Clay at play: Lost art and identity

October 21, 2016 , by Shakeel Gavioli-Akilagun, Leave your thoughts
Shyam Prajapati’s recent exhibition, Losing Identity, is a powerful exploration of the rapid erosion of Nepal’s culture, through the medium of earthenware. His art pieces make a subtle mockery of the contemporary dictum that ‘progress is always analogous to improvement’, and hark back to a time when the linkages between handicraft, community, and cultural identity formed an integral part of lives of everyday Nepalis. Prajapati’s work was part of the 2016 BFA Exhibition Project.

Losing Identity, the culmination of Prajapati’s artistic endeavors at Kathmandu University’s (KU) Center for Art and Design, is a traditional exhibition with a modern twist. The work consisted of 41 clay implements fired in the customary Nepalese style, each taking between 3 to 4 days to complete. On each, however, Prajapati carved the logo of a foreign brand. The logos are symbolic of “[the encroachment of] globalization in traditional spaces” according to the artist. At first, the brand features are difficult to identify as they are intrinsically foreign to the basic nature of the Anati (wine pouring vessel) and Dwacha (used to keep rice and lentils) on display. To observers, the exhibit serves as a staunch reminder of how modern ideas can slowly permeate what may have seemed like unchanging practices, until the original custom has been all but replaced.
Prajapati first learned to fire pottery in the traditional Nepalese style during his formative years as an art student at KU. It was the discovery that most youths did not know the names of Nepalese earthenware utensils, much less made use of them in their daily lives that prompted Prajapati to dedicate himself to the documentation and preservation of traditional Nepalese clay-work. During our conversation, he noted with displeasure how modern materials are today visibly encroaching on a space once occupied exclusively by clay; the opening sentence of his exhibition’s description reading “plastic[s] and unbreakable metals have replaced earthenware in the past decade”.
Prajapati stresses the strength of the connection between Nepalese earthenware and Nepalese culture. Clay, he explained, is regarded as pure, and it is for this reason that earthenware utensils are ubiquitous in traditional ceremonies ranging from religious worship and weddings to death rituals. To Prajapati, therefore, the displacement of earthenware in the daily lives of Nepalis is equivalent to no less than erosion of Nepal’s most deep set cultural practices. To that end, he observes how even among those who earn their livelihood from the production of earthenware, the practice is slowly disappearing. Prajapati’s elderly neighbors in Bhaktapur used to fire clay in the traditional style, their children however have all moved to more lucrative careers in Kathmandu, and for their family the practice will likely end with them.
  The heavy undertones of iconoclasm and cultural change present in Losing Identity are reminiscent of the work of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Weiwei’s work incorporates objects of traditional Chinese heritage which Mao sought during the Cultural Revolution, and frequently makes use of clay-work. One of his most striking pieces -Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn – consists of a photograph triptych featuring Weiwei doing exactly that (or maybe not!). Another still – Coca Cola Vase – takes the form of a traditional Chinese vase with the words ‘Coca Cola’ painted over its Jonquil glaze.

Notable works in Prajapati’s exhibition include a Gop or Ghainto (vessel used to store drinking water) emblazoned with the label ‘Coca-Cola’, a Karuwa (a smaller vessel, also used to store drinking water) bearing the ‘Ruslan Vodka’ logo, and a traditional clay cooker with the ‘United Induction Cooktop’ logo.

The exhibition hinted heavily at the existence of a wider trend in Nepalese society, in which apparently cultureless practices emerging from an ever more interconnected world are rapidly displacing their traditional Nepalese counterparts. Prajapati pointed to such changes occurring in Nepalese music, dance, and clothing, claiming that “it is our responsibility to protect and preserve this art”.

As is the case with any endeavor driven by an underlying ideology, the message is Prajapati’s art is at constant risk of ignoring the wider scope of the issue it seeks to address. While the irony of a clay pot carrying the label ‘Carlsberg’ could not have been lost on many, is will surely have occurred to most that it is in fact far more practical (not to mention hygienic) to drink one’s beer from a sealed metal can than a fragile clay vessel. In arguing for greater use of traditional Nepalese clay-work, Prajapati was reluctant to acknowledge the practicality (both financial and otherwise) of plastic and metal implements. Progress will often come at some cost, and an exhibition such as Prajapati’s should strive to provide observers with a balanced picture of the world. To that end, the exhibition at times came somewhat across as that of an artistic luddite.

Nonetheless, Prajapati’s fusion of traditional Nepalese claywork with universally recognizable symbols of globalization presented viewers with an interesting medium through which to observe the changing faces of Nepalese culture. Prajapati’s composition was refreshing and dynamic in its use of a material that is often anything but. We look forward to seeing more from this young artist.

Words by Shakeel Gavioli-Akilagun.

Photo courtesy: Shyam Kala Prajapati.

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