

“Entangled Threads”. The loom is a 60-year-old original from Chyalsa in Phaplu of Solukhumbu region.

So, Sherpa worked with sculpture, metal work, painting and weaving, which complete the Pavilion, although he was unable to add wood-carvers due to the tight schedule.

But paperwork and bureaucratic dillydallying were not all the challenges. How would they transport a 214 x 68.5 x 61cm bronze sculpture all the way to Venice? Or the 60-year-old traditional loom and tools originally from Chyalsa in Phaplu? Even the canvases would not be easy cargo.

“Further, our space was in an old house where we could not add nails to the walls,” adds Sherpa. “But we were lucky that the place we found looked exactly like a house in Nepal, with exposed bricks and everything. People thought we had created it ourselves, and this worked really well with the works on display as well.”

Britschgi agrees: “I think the curators have come up with a great way to display the works and collateral materials in space to highlight the context of the project.”

“Views of Luxation”

The venue is a strategic choice as well, on one of the main access points between the two foci of the Biennale: the Venice Giardini and the Arsenale – where visitors passing between the two locations are most likely to see the Nepal Pavilion. 

“The variety of objects shown directly relates to the diversity and richness of art practices in Nepal,” Beatriz Cifuentes Feliciano, assistant curator of international art at Tate Modern in London told Nepali Times. “This is an important introduction to the arts of Nepal for those who might not know the country’s heritage and current artistic trends in detail. For those more familiar, it is a great showcase of the high-quality artworks being produced in Nepal.”

She adds, “The visual vocabulary shared across the artworks is unique to the Himalayan region, and as such Nepal has a fantastic opportunity through this Pavilion to capture international audiences hungry to learn.”

This is in line with the concept of the pavilion and speaks to the interest in decolonisation of the artistic canon, moving away from the Euro-centric view of art and art history.

“Muted Expressions”, a dramatic tangle of mudras, hangs in mid-air, defying gravity, defying expectations.

Chancellor Karmacharya also noticed that walking around Venice he was reminded of the narrow streets of Bhaktapur and centres like Indra Chok or Mangal Bazar – except for the canals. 

He says: “One finds art in every corner in Venice, in every wall, even between houses over the canals. In Nepal we need to come up with a mechanism, from the government and the community, to support and appreciate our artists in the country, and showcase their work.”

At the 60th La Biennale di Venezia in two years’ time, Sherpa hopes more Nepalis will participate. He says art is not just for an artist, but also the community.

Nepal Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia

Sant’Anna Project Space One

Castello 994

FondamentaSant’Anna 

30122 Venice, Italy.

On View 23 April to 27 November 2022

Open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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