Subash Thebe: Art Versus Thoughts Control

September 14, 2014 , by Jerusha Rai, 1 Comment
Subash Thebe: Art Versus Thoughts Control » My Dreams Mag
In this interview, we talk to Subash Thebe, a contemporary artist who deals with the abuse of authority in today’s politics and media. We explore his background, influences and his artistic process which has led to several exhibitions in London and Kathmandu and recently a scholarship to the prestigious Saint Martin’s College of Art. He also provides insights gained through learning in two very different countries and how young artists can develop their own work as well as help improve their local art scene.
It has often been debated whether art has a moral obligation to make a political stand. Perhaps the very act of making art is a political act. Though it will never be possible to pin down any rules and expectations on artists, perhaps as human beings we are morally obliged, in the least, to inform ourselves about power.
Subash Thebe, who is currently an artist in residence at Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre (KCAC), writes in his artist’s statement, “Maybe it was because of the losses we endured, I never even had the slightest thought of pursuing the British Gurkha military tradition of my community. Unconsciously, maybe I was choosing everything opposed to war and violence like art and music.”

Thebe’s father had lost his father in WWII in the Battle of Monte Cassino, Italy when he was still a toddler and he himself later became disabled in the army. Thebe’s more recent work deals with politics in a much more direct manner.

Closely following the Wikileaks story, he also painted the “Making and Breaking of Portraits” series which includes the portraits of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning being smeared with actual phrases used against them in the media.

An intentional break from his abstract expressionist work, the series portrays some of “the most courageous individuals of our time”, in a more direct and explicit way.

The defined contours of these very real individuals jut out of the bleak dark background; like the nail that stands out, they say, will be hammered down. However, for me, the “breaking” of the portrait does not, in the least, diminish the glimmer in their eyes. Those eyes still seem to stare back; knowing something, and hiding nothing.


In “#Metadata", his most recent exhibition at KCAC, Thebe explored mainstream media’s role in manipulating history and current affairs for the interests of the wealthy and privileged. It is in this series that the full force of the artist’s perception of a “decaying society” is felt. With thick viscous paint, a restrictive palette and revealing titles, Thebe is one of those artists who expose the horrors of war torn regions. The horrors that mainstream media fail to expose.
In this interview, we talk to Thebe about his life as an artist, from his background and influences to his artistic process which has led to several exhibitions in London and Kathmandu and recently a scholarship to the prestigious Saint Martin’s College of Art.

He talks of his solutions to some practical problems faced by artists and also provides insights gained through learning in two very different countries on how young artists can develop their own work as well as help improve their local art scene.

Acrylic on canvas, 100 x 150 cm, 2014
• How was the experience of being artist in residence at KCAC? Please tell us about your current activities there.

Being artist in residence at KCAC, was one of the most exciting and interesting experience vis-à-vis my past artistic involvement. The studio at KCAC, at the back garden of Patan Musuem is one of the best spaces I have ever worked at.You could literally feel the cool and refreshing ambience the greenery yields over there, and makes you forget the scorching summer of Kathmandu. Moreover, the residency helped me to realize my exhibition that preceded it.

Besides my exhibition, I have been doing few talk programmes in museum and school though most of the time, I pretty much enjoy my stay with friends and family.

• In previous interviews you had shed lights on what art schools need to do to improve art education in Nepal.What can young people do, right now, to improve the local art scene?

Yes, I believe there should be a reform in art education in Nepal in order to compete with the graduates around the world. It would be really beneficial if young people (we) could think and practice beyond the out-dated course curriculums and eventually align ourselves with the contemporary art world. We should actively participate in exchanging new ideas and thoughts, pass on constructive criticism and comments and continue the dialogue to make our local art scene more vibrant and interesting. In addition, one could make the most of internet, go through intense research, observation and reach out to the worldwide platform.

• You’ve mentioned that you chose art and music over pursuing the military tradition of your community. What was your family’s reaction to this? What would you say to young artists who face a similar dilemma?

The British Gurkha military tradition, as we all know, is nearly 200 years old and irrespective of our interest, it has been substantial social fabric of our community. My parents, in particular, were not that critical of my indifference toward this tradition, though they would have preferred me to pursue faculties like science, engineering or commerce where you have more chances of being employed after graduation. By the time I decided to follow art as a career, they had already succumbed to my persistence and passion. Whichever tradition one may belong to, one should follow the dream she/he believes can one day realise.

• You have been chosen as KCAC’s artist in residence, your work has been displayed in several galleries in London and Kathmandu and have now received a scholarship to the prestigious Saint Martin’s College. Looking back to your life, what were the factors that brought you this success?

The recent scholarship (Vice Chancellor’s International Scholarship) to study in University of The Arts London at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design has been the most exciting thing that has happened to me till now. It would not be enough thanking KCAC and Siddhartha gallery, the residency and exhibition, which eased my stay in a creative and prolific way. They have given me an opportunity to showcase my talent in my home country. Looking back, I find, the love of creating art, believing in yourself, persistence, hard work and of course support from family and friends, to be the most positive aspect that has helped me continue my practice.

• Please tell us about your recent trip to Mustang to see the cave paintings.

We had actually planned to trek Annapurna circuit. But because of the monsoon and temptation to visit the sky caves, we instead ended up walking through the Kali Gandaki valley in Upper Mustang. The barren cliffs of Mustang holds over 10,000 caves that date back to more than 2000 years. And some of them have paintings related to Buddhism inside.

We went to visit one of them near Koncholing village (few kms north-east from Lo Manthang) which was only discovered few years back by a local herdsman.

As much as inspiring to see those 13th century paintings of Tara and Buddha’s teaching, it was a death-defying walk of my life when a six-inch trail with 100m cliffs on both sides lay ahead to my fright. Besides the thrill, I really enjoyed the artworks. Although I practice contemporary art, I find traditional artworks very interesting and believe that they should be dealt with immense care and respect. The cave paintings indeed were of great significance but in a historical and cultural aspect than the artistic ones that I find fascinating.

• One of my artist friends, Asis Rai, before seeing the title of your Etude Op. Series, could sense an “electric, almost aural feel” in it. How are you able to translate your concepts so well into actual brush strokes?

Thanks to your friend! I painted the Etude series solely based on music; especially classical, while listening to a certain piece. Sound are basically waves of energy, they are vibrations travelling through air. I used this idea of repetition of waves and merged it with my artistic skills with the help of music which also is a sound energy. I guess the rest was up to the different spectrum of sound energy of a particular music that affected my consciousness while listening to it.

Yes It Was Worth It
Acrylic on canvas, 150 x 100 cm, 2014
• Have you ever faced an “artist’s block”? How do you deal with it?

To be honest, I am not sure if it is an “artist’s block” but I do get stuck quite often, sometimes in middle of painting and at other times before starting one. Most of the times it is about the various possible ways of executing an artwork. If I cannot decide promptly, I divert myself towards non-sense chat with friends. I probably go for a drink among many other recreational indulgence. Basically, I stop working and try not to think about it.

• Noam Chomsky appears in many of your discussions. Which other thinkers and artists do you concur with and why?

I refer Chomsky for the sheer academic reason, that is, I can relate my works with his astounding research as a background and literary support. Apart from Chomsky, most of the times, I rely on the works of investigative journalists and independent news channels for my research. Edward Said, Robert Frisk, John Pilger and Tariq Ali are some of the writers I find highly important. I like the works of artists like The Yes Men, Mirnah Bamiehand Ai WeI Wei. These artists and writers have merged their practice with the socio-political issues of our times and try to change the way we perceive history, which I can totally relate with my latest series of works on criticism/observation of western mainstream media.

• In your artist’s statement, you’ve said that you want to explore the question of whether art have a moral obligation to address social issues. From your recent works, can we assume that your answer is ‘Yes’?

Yes. I think art has a moral obligation to address social issues though it can bring apt changes or not is a different topic. I always believe that art has more to offer than the aesthetical values. May it be the The Yes Men’s BBC interview about Bhopal chemical disaster; Mirnah’s impressions of Palestine; or Ai Wei Wei’s massive installation of thousands of school bags, they have stirred our grey matter and questioned our conscience and humanity. I guess that is quite a big thing to achieve.

To follow Subash Thebe’s works, please visit: www.subashthebe.com

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