A bright pink poster popped against the stark white walls of Nepal Art Council at the beginning of March, 2022. An unequivocal testimony scrawled across the poster in big black ink also served as the title of Aqui Thami’s artwork: A Woman Was Harassed Here (2017 – ongoing). Born in Darjeeling to an Indigenous family, Thami began this street art project as a response to daily harassment faced by her and countless women. Over the course of the month, confessions and messages of solidarity written in similarly pink sticky notes gradually surrounded the once-lone poster. The artwork grew organically like moss during monsoon, the artist’s soprano aided by a resounding chorus.
Feminism was one of the core themes of the fourth edition of Kathmandu Triennale (KT 2077), an issue that intersects everywhere with race and ethnicity, culture and history. The curatorial team’s intention of highlighting newly federal Nepal’s multicultural and multiethnic facets was also visible across the five venues that showcased 300-plus artworks. Because the exhibited objects and ideas tacitly countered our country’s unilaterally manufactured textbook history, KT 2077 was properly conducive to educational activities: workshops and discussions, talk programs and guided tours. The curation showcased the complexity of human trajectories. The curators had achieved this by making connections between disparate geographies and practices, economies and rituals. It might not be farfetched to assume they wished the visitors did the same.
I gravitated towards Thami’s work not only because of its direct message but also because of the way it implicitly problematizes what counts as art and points towards what it can be. In a country where contemporary art practices are still misunderstood and the school system is still shackled by the Panchayat era propaganda (Parajuli, et al., 2021), works like Thami’s in particular, and the Triennale in general, was rich with untapped possibilities to inspire and challenge curious minds. Keeping that in mind, rather than a traditional review of an arts festival, this article attempts to make a pedagogical case for the arts using examples from KT 2077.
Kathmandu Triennale as a container of generative themes
KT 2077 simultaneously functioned as an educational platform because it illustrated a key concern of Paulo Friere, known for his radical ideas: “We must never provide the people with programs which have little or nothing to do with their own preoccupations, doubts, hopes, and fears” (Friere, p.96). He urges educators and cultural leaders to investigate the reality faced by people, identify themes and weave these into methodical strands. Queer feminism, indigenous knowledge and decoloniality were the major generative themes identified by KT 2077 curators, along with an invitation to make contemporary art practices more inclusive regarding material and media.
For example, Zamithinga Ruivah’s hand-woven kashan was a metaphor for state violence in Nagaland and also a tribute to Ms. Luingamla who was shot dead by Indian Army officers in the mid-1980s. Mithila artist Madhumala Mandal’s acrylic painting on lokta paper, A Woman Repairing Road With An Excavator (2019), was an example of her “reimaginings and reassertions” regarding the daily lives of women. Indigenous stories and skills pervaded almost every part of KT 2077, highlighting dominant manifestations of masculinity, modern patterns of migration and ancient conceptions of medicine. Patan museum was replete with examples: terracotta equine sculptures made by Tharu artists, Chija Lama’s healing amulets, and Batsa Gopal Vaidya’s images inspired by Tantric practices, an illustration of “the modernist art movement in Nepal to root itself in Indigenous traditions and simultaneously experiment with new modes of expression” (Costinas et al., 2022).
Artifacts and artworks activate conversations amongst critics and connoisseurs, but a vigorous arts education program will increase the frequency, scale and depth of engagement. With that objective, KT 2077’s education partner Srijanalaya, a non-governmental organization, hired a team tasked to coordinate and conduct over 100 guided tours with students and adults, along with five workshops, each anchored by an artist’s body of work. These tours were carefully designed; educational guides were trained to facilitate meaningful discussions (rather than a cursory walk-through) and ensure that visitors had time to reflect and respond.
Arts education to create dialogue
Thami’s core intention behind her project was to engage women in a conversation about harassment. The curators have also written that the festival wouldn’t have been possible without “a crucial and critical dialogue between more than 130 artists, collectives, and collaborators from over 50 nations” (Costinas et al., 2022). Scholar Maxine Greene was a strong advocate of the role of the arts in education and social change. Dynamic and alluring artworks that are grounded in sociopolitical realities – such as Mircea Cantor’s woolen tapestry project that subtly enumerates Romania’s decreasing population and the photographs produced by Urmila Gamwa Tharu in collaboration with ArTree Nepal – could be integrated into local school curricula to understand the intricacies of lifestyle choices and historical traditions. Art has the potential to recharge classrooms because the underlying creative process can reveal innovative tendencies and its thoughtful incorporation can foster broader understanding. “All we can do, I believe, is cultivate multiple ways of seeing and multiple dialogues in a world where nothing stays the same” (Greene, p. 16).
Afghan artist Aziz Hazara’s single-channel video Rehearsal (2020) also instigated multiplicity. In the video, two young boys mimic the guttural sounds of an automatic rifle while play shooting. I usually began a guided tour by watching the short video with a group and then requesting members to find a partner and share emerging thoughts and feelings. I would then facilitate a whole group discussion. Responses were usually diverse, often expressing opposite worldviews. Faced with stark representation, most became uncomfortable, some confused. And some took it in stride. Was the video simply an illustration of ‘boys being boys’? Or a commentary on geopolitics? Was it meant to engender empathy or rage?
“It is not really the situations that limit oppressed people, in and of themselves which create a climate of hopelessness,” Friere wrote, “but rather how they are perceived by women and men at a given historical moment” (p. 99). Once this perception is challenged and transformed, the subject might be empowered to take action upon the concrete, historical reality in which limit-situations historically are found. A guided tour program is just a small, first step towards taking action and an attempt to connect artistic expression with real-world problems. It is also an invitation to expand the scope and purpose of education, to imagine curricular possibilities. Principals could encourage teachers to become keener observers of children at play or start a school-wide dialogue to present current affairs in developmentally appropriate ways.
Art practice as an antidote to digital addiction
Arguably, most of us are desensitized by news coverage from Afghanistan by now and the same might be happening regarding images from Ukraine. Today’s media present audiences with predigested concepts and images in fixed frameworks. This has never rang truer than in the age of social media and fake news. Along with smartphones, the 24-hour news cycle gradually benumbs the public to pertinent global issues and normalizes horrors such as climate change.
Thinkers such as Maxine Greene were deeply concerned about the bombardment of images which frequently has the effect of “freezing people’s imaginative thinking and making them passive, uncritical consumers” (Greene, p. 124). Creative projects combined with critical reflections can counter these tendencies. Triennale team members went on research trips to learn from communities living in the margins of society and brought sculptures and textiles. In a world that’s becoming increasingly digital, we shouldn’t forget the value of the physical. For sheltered students, there are no replacements for concrete, tactile experiences, whether that means looking closely at embroidery, admiring the stunning barkcloth from Tonga, participating in workshops that allow them to create their own interpretations, or listening to an artist’s presentation.
Because art has the power to beget deeply emotional responses, a thoughtfully executed arts education program can motivate students to become caring and compassionate, traits that might be fast disappearing in the age of ‘cancel culture’ and knee-jerk Twitter wars. “Without spending reflective time, without tutoring in, or exposure to or dialogue about the arts, people merely seek the right labels” (Greene, p. 125), just like tourists superficially exploring monuments.
Museums and galleries as essential spaces in democratic societies
Subas Tamang’s aquatint etching, Study of History VI (2022), hung at Bahadur Shah Baithak, another KT 2077 venue. The complex was built in the 1790 CE and used by the ruling Gorkha dynasty as a center for military strategy, as well as a place to house the arsenal. By showcasing maps and cartographies, the curatorial composition at Bahadur Shah Baithak was a sarcastic allusion to subjugation and resource extraction by Nepal’s past rulers. Tamang’s artwork is particularly compelling because it underscores the oppression of Tamang people by the ruling classes. Based on photographs taken by German photographer Volkmar Wentzel in 1949, the etchings captured the transport of a Mercedes on the backs of a group of men over a rocky trail from Bhimphedi to Kathmandu (Costinas et al., 2022).
Not only did Nepali rulers enslave entire groups of people, they also systematically exploited the education system as a political propaganda to manufacture their own version of history. Pratyoush Onta’s research clarifies the role of textbooks during the Panchayat era. One of the objectives was to glorify military leaders who shared the same ethnic backgrounds as those of the rulers and exclude those who belonged to the so-called ‘lower castes’ (Parajuli, et al., 2021). Tamang’s images complemented Onta’s research, compelling visitors to grapple with the legacy of our national heroes. An artwork such as this has the potential to demystify and dispel. An encounter couched in a pedagogical context is exactly what Nepal needs at this point in our history so that democratic dialogue can be enriched and young people can be motivated to care about socio-political issues.
There is a tendency in education to shape malleable young people to serve the needs of technology and the post-industrial society, Greene wrote (1995). Friere called this the ‘banking system’ of education because it merely deposits prescribed knowledge and discourages questioning and criticism (2020). Another tendency has to do with the growth of the persons, with the education of persons to become different, to find their voices, and to play participatory roles and articulate parts in a community in the making, aspects crucial for federal democracies. Tamang’s artwork “can bring to curriculum inquiry visions of perspectives and untapped possibilities” (Greene, p. 90).
Nyima Dorje Bhotia’s display at Bahadur Shah Baithak, Where The Fox Settles (2015 – ongoing) also problematizes the stereotypical depiction of the high mountain areas and their cultures and peoples by mainstream media. By showcasing a disparate collection of photographs, consumer goods, travel documents, mass media technologies, and other artifacts, Bhotia “traces the ways in which these misconstructions undermine the experiences of mobility and cross-boundary interactions that continue to shape modernity in Himalayan communities” (Costinas et al., 2022).
John Dewey called schools ‘embryonic democracies’ (1916). Joseph Featherstone also wrote about the importance of placing the peoples’ cultures at the center of school curricula (2008). The KT 2077 team laid out an alternative pathway to understand our country and our people within a regional, global context and in doing so, the art festival became a forum for public education. The response was robust, although the government and schools could have played more active roles because “Opening up the school curriculum to the world’s rainbow of cultures is a necessary step toward becoming a people of peoples, a real democracy” (Featherstone, p. 291).
We ought to have an enlarged and ambitious view of education’s aims which equip students to take part in debates and movements to change society. We want the kind of education that “lights up the soul,” “that insists that beauty is a human necessity,” because “education is in the end a movement of the spirit” (Featherstone, 2008). Nepali society still has a long way to go. We are still in the process of crawling out of the dark shadow of our past. There have been glimmers of hope in recent years. Women and marginalized voices are increasingly vocal, expressive and demanding, online and offline. On 18 May, 2022, a young Nepali woman uploaded a series of confessional videos on TikTok and Instagram detailing the events of her sexual abuse and rape by a beauty pageant organizer. The story became instantly viral and shook the nation, got picked up by mainstream media houses and even received a mention in the parliament. In the following days, there were multiple protests across the nation. In an online coverage, stock photos revealed something familiar: young men and women carrying bright pink posters. There were messages demanding state action, messages that expressed rage and fury, and also the words: A woman was harassed here. Almost six weeks after the Triennale’s closing, art had slipped out of the gallery and onto the street.
Kathmandu Triennale was organized by Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, and Siddhartha Arts Foundation in partnership with Para Site, Hong Kong. Cosmin Costinas was the artistic director and Sharareh Bajracharya was the director of the festival chaired by Sangeeta Thapa.
Costinas, C., Rajbhandari, S., Gurung, H., Chand, P.B., Rajagopal, A., Bajracharya, S., Lama, T. S. U. 2022. Kathmandu Triennale Catalog. Kathmandu: Siddhartha Arts Foundation
Dewey, John. 1916. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: The Macmillan Company
Featherstone, Joseph. 2008. A Letter to a Young Teacher. In Classroom Conversations: A Collection of Classics for Parents and Teachers. Alexandra Miletta and Maureen McCann Miletta, eds., pp. ADD. New York: The New Press.
Friere, Paulo. 50th anniversary ed. 2020. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.
Greene, Maxine. 1995. Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. California: Jossey-Bass Inc.
Parajuli, L., Uprety, D., & Onta, P. 2021. School Education in Nepal: History and Politics of Governance and Reform. Kathmandu: Martin Chautari