29 Aug - 5 Sept 2014 #722

Whose art is it anyway?

Many praised Seb Toussaint on Facebook for his work in the community but lambasted him for cultural insensitivity.
Rabi Thapa

This May, Seb Toussaint and Spag of Outside Krew visited the Bhaisighat slum on the banks of the Bagmati at Teku and asked residents to choose words to be painted in their neighbourhood of ragged brick, banged-up wooden planks and corrugated tin. Toussaint was in Nepal with Share the Word, the project he has been taking to urban settlements around the world. Many locals allowed him to spruce up the walls of their ramshackle settlements with such uplifting words as ‘Welcome’ and ‘Dhanyabad’, and some even joined in the fun.

At some point, Toussaint decided to make an exception to his unwritten rule of not painting temples and churches. He wrapped up the project by spray-painting the façade of the sattal of the 19th century Shiva temple in Purohitghat, overlooking Bhaisighat. This is the same structure, dating from 1883, praised so wholeheartedly by art historians for the extraordinary design of its windows. By any standards, the Purohitghat sattal would qualify as heritage worthy of preservation. Yet Toussaint and Spag saw fit to distract from this remarkable window frame by framing it in technicolor cartoons. Why?

According to Toussaint, he was approached by the sadhu who looks after the temple. According to the Nepal Children’s Art Museum (which facilitated Toussaint and Spag’s stay here), the locals welcomed the change. The sadhu, meanwhile, admits he asked for the home improvements not just because it looked nice, but because after years of asking the authorities to restore the sagging, dilapidated façade, he wanted to grab their attention.

It took a while, but he has everyone’s attention now. When photos of Toussaint’s handiwork appeared on nepalnews.com last Sunday, Nepali social media imploded with indignation. Sujan Chitrakar of KU Art+Design spoke for many when he praised Toussaint on Facebook for his work in the community but lambasted him for cultural insensitivity and a lack of foresight in painting the sattal:

"The Shiva Temple, though not on the World Heritage Site List, has something to contribute to the remarkable cultural heritage and legacy of Nepal. Any kind of intruding and defacing it would be overlooking history of the place and hurting sentiments of my people. You have given wrong message to people and you will defame the entire artist community. There are many emerging Nepali artists who see hope in the streets and street art. Your 'one wrong' move can severely sabotage their dreams."

Other commentators defended Toussaint’s aesthetic and his collaborative work with the otherwise neglected Bhaisighat community, and privileged their right to determine the development of their surroundings. They also wondered why it had taken so long for anyone to notice the supposedly sacrilegious act – surely that suggested a broader national apathy towards heritage? The subtext of the outrage, they implied, was elitist hostility towards the idea that slum-dwellers should be able to claim national heritage as their own and, in doing so, dispose of it as they saw fit. For his part, Toussaint expressed surprise at the delayed reaction, so unlike the instantaneous delight of the local community. He maintained that he was glad that a debate was taking place.

Yet neither belated awareness nor the fact of Purohitghat’s neglect can justify Toussaint’s act. And surely a single community cannot have exclusive say over the treatment of a public monument, a distinct part of our heritage and one that predates Bhaisighat by at least a century?

At an animated discussion at the City Museum Kathmandu on Monday, Sujan Chitrakar and Sangeeta Thapa warned that if individual artists did not exercise due care, they could face a backlash from extremist elements and the state. The artists present, including Dishebh Shrestha and Aditya Aryal, agreed they would never consider painting over a temple as they ‘knew their limits’; it was crucial however for visiting artists to consult with local artists. Karl Knapp and Taka Otsu pointed out the difficulties in containing such art forms as graffiti. What if newer artists did not possess the requisite ‘common sense’? The consensus was that a negative act should be transmuted into something positive: research was needed to find a way to restore the façade of the sattal, to be documented in a way to raise awareness about the nature of cultural heritage, our attitudes towards it, and the role of public art.

When the story broke on social media Monday morning, several people responded to my frenetic posts with a shocked ‘Yikes!’ If indeed the sight of Toussaint’s work offended so many, one can only hope that it was an eye-opener in the best possible way. The message is clear: if we wait for others to take care of what we claim as our own, we should not be surprised if they do just that.

The sattal at Purohitghat by the Bagmati river is located on a long stretch of stepped embankment that did not start to be architecturally articulated before the 1790s. The sattal at Purohitghat was one of the smaller endowments, but probably the most fascinating one. The baluster columns and the cusped arches of the arcade follow early 19th century prototypes, but the first floor windows went beyond the scope of carved window frames … The frames of the side openings add to the stunning design, contributing to a move that culminates in the flower motifs that crown the central opening. In a playful manner, curled appendages frame the entire window, flush with the wall.

Architecture of the Newars, Volume III, Niels Gutschow



Read also:

Colourful capital, Sangam Shilpakar

Message in a mural, Foo Chee Change

Koloring Kathmandu, Tsering Dolker Gurung

The rebirth of Bhaktapur, Lukas Grimm

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