Artist pioneers melding of ancient metalwork technique with contemporary painting.
Maureen Drdak brings a centuries-old technique that she learned from a Nepali master to life, with a surprising modern-day twist.
American artist Maureen Drdak counts herself as the only foreign artist who has apprenticed in the ancient art of Repoussé metalworking with Rabindra Shakya, grandson of revered master Kuber Singh Shakya. Drdak graduated from Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and was awarded a Fulbright Senior Scholar Award for Nepal (2011-2012). Her work has been exhibited in the United States and abroad, and is found in several prominent collections including The Rubin Museum of Art and the collections of Berthe and John Ford and the Emir and Sheikha Mozah of Qatar.
Art Radar caught up with Drdak to learn more about her inquisitive look at code switching, her “trusty Piezo” torch and recent presentation at the South Asian Studies Conference.
Can you please tell us about your use of universal paradigms of mythic archetypes in your work? Any conclusions that you have arrived at about universal themes through your research and travels?
My art is concerned with cultural and temporal bridging. One of my earliest and ongoing interests, and one which has long informed my art, has been the anthropology of religions – how they came into being, their common frameworks and meanings, symbolisms, values and habits of thought. By definition, an archetype contains and presents through symbolic form a rich array of associations and ideas that speaks with immediacy to fundamental desires, fears and needs. The psychologist Carl Jung was the first to recognise the intense power of these patterns within the human psyche and their universal distribution. The writings of Ananda Coomaraswamy are a mind blowing journey into these interconnected worlds.
Someone once remarked that religion is the earliest form of psychology, and I completely agree. I was raised a Catholic and as a child, I was extremely interested in knowing about the “Other” cultures referenced in the Bible. One of my large works influenced by such a sacrificial paradigm is The Akedah Triptych, a minimalist meditation on the blood sacrifice of the First Born that underlies all three Abrahamic monotheisms, their shared cults of martyrdom and its manifestations in contemporary space. Ancient art can fascinate through the quality of being simultaneously “known” and “unknown;” it communicates a vague familiarity transcending the vast gulf of intervening time and culture between its creation and our immediate experience. In reality, this can be understood as a form of code-switching.
While travelling in the Middle East, Italy, Nepal and India, I’ve been struck countless times with the embryonic power contained within the economy of archetypal form where even fragments convey power. One striking conclusion that I’ve arrived at in my travels is how poorly understood these symbolic systems are by the general public today, irrespective of culture, which is a great and tragic impoverishment. Understanding the rich complexities of symbolic systems would tremendously enrich the appreciation of these works, rendering them surprisingly meaningful in the present moment. This holds true for both Western and Eastern cultures. The monetary commodification of modernity is hostile to the spiritual and psychological complexity of these systems, offering the soulless substitution of vacuous market-friendly systems.
You pioneered the first synthesis of repoussé metalwork and contemporary painting. How did this unlikely combination of two very different techniques come about?
Here, my use of the term code-switching to describe my practice in terms of process, culture and material is particularly descriptive. My first experience with Nepal and the Kathmandu Valley was in 2005. The qualities of sensitivity to the materiality of the environment and natural form coupled with a refinement of approach impressed me deeply. I was immediately struck by the similarity between Newar and Italian aesthetics. An elegant balance of scale and proportion, and obvious appreciation for the intrinsic “it-ness” of materiality – metal, wood, earth and stone – captivated me.
One of the unique characteristics of Newar architecture is its incorporation of copper repoussé within the facades of its high architecture. Beautiful tympanum, also known as toranas, crown prominent entrances, which are frequently flanked by additional sumptuous repoussé reliefs. While repoussé features in sculptures and other forms, it was the flickering, shimmering effects of light on these toranas, the tonal and chromatic complexities of aging copper and eroding gold coupled with their dynamic complexities of form that mesmerised me. These visual qualities coalesced in an immediate, if improbable, suggestion of painting and that in turn immediately fired a curiosity about the possibility of material synthesis.
So in 2009, I decided to undertake a self-funded feasibility study. After quite a bit of research into the practice and its practitioners, I returned to Patan and knocked on the door of Raj Kumar Shakya, eldest grandson of the revered Kuber Singh Shakya and asked him if I could study with him and his atelier. Viewing me with considerable curiosity and more than a bit of skepticism, he carefully reviewed my work and following some intense family consultation, agreed. As he was immersed in the early stages of the now famous Druk Odiyana Padmasambhava Colossus Project, he informed me that I would be studying with his brother Rabindra, who remains my guru. My successful study with Rabindra resulted in my first work, The Flying Naga, now in the collection of Berthe and John Ford, and my award in 2011 of a Fulbright Senior Scholar Award to Nepal in art to pursue my study and further exploration of my repoussé painting synthesis. Dr. Mary Slusser, acknowledged expert on Newar art at The Freer and Sackler Galleries, initially viewed my project with considerable skepticism but she later generously wrote “An Appreciation” for my Fulbright exhibition catalogue. And the rest is, as they say, history.
The repoussé metalwork requires you to work with copper and other metals. Please take us through the process that allows you to “re-render” the material.
It’s quite a lengthy one. Repoussé metalworking is an ancient material practice. The grandsons of Kuber Singh Shakya generally place the earliest practice of repoussé to the 11th century. It is far more difficult than lost wax casting, as working metal on metal is unforgiving of mistakes and competency in all traditional techniques generally requires a minimum of five years apprenticeship.
I work using primarily free-form hammering. The process can be briefly summarised as follows. First, there is the conceptualisation of the work. The elements or forms are drawn on a piece of sheet copper. The gauge or thickness of the metal varies according to need. I generally use 20 gauge sheet, though I may very occasionally use 24, which is quite thin, mostly for small studies. The copper sheet is then worked in a number of methods.
I’m extremely fortunate to have been gifted a full set of handmade iron tools from my guru Rabindra Shakya, which may be the only set of its kind outside Nepal. I have one iron anvil (khalu), nine anvil termini (twas—Newari for “birds’ beaks) and nine double-headed hammers (mugas), along with about 15 different small chisels. The design on copper sheet is worked either partially or completely on the twa-kalu – anvil with terminus. It can also be worked with the hammers off the anvil – a technique that I favour – called free-hammering. The form can also be either worked by embedding in pitch, or a combination of all these methods as required or desired.
During the working of the metal, the hammering will cause the molecular structure of the copper to change resulting in reduced malleability or softness. It must therefore be periodically subjected to direct firing to re-align its molecular structure and restore its malleability. I have a wonderful fire torch – my trusty Piezo – that provides a hefty amount of BTUs on demand! After firing, the repoussé elements must have the dark sooty fire-scale removed through brief submersion in a dilute acid bath. Then the process can resume, with as many steps repeated as the work dictates. After the repoussé elements are completed, Incralac is applied to stop the oxidation process and allow for adhesion of the paint medium. I use acrylics. The elements are then affixed to the work and painting begins. As you can see, the process for the repoussé elements alone is quite lengthy and contributes to quite a long lead time before painting can begin.
Your work the Lungta Triptych was the result of working together as a collaborative team of visual artist, composer and choreographer. Please tell us more about this collaboration.
The Lungta Triptych is the visual art component of my artistic collaboration with international composer Andrea Clearfield, conceived as an artistic response to the impact of climate change and modernity on the culture of the “last Tibetan kingdom” of Lo Monthang in Upper Mustang, in the Nepali Himalayas. In 2008 Dr Linda Reichert, Co-director and Founder of The Network for New Music (NNM), envisioned a new season of art and music collaboration to be entitled MIX. Based in Philadelphia, NNM is recognised as a premier new music organisation and has commissioned work from innumerable celebrated composers, among them Pulitzer Prize winners. Having admired both our work, Linda paired me with Andrea.
I’d recently returned from a trek to Lo Monthang and pitched the thematic concept of Lungta to Linda and Andrea as I felt strongly that its philosophical and conceptual structure presented the ideal vehicle for collaboration. Its imagery is highly plastic, expressing both physical and metaphysical energies. In approaching my work for the collaborative, it was important for me to envision formal structures that could clearly translate into their expressive counterparts in music, so that this duality would be effectively realized through the complimentary forms of music and image. Linda was very enthusiastic, so much so that she strongly felt first-hand research was mandatory, and Andrea and I planned to depart for Nepal in the fall of that year. We were additionally blessed to have as our companion Dartmouth College anthropologist Dr. Sienna Craig, a specialist on the region, who is fluent in both Nepali and Tibetan.
The trip itself was quite arduous as we travelled by horse and when the terrain was especially challenging, by foot. The altitude of Lo Monthang is 12,598 feet, though the many mountain passes needed to be traversed to attain an altitude of over 14,000 feet. The awesome immensity of the terrain through which we passed, the sublime nature of the place, the frequent fears and physical rigours were indispensable to our creative work. In that space, Andrea and I were privileged to experience a memorable collaborative synergy; we had the rare experience of moving together intellectually and aesthetically with such mutual insight that even today I marvel at our work together. We conceptualised the form and contents of the work in situ in the mountains and created the final work upon our return from Nepal.
Can you please tell us about your work The Killing of Lions: An Iraqi War Meditation, which is in the Collection of Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani and Sheikha Mozah of Qatar. What is the impetus behind this work?
Killing of Lions: An Iraqi War Meditation was conceived in the run-up to the second Gulf war. It’s a monumental work – a double diptych with each image measuring six by eighteen feet. It was inspired by the epic Lion Hunts of Nineveh, Iraq, now in the British Museum. I’d actually first seen these works as small black and white images at the age of six in my first art book. They made an immediate impression upon me but for many years I never fully understood why – though I was aware that there was some kind of specific visual mechanism working within these images that was responsible for their peculiar power. Later I saw them as representing a powerful aesthetic document. I experience them as very contemporary works, possessing an extraordinary and peculiar quality of tension which is transmitted to the viewer on all levels – aesthetically, psychologically and emotionally.
Years later at the University of Pennsylvania, I discovered “The Forms of Violence; Narrative in Assyrian Art and Modern Culture”, a small, dense and intense book written by critics Ulysse Dutoit and Leo Bersani. The authors revealed and celebrated the sophistication of this great cycle of bas-reliefs, explaining the visual switchback structures of its compositions and correlated these devices with the resulting fascination with violence – capturing the viewer if you will – as replicated within the psychology and aesthetics of modernity. It was revelatory and greatly influenced the conceptualization of my work.
This all came to a head during 2003 and the very uncanny period of the swift unfolding of the invasion of Iraq. The Lion Hunts became for me one long wailing metaphor for the unfolding events of the war, the legacy of which continues to devolve across the region. In my work, the compositional sophistication of the Assyrian works and their resulting psychological charge are refigured and amplified. Leonine forms evocatively prefigure the dead – images of the powerless “Other”. Mineral thread vectors convey the impersonal violence that penetrates these leonine souls and embody the societal projection of force – a collapse of Past into Present. I employ a unique abrasion method that results in these works having a surface texture and quality evocative of slate or stone.
I lectured quite a bit on the work before it was sent to Qatar. In the creation of The Killing of Lions; An Iraqi War Meditation, my intention is to speak to the dynamic relevance of ancient art, its ability to inspire contemporary art, and its power to speak with immediacy and sophistication to the turbulent present. I’ve not yet seen the work in Doha in situ but expect to in the near future.
In the series “Weeping Banyon” you reference environmental degradation. Does the blue colour reference earth? Sky? Neither?
The blue references both the sky and water. Their cycle of exchange can be thought of as the breathing of the planet, the cyclical separation and reunification of Purusha and Prakriti – spirit and matter. The particular blue used in this work is lapis lazuli and is difficult and expensive to obtain. It’s a natural pigment, an especially sensuous subtle colour and very appealing to me. Its translucent quality complements my abrasion technique, which acts through the revelation of underlying material layers and forms in speaking to lost histories – emotional, cultural and psychological. Black traceries allude to pollution, carried by the rains as they move through the polluted air of the Kathmandu Valley. Mineral particle threads articulate circuitry pathways and the permeation of technology. Code-switching again if you like. The linear patterns themselves signify swift transfer of energy yet my method of execution is an infinitely slow millimetre by millimetre process.
Weeping Banyan’s imagery was inspired by the truncated forms of one particular banyan tree seen during my 2011 Fulbright fellowship to Nepal. Normally the freely flowing roots of the banyan naturally descend to earth to form an architectonic structure. A natural living temple. Its structure associated with systems of knowledge and enlightenment. This particular tree – still venerated – stood solitary, encroached upon by concrete structures. Its aerial roots were deformed and bundled, heavy and gravid, like inverted breasts, the result of repeated cutting due to insufficient ground space at its base. Its life force thwarted, it immediately suggested to me innumerable associations; the tangled dislocations of meaning, histories, culture and relationships. I experience its form as very powerful, returning to this in a number of works, and will undoubtedly revisit it again in the future.
I am drawn to your recent piece entitled Prayer for Khaled al Asaad. Can you please tell us more about this work?
Prayer for Khaled al Asaad is my homage to Syrian archeologist Khaled al Asaad who was murdered by the forces of ISIS on 18 August 2015 in Tadmur, Syria, after refusing to reveal information that would have facilitated the plundering and destruction of the ancient site of Palmyra – one of the greatest UNESCO World Heritage sites. As Palmyra’s curator for over 40 years, his devotion and heroism was truly extraordinary. His knowledge was deemed irreplaceable. Held by ISIS for over one month, Khaled Al Asaad was interrogated, beheaded and his corpse hung from one of the ancient pillars of Palmyra.
I was deeply moved upon hearing of Al Asaad’s death, which was to me, a watershed moment in cultural history. An ominous harbinger of worst things to come. Prayer for Khaled al Asaad is actually a small study for a planned major work, one appropriate to Al Asaad’s sacrifice. A thin column of red references Khaled Al Asaad’s ultimate sacrifice, and flows down a pattern of digital pathways. Composed of fine mineral particles, they dialogue calligraphically with underlying copper traceries emerging from the abraded black and copper ground. The black substrate references both the black flag of ISIS and the pregnant potentiality of the void. The abraded surface reveals underlying calligraphic forms, referencing the temporal, the submerged, the erosion of mind and matter. Digital pathways speak to the limits and fragilities of technology and transient notions of progress and civilisation. The slow and laborious process of laying down the very fine mineral threads that form these digital pathways – themselves representative of instantaneous transfer of information – is a meditation on the hubris of civilisation’s assumptions of omnipotence and omniscience.
The overall verticality of the work references the soaring pillars and forms of Palmyra, defiantly fragile in the face of increasing chaos. ISIS has recently retaken the city, and this future of this spectacular ancient site is now unknown, though satellite imagery reveals utter destruction. I’ve recently learned that this month, the Triumphal Arch of Palmyra will be 3D-printed in cement and erected in London’s Trafalgar Square and New York’s Times Square to coincide with World Heritage Week. The installation is a joint venture between Oxford and Harvard universities and the UAE’s Museum of the Future.
Please tell us more about the paper that you just presented at the 2017 South Asian Studies Conference at Claremont McKenna College and your experience with endangered arts practices. Do you feel positive about preservation and viability of endangered arts practices these days?
The Kathmandu Valley of Nepal remains the epicentre for many endangered material arts practices, all of which were transmitted through the apprenticeship model. Repoussé, the art of creating three-dimensional form from sheet metal, is arguably the most challenging of these practices. The grandsons of Kuber Singh Shakya are themselves the products of the Master–Apprentice (Guru-Sikshya) relationship and remain the most venerable living examples of both the spectacular success and the fragility of the model. My personal and professional relationship with the grandsons of Kuber Singh Shakya of Okubahal, Patan, dates from 2009 to the present.
Indeed, the nature of the guru-sikshya relationship is one which entails ever increasing bonds between student and master. Few contemporary artists pursue this ancient path. The contemporary arts education standard adheres to the degree-based model of recent Western origination, though there have been attempts to develop a form best described as a variant of intensive vocational training. Raj Kumar himself has been instrumental in introducing this model, but from what I understand it has never really taken hold. Modernity’s alternatives are understandably a powerful lure for youth in general. Education is imperative and interruptive, and lays claim to the unbroken length of time necessary for intense practice.
Young artists are increasingly in pursuit of quick fame and fortune and the rigour of the relationship which is embedded within tradition is distinctly unattractive to them. After an artist initially experiences the demands of the practice, they quickly exit. I am the only foreigner to have attained proficiency under study with Rabindra’s family. I’m not very optimistic about the viability of the model. Its qualitative survival remains in serious question. The irony is that as products of the Guru-Sikshya system, the grandsons of Kuber Singh have been incredibly successful. Following the spectacular creation of the repoussé colossus of Padmasambhava in Bhutan, a project spearheaded by Raj Kumar, the three brothers Raj Kumar, Rabindra and Rajendra have greatly expanded the family business. They’ve built two new ateliers, each much larger than the original family workshop, which Rabindra retains and operates. Their client base is international and growing, yet they have real difficulty in identifying, training and retaining the skilled artisans needed to sustain their desired high level of art production.
How about the panel that you moderated at the same event? What topic did you explore?
The subject is that of the Naga – the holy serpent of Asia. The impetus for this panel came about through friend and colleague, Dr. Deepak Shimkada. The serpent is an extremely ancient symbol, possibly the second oldest symbol after that of the sun in importance and antiquity. While the sun is perceived in a universally positive way, the snake elicits a strong duality throughout world cultures.
In the West, it has generally negative connotations, yet this was not always the case. Originally, the serpent was associated with ‘goddess’. The early Israelite religion worshipped the feminine. The departure seems to have occurred during the advent of post-exilic Judaic monotheism as a reactionary move to separate itself from the surrounding cultures, all of which participated in some form of goddess worship. Today, this associative relationship between worship of the Feminine and the Serpent is most alive in Nepal. Its most distinctive relationship with culture and society lies within the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal where its unique “living” history and remarkably intimate association with environmental well-being – especially the health of waters – asserts its continued relevance in a time of intense environmental challenge.
So, my questions for the panel are along the lines of “if we accept the power of established symbols to bind societies together through meaning, how is the symbolic power of the Naga and its cultural efficacy renegotiated and renewed in times of growing political, societal, and environmental volatility in the current moment?” I’m especially interested in to what degree contemporary artists as cultural creators respond to this remarkably intimate Nepali signifier. If the Naga embodies those associative values deemed culturally and intrinsically valuable for the sustained well-being of both collective and individual, how and to what extent are contemporary Nepali artists conversant with its meaning, and embrace and interpret its form within their work? What challenges does such a sacred and multivalent signifier present for contemporary Nepali artists in negotiating and integrating the apparent dichotomies between canonical art tradition and an individualistic contemporary art practice increasingly situated within a globalized conversation? And ultimately, how are notions of function, valuation and relevance identified and reimagined in contemporary cultural production?
As to conclusions, well, that’s what I’m excited to learn from the panelists! Deepak has invited me to collaborate with him in writing a book on this subject, and we’re both anticipating some very exciting discussion from the panel participants, who are – along with myself and Deepak – visual artist, curator and writer Kurchi Dasgupta and visual artist Youdhi Maharjan. It’s a great honour working with Dr. Shimkada – artist, author, educator and cultural activist – he’s amazing.
What piece are you working on at the moment?
Currently, I’m working on a large tondo, a round wood panel 48 inches in diameter, which will employ my repoussé painting synthesis. I envision this tondo as the first of a series of seven equally large or larger tondi to be entitled Ardens Mundi (Latin for as Burning Worlds). I’m very excited about this series and envision it as an extremely dynamic body of work – a virtual planetary system! Three small works – studies really – preceded this large work, two of which are in noted private collections. I’ve planned to expand on this theme and form for quite some time. Though the initial impulse for this work and series was that of climate change, the name and form of these works quickly suggested other “worlds in conflagration” – cultural, political, psychological and emotional – so a long evolutionary unfolding has begun, which will take me undoubtedly through some very exciting and unexpected terrain, both technically and psychologically. Afterwards, I’ll undoubtedly retreat to that secluded cave in Upper Mustang, compliments of my friends in “high places!”
- Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar’s “Castles Built from Sand Will Fall” at Ayyam Gallery – December 2016 – troubled borders provide fertile terrain for Palestinian diaspora artist
- Sweet reputation: Nepali artist Youdhi Maharjan – artist profile – July 2016 – meditative text collages free artist of existential burden
- Lebanese artist duo Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige @ Jeu de Paume, Paris – June 2016 – multidisciplinary duo shine light on images that persist despite chaos
- Internal landscape, external world: Nepal’s Govinda Sah – artist profile – May 2016 – “cosmic explosions” populate artist’s third solo show
- Tumbling towards the mainstream in Kathmandu: interview with artist Kurchi Dasgupta – December 2014 – “outsider” artist challenges norms in Nepal’s contemporary art scene
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