With this eighth installment, Prose Editor Kawika Guillermo continues “Stamped: Notes from an Itinerant Artist,” a travel series focusing mostly on art, literary exhibitions, and “artist areas” around Asia (and perhaps beyond).
I’m in Kathmandu, squeezed onto a barstool at a Medieval-style wooden table, crowded by young Nepalese all dressed in black. We bounce our heads to a cover band singing a Bollywood hit. We watch a patch of white backpackers dance near the stage wearing elephant-patterned pajama pants and holding three dollar cocktails. A tourist myself, I think this might be my chance to find a local informant, someone who can show me what Nepalese art is all about.
I lean in towards the long-haired man across the table, who has thrust his fist at every song, even to the Britney Spears cover. I calculate how to begin–‘Getting boring, huh?’ I’ll say, and then he’ll suggest other places to go. And I’ll say, ‘Cool, anywhere else you’d suggest going?’ He’ll say, ‘what are you into?’ I’ll respond: ‘poetry, art, anything like that,’ and then he’ll take me to some obscure, unmapped gallery, where a dozen political radicals will be listening to a reading by the first Nepalese Nobel laureate in literature, whose words will inspire me to write my own magnum opus.
“Getting boring, huh?”
“You came in like a wrecking ball!” he sings, thrusting his fist at me.
I try again in the bathroom surrounded by walls tiled with cassette tapes.
“Anything else to do around here?” I ask a man in all black.
“You’re not here to trek?” he says, briefly losing his aim.
I tell him I’m here to find an authentic experience of art. He tells me he’s a fashion designer, and that there’s a fantastic art gallery right next to the club.
“I just came from there!” I yell above a Modest Mouse cover. “That’s not like a real art gallery, just paintings of Mount Everest. I’m talking about real art!”
“But real people paint it,” he says.
“It’s for tourists!”
“Aren’t you a tourist?”
The exiled author, Ma Jian, once wrote that art cannot be religion, because “art requires you to push your individuality to the extreme and break all the rules.” They say there are three religions here in Nepal: Hinduism, Buddhism, and tourism. The art market too seems catered to one or a mix of these.
In Durbar Square, where the grandest temples of Kathmandu stand covered in white pigeon shit, and a nine-year-old girl remains captive in a monastery only to be worshipped as a “living goddess,” I continue my search for an authentic artistic experience.
I hire a guide, hoping the history of some ancient wonders will ready me for a true and inevitable artgasm. The man spends an hour introducing me to stone Mandalas. He explains how each divinely-inspired carving proves that there is hope for anyone to get into heaven, even cynical and perverted artists. My tourist walls get thicker as he tells me that giving money is one of the best ways into heaven. He then leads me into a small art gallery and introduces me to a “great Lama” who, I’m sure, will try to sell me some holy crafts.
The Lama is a heavy-set man, younger than me, and in blue jeans and a T-shirt that has washed-out Buddha eyes. I sit on a plastic stool as the Lama unrolls sheet after sheet of painted Mandalas.
“This one has an all cotton canvas,” he says. “It took three months to make by hand. This one is very old, higher price for this one. It took about one year to make by hand. This one was designed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself. Have you seen the American television show, House of Cards? Monks make this to symbolize world peace. This one took six months to make by hand, and inside there is real gold.”
The stacks of mandala paintings grow in front of me. I make the mistake of asking the price, and the Llama says “give from your heart,” and “give as if you are praying.”
I already know how this will end. I’ll tell him I’ll think about it, then he’ll look extremely sad and start asking personal questions, trying to make me feel guilty for being a tourist. Or worse, he’ll just flat-out say that I am cursing myself for not buying anything. I’ve been through this too many times to count. In India, in Laos, in the Philippines, in Myanmar.
The leaving is painful, but I escape having only lost six dollars to pay for a couple of yak figurines I can gift to a family member.
An old woman in a shabby saree follows me from Durbar Square, dragging her daughter by her arm. The woman begs me to buy milk for her children. She follows me for two blocks, stopping at every roadside stand to plead: ” You can buy the milk and give to me. I don’t want money, just milk for my children!”
Perhaps I’ve lost my way as a writer. My novel, ten years in the making, continues to get delayed. I’ve been published in great journals, but not the career-starting type. I have no idea how to market what I do, whether it’s memoir or totally made-up, whether it’s about traveling as an Asian American in an exotic land, or floundering in self-pity while trapped inside a narcissistic personality.
I’m sitting at a hookah lounge, rethinking my priorities, when an elderly traveler with bushy white hair asks me, “So are you here for the trekking?”
“No,” I say. “Art and culture, I guess.”
“No problem, we have lots of that.”
“Really? Is there any art center you might know about? All I can find are traditional galleries and crafts.”
“Sure, you can just go and have a look around this district.”
‘This district’ is the tourist district. I take a look around anyway. Since I’ve arrived I’ve felt claustrophobic, trapped in Kathmandu’s narrow alleys. I thought I would see mountains, but so far I’ve barely seen farther than two blocks. As I walk the streets, the rearview mirrors of motorbikes scathe my arms. Around every corner it’s “what do you want? Hash? Girl? Trek?” until “hash,” “girl,” and “trek” all become the same thing.
What do I want? I want to experience art but not crafts, I want to hear poetry but not sutras, I want “Nepal-chic.” Does it count as art when hawkers follow you for blocks, constantly lowering their price, saying “sir, sir, please have a look!” I want to be inspired, I want to say I came to Nepal and had an authentic, local, artistic experience, except without those words “authentic” and “local,” because that would make me sound like a hack. There’s nothing worse than walking into a friend’s home and recognizing all the cheap tourist trinkets lying around their house.
I want something authentic but consciously aware of its constructed authenticity. I want something local but anti-local.
Just when did my definition of art get so narrow?
Online research tells me that inside the Hyatt Regency Hotel estate, there is an art center that was built in the early ’70s. I arrive by taxi motorbike and find myself in a small subset of buildings that look like the cardboard tubes of a gerbil gymnasium. This is Taragaon, a place of modern art that has security guards posted around every entrance, but not one visitor.
The gallery preserves works of art and photographs taken by foreigners and expats. Most of the photographs are of Nepalese looking very poor, or mysterious, or religious. Maps from foreigners trekking through the mountains are hung beneath shiny glass, and paintings done by locals are the only objects with price tags attached.
I ambulate slowly through the gallery, arms akimbo, staring down each piece of art, each photograph, like I’m thinking deeply about it. But mostly I’m thinking surface-levelly about how I even got here. A wasp buzzes by. I’m deadly allergic to bees, and I think about how pathetic my life would be if I were found here, hours later, a dead tourist discovered within a massive, unvisited art complex.
I stare at an expatriate’s photograph of a woman praying in a temple. The art makes me feel nothing. It inspires me to do nothing. It speaks nothing to me. Maybe I’m not really an artist. Maybe I stopped learning to fake it. I can see the art is interesting but only from a distance, like agreeing with a friend that a woman is very beautiful, though she may spark nothing in me. Or tasting expensive wine and pretending I like it. The art, too, makes me question what I’m even doing here, in a place where children can’t even get milk.
*The Taragaon Museum is a preservation space nearby the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
*For actual contemporary art spaces in Kathmandu, I suggest this website.
Prose Editor Kawika Guillermo spends his days traversing around Asia, with Hong Kong as his beloved base. His fiction has appeared in Feminist Studies, Drunken Boat, Tayo, and The Hawai’i Pacific Review. His debut anti-travel novel, Stamped, will be published in Spring 2017 by CCLaP Press.