|| Exhibitions

Mustang: An Exhibition of Paintings and Photographs in Nepal

by Mary Shepherd Slusser

Click to go to a Gallery of Paintings by Robert Powell
The place to be this holiday season is Kathmandu when Thomas Laird and Robert Powell exhibit photographs and paintings of one of the last never-never lands - Mustang. Politically Mustang is part of the Kingdom of Nepal, a thumb of territory that thrusts northward into Tibet where geographically and culturally it in fact belongs. Because of its remoteness from Kathmandu, the capital, and its unsettling proximity to the fierce Khampa rebels that not long ago roamed both sides of the Nepal-Tibet border, Mustang, together with a twenty-mile wide strip of northern Nepal, was closed to foreigners for many years. Although over time the border restrictions have been gradually relaxed permitting unfettered access to areas tantalizingly out-of-bounds in the sixties and seventies, Mustang itself long continued to remain off limits except to a handful of outsiders. One was Michel Peissel who in 1967 wrote of his adventures in Mustang, the Forbidden Kingdom: Exploring a Lost Himalayan Land. (He also wrote Tiger for Breakfast, a biography of the legendary Boris Lissanevitch, former Diaghilev dancer who by way of Calcutta washed ashore in Kathmandu as one of its first hoteliers.) Now open to scholars and limited tourism, Mustang, like Bhutan, is accessible at a price. One must pay His Majesty's Government a flat permit fee of US$70 a day plus double that for the expenses of the mandatory service of an accompanying Nepali liaison officer. To protect the fragile environment, as it has so miserably failed to do elsewhere in the Kingdom, there is also a ceiling on the annual number of permits issued. There will be no trashing of Mustang as has happened in the Mt. Everest region where dedicated environmentalists like Brent Bishop, son of the late Barry, one of the early climbers of Everest, patiently haul the trash away as the tourists continue to deposit it. For Mustang there is no strolling in by yourself with a rucksack either: only group travel is permitted. Even the interdisciplinary study team of Tibetologists, anthropologists, and others assembled under the aegis of the German High Mountain Research Group with headquarters in the Kathmandu Valley are subject to restrictions and have to pay these charges.


It was in company with this international scholarly elite that Bob Powell braved the rigors of Mustang - its mean average altitude is 15,000 feet and gale-force winds are commonplace - to record its cultural and geological marvels in the arresting paintings he shows in December. A forty-odd year old Australian expat with formidable but little known talent, Bob makes his home in Kathmandu.

Laird stayed for a year to
create some 50,000 photographs,
the largest and most comprehensive
photo archive of Mustang ever made.

His dwelling, a simple Nepali house set in a leafy compound guarded by an uncommonly aggressive rooster, is also his studio. Surrounded by a judicious assembly of found objects, as only an artist such as he could assemble, Bob sits Buddha fashion before a low table to create his masterpieces. Inspired by Mustang, his current output uniformly reflects that theme. Painted in the same blazing ochers, indigos, whites and blacks the Mustang folk lavish on their city gates, terraced houses, and sacred monuments for their symbolic value, the paintings often capture the essence of that enchanted land in a way no camera could - even in Laird's skilled hands. One painting, for example, reveals a long row of brilliantly painted chortens (Buddhist three-dimensional mandala reliquaries) that are in fact so cramped by other structures as to defy the camera.

Powell's painted record of Mustang does not stop with the cultural monuments but encompasses the incredible moonscape in which they have blossomed over the centuries. One painting may focus on the purity of the polished river stones, another on the great tawny cliffs etched by wind and snow melt and often riddled with caves excavated in remote antiquity. (A birch bark bowl from one of them has been carbon dated to 800 B.C. and the archaeological work has only begun.) These remarkable paintings, whether realist or imaginative evocations, are clearly informed by a sensitive appreciation of what is portrayed. Bob knows which gods are thought to be present behind three brilliant stripes of clay wash poured down a façade from a rooftop. The flaming red cliffs of one locale, banded with blue, he also knows as the locals affirm, are all that is left of a fearful ogress disembowled by the renowned Buddhist tantrist, Padmasambhava. It is her viscid blood that reddens these cliffs, her putrid liver that streaks them indigo.


But Mustang is only the most recent of Bob's inspirations. Ladakh (part of India's northermost state) with a Buddhist culture, architecture, and forbidding landscape not unlike Mustang's occupied him for some time and since settling in Kathmandu in the 1980s his inspiration has been the art and culture of the engaging Kathmandu Valley. In delicate drawings and paintings Powell has recorded not only ancient murals and the exquisite woodcarvings of the temples and monasteries, but has unerringly captured the whimsy of daily life. To see the

In delicate drawings and paintings Powell
has recorded not only ancient murals and
the exquisite woodcarvings of the temples
and monasteries, but has unerringly captured
the whimsy of daily life.

latter, some now available in posters, such as Radish Transport or Painted Goats, is to smile. Powell's creativity also embraces the richness of Nepali handmade paper which he transmutes into stunning stationery designs for use by UNICEF and, for his personal use, incredible lamps that outdo Noguchi. But it is only the newly-minted Mustang paintings that will be exhibited beginning December. Some not already snapped up by knowing collectors will be for sale.

Sharing the spotlight with Powell's paintings are the superb photographs by Thomas Laird whose talent in his chosen medium is no less formidable than Bob's. Laird is a forty-two year old American ethnographer and journalist-photographer, a twenty-year resident of Kathmandu, whose work has appeared in leading publications worldwide: National Geographic, Natural History, Time, Geo, Stern, Elle and many others. He is also the Nepal correspondent for the Times/Warner news weekly, AsiaWeek. He holds the distinction of being the first Westerner to enter Mustang on its opening in 1991 - no brief encounter either. He stayed for a year to create in some 50,000 photographs the largest and most comprehensive photo archive of Mustang ever made or likely to be made. Some hundred and fifty of them appear in East of Lo Manthang: In the Land of Mustang (Shambala Publications, 1995), prepared jointly with Peter Mathiessen. Out of the 50,000 that leaves plenty over for the Mustang photo and painting exhibition.

The works of both artists will be displayed in the corridors of the newly restored Keshav Narayan quadrangle, part of the seventeenth-century royal palace fronting the Patan Darbar Square. Restored through the joint efforts of His Majesty's Government and Austria by way of the Institute for International Cooperation, the quadrangle will soon become the home of the Patan Museum, an ambitious undertaking planned as a model of modern museology in so far as it can be achieved in the Third World. With the occasional help of specialists from the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institution's twinned museums of Asian art in Washington, D.C., a judicious selection for exhibition has been culled from more than fifteen-hundred objects in storage. On exhibit will be cast bronzes and gilt repoussé sculptures from Nepal and Tibet, a few rare Buddhist images from India, selected domestic and ritual objects, together with a few stone sculptures and inscribed stele, an assembly spanning approximately the ninth to the twentieth century. Also on display will be a remarkable hoard of dated and inscribed gilt repoussé images discovered more than twenty years ago but never before accessible to the public.

The Patan Museum is envisioned less as a museum of art than as an interpretive center for bewildered tourist and Nepali alike in their encounters with the plethora of singular objects and images which, beginning just outside the museum's door, abound in the Kathmandu Valley. Because of its palace setting the museum will also afford visitors an opportunity to actually enter one of these medieval buildings, heretofore viewed only from the outside, and which in Patan and the sister mini-kingdoms of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, once housed kings. Among the many copiously labeled objects projected for display none will surely elicit more interest than the gilt throne fashioned for a Patan king in 1666 but vacant since the conquest of the Kathmandu Valley by the Shah dynasty which erupted out of the western hills in 1768. Flanked by two pairs of gilt copper trees, the Patan throne is supported by paired lions and elephants, between which is Garuda, sunbird companion and mount of Vishnu. Illustrating the belief that Nepali kings are Vishnu incarnate, the enthroned king borne on the outstretched wings of Garuda replicated the ubiquitous images of the Garuda-borne Vishnu which have embellished the Kathmandu Valley since at least the fourth century A.D. Nepal's reigning king, Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, is also conceived as Vishnu incarnate and is said to sit on a Garuda-borne throne.

The Patan throne is made doubly interesting by the curious inscription coursing above the Garuda image. Dated in accordance with 1666, the lines read:

"May it be good. On Thursday, the eighth day of the waxing moon of [the month of] Sravana [in the Nepal Era] 787, His Majesty King Srinivasa Malla was offered an alms bowl and a golden throne attached with kadamba trees [Neulea orientalis]. Anybody can hire this throne on payment of two rupees to the families of the coppersmith and carpenter. Let it be auspicious."

The museum authorities have not yet reached a decision whether to honor the rental offer. But who at this price would not like to be king for a day on such a throne?

The Patan Museum is unlikely to open before the end of 1996 but meanwhile the ocher-plastered walls and roseate floor tiles of the long, corridor-like galleries of the palace provide a sympathetic setting for the temporary exhibition of the work of these two talented artists, the photojournalist, Thomas Laird and the self-effacing artist Bob Powell. There could be no better way to spend your Christmas check than hopping over to catch this show. You must make haste, however. Just opened by Nepal's Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, it is expected to close before Christmas.

While you are in Kathmandu you might also want to visit the Indigo Gallery (also represented in Asian Arts) located in an attractive setting not far from the current royal palace in Kathmandu. Its offerings are proof that despite the horrendous contemporary architecture that so compromises the traditional urban integrity of the Kathmandu Valley, and the trashy "bronzes" and paintings in the curio shops, the Nepalese creative spirit is still very much alive and well. The bronzes confected by such skilled artists as Siddhi Raj and Jagat Man Shakya are made by the same techniques and in the same small workshops as they were a millennium and more ago and can often hold their own against earlier masterpieces. The Nepalese paintings on cloth to be found at Indigo (properly known as paubha but usually, Tibetan-fashion, labeled thanka) are also of extremely high quality though even the best do not achieve the bliss of the great Nepalese paintings of the past that are now the pride of private collectors and museums around the world. Indigo Gallery is operated by another expatriate, James Giambrone, whose patronage has been a fundamental catalyst in reviving the art of the bronze caster and painter. Although a few cents will get you to either Patan Darbar or Indigo Gallery by taxi you miss the thrill of threading the old streets on foot and the marvelous chance encounters with the mystifying art and culture of Nepal. By this time next year, so it is planned, the permanent exhibit devoted to Nepalese art and culture will replace the exhibition of photographs and paintings now showing in the old royal palace. Obviously, one visit to Nepal will not be enough.

© Mary Shepherd Slusser and || Exhibitions