Critics’ Picks

Uma Bista, Dhanasara Mijar, 14 years, Oli Gaun, 2018, digital inkjet print on forex, 28 x 35".

Uma Bista, Dhanasara Mijar, 14 years, Oli Gaun, 2018, digital inkjet print on forex, 28 x 35".

Kathmandu

Uma Bista

Chhaya Center
Bhagwanbahal, Thamel
March 15–April 10, 2019

Uma Bista’s photographic series “Our Songs from the Forest,” 2018–, has achieved something of a feat—it’s captured women’s primitive, pre-patriarchal ease with their own bodies. Loosely and languidly, Bista’s sprawled female subjects mingle with forests that offer unencumbered acceptance. These woods are in Achham, a district in western Nepal infamous for chhaupadi, the monthly practice of quarantining menstruating women inside cowsheds. Away from the forest, and closer to home, their bodies stiffen and grow mute, become repressed. They avert their gazes. And they shrink away from Bista’s camera.

To evoke the terror and trauma of chhaupadi, curator NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati has placed a darkened cube in the exhibition space. Inside, the musty jute sacks that line the walls serve as imitation hay, giving off a suffocating miasma. On one wall hangs a cramped collage of fragmentary images—dark and barely perceptible. Calloused fingers stroking disheveled hair. Flowers blooming and wilting in dampness. A dim bulb diffusing dull, brown light. A partial glimpse of a face. The corner of a makeshift bed of hay. Conjured here is a week of menstruating women’s struggles. Viewers have the option of immediately stepping out for respite.

Chhaupadi has gained global attention in recent years and has been covered photographically in Poulomi Basu’s popular 2013–16 series “A Ritual in Exile.” But whereas Basu pictures these women as leading grim lives in which nature is a foe, Bista’s subjects are assertive. They exercise agency. They glide in and out of darkness. They test religious and societal boundaries. The forest, too, is an ally, and in its embrace the women manage to pilfer moments of unregulated access to themselves. Bista takes care to show a wider spectrum of their experiences and staves off rendering them as merely victims.