Kathmandu

Thảo Nguyên Phan, Mute Grain, 2019, three-channel video, black-and-white, sound, 15 minutes 45 seconds. From the Kathmandu Triennale 2077.

Thảo Nguyên Phan, Mute Grain, 2019, three-channel video, black-and-white, sound, 15 minutes 45 seconds. From the Kathmandu Triennale 2077.

Kathmandu Triennale 2077

Multiple Venues

Time lost its tethering in the Kathmandu Triennale 2077. One of the central figures in artist Thảo Nguyên Phan’s part-history, part-fantasy three-channel video installation Mute Grain, 2019, dies of starvation during the harrowing 1945 famine in Vietnam. Her hungry ghost passes into a future where the dead, propelled by nothing more than the unfulfilled desire for food, do not belong. In Subash Thebe Limbu’s Ningwasum, 2022, two Indigenous time-traveling astronauts from a coming Yakthung nation returned to the present-day Himalayas. The film imagines a future in which Indigenous communities flourish with the help of technology. Karan Shrestha’s photo series “Waiting for Nepal,” 2011–12, bore witness to what has become a quintessential facet of Nepali life: the discomfort of citizens forced to wait in stillness while time spins around them.

Like a Möbius strip, time twisted and looped, flipped back and forth in and around the Kathmandu Triennale. The date 2077 references the year in the Bikram Sambat calendar when the show was originally slated to occur—the Gregorian 2020–21. Embracing the delays caused by the global Covid-19 pandemic, cocurators Sheelasha Rajbhandari and Hit Man Gurung, artistic director Cosmin Costinas, and festival director Sharareh Bajracharya made time a critical part of the triennial’s structure and identity. Much of the festival programming shifted online, where it was available to a wider public. This hybrid structure also stretched the triennial beyond the temporal parameters of the monthlong on-site exhibition. In their mission to decolonize the arts, the organizers underscored the epistemological implications of hosting a large-scale international arts festival—encompassing the works of 145 artists, collectives, and collaborations from more than forty countries—in Kathmandu, an urban center of the global periphery. In all five exhibition venues, voices from a cross-section of marginalized identities and communities—Indigenous, Dalit, female, queer—whispered to one another, created new pathways of connections, and held conversations that bypassed the hegemonic demands of the existing world order.

Artists used techniques and knowledge inherited from family within intimate domestic setups to craft their work. At the entrance of Bahadur Shah Baithak, Aboriginal Australian weaver Mary Dhapalany employed skills her grandmother taught her to create a pandanus mat with profound cultural and religious significance. Not far away hung Mae Clark’s The Emergence, 1998–99, a handwoven Navajo rug she learned to make from her mother. At the Patan Museum, Wing Po So extended her family’s knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine into her fruit-embedded installation Emission, 2017–18. Subas Tamang worked with ko ko mhendo seeds, considered highly sacred in Tamang culture, to relay the invisibilized history of his community’s contributions to the overthrow of the Rana regime in Nepal.

Much of the exhibited work was rooted in material culture, allowing the nonhuman physical world to be acknowledged as cocreator rather than as merely raw material for artistic production. Even human skin (when etched with tattoos) and hair (when braided) were examples of materials that humans collaborate with to store and sustain eco-cultural knowledge. Both J. D. ’Okhai Ojeikere’s photographic series “Hairstyle,” 1968–2013, and Liliana Angulo Cortés’s work with hair activists, for instance, documented the importance of braiding and stylizing hair to identity and acts of resistance in Nigeria and Colombia, with communities grafting routes used to escape from oppressive regimes and slavery into their designs. Most striking in this bid to reclaim the materiality of objects and divest them of colonial, patriarchal, Brahmanical, and Eurocentric significations was Youdhisthir Maharjan’s “Without a Map” series, 2020. The artist physically manipulates pages from English-language books, twisting them into rope, stringing them together to form nets, and weaving them into fabric. We can see hope and promise in Maharjan’s rejection of the intellectual value coded into the paper, in the way he turns text to textile, as if the latter embodies the more profound and relevant knowledge for our times.