Last year was a difficult one for Nepal. An earthquake in April killed over 8,000 people and caused widespread devastation. A few months later, the decision of Nepal’s top political parties to push through a Constitution after years of wrangling led to massive protests by marginalised groups like Madhesis and Janajatis who believe that the new charter discriminates against them.
This was, of course, rich material for the country's artists to engage with and to create visual commentaries about. Among them are Manish Harijan and Hitman Gurung, whose work was on display at the eighth edition of the India Art Fair, which ended on Sunday.
Circle of life
From afar, Harijan’s installation titled Auspicious Suspicious looked pretty straightforward – luminous golden skulls mounted on golden plates on wooden blocks. But a closer look revealed the skulls had maggoty brains. An ever closer look showed that the brains were actually made of rice, lentils and corn.
Harijan said that the installation explored the notion of binary oppositions – the skull representing death offset by food grains symbolising life and regeneration.
“Through this installation I’m trying to represent the binaries that exist within our society – positive and negative, good and bad, the devil and the saint," he said. "I’ve used the grain and the wood to symbolise life, positiveness and the strength to survive.”
Identity and politics
Auspicious Suspicious is also a testament to the circle of life, a theme that particularly resonates in Nepal after the death and destruction wrought by the April earthquake. “We believe in life after death," said Harijan. "So in this work too there is life after devastation.”
Gurung’s exhibit, This Is My Home, My Land and My Country, tackled the question of identity and the turmoil that followed Nepal’s adoption of a new Constitution last year. Groups that felt discriminated against forced a blockade at checkpoints on the Nepal-India border. This has caused a shortage of gas, medicines and other essentials in the land-locked country.
Gurung interviewed his fellow citizens during the blockade, and his exhibit is the result of his efforts to understand the psychology of ordinary people caught in a crisis not of their making.
Protest in art
This Is My Home, My Land and My Country comprised three large photographs on the wall that showed women holding up their identity cards while hiding their faces in layers of gauze. The women belong to the Tharu community from the border areas of Nepal that has been protesting against the delineation of six new states as proposed in the new Constitution. “They feel that this Constitution has not taken into consideration their political representation,” said Gurung.
Miniature bronze gas cylinders placed next to the photographs symbolised the hardships brought on by the blockade and underscored how several people in Nepal could not access amenities others take for granted. “I went and met the people affected by the blockade," said Gurung. "It has affected their daily lives. They are cooking food on wood fires, and the inscriptions written in Nepali on both sides of the gas cylinders here are statements by these people about the fuel crisis."