Listening to a City
Listening to a City

While clearing space on my laptop I came across images of Kathmandu and with them came memories of this city that I was introduced to via art. Ten years ago I was invited to The Kathmandu Art Festival which offered a conversation with a city where exhibits merged with ceremonial objects at temples; under fluttering ritual cloth banners that festooned the skyline. The inner city temple cluster, better known as the Durbar Square opened up into palaces and temples where art installations in courtyards drew engaged worshippers. Within the narrow chambers on the first floor— where once only quiet footsteps of monks were heard— a respectful display of work, arranged on the floor, intermittently caught the sunlight as it filtered through the wooden lattice.

The red dust that often descends on Kathmandu Valley was echoed in the sindhur red and deep saffron of the dyed fabric draped over roadside shrines or in ceremonial paste smeared on the foreheads of mortals and ‘gods’ alike. The walk between exhibition sites led one to reflect on how time can easily collapse here. Deities in all sizes, made in wood, clay and metal, alongside densely carved doorways and interiors rubbed elbows with contemporary art as it made a feeble attempt to introduce the ‘now’— only to relent to centuries of creativity and devotional energy within this timeless vortex. Unlike the color saturated Hindu Durbar Square, the Buddhist Kathmandu is minimalist— with towering white domes and white clad nuns, their quietness animated with the reverberations of mantras. A sound-work based on the vibrations of the chants was installed in one of the biggest Buddhist temples where recording and mapping devises tried to demystify sacred rhythms with science.

Then there was another side of Kathmandu, the bustling Modern city where an unfinished floor of a high rise building was taken over as an exhibition space. It’s shell of unpainted walls looked raw and uninviting until transformed with murals, sculpture, performative works and screenings. The art trail meandered through the ancient and new city, including the Municipal Zoo. With many empty cages and parched foliage, art punctuated it with color; but what made it worth visiting was the over-a-hundred-feet long sea serpent, by the Cambodian artist Leang Seckon, installed in the manmade lake. Crafted from bamboo and recycled plastic bags clipped together to form overlapping scales on the sinuous body, it shimmered like a mythical beast amidst the dilapidated structures.

The art there could not have told its stories as it did, without blending into Kathmandu, a city that had no white cubes to offer or high-tech exhibition facilities; where improvisation gave the festival a charm, as geography and culture resisted being flattened into sameness. The capital of Nepal’s medieval kingdoms with its sounds and textures created visceral exchanges leading to a global connectedness that academic debates on multiculturalism and inclusivity strive to achieve. Artists from art capitals got an opportunity to forget, even if briefly, commodification and the demands of art fairs as they were introduced to a new register of values through the rhythms of a city without a grid. They saw the poetics of creativity embedded in millions of mesmerizing forms, by generations of artists who never saw the inside of an art school, complicate the myth of Western progress and dominance. I remember some artists being frozen with frustration and others going with the flow and embracing the dynamics offered, some even re-thinking their concept once sensitized. A European artist who perceived Mount Everest mainly as a playground for brave adventurers conceptualized the melting of several dozens of ice slabs as a symbol of the climate change that threatened it. At the show, he shared how humbled he felt when Kathmandu made him reflect on how his foremost concern should be the survival of the communities linked to the great mountain.

The assembly of the world art community in this small Himalayan valley added vigor to the local art scene. It engaged people to look beyond the daily struggles and reconnect with their immense art heritage through the lens of contemporary visual expression. This connectivity was also empowering for local artists who are often isolated due to lack of access to global art forums; the festival brought the mandarins of the art forums to Kathmandu and to be a part of an extraordinary synergy within this wall-less museum.

Title image: NAGA, Leang Seckon (Cambodia),  Bamboo and recycled plastic bags, height 5 meter by length 250 meters, 2012

Niilofur Farrukh is a Karachi based art interventionist whose seminal initiatives have expanded the space for art publication, curation and public art in Pakistan. Her primary interest lies in issues of decolonization and as a writer/curator her focus has been on the excavation of lost interdisciplinary connections within the cultural matrix. She has several books to her credit and has been a columnist with Dawn and Newsline. The cornerstone of her curatorial practice underlines a more inclusive social dialogue through art in public spaces, something she is fully committed to as the CEO of the Karachi Biennale.

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Comments (2)

  • Good to get this perspective on Scheherazade’s art. Niilofur, you get writers and artist should be acquainted with Pioneering Perspectives. Any chance of reprint ?

    Amra Ali
    • Younger * writers and artists , I meant

      Amra Ali

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