Workshop in Phakarin Tole
When we first arrived to Kathmandu, we were invited by HeartBeat (a Nepali charity working with children and communities) to Phakarin Tole - a village in the hills, located about two hours outside of Kathmandu. Phakarin Tole is made up of the Tamang people: one of the many indigenous peoples living in Nepal. It is also one of the villages hardest hit by the 2015 earthquake. The majority of houses were damaged or destroyed and so families are living in the temporary shelters as they wait for the Nepali government to provide much-needed housing assistance.
Michael, Sujata, Sujata’s friend Jess and Sujata’s nephew, and I, piled into an old sports utility vehicle driven by an exceptionally skilled driver. We took the narrow, winding (and somewhat treacherous) road up into the mountains to reach Phakarin Tole. Once there, we were joined by a team from HeartBeat interested in learning more about community arts.
We were welcomed in a beautiful ceremony that seemed to be attended by every member of the village. We shortly set to work with villagers of all ages to make a banner in honour of the new village school. At midday, we were treated to a delicious lunch prepared by village community leaders. We were happy to support them by providing new equipment that will strengthen ongoing community catering initiatives.
Part of the process of making the banner included some of the village women teaching us how to make rope from natural fibers. I was reminded once again that something so powerful about community-engaged arts is that it invites us to meet one another to share our creative impulses and skills. Once we finished the banner we paraded it through the village and to the new school, where it will live on.
Throughout the day, I thought about why I believe in this work as a path leading toward connection and away from isolation. Working in Nepal was challenging and full of questions that seem impossible to answer. It’s when I'm able to return to the singular moment (now repeated countless times in my life) of making something with others that I begin to sense a way forward.
Two Day Learning for Artists and Activists
For the past eight years, I’ve been lucky enough to participate in the Jumblies Studio - Jumblies Theatre’s program for learning, mentorship and exploration in community-engaged arts. For myself and for many artists, Jumblies has set the bar for sharing community arts practices across Canada. I was eager to take some of what I’d learned through Jumblies and impart and share community arts practices and principles in Kathmandu. In designing a two-day learning, I was interested in experimenting with a condensed program inspired in many ways by the Jumblies Studio.
Ten Day Art Camp
Our trip to Nepal coincided with the annual winter break, a month-long holiday for most students in Kathmandu. For the past few years, NexUs has held a winter break art camp for kids ages 5 to 15. We thought it would be fun to piggyback on this annual programming, but with a twist: we invited HeartBeat to send some of the kids they serve to encourage some social mixing.
Like Canada, Nepal’s society is stratified in many different ways including along economic lines. Wealthier individuals rarely rub shoulders with those from lower-income families. Adding to this stratification is a latent caste system that (despite being made illegal in 1962) still has an impact on how the society is economically structured. Our shared hope was that by involving kids served by HeartBeat, we’d be supporting NexUs in their aims to develop relationships and connections among groups that have traditionally been separated by systemic barriers.
For ten days, artists and kids collaborated on story-driven artmaking that invited us all to create new, imaginary worlds. Our work together was inspired in many ways by Toronto’s Spiral Garden - a reverse-integration summer camp for kids with and without disabilities. At Spiral Garden (where I was lucky enough to work from 2005 to 2007) artists are invited into the imaginary worlds children of all ages tend to create with very little effort. It is a way of working that has deeply informed my own practice and our work at MABELLEarts.
Once, we were visited by a mysterious and somewhat-magic-seeming Stick. This Stick indicated to us that it had come from another dimension and was desperate to get home. Soon after, a strange being called Drichu came to help Stick to return to Stick’s dimension. Drichu quickly developed a mysterious illness, was kidnapped by a group of angry crows, developed snow-blindness after being left to die on the top of Mount Everest (but saved by Michael and I on our day off) and was eventually healed by the children of the camp. When we were visited by Drichu’s much-younger father, it was discovered that Drichu is himself older than the mountains. Finally, Stick was able to return to Stick’s dimension and Drichu was made well and free to return to wherever he had come from.
Keepa Maskey's paintings draw on personal memories, cultural rituals, myths, ideologies and power structures to investigate how individual and collective identity is shaped. Her bold, colourful abstract works reflect on a disembodied world impacted by technological change. Flat areas of colour and shapes are segmented by thick black lines, recalling stained glass windows, cartoons, graphic novels and the way in which memory is layered and compartmentalized. Each differentiated form is simultaneously interdependent on the other, butting and vying for position, but together creating a dynamic whole.
Maskey's complex paintings convey balance, movement and a quest for harmony, whilst maintaining a sense of uncertainty. Her colour palette draws on Nepalese symbolism and the source material for many of the paintings include: an attic where her Grandmothers' religious rituals were performed (and Maksey was barred from as a child), her own experience as a young girl growing up in the caste system in Nepal, and her time in New York, reflecting on and romanticizing the landscape of home.
Shrawan Kumar MZN (Maharjan)
Shrawan Kumar Maharjan was born in 1991 and just recently graduated with a B.A. in Fine Arts from Benares Hindu University. He focused on sculpture during his three years in Varanasi and took part in several group exhibitions there.
Having returned to his hometown Kathmandu, the 25-year-old had his first solo exhibition, which featured his small brass sculptures of the “frog universe”. Most of his sculptures reconnect to childhood memories of the artist who sees the frog as an icon as the image can be found globally in most cultures in (children’s) literature, fables, and songs. Shrawan also painted before becoming deeply involved in casting brass sculptures and hopes to be able to work on larger scale works in the future.
We continued to share practice, teach and learn through a number of opportunities including public talks and conversations. More importantly, we invited local artists to jump into our work at kids camp as participants, visitors and collaborators. These artists, activists and teachers participated as facilitators, photographers and co-presenters.
“At the beginning, Community Arts felt very vast, very vague, but now I feel like i am a part of it. I don't need to wish; I can do it. Together we can do it. Through art, we are able to understand each other, build relationships, repair whatever our inner feelings, the society we want to see.” - Keepa Maskey
We’ll continue to explore opportunities and build connections for collaboration between Toronto and Kathmandu. We’ll also keep our eyes out for new opportunities to share work and life with artists and others in the Global South. I learned so much from the artists, activists, teachers, children and families I met in Nepal. This work has profoundly shaped me and I know I’ll take what I learned with me as I continue to work and play with MABELLEarts.