Silence No Longer: Ashmina Ranjit

Bookworm Issue 207 Feb, 2019
Text by Sushma Joshi

Ashmina Ranjit is one of Nepal’s most innovative artists. Working within the medium of performance art, she has staged multiple events related to democracy, conflict and peace, and the corporeality of women’s bodies. Perhaps she is the only artist to consistently work with performance art in Nepal, a country where studio art is still heavily privileged—if not the only artist, certainly the only one who has consistently used the medium and stuck with it, despite all odds. Her works have been viewed and heard by a mass national audience, and they have changed perceptions and contributed in a central manner to the movement for democracy and women’s rights.

Yet the archiving of those events has been done poorly or not at all, in keeping with the poor documentation and historical archiving skills of Nepali institutions. Unlike other artists, Ashmina did not have a corpus of material artwork to show for what she has done during her long career. Now, a book analyzing Ashmina’s importance and centrality to the Nepali arts and democracy movement has just been released. Aptly titled “Silence No Longer: Artivism of Ashmina,” the book brings together essays by anthropologists, art historians, gender scholars, and art critics, as well as photo essays which capture the transient moments of her many performances, conceptual art, educational collaborations, and exhibits.

I was afraid that the book might turn out to be a hagiography of the artist, in which her work was revered and commended by different people—hagiography is a popular genre in Nepal. I was relieved and delighted to find out that the twelve pieces in it are thoughtful and careful analytical essays and articles that shed light not just on Ashmina and her work, but also on the movement of democratic change in Nepal in the past few decades.

Laura Kunreuther, in “Democratic Soundscapes,” looks at the way Ashmina uses sound to create political subjectivity. In 2004, Ashmina staged “Happening/An Installation: Nepal’s present situation 2004.” Pairs of performers dressed in black walked around, then one of them would fall to the ground suddenly, feigning death. Their bodies were outlined in white chalk. From 5-6 p.m., Radio Nepal also broadcast the sound of people crying for a full hour, sending these cries across the nation in a national cry of mourning. Laura Kunreuther calls this a “democratic soundscape”—the production of noise as an act of political protest. “Happening” occurred by the Democracy Wall of Ratna Park, built to commemorate the People’s Movement of 1990 that re-established democracy. The police had banned gatherings at this site due to the tensions of the ongoing civil war, yet it is this space that Ashmina chose to gather activists, who stood there wearing black and in silence. The silence becomes a metaphor for all the other silences of the ongoing conflict—the curfews, the blockades, the hidden violations, the unspoken grief. The performance itself becomes an act of resistance against the censorship of what could and couldn’t be said. Pairing the silence with the crying, Kunreuther suggests, “becomes a means of reflexive engagement with the political context that exceeds rational understanding.”

To paraphrase Kunreuther: “Ashmina’s ‘Happening’ echoes this feminist politics, one that performs the inevitable experience of language– ‘language being at a loss’ – and that captivates people through audible expressions of affect that lie at the edge of discourse.”

Marina Kaneti, in “Disbelief: Artivism and the Emancipated Spectator”, looks at Ashmina’s Bipad—Ashmina’s protest to the 2016 Constitution, in which women were denied the right to pass on essential political rights to their children. Children born to non-Nepali men would not get equal citizenship or stand for political office, unlike children born to Nepali fathers. The state had failed women, and it was dead, rather like the skeleton, named Bipad (disaster) that Ashmina decided to carry on her back. Ashmina carried this skeleton all the way from Nepal to New York and other countries in-between as she traveled to different places that year. Kaneti looks at the way this art resonated with context-specific audiences, and why it may have failed to elicit a response in the capitalist surfeit of stimulation that is New York. Performative art is a vehicle for “performative democracy,” and Kaneti looks at the possibilities and limitations of this, via Ashmina’s Bipad and her engagement with different audiences in different locations. Kaneti asks interesting questions, including this one: “Moving from the world of fiction into the world of politic –how does art create that “willing suspension of disbelief” and how does it inspire the public to enact their political, if not poetic, faith?”

Kaneti uses the Greek myth of Arachne to analyze how women’s art goes unrecognized and unrewarded. Ararchne is the human artist who beat the goddess Athena at a weaving contest, in which she produces challenging tapestries questioning the authority of the gods, including Zeus. Yet, she is cursed by Athena to be a spider, doomed to weave for eternity. The myth acts as a reminder of how art that challenges the status quo is often unrecognized and relegated to the margins, a challenge that has faced Ashmina despite her intensely engaged and energetic contribution to the art world in Nepal.

The much loved and much missed Dina Bangdel, daughter of artist Lain Singh Bangdel, was an art historian who died tragically of cancer a few years ago while teaching in Qatar. So it was with a feeling of regret and nostalgia that I read her piece “Contemporary Nepali art and Lasanaa.” In the article, Dina looks at the way Lasanaa, Ashmina’s avant-garde center for contemporary arts, stepped in to change the well-worn path left by the giant footsteps of modernism. The framework of modernism was, and still remains, deeply entrenched and influential in the Nepali art world. Her article contextualizes the historical background of Nepali visual arts, including the early patronage of the Ranas towards European art portraiture, and the various art institutions that eventually sprung up in the Sixties under the patronage of King Mahendra. Art was created under elite patronage and artists rarely stepped out of this cozy cocoon, consequently toeing rigid boundaries. So the break brought about by artists like Ashmina was fundamental to making that conceptual, mental shift from a bounded political system to the vaster, wider democratic clamor and the inchoate participation of a mass democracy.

In “Performance Art: Feminist Representations as Cultural Intervention,” Archana Thapa contextualizes the way in which performance art is the ideal feminist medium. Because people are often confused between performance and performance art, she goes into some length looking at the way in which the two forms are different. The latter broke from traditional visual arts to resist commodification, and to challenge the boundaries that separate art and life (to paraphrase a quote by Charles R Garoian). Anything was possible in performance art, and there were no rules as there are in theatrical performance—the audience could and did interact with the artist, and the boundaries were wide open as to form, content, and financial modalities. Performance art resisted and upset the dominance of the patriarchal art world by breaking their rules. It was a postmodern strategy which allowed artists to speak about identity, class, gender, and sexuality without being bound by the strictures of formal high art. Thapa describes the 2008 solo performance, ‘Search Inter-definite: No Results were found,’ staged by Ashmina at the Siddhartha Art Gallery. Ashmina spends the entire two hours putting bindis on herself and a pot, and at the end she comes to resemble the pot. According to Thapa, this is a critique of the way femininity is created through daily rituals like putting on a bindi, and the cultural constraints put on the female body in a patriarchal society. The performance provided a site of transformation by revealing how women are created through a reiteration of rituals associated with femininity, Thapa suggests.

To the essay, I would add that the community-oriented ethos of Newar culture appears to have been central to Ashmina’s modalities of working. While most artists work alone as lone geniuses, Ashmina has often worked collaboratively or in groups, bringing together people for group interactions or engagements which broaden their sense of self from being a lone self to a member of a larger polity. Her latest project, Lasanaa, in which she often hosts artists from different countries for workshops and performances, allows her to share this space as an interactive space where different groups can engage and learn from each other. Conflicts inevitably arise in these situations, especially in the ego-driven and financially uncertain world of artistic production. But, her commitment to communal art-making has allowed her to work through these conflicts and continue.

In my own experience, I have found Ashmina to be as committed a friend as she is an artist. Whether sharing a good laugh over unnecessary heart stent operations, or airing a grievance about the most recent political mishap, I’ve always found Ashmina frank and immediate in her responses to the unstated and unspoken injustices of life. When I was injured in the earthquake in 2015, she and her husband Basanta were the first ones to realize that I had been injured, and to reach the hospital. When I ended up in the intensive care unit from a violent reaction to the anesthesia and required copious amounts of blood, Basanta offered to donate blood. They reassured my elderly parents and came by to see me as I lay immobilized in my parents’ living room after I returned from the hospital. As with art, so with life—Ashmina’s life remains deeply heartfelt and engaged at all levels. As a feminist artist, Ashmina also made the wise choice to find a marital partner supportive (and not competitive) of her work. A review of her work cannot go without a mention of how a supportive man by a woman’s side can be central to the challenging task of trying to make a living as a working artist, while simultaneously carrying on the responsibilities of family and motherhod.

Ashmina Ranjit is one of Nepal’s most important artists, and this book is an exciting compilation that brings together the voices of many different commentators who’ve viewed her work at close range. This book should be on the bookshelves of every library of every school and college of Nepal, as well as international institutions with a commitment to feminist and politically engaged art. Students as well as art critics will learn a lot not just about Ashmina, but also about the history of Nepali art, feminism, and performance art through this book.