Asia-Europe

Painting dreams : Kathmandu's freshly emerging street art scene

Article published on June 8, 2014
Article published on June 8, 2014

Nepal is struggling. Most Nepalis are facing problems concerning their water and electricity supply, all are living in an environment of political uncertainty. Yet, there is a bunch of people believing that there is still some space left for beauty and new ideas. Maybe more than ever.

En­ter­ing the ground of the Sattya Media Arts Col­lec­tive, I find my­self in an en­clave of peace. A group of peo­ple is sit­ting around a table in the sun, hold­ing the weekly team meet­ing. Be­hind them, the colour­ful three-storey build­ing looks like a strong­hold of cre­ative en­ergy.

Bring­ing colour to the city

This im­pres­sion re­in­forces it­self while Lisa, the man­age­ment in­tern, shows me around. There’s a small and cosy li­brary fur­nished with cush­ions on the floor, right next to the new co-work­ing space. From now on, it will pro­vide the op­por­tu­nity for young pro­fes­sion­als to get a cheap of­fice place and to ex­change with oth­ers. Other pro­jects are the com­mu­nity gar­den Hariyo Chowk or the doc­u­men­tary screen­ings that hold place once a week. Nev­er­the­less, the ac­tion for which Sattya got the most at­ten­tion is “Kolor Kath­mandu”. Within one year, the goal was: get­ting na­tional and in­ter­na­tional artists to paint 75 mu­rals in Kath­mandu, rep­re­sent­ing the coun­try’s dis­tricts. In short – make Kath­mandu more colour­ful.

Re­gain pub­lic spaces

Some of the artists par­tic­i­pat­ing felt like fight­ing against “hol­low po­lit­i­cal slo­gans” and ubiq­ui­tous ad­ver­tis­ing to re­gain pub­lic spaces for the pub­lic it­self. One of them is Aditya Aryal, aka Sad­huX. The fact that he began paint­ing only three years ago shows how un­com­mon street art was until re­cently. As the cre­ative head of the as­so­ci­a­tion Art­lab, he wants to change this; just like Romel Bhat­tarai, Art­lab’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor.

“We want to make peo­ple more cu­ri­ous.”

“There was noth­ing until we began paint­ing on the streets. The art scene was con­cen­trated on ex­hi­bi­tions in gal­leries”, Aditya be­gins. Romel takes over, stat­ing:”We want to break the struc­tures of gal­leries that are often very so­phis­ti­cated”. Nepalis in­ter­ested in art shall go on the street and per­form rather than wait for a gal­lerist to come to them. “A lot of artists in Nepal are wait­ing. We are cre­at­ing. No mat­ter how and where”. Bring­ing art to the street makes the oeu­vre ac­ces­si­ble for every­one. “We want to make peo­ple more cu­ri­ous.” Ques­tion­ing the pub­lic can­not hap­pen in the haven of gal­leries that al­ways at­tract the same kind of peo­ple.

Dream­ers with a sense of busi­ness

“When I began mak­ing art, it was more for this feel­ing of in­tan­gi­ble sat­is­fac­tion it gets you”, Priti Sher­chan, the artist co­or­di­na­tor at Sattya, tells me. “But later, I began to see also the eco­nom­i­cal ben­e­fit of it. Even on this small scale, we pro­vide jobs for the peo­ple who pro­duce our colour or the dri­vers who move art pieces”.

The artists of Art­lab go even fur­ther in demon­strat­ing that art and es­pe­cially street art is not nec­es­sar­ily some kind of pass-time de­pen­dent on gen­er­ous spon­sors but has tan­gi­ble links with the com­mer­cial world. What began as a work for purely ide­o­log­i­cal re­ward has be­come a some­what lu­cra­tive busi­ness by now. “The work we do on the street is like a pro­mo­tion for our other pieces”. The five artists along with their man­ager find ways of keep­ing the busi­ness going: They try to cre­ate prod­ucts for sale like T-Shirts and prints when­ever pos­si­ble and paint build­ings on re­quest. In this fash­ion, the artists’ col­lec­tive got paid for paint­ing mu­rals like in the Places Bar and Restau­rant in Thamel, where they also dis­play pieces of their lat­est pro­jects for sale.

The non-for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Sattya, too, got one foot into busi­ness through its af­fil­i­ated cre­ative agency Sattya Inc. Its pur­pose is, ef­fec­tively, to bring artists and po­ten­tial clients to­gether in order to sat­isfy the grow­ing de­mand of cre­ative space de­sign along with the needs of artists to sus­tain them­selves through their work.

Im­ple­ment­ing new struc­tures

So, where is this lead­ing, ac­tu­ally? “Of course we’ve got a vi­sion”, Romel says with the smile of the truly en­thused. “We want to see art every­where”. He has got a rather clear idea of how to ap­proach this sky­scrap­ing goal. That he is a man­ager is vis­i­ble as he de­tails how Art­lab is going to ex­pand. New struc­tures will cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties and a plat­form not only for artists but also for oth­ers in the cre­ative busi­ness. Why not bring to­gether de­sign­ers and in­for­ma­tion sci­en­tists? After all, there’s a whole in­dus­try to ex­plore! 

Learn­ing from abroad

The next big pro­ject Romel is dream­ing of is an in­ter­na­tional street art fes­ti­val within the next year that will bring to­gether for­eign and local artists. “There is no style yet in Nepali street art”, Aditya puts it. But this is maybe the biggest trump of those being cre­ative here. Clearly in­flu­enced by the street art scene of cities like New York or Berlin, Nepalese artists though have the free­dom to do some­thing com­pletely new, to feel again like chil­dren with pots of paint in front of a sur­face to fill.

A sense of be­long­ing

This gen­er­a­tion of artists in Kath­mandu is uni­fied by the de­sire to make a change on the spot. Un­like a lot of other young peo­ple, they don’t want to go away. Art­lab’s cur­rent pro­ject, Prasad, ad­dresses the prob­lem of the youth search­ing their luck abroad. By paint­ing “Nepali he­roes”, they want to in­spire their gen­er­a­tion to in­vest their in­di­vid­ual po­ten­tial in their home coun­try. Sattya for its part pro­vides – through its of­fice and work­shops – spaces to get to­gether and to meet other peo­ple with new ideas. “We want to build a com­mu­nity and cre­ate a sense of be­long­ing”.

Start where you stand – and go far

Those peo­ple are not pri­mar­ily dream­ers. They are mak­ers. They cre­ate as they go, show, in­spire. “Start where you stand”. This is Sattya’s motto. The same sense of grounded will­ing­ness comes through when Priti an­swers my ques­tions that are the ques­tions of the hes­i­tat­ing: How will it work? Why you? And why now? She looks me in the eyes and sim­ply says: “Some­one has to do it".