सहयोग Mobile Mabelle in Nepal

For the past few years MABELLEarts has been exploring collaborative possibilities with artists in the Global South. Last year we welcomed Nepali-Canadian academic Sujata Thapa Bhattarai to our Board of Directors and began working with her to imagine Nepal as an ideal place to build new relationships. In early 2016, Leah made a short trip to Nepal fuelled by the Toronto Foundation’s Vital People Award. While there, Sujata introduced Leah to internationally-recognized performance artist Ashmina Ranjit. Ashmina has been working to develop new forms of support for Nepali artists as part of LASANAA - a group of artists and activists interested in social change. Her latest project, NexUs, is a cafe, guest house and social enterprise supporting local and international artist residencies that bring together artists from a range of backgrounds to create new work that promotes social transformation.

Meeting Ashmina really cemented the idea of developing a collaborative project in Nepal. Once Leah returned home to Toronto she and Ashmina kept in touch and continued to imagine how they might work together. In December 2016 Leah and her partner and collaborator Michael Burtt got on a plane and travelled to Nepal to work with Ashmina and other partners on MABELLEarts’ first-ever international collaboration. This report, written by Leah, outlines her experiences in Nepal, what she learned and how this learning will influence MABELLEarts moving forward.

What We Did

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.


  • MABELLEartists: 2
  • Organizational Partners: 3
  • Kids: 24
  • Two Day Learning participants: 20
  • Village Workshop Participants: 150
  • Participants at Public Talks and Presentations: 81
  • Local Artist-in-Residence: 2
  • Support Staff through LASANAA/NexUs: 4
  • Support Staff through Heart Beat: 2
  • Support Staff through MABELLEarts: 1
  • Total Participants: 289


It was important to both MABELLEarts and LASANAA to use this project as an opportunity to support local artists. To do this, we co-sponsored two local Artist Residents who worked with us every step of the way to deliver all aspects of the project.

Keepa Maskey

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.

Other Mentorship

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

Religion, Ritual and Belief

Almost every time I presented on MABELLEarts in Nepal, I had to confess to a feeling of embarrassment at sharing work that in Canada seems innovative, but in the context of Nepal could seem down-right boring. This feeling came from recognizing that our work at MABELLEarts is reaching for something that is at the centre of life in Nepal. Almost daily participation in ritual, a sense of belonging to a cultural tradition and a knowing that one has an active role to play in the expression of those traditions are all aspects of daily life in Kathmandu as I witnessed it. Art and culture is profoundly alive in Kathmandu and inexplicably entwined with everyday life.

I am a person who works and shares life with people of profound religious belief. My time in Nepal helped me to better understand the important role of religious devotion in the daily lives of believers. It also helped me to recognize how my 'Canadianness' has defined how I respond to religiosity. In Canada, we pride ourselves on our promotion of cultural diversity as a principle of nation building. As part of this principle, we’ve welcomed newcomers of diverse spiritual beliefs, but we've done this with the caveat that they keep their religious expression confined to home and designated places of worship. Canada’s vision of secularism involves relegating religious belief and expression to the private, individual realm. Nepal taught me that belief can be public, social and pluralistic. Demanding that religion stay in the confines of the home and places of worship can in fact be a way of inhibiting and stunting cultural expression.

“For the future, if we continue being able to collaborate, to learn from our different worlds; to work within our own communities; to realize what we have, what are treasures are and what we are able to do with it;, I think we can do so much.” - Sujata Thapa Bhattarai

Community Arts as Social Repair

I'm often thinking about, processing and asking colleagues and co-conspirators what community arts is for: what it means and what it does. I spent my Masters degree at OISE pursuing these and other questions, trying to get to the heart of this creative impulse to make art with those who don’t consider themselves to be artists. Stepping into the challenging and unfamiliar context of Nepal did a lot to refocus and hone these questions.

One of my biggest questions has always been, what is the role of community art within a larger project of social transformation? In Nepal, I came to see community arts as a kind of vital precursor to social transformation - that of social repair. For me, social repair is an active mending of our social context and constructs - a mending that can begin with relationships sparked through shared, fun and friendly, creative exploration and collaboration. My belief is that our social relations have come to a point of fragmentation where social change will not be possible until we’ve engaged in this mending work of getting to know one another and becoming friends.

For me, this concept of social repair explains why community arts, as I’ve learned to practice it, remains somewhat outside of political organizing and direct action. It also helps me to understand and name a whole spectrum of activities and actions that continue to inspire hope and point toward change, but don’t necessarily directly challenge power or systemic oppression.

In the context of Nepal, this small offering of social repair as an idea and tool for Kathmandu artists felt like a simple and yet useful contribution to make. It’s a contribution that stands in contrast to traditional modes of development and charitable action that plays out in Nepal and (while small) has planted seeds both there, and here at MABELLEarts.

Looking Forward

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.

Thank You

Many thanks to the Toronto Foundation who supported my first trip to Nepal and believed in my potential as a leader. Thanks to Sujata Thapa Bhattarai for joining the MABELLEarts Board and for presenting a vision of MABELLEarts in Nepal. Also, thank you for entrusting me with your contacts - your many friends, family and co-conspirators who welcomed me to Kathmandu, largely due to your recommendation.

Many thanks to the Ontario Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Council whose operating funds supported this project. Thanks also to the Canada Council for the Arts who provided me with a travel grant.

Many, many thanks to the formidable artist Ashmina Ranjit whose vision for NexUs inspired this project and whose continued guidance and collaborative spirit made everything possible. Thanks also to LASANAA who presents a vision for artists to collaborate across the boundaries of geography and location.

Thanks to Shrawan Kumar MZN for your willingness to learn and for your willingness to fight for your aesthetic. Thank you Keepa Maskey for showing me where to find the best fabric and especially for your loving support and steadfast, excitement for learning. Thank you Prakriti Shrestha for showing us another side of Kathmandu, for taking such good care of the HeartBeat kids and for your ongoing support and care.

Thanks to my mentor Ruth Howard for teaching me so much and for blazing a luminous path for the rest of us to follow. Thank you to Daven Seebarran and Shifra Cooper for holding down the fort in my absence and for sharing the daily adventure that is working and playing at MABELLEarts.

Lastly, thanks and profound love to my partner and number one co-conspirator Michael Burtt, for being my co-pilot on the Nepal adventure, as well as my most steadfast supporter through that and every other experience.



MABELLEarts is driven by our love of people and fascination with neglected and forgotten places. We make art and build environments that foster community regeneration and invention. We cultivate long-term relationships that reveal the transformative possibilities within each unique site, neighbourhood and community. We celebrate cultural traditions, differences and points of connection that help spark collaboration as a creative force for change. We reframe existing social and environmental conditions to make space for new ways of being together. www.mabellearts.ca @mabellearts

  • Leah Houston
  • Michael Burtt
  • Sujata Thapa Bhattarai


LASANAA is an artivist organization that began in 2007. Our main agenda is social reform through art. We seek to have our art community be more involved with social issues. www.lasanaa.wordpress.com

  • Ashmina Ranjit
  • Basanta Ranjit
  • Kishor Dangol
  • Deepa Shahi
  • Keepa Maskey

Heart Beat

Heart Beat is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Kathmandu, Nepal. www.facebook.com/heartbeatnp

  • Juju Kaji Maharjan
  • Prakriti Shrestha
  • Shrawan Kumar MZN (Maharjan)


  • Toronto Arts Council
  • Ontario Arts Council
  • Canada Council for the Arts
  • The support of private donors


photos: Jess Notwell, Leah Houston, Raju Giri

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