Tumbling towards the mainstream in Kathmandu: interview with artist Kurchi Dasgupta

Kathmandu-based Indian artist Kurchi Dasgupta embraces the “periphery of cultural production”. 

Art Radar speaks to artist and art writer Kurchi Dasgupta to learn more about the fertile contemporary art scene in Nepal, and how being an “outsider” gives her the freedom to challenge and experiment.  

Durga, 2014, oil on canvas, 36 " x 36"

Kurchi Dasgupta, ‘Durga’, 2014, oil on canvas, 36 ” x 36″. Image courtesy the artist.

Kurchi Dasgupta (b. 1974, Kolkata, India) is an Indian national based in Nepal. Dasgupta earned an advanced degree in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. In addition to being a visual artist, Dasgupta also writes about contemporary art for several print magazines and e-journals, including Art Asia Pacific, Asian Art News and Frieze MagazineThe artist’s work has been shown in India, London, Qatar and Nepal. She has presented at the Colombo Art Biennale 2014 and Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar.

Art Radar asked the artist about possible outcomes to the current interest in Nepali artists from curators, art historians and gallerists and the impact that globalisation might potentially have on Nepali artists.

As an attendee of biennials/biennales in South Asia, how do you see the future of artists in Nepal in regards to sharing their ideas about national, regional and global issues?

I am not that frequent an attendee but from what little I have seen, it is kind of easy to deduce that Nepal is soon going to be one of the new discoveries from South Asia. Perhaps a little overshadowed at present by contemporary art practitioners in neighbouring countries, Nepali artists are fast catching on to the global art idiom. Curators, art historians, gallerists are coming in and the exposure is obviously going to fast track Nepali artists to the global art scene. It is, however, naive to hope that they will be bringing something unique to the table – apart from a clutch of cultural signifiers and historical markers. It is quite impossible to bring anything to the global art ecology’s notice unless it adheres to the formal or conceptual conventions prescribed, perpetuated and condoned by the Euro-American (or the North’s) worldview.

Artists here have the potential to discover and develop their own voice, their own particular idiom informed by their geopolitical and cultural location. However, it is unlikely that this will materialise in the near future unless we are particularly vigilant about resisting the urge to seamlessly adopt globally popular trends. Blind resistance will be counter-productive, of course, with the alternative art-making processes as its first victim.

Overall, I feel the “sharing” you mention will happen at a superficial level. Less as a dialogue than an attempt to fit into the global narrative on “contemporary art”.

Kurchi Dasgupta, 'Memory Map 1', 2014, oil on canvas, 36" x 60" inches. Image courtesy the artist.

Kurchi Dasgupta, ‘Memory Map 1’, 2014, oil on canvas, 36″ x 60″ inches. Image courtesy the artist.

In a region with many strong contemporary artists, what do you find surprising or different about Nepal’s artists or their artwork?

Because of its location between China, Tibet and India, Nepal ferments a unique cultural perspective that combines, among other things, Buddhist and Hindu beliefs on equal footing. Add to this a history that had remained insulated from the world till the 1950s, and it has just let go of an absolute monarchy in 2008. As it grapples with democracy and the possibility of federalism, its second constitutional assembly is in office. Speaking nearly a hundred languages, with numerous ethnicities and castes and a decade-long civil Maoist insurgency to boot, Nepal boggles our imagination. Its capital Kathmandu remains an unparalleled, exciting and fecund site for international, regional and local cross-germinations.

Such an array of different, often opposing, perspectives has the possibility to bring something unique to contemporary Nepali art as it negotiates the twenty-first century, having leap-frogged into it. As the flux of global capital takes over our reality – both culturally and materially, Nepal’s contemporary artists are trying to present a coherent narrative of their recent national past as well as future possibilities through a contemporary and predictably “international” idiom. A few, chosen cultural signifiers are the saving grace that differentiate it from the rest of the region’s output. But adopting such a globalised, formal language has its pitfalls. It plunges the more rooted, locally relevant art into the realm of silence and oversight and pushes the easily recognisable into the dominant mainstream. Encounters with and the experience of autonomous democracy are one of the driving rationales of the global contemporary. The Nepali experience is new to this. It would be nice if artists here could record, instigate and facilitate that experience without sacrificing its uniqueness.

We are at a point in history where it is being decided which trajectory Nepali art is going to follow in future. For it to survive in the international market, the choice would be unfortunate but obvious.

You witnessed the fall of Nepal’s monarchy in 2008. Did this dramatic change in the government have an impact on contemporary arts and artists in Nepal? How?

The actual fall happened in 2006, but the impulse for change had been simmering for decades. I think the idea of art was slowly moving towards activism as early as the late nineties, but gathered momentum around 2004. I may be wrong with the dates here but that’s my general perception. The year 2008 marks Nepal’s turning into a republic. By then, a gradual flowering of free thought and democratic will had already taken place. It is exploring its own relevance and potential right now.

Kurchi Dasgupta, 'Candyfloss Dai' installation view at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, 2013, paint, wooden frames, nails, electric wires, gouache, readymade candyfloss, embroidered cloth, etc, dimension variable. Image courtesy the artist.

Kurchi Dasgupta, ‘Candyfloss Dai’ installation view at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, 2013, paint, wooden frames, nails, electric wires, gouache, readymade candyfloss, embroidered cloth, etc, dimension variable. Image courtesy the artist.

Speaking of the contemporary art scene in Nepal, how has it changed in the past several years? Any new media being used – such as performance art, video – that were not seen before?

That’s the great thing here. We all do everything! A large number of artists here practice painting, printmaking, sculpting and produce object-based or video installations alongside performance and video art. The current art ecology thankfully allows us to do that. The disorganisation in the art market allows us that freedom. There are practitioners who still restrict themselves to a particular medium. Performance and installation are recent additions to most artists’ repertoire here and these [media] have come into their own over the past ten years. New media is just beginning to get explored.

Does the “mechanism of global capital” dictate what the artists are working on or are Nepali artists doing their own thing?

Yes, it is beginning to. The [local] art scene is gradually opening up to the global art mechanism, though this is at a nascent stage. As I have already explained, the possibility of inclusion in the mainstream or alternative scene is beginning to affect – or rather, infect – the idiom of artistic output here. It is quite impossible to produce artworks or processes that are accepted by a wider viewership unless they speak a global language, make a global connect and defer to the globally dominant ideology. Of course, that should not necessarily take away from the issues on the ground, but that takes so much more effort that mostly goes unappreciated.

Kurchi Dasgupta, 'Collapse', 2010, mixed media, 20" x 20". Image courtesy the artist.

Kurchi Dasgupta, ‘Collapse’, 2010, mixed media, 20″ x 20″. Image courtesy the artist.

Typically, are there specific themes that are examined by contemporary Nepali artists more than others? Any new themes coming to the forefront?

The one theme that is getting a lot of attention is migrant labour. Remittances form the backbone of the Nepali economy, standing at more than twenty percent of the national GDP. International reports project that more than fifty percent of Nepali households enjoy the benefit of remittance inflow, mostly thanks to labour migrants. This is an immediate, unavoidable reality – and thankfully, Nepal’s artists are beginning to seriously concern themselves with the issue. Migration is finding increasing space in the mindscape of artists in Nepal. Human trafficking and basic human rights, including gender-based violence, are recurring in artworks, too.

As a female Indian artist living in Nepal, what themes are specific to you and present in your work that are not depicted by female Nepali artists?

The issues that interest me have a cross-cultural relevance, such as gender, identity, cultural memory and so on. Nepal is not all that different from India. What perhaps makes my work different, and it is different, is my location as an “outsider” here, with complete access to the cultural and political nuances at play. I have the advantage of being able to look in and critique instead of having to participate and take sides. This distance allows me to see things that often fall below local artists’ radars. Also, at times I have to refrain from taking up a position when I really want to because I am still an outsider, after all.

Frankly, I do not see many artists interrogating the themes I deal with – not with a similar sense of ideological commitment. Superficially, yes, but the commitment and intellectual rigour are mostly non-existent. There are a few exceptions, of course.

Kurchi Dasgupta, 'India Shining 2', 2013, oil on canvas, 48" x 36". Image courtesy the artist.

Kurchi Dasgupta, ‘India Shining 2’, 2013, oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″. Image courtesy the artist.

Do you feel that by living in Nepal you have had more freedom to experiment with your artwork in the “periphery of cultural production” than you would have if you were living in Kolkata?

Absolutely. I don’t think it is possible to engage in meaningful art-making if you are comfortable and at one with your surroundings. It kind of robs you of your capacity to see and you end up recognising things instead of encountering or seeing them. That dims your critical faculty to a large extent, and today, it is quite impossible to create anything meaningful unless you are raising questions about the state of things.

Since Nepal is currently at the periphery of the global art mechanism, it gives a huge amount of leeway to artists like me to experiment. I can try and do stuff in my paintings, which anywhere else, even in India, would be snubbed or ignored because it counters the visual idiom in currency globally. I can do representational, surreal, pastiche, caustic social critique all at one go. Nobody bats an eyelid! I would have to do performance or multi-media installations to put all that through in a single piece in another part of the world – or be silenced. I love the freedom I enjoy here at this point, but as soon as the local art economy gets streamlined, that freedom will be jeopardised.

On your website, you express an interest in examining “relevant questions”. How do you depict these issues in your work?

The issues of gender and identity are at the vital core of my work. It is the lens through which I see the world. At the moment, I am really taken up with cultural memory and how it works, or congeals over time. Memory Map I, for example, explores the parameters of visual culture today What are its signposts and markers, its hidden fractures? It is obviously from a postcolonial, South Asian perspective. An undercurrent of gender issues weaves the visual text together at many points, with Olympia and the living goddess Kumari.

Access Denied, another piece, explores the lack of choices available to South Asian women even today, despite the patina of technological and consumerist access. The access and choices that are supposedly there but are categorically denied us at every step, and the feeling of helplessness that pervades non-urban and semi-urban areas.

I keep using the motif of the ubiquitous candyfloss as a metaphor for unsustainable, consumerist frenzy and commodification, as well as unfulfilled desires and expectations. In the installation Candyfloss Dai (‘dai’ means brother but sometimes operates as just ‘man’ or ‘stranger’) which was shown in Qatar, the shadow of a migrant worker juxtaposed against the materiality of the candyfloss draws attention to the issues around migrant workers’ experiences alongside that of the internally displaced – issues of vital relevance to Nepal and South Asia.

I work more through associations and metaphors. When I engage in critical writing, I do the opposite. Then I try and develop a narrative around my own works through the artworks of others. How I perceive other artworks is crucial to the creation of my own. I always hope that my artworks are “read” as my writings. Each piece is an attempt to build upon and simultaneously puncture certain socio-cultural, economic and political narratives.

Kurchi Dasgupta, 'Kathmandu Calling 2', 2012, oil on canvas, 36" x 30". Image courtesy the artist.

Kurchi Dasgupta, ‘Kathmandu Calling 2’, 2012, oil on canvas, 36″ x 30″. Image courtesy the artist.

Any upcoming shows in 2015 and beyond that you are participating in (either as solo or group exhibitions)?

I am working on my next solo show, to be showcased in 2015. It has been a while, and I think I owe it to myself to bring together the many ideas that have been simmering within me these past few years. The show will have paintings, of course, but also installations, including some video work. I am excited about the video component because it is a new medium I am about to explore.

 Lisa Pollman

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Related Topics: Artists as journalists, Emerging artists, Globalisation, Indian, Interviews 

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