The Art of Burning Art

October 8, 2015 , by Premila van Ommen, Leave your thoughts
In one of the most peculiar displays of art on October 4, 2015, artist Govinda Sah 'Azad' staged a radical performance at the Bikalpa Arts Centre in Lalitpur burning his treasured collection of paintings. Azad's paintings were created 15 years ago through a series of hard work but it took no time for them to vanish with a blink of an eye. The laymen might be left dumbfounded but even more surprising was the burning act that Azad had performed.

Govinda Azad painting during his all-Nepal cycle tour in 2000.
Exactly one and half decade ago, Azad had set forth on a nationwide cycle tour of Nepal and his works were the effigies of what he envisaged across the country. With the slogan ‘21st Century is the Century of Art and Peace’, the tour was dedicated to Araniko and Lord Buddha in a mission to raise awareness and promote peace.

Through shows, workshops and lectures in different communities, landscape paintings were made along the way capturing the country’s natural beauty against the brutal reality then of an ongoing Maoist people’s war. Today, a new struggle ruptures the serenity of these peaceful landscapes from the country’s plains in the Terai.

Govind Azad burning his painting from 2000 which is a burden for him today.

"Let’s Burn The Burden",
Performance art by Govinda Azad at Bikalpa Art Center, Kathmandu, 2015.

Country is in fire
After years of stagnation, a national constitution has finally been enacted, but in disregard to the many grievances pertaining the rights of women and ethnic minorities. With over 40 deaths in less than a month of protests in Madesh, Govinda’s art performance comes at another poignant time in the nation’s history. It is made even more personal as he himself is Madheshi, belonging to the indigenous Maithili group; an ancient civilization from Janakpur whose language once graced palaces of Newar Malla kingdoms in Kathmandu Valley as the official court language.
Growing up with the discrimination faced for being a dark-skinned low-lander Madheshi, Azad nevertheless states on his 2000 tour: “From Mechi to Mahakali, people gave me brotherly love and affection. Perhaps the blessings they gave me can be passed on in new form.”

The paintings were made at the time of civil war, that left thousands dead, in honour of “sacrifices and loss of lives for those who fought for a better life and justice, quality and respect.” They are set ablaze for the same causes today in the same questioning of senseless bloodshed. Throughout history, artists have destroyed works to comment and open new possibilities of thought.

The performance of destroying artworks has often been used as a form of social protest and critique.
Aesthetic behind the burn
Nepal’s own sacred spiritual values puts into practice the reflections of transience and impermanence. The Buddhist philosophies borne from Lumbini, another part of the troubled Terai, have developed practices such as the sand mandala, where days are spent to place each grain of coloured sand in an ordered pattern, only for them to be deliberately swept away to teach us about the impermanence of things.

In the West where there are no traditions to consistently destroy that which is considered art, demolishing creations rips through a multitude of meanings beyond notions of temporarily. Where ever one makes a painting, even in a place in Asia called Hetauda, the creation holds a different meaning as it’s original intent was to capture some sort of vision for a sense of immortality; paintings were made to be seen and passed on, not to be destroyed. More than the motive to seek perfectionism through rage, the performance of destroying artworks has often been used as a form of social protest and critique.

An interesting fact to note Azad’s paintings is their creation were, in a sense, a grand performance. Landscape paintings are often created in solace immersed in the splendour of nature and yet the paintings were created in part of a tour that was immensely physical and interactive. The physical burden itself of carrying kilos of art equipment and cycling through rugged terrain and varying climate day after day became a sort of pilgrimage of personal discovery and material challenge.

Communication with curious onlookers as scenes were painted extended the performance that became inclusive of an audience of different backgrounds, castes and ethnicities. At invisible marks on the map of Nepal in some points, some times, it was not just Azad watching the landscapes carefully measuring out distance and colours with brushstrokes.

A young village girl in school uniform, an elderly man, a monk, perhaps a thief, watched a stranger freeze in paint the scenery they passed by daily; bustling through with the wind rustling the leaves of the same trees becoming noticed with scrutiny through a traveler’s eyes. Their gaze too became the performance, and their conversations, all adding to the weight of paintings preserved over a course of fifteen years.

“Works of art are not meant to be possessed they have to go back to society one way or another."
“Works of art are not meant to be possessed,” explains Azad, “they have to go back to society one way or another.” From the first tracks marked by the bicycle route to the first brushstrokes and the first flames to light a painting, the performance comes full circle. The hours, sweat and tears devoted to the creation of those pieces are also sacrificed in flames as an offering.

The paintings burn as just the nation burns.

The performance is both a personal and political act, painfully bringing transformation through destruction to open the space for new reincarnation; for greater hope.

The ashes will be used to create new artworks in the future.

Read an exclusive feature on the internationally acclaimed artist Govinda Azad here.
Words by Premila von Omenn.
Photos by Milan Rai.

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Categorised in: Arts

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