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  • 04 April, 2023

The making of a festival: How PhotoKTM drew attention to the non-human

The making of a festival: How PhotoKTM drew attention to the non-human
Photo Credit: PhotoKTM/Shikhar Bhattarai

Patan underwent an artistic transformation as the fifth edition of the Photo Kathmandu Festival unfolded. Curated by Photo Circle, the festival showcased public art exhibitions across six venues, ranging from streets and community spaces to galleries and other locations. The festival’s curatorial team, which included Shristi Shrestha, Diwas Raja KC, Prasiit Sthapit, Irina Giri, and Shikhar Bhattarai, played a crucial role in ensuring that the art exhibits were accessible to a wider audience.

Led by festival director Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati and the curatorial team, this year’s festival challenged visitors to reflect on contemporary values that shape knowledge production, meaning-making, language, and rubric.

Sthapit, the curator of the Chyasal and Khanpinchen exhibits, emphasized the importance of exhibiting art in streets and community spaces, making it more accessible to local communities. These exhibits made use of community spaces such as guthi houses, bhwechein, phalchas, and dabalis to showcase works of Nepalese and international artists. The exhibits included life-sized books on birds in Chimeki Chara, audio-visual projects titled ‘Minmini’ in the guthi house, and art installations of Uriel Orlow in the bhwechein.

Indoor exhibits in galleries and other venues such as Bahadur Shah Baithak, Patan House, Namkha, and Gallery MCube were also featured in the festival. The curatorial team worked to make these gallery exhibits more interactive to counter the perception that art in galleries is sterile and untouchable. 

“Art spaces have a reputation for being sterile and none approachable, we curated the venues to avoid this by making Photo Kathmandu engaging and interactive,” said Shristi Shrestha, the curator of the exhibits in Patan House and Gallery MCube.

Visitors were encouraged to scribble their thoughts and experiences on the gallery walls of Patan House, while Bahadur Shah Baithak offered visitors the opportunity to use microscopes, magnifying glasses, and overhead projectors to engage with various installations.

Photo credit: PhotoKTM/Shikhar Bhattarai

“All our festivals are centered around different unifying themes. This year’s festival was shaped by the confinement resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic in urban spaces like Kathmandu. As a result, we emphasized non-human aspects of our surroundings,” said Sthapit.

The festival sought to focus on rebuilding relationships to land and place, despite the forced relocation and flux that so many communities have experienced. “We dedicate this edition of the festival to gather, as a community of storytellers, to think about what role we play in helping to restore voice and agency to non-humans while so many of our communities still struggle to find voice themselves,” stated the festival’s thematic framing.

Creating Clusters

Curators played a vital role in developing a comprehensive framework for the exhibitions, creating a theme, and finding artists perfect for the thematic narrative of the festival. This year’s photo festival by photo circle also had six clusters created to serve as the fundamental framework for contextualizing projects and issues being presented. The six clusters were: Paying Attention, Giving Name, Walking our Questions, Making Place, Relearning History, and Learning from Doubt.

Each cluster had its own thematic focus and goals that it sought to achieve. For instance, through the “Relearning History” the festival included exhibits such as the “Skin of Chitwan” and Ariella Azoulay’s work that tried to reevaluate the way we are taught about our past.

“In many cases, the history we are presented with is a singular narrative dictated by the state. However, in this exhibition, we sought to offer a different perspective, a fresh entry point into the same historical events,” said Sthapit.

The Skin of Chitwan exhibition for one showcases a collection of historical artifacts, audio-visual documentation, and testimonies that embody the material memory of Chitwan’s past and present placemaking projects. Among the exhibits showcased are royal decrees and state gazettes, as well as remnants of the region’s tumultuous history, of flood and industrial displacement of its people.

Different places around Patan showcased different clusters. While “Relearning History” was showcased at Bahadur Shah Baithak, the exhibits in Khapinchhen had to do with the “Giving Names” cluster. Here you could see displays from a group of artists, including Uriel Orlow, KTK Belt, and DB Chaudhary.

Despite the stemming from different regions of the world, the different exhibits worked in tandem with one another. Orlow’s work documented how botanical names of plants in Latin brought to Guatemala by Spanish colonizers have invaded the knowledge of the land; while Chaudhary’s work also aims to preserve the names of birds in Tharu and other indigenous languages of Nawalparasi.

“You think it’s just about naming a thing but if you name something a specific way you lose specific history and knowledge associated with it,” said Shrestha. Orlow’s work, as well as that of KTK Belt and DB Chaudhary, aim to reclaim such knowledge and history through their art, working with communities to achieve this goal.

This correlation between exhibits goes beyond individual clusters as well. Rather than to think of each cluster as an alienated showcase, it would serve better to view exhibits to be more overlapped in nature. Orlow’s work coincided with ‘Relearning History’ just as Azoulay’s film did with the ‘Giving Name’ cluster. The same can be said for the remaining four clusters.

At times even the curators became the artists. Sthapit and Shrestha also participated as exhibiting artists in the event. Their film ‘Jatayu’ exhibited in Namkha was part of the ‘Walking Our Questions’ cluster, which highlighted people within the community who are battling against the pressing issues of our planet and the environment.

‘Jatayu’ portrays the conservation endeavors of Jatayu Restaurant founded by DB Chaudhary. “The vulture population was in decline because they consumed carcasses of dead cows who had been medicated with diclofenac, a pain-killer for cows but poison to vultures,” said Shrestha. Jatayu restaurant provides chemical-free carcasses to feed the vultures, much like patrons in a restaurant, as an effort to prevent their dwindling numbers.

Preparing Patan

Organizing a festival that is as big as PhotoKTM requires a lot more than simply deciding what to put up. In most cases, the organizers receive digital files from artists of arts, projects, and photographs to be printed and exhibited in Nepal. However each exhibit came with its own unique hurdles to tackle.

Take Munem Wasif’s ‘Seeds Shall Set Us Free’ which displayed a collection of cyanotypes, pictures, and archives. Shrestha shares that setting up Wasif’s exhibits was quite a curatorial challenge. She elaborated, “Putting up Wasif’s exhibition was challenging due to the fragility of his original prints shipped from his gallery in Mumbai. We had to find a completely white space to protect the delicate cyanotypes from light and as well as maintaining control factors like humidity. It was even more challenging since it was a public exhibition, but we were fortunate to find a suitable space.”

Photo credit: PhotoKTM/Samagra Shah

Likewise, while they were curating the exhibitions of Uriel Orlow in Khapinchhen, Orlow’s project required the use of overhead projectors, which according to Orlow were common in universities during the 1970s and representational of how the botanical Spanish names had colonized knowledge through the teaching-learning process in Guatemala. However, these projectors have become obsolete technologies, and the curatorial team struggled to locate them for the exhibition.

“At one point we felt like the whole of Kathmandu Valley was searching for these projectors,” expressed Sthapit.

Photo credit: PhotoKTM/Praveen Chettri

Curators along with production heads and volunteers spend months preparing exhibitions, from selecting works to producing them with dedication and hard work. 

“We don’t just put up the exhibition, that’s only 30 percent of the work. Countless sleepless nights and a huge production will go to waste if the audience fails to find an entry point,” explained Sthapit. To achieve the goal, volunteers were stationed at each venue and given orientation to equip them to answer questions from any visitors interested in the art pieces.

Sthapit acknowledged the challenges of approaching art, stating, “It’s difficult to find a way in, but we don’t want to simply describe everything. Our aim was to provide visitors with a point of entry to figure things out on their own or to ask questions.”

A show for all

A key goal for the festival was to create an experience that a wide audience could interact and appreciate.

Photo credit: PhotoKTM/Luja Manandhar

According to Shrestha, the arts and education team played a crucial role in engaging and making the festival accessible to a wider audience. To achieve this, Photo Kathmandu collaborated with Srijanalaya, an NGO that uses the arts to create safe spaces for learning, to organize guided tours of the exhibition for public and private schools and colleges in Kathmandu Valley.

“One of our most important audiences is students in schools and colleges. They are in an impressionable time of their lives, shaping their worldview,” said Shrestha.

Besides, students Photo Kathmandu had also been approached by diverse groups for guided tours business people, travel companies, women’s groups, and people with disabilities. The organizers acknowledged that the nature of the location, Patan, made it challenging for individuals with mobility issues to navigate through the festival grounds.

“Specifically physical disabilities, because that’s just the nature of this place we realized, and it’s unfortunate because there’s not much we can do about it, you know,” said Shrestha.

This year Photo Kathmandu has made added effort to promote accessibility for people with disabilities. The organizers have consulted with accessibility consultants, Diverse Patterns, to improve accessibility for those with disabilities. Shrestha stated that they have aimed to include accessibility more in their festival starting this year. They are making an effort to provide guided tours as much as possible. They organized guided tours specifically for the deaf community. Collaborating with Diverse Patterns is a small step they are taking towards making their festival more accessible.

Although Patan does have a few issues regarding accessibility with its compact and complex cityscape, the organizers share how they have built a strong relationship with the local communities and established a network for logistics, enabling Patan to be a practical location for Photo Circle to organize the festival here.

“Patan is home to many of us and we built close ties and strong bonds with the communities here, ” said Shrestha.

Photo credit: PhotoKTM/Praveen Chettri

The Photo Kathmandu exhibition has become more than just a showcase of visual art; it has become a platform for building community bonds. Through numerous iterations of the exhibition, organizers, and communities have fostered relationships that extend beyond the walls of the designated venue. Community members have stepped up to contribute to the security and maintenance of the visual projects adds Sthapit.

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