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Image for Painting dreams : Kathmandu's freshly emerging street art scene

Painting dreams : Kathmandu's freshly emerging street art scene

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Nepal is struggling. Most Nepalis are facing problems concerning their water and electricity supply, all are living in an environment of political uncertainty. Yet, there is a bunch of people believing that there is still some space left for beauty and new ideas. Maybe more than ever.

En­ter­ing the ground of the Sattya Media Arts Col­lec­tive, I find my­self in an en­clave of peace. A group of peo­ple is sit­ting around a table in the sun, hold­ing the weekly team meet­ing. Be­hind them, the colour­ful three-storey build­ing looks like a strong­hold of cre­ative en­ergy.

Bring­ing colour to the city

This im­pres­sion re­in­forces it­self while Lisa, the man­age­ment in­tern, shows me around. There’s a small and cosy li­brary fur­nished with cush­ions on the floor, right next to the new co-work­ing space. From now on, it will pro­vide the op­por­tu­nity for young pro­fes­sion­als to get a cheap of­fice place and to ex­change with oth­ers. Other pro­jects are the com­mu­nity gar­den Hariyo Chowk or the doc­u­men­tary screen­ings that hold place once a week. Nev­er­the­less, the ac­tion for which Sattya got the most at­ten­tion is “Kolor Kath­mandu”. Within one year, the goal was: get­ting na­tional and in­ter­na­tional artists to paint 75 mu­rals in Kath­mandu, rep­re­sent­ing the coun­try’s dis­tricts. In short – make Kath­mandu more colour­ful.

Re­gain pub­lic spaces

Some of the artists par­tic­i­pat­ing felt like fight­ing against “hol­low po­lit­i­cal slo­gans” and ubiq­ui­tous ad­ver­tis­ing to re­gain pub­lic spaces for the pub­lic it­self. One of them is Aditya Aryal, aka Sad­huX. The fact that he began paint­ing only three years ago shows how un­com­mon street art was until re­cently. As the cre­ative head of the as­so­ci­a­tion Art­lab, he wants to change this; just like Romel Bhat­tarai, Art­lab’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor.

“We want to make peo­ple more cu­ri­ous.”

“There was noth­ing until we began paint­ing on the streets. The art scene was con­cen­trated on ex­hi­bi­tions in gal­leries”, Aditya be­gins. Romel takes over, stat­ing:”We want to break the struc­tures of gal­leries that are often very so­phis­ti­cated”. Nepalis in­ter­ested in art shall go on the street and per­form rather than wait for a gal­lerist to come to them. “A lot of artists in Nepal are wait­ing. We are cre­at­ing. No mat­ter how and where”. Bring­ing art to the street makes the oeu­vre ac­ces­si­ble for every­one. “We want to make peo­ple more cu­ri­ous.” Ques­tion­ing the pub­lic can­not hap­pen in the haven of gal­leries that al­ways at­tract the same kind of peo­ple.

Dream­ers with a sense of busi­ness

“When I began mak­ing art, it was more for this feel­ing of in­tan­gi­ble sat­is­fac­tion it gets you”, Priti Sher­chan, the artist co­or­di­na­tor at Sattya, tells me. “But later, I began to see also the eco­nom­i­cal ben­e­fit of it. Even on this small scale, we pro­vide jobs for the peo­ple who pro­duce our colour or the dri­vers who move art pieces”.

The artists of Art­lab go even fur­ther in demon­strat­ing that art and es­pe­cially street art is not nec­es­sar­ily some kind of pass-time de­pen­dent on gen­er­ous spon­sors but has tan­gi­ble links with the com­mer­cial world. What began as a work for purely ide­o­log­i­cal re­ward has be­come a some­what lu­cra­tive busi­ness by now. “The work we do on the street is like a pro­mo­tion for our other pieces”. The five artists along with their man­ager find ways of keep­ing the busi­ness going: They try to cre­ate prod­ucts for sale like T-Shirts and prints when­ever pos­si­ble and paint build­ings on re­quest. In this fash­ion, the artists’ col­lec­tive got paid for paint­ing mu­rals like in the Places Bar and Restau­rant in Thamel, where they also dis­play pieces of their lat­est pro­jects for sale.

The non-for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Sattya, too, got one foot into busi­ness through its af­fil­i­ated cre­ative agency Sattya Inc. Its pur­pose is, ef­fec­tively, to bring artists and po­ten­tial clients to­gether in order to sat­isfy the grow­ing de­mand of cre­ative space de­sign along with the needs of artists to sus­tain them­selves through their work.

Im­ple­ment­ing new struc­tures

So, where is this lead­ing, ac­tu­ally? “Of course we’ve got a vi­sion”, Romel says with the smile of the truly en­thused. “We want to see art every­where”. He has got a rather clear idea of how to ap­proach this sky­scrap­ing goal. That he is a man­ager is vis­i­ble as he de­tails how Art­lab is going to ex­pand. New struc­tures will cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties and a plat­form not only for artists but also for oth­ers in the cre­ative busi­ness. Why not bring to­gether de­sign­ers and in­for­ma­tion sci­en­tists? After all, there’s a whole in­dus­try to ex­plore! 

Learn­ing from abroad

The next big pro­ject Romel is dream­ing of is an in­ter­na­tional street art fes­ti­val within the next year that will bring to­gether for­eign and local artists. “There is no style yet in Nepali street art”, Aditya puts it. But this is maybe the biggest trump of those being cre­ative here. Clearly in­flu­enced by the street art scene of cities like New York or Berlin, Nepalese artists though have the free­dom to do some­thing com­pletely new, to feel again like chil­dren with pots of paint in front of a sur­face to fill.

A sense of be­long­ing

This gen­er­a­tion of artists in Kath­mandu is uni­fied by the de­sire to make a change on the spot. Un­like a lot of other young peo­ple, they don’t want to go away. Art­lab’s cur­rent pro­ject, Prasad, ad­dresses the prob­lem of the youth search­ing their luck abroad. By paint­ing “Nepali he­roes”, they want to in­spire their gen­er­a­tion to in­vest their in­di­vid­ual po­ten­tial in their home coun­try. Sattya for its part pro­vides – through its of­fice and work­shops – spaces to get to­gether and to meet other peo­ple with new ideas. “We want to build a com­mu­nity and cre­ate a sense of be­long­ing”.

Start where you stand – and go far

Those peo­ple are not pri­mar­ily dream­ers. They are mak­ers. They cre­ate as they go, show, in­spire. “Start where you stand”. This is Sattya’s motto. The same sense of grounded will­ing­ness comes through when Priti an­swers my ques­tions that are the ques­tions of the hes­i­tat­ing: How will it work? Why you? And why now? She looks me in the eyes and sim­ply says: “Some­one has to do it".