The current retrospective of the work of Shashi Bikram Shah is a reminder, if one was needed, that art is not meant to be easy. The show is a grim narrative of mankind's mistakes, often through depictions of the cycles of time in the Hindu cosmos, the ten incarnations of Vishnu, and the portrayal of global happenings and human suffering.
For enthusiasts of Nepali contemporary art, the 107 pieces at the Siddhartha Art Gallery-pen and ink drawings, watercolour paintings, etchings, life size acrylic on canvas, papier-m?ch? sculptures-are a rare chance to view the oeuvre of one of the country's most influential modern artists.
Shah's trademark horses are everywhere, adding the hope of uplift to his darkest works. He says they represent peace, war, courage, determination, hope, and spiritual strength. Often, flying white horses appear in a devastated landscape at the end of time as saviours in scenes where men and women are small, hunched, helpless, and crying out in pain, dwarfed by large graceful horses. The horses in the sculptures seem resurrected from a nuclear battlefield, but strong and ready to fight for the world. "Perhaps I love the image because the horse in mythology draws the chariot of the sun god Surya, or maybe because the horse is also interpreted as Kalki, the last avatar of Vishnu," he explains.
The show gradually comes together as a comment on acts of violence, some recent-the insurgency, September 11, and the reaction to the 12 Nepalis killed in Iraq. Crippled men and women with their faces distorted by pain fly around, while scattered chess pieces symbolise our confused politics. "Shah's paintings are so strong and dark, you can see that he pours his heart and soul into the canvas to tell his story to the world," says Sujan Chitrakar, himself an artist and principal of Bhaktapur Fine Arts School.
Sangeeta Thapa of Siddhartha, who curated the exhibition, agrees, "Shah grieves in his paintings. They are social commentary, they make people question." Shah says he works for peace and will continue painting as he has been. "If there are more bad incidents, my paintings will be dark to reflect the mood of the world and if there is peace, I will continue to paint white horses."
'Retrospective', a show by Shashi Shah, until 20 April, 11AM-6PM at Siddhartha Art Gallery, Babar Mahal Revisited. 4218048