Ive had the pleasure of working with the PIX team on their upcoming issue featuring Nepal. The magazine launches this weekend at the Max Mueller Bhavan/ Goethe Institute in Delhi. Do join us if you’re in town!
Congratulations to all the contributors!
Thousands of families are living in temporary shelters across our hills in Nepal this year. Many of these sheds are flimsy structures, built with loose wood, CGI sheets, and stones. It is almost a year now since all these families lost their homes in the April 25th earthquake. #WhereIsGoN
I spent the day at a health-post in Patlekhet, Kavre last week where 16 women had come to get 5-year implants at an MSI-Nepal run mobile clinic. These were women who already had 1-2 children each. They had come to the health-post that day because they had made a choice not to have more children until they were ready. They seemed very matter-of-fact and unapologetic about this. Almost everyone in the group said they had an average of 6-7 siblings. Their mothers had not had access to contraceptives. In one generation however, the average family size in this part of Kavre seems down to 1-2 children per family. All these children are going to school. Quite extraordinary. Often, especially of late, I am frustrated at how slowly we are moving forward. Meeting these women in Patlekhet made my heart soar. We are moving forward.
I’ve just had the amazing opportunity to spend 6 weeks in Toronto at a residency hosted by Gallery44 and the South Asian Visual Arts Center (SAVAC). The residency was time+space for me to continue my Being Nepali series - mainly to incorporate archival material from Nepal Picture Library, add passport photos that I have been collecting from various photo studios, and add a new journaling element to the series. The residency culminated in an exhibition at Gallery44 where I showcased some new edits from the series. While in Toronto, I had the opportunity to interact with the Nepali community there, and discuss identity issues in the context of the Diaspora. Im very grateful to Gallery44 and SAVAC for this opportunity.
Here’s an interview that I did with Leila Timmins, Head of Exhibitions at Gallery44:
LT: This exhibition takes its title from your ongoing portrait series, Being Nepali, which pictures Nepali people stripped of the visual signifiers typically used to mark identity. Could you speak about how you came to this project and how you are exploring identity in response to the current political climate in Nepal?
NT: The project came about as a response to various proposals that were put forth re. state restructuring in early 2010, in particular the proposal to divide our new federal states along lines of ethnicity. This immediately sparked a lot of debate since there are over 102 recognized ethnic groups in Nepal. The portrait series really began as a response to that moment. Since then, the debate has broadened and deepened in many ways and my project has grown alongside. On a personal level, I have learned a lot and my ideas have evolved on several aspects of these issues, so the project has been quite exploratory and a great learning exercise for me. At the heart of the work - which is a little bit lofty and maybe naïve – is the idea of removing barriers of class and ethnicity to ask how truly different we are. I guess the work is rooted in my aspirations for equality, for a kind of national unity or Nepali-ness that strives for balance and gives space and legitimacy to our many diverse groups.
LT: You have divided the exhibition into three distinct, but related parts: archival images from the Nepal Picture Library, images and text from the Being Nepali series and a collage of found passport photos. How do you see these images working together and how do you think the archival images and passport photos extend the work of the Being Nepali series?
NT: I’m really happy with the different elements of the exhibition and how they have come together for this show. These new elements are exciting for me and I think it is this particular space that allows for everything to come together. I had been feeling a little bit stuck with the ‘Being Nepali’ series but I feel like this context has really given it new life. There is an aesthetic uniformity to the series that I think was also really important to break up and the archival material has been really interesting to work with because while it is also portraiture and shares an aesthetic sensibility, it adds a wider historical perspective that really builds on the narratives at play. Most of the archival images are commercial studio portraits from two studios operating in the 70s and 80s in the southern belt, the Madhesh, which is where a lot of the political dissent is happening right now. Importantly, both those studio collections represent very diverse populations because the studios were accessible and affordable to a fairly wide group of people. It’s interesting for me to look back now at the images and see the various groups of people living together in that area at the time. Were these people happy to live together then? These is a more pronounced awareness of ethnicity in these areas now, and insider/outsider notions are strong.
LT: I am also interested in how these three sets of images, although they share a certain visual language function very differently from each other, and through putting them in dialogue perhaps pushes the viewer to consider the different ways in which these images circulate and how that circulation informs the reception.
NT: Yes, the politics of the passport photo is interesting. When I show my work at home, I typically show my work in the streets where the audience is more diverse than in a gallery and the passport and studio photos have a visual vocabulary that is familiar and so in a way it is easier to speak to people through them. I want the work to be visually striking and to have an impact on the viewer, especially with scale. I wanted them to take up space. But I also want the work to start conversations, formal and otherwise. So Im very happy to start the journal series this time and incorporate workshops.
LT: The exhibition in many ways is structured as an open residency, with the smaller room functioning as a studio and space for collaboration. Can you talk about how you are using this space, and specifically about the Being Nepali journal series and how you are bringing oral histories into the project?
NT: While I tried to portray the subjects in the ‘Being Nepali’ series with having agency and a presence within the work, the work also strips them of the markers of identity and in a way excludes their stories and point of view. It was one of the parts of the project that was not sitting well with me and so I think the journals open up the space for this dialogue. I am really excited to bring other voices into the work and I hope to continue. For the exhibition, I have asked people to bring in family photos and share stories about their personal histories of migration and to talk about the diasporic experience and new experiences of ethnicity in Canada. It has been really interesting working in a Canadian context. At home these days, people mostly identify with their ethnic identity first and being Nepali second, but it seems as soon as people step out of Nepal their identity becomes Nepali. Maybe it is easier to be united from a distance. There’s a line that someone wrote in one of the journals that says, “I never identified as Nepali until I moved to the United States.” That said, ideas of fluidity of identity also seem to be coming out more in the diaspora so it is never quite that simple.
LT: There is a long history of non-Nepalese photographers such as John Claude White who traveled to the country to take ethnographic portraits that often pictured the people as poor and primitive. Although these images function in a very different way from your project, they share a visual similarity. Do you see your work in dialogue with these images and if so, how do you attempt to create a counter narrative?
NT: This is a challenging question because in many ways although my work might propose a counter narrative, it bears aesthetic similarities as you suggest. The images taken by anthropologists or National Geographic photographers or early ethnographers haven’t and didn’t filter to the ground in Nepal – they were mostly for a Western audience. My work is largely for a Nepali audience. And that makes me accountable to my people. Part of the work we brought in for Photo Kathmandu (a photo festival) this year was by international photographers who had visited Nepal in the last century and whose images had never been shown before in Nepal. It was amazing to be able to show this work alongside contemporary work since that representation, even if it is problematic in some ways is also still important to understanding a history in Nepal. Minority groups have had very limited visual representation, and so there is power in being able to simply show these works. However, the ethics of visual representation are something that I am always thinking about though which is why it has been so important for me to work more laterally and include the journals and oral histories in this project.
LT: It is interesting hearing you speak to the lack of visual representation when much of what links your broader practice is the accumulation of images – organizing Photo Kathmandu, building the Nepal Picture Library archive, the work through photo.circle or your social media presence, they all seem to work to build a more diverse and nuanced image of Nepal. Do you see your work as giving more agency and access to Nepalis for self-definition?
NT: Yes, I mean that is the hope. In part the Being Nepali series tries to counter the often very narrow visual markers we have for national identity. Much of the representation of Nepali identity is controlled by a very small group of mostly men from the higher caste and typically excludes most of the country. That is why my project felt urgent to me; the people pictured are diverse but each still Nepali. I hope at least the series will open that up a little bit more and start to take some power back of what it means to be Nepali. Identity politics is so divisive and polarized right now, that to fly a national flag has become dangerous. Broadening this narrative is so important and I feel, or I hope that this project begins to do that for whoever it reaches at least. We need to reclaim national identity and making it more inclusive- this is my long-term aspiration.