On April 25, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, killing nearly 9,000 and destroying hundreds of thousands of homes. In the face of Nepal’s worst natural disaster, the government was slow and chaotic to react.
Days after the quake, Gurung Kakshapati got together with friends and volunteers and formed an ad hoc, aid distribution network, headquartered at The Yellow House, her family’s bed-and-breakfast inn located just south of Kathmandu.
Tech-savvy, resourceful, and multi-skilled – there were organisers, trekkers, nurses, doctors, backpackers – the volunteers met a crucial need. They did aid runs taking medicine, food, tarps and other supplies to affected villages – some nearby, others in remote, rural districts. In many cases, they were the first to reach hard-hit communities. Major international aid groups took notice; UNHCR gave them tarps to distribute.
Now, around six months after the April 25 earthquake and the major aftershock of May 12, Gurung Kakshapati has turned to what she knows best – photography – to co-direct a festival celebrating Nepal’s history and culture.
Photo Kathmandu, the country’s first photography festival, runs November 3 – 9 and features 18 print exhibitions displayed in public spaces – alleyways and squares; 20 artist talks; slide show nights; and workshops. It’s being held in the earthquake-damaged historic city of Patan in Lalitpur.
Gurung Kakshapati spoke to Al Jazeera about putting together Nepal’s first international photography festival at a time when the country is experiencing protests over the new constitution, a fuel crisis, and the huge task of rebuilding.
NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati: Six months have passed since the earthquake and much remains to be done with regards to rehabilitation for those most-affected by the disaster. But the world headlines have moved on. We felt it was important to bring some attention back to Nepal in a way that tells nuanced stories of Nepal and Nepali society – stories of resilience, our ability to adapt quickly to changes, no matter how sudden, and the strength of our community ties.
Photo Kathmandu will attempt to confront the earthquake head on while it is still fresh in the memories of those of us who survived it. The exhibitions will take place around the ruins of centuries-old heritage sites, as a reminder of what we have lost and what we hope to rebuild. It is also testament to the fact that Nepal still stands; we have not been completely destroyed by the earthquake and we will always persevere.
Al Jazeera: Photo Kathmandu takes place in the historic city of Patan, which was severely damaged in the earthquakes. You grew up nearby; you were even there on the day of the first earthquake. Since June, in the lead-up to the festival, Photo Kathmandu has run an online print sale to raise funds to help rebuild Patan and now there’s enough money to rebuild at least one site. Why did you decide to hold the festival in Patan and which historic site will be rebuilt?
Gurung Kakshapati: Patan is a special city. Like many other places, it suffered much during the earthquake, but it is ready to rebuild and recover. Patan’s communities are intricately linked and remain steadfast in their desire to rebuild their own heritage and livelihoods, supported, of course, by others. We, the curators and directors of the festival, have strong connections to Patan and we felt it was the right city to begin what we are trying to do. Patan has welcomed us with open arms and we wish to give back something, perhaps even take part in the unfolding history of the city and become intertwined with the currents of its community. The festival has raised $14,000 and these funds will go to rebuilding an old pati [traditional rest stop] in Chyasal that came down in the earthquake.
Al Jazeera: In curating the festival, how has Photo Kathmandu utilised Patan’s public spaces and involved the local community?
Gurung Kakshapati: All of our 18 print exhibitions are in public spaces around Patan, with a number of them up on walls in the streets and little alleyways. Others are in public chowks and patis, historically public spaces where residents of Patan congregate to relax and talk. Exhibitions like the one featuring a Nagbahal resident Juju Bhai Dhakwa’s collection are woven tightly into the fabric of his community. The Dhakwa photos are being exhibited in the photographer’s renovated home, where the subjects of the photographs lived and worked. This exhibition cuts across time to present an intricate portrait of the Dhakwa family and the Nagbahal community.
Another exhibition involves the Swotha community from Patan and yet another details the past and present lives of Patan’s patis, many of which were damaged or destroyed by the earthquakes. So the festival is taking place with the implicit and explicit participation of Patan and its people. It is paying homage to Patan’s history, its people and its capacity to move forward.
Al Jazeera: The festival is themed ‘time’ and the exhibitions coalesce to tell a history of Nepal. The theme is particularly poignant when we think of the recent earthquakes – devastation caused in such a brief window of time. Why did you choose this theme and what considerations were you making during the curatorial process? What narratives can we draw from this festival?
Gurung Kakshapati: The theme of ‘time’ relates closely to our other underlying theme – change. Time and change are implicit in the works being featured in the festival. Each exhibition presents a chapter in Nepal’s history. Strung together, they trace the evolution of Nepali society and the transformations of the past half-century. The April earthquake has definitely been a part of our recent history. But when you step back, you realise it is one chapter in our history. Our losses this year feel insurmountable, especially I am sure, to families who have lost family members and homes and livelihoods, but it is important for us to note that this too shall be one chapter in our history and we will move forward.
In addition to the Nepal Photo Project exhibition [from the Instagram account of the same name, which documented the aftermath of the earthquakes], we also have Hope for Tomorrow and Patan Camera Obscura that respond to the recent earthquakes, and a discussion on “The Earthquake and the Image” featuring various photographers and non-photographers who were documenting the earthquake, role of social media in dissemination, and so on.
Through the featured exhibitions, we hope to champion a narrative of Nepal that is markedly different from the limited ones of poverty and disorder that permeate the global consciousness.
Al Jazeera: We often look at archival pictures – prominently featured in the exhibitions – to glean something new. Which particular photograph or body of work does this for you?
Gurung Kakshapati: All the works featured in the festival look at our past or present in one way or another. In doing so, we are constantly reminded of what is old and what is new. The Camera Obscura built by Miku Dixit, Laura Diamond Dixit, and Rene Fan show us the origins of the optics, the earliest of cameras, the past. But the curated view they present, is of the fallen Char Narayan temple in the Patan Durbar Square, that speaks of a more recent past – the April and May earthquakes; the present – the current state of Durbar Square; and the future – the plans to rebuild Char Narayan temple.
Al Jazeera: You have said that culture and the arts are powerful facilitators of the dialogue needed to rebuild identity. What ultimately do you hope to achieve with the photo festival and how do you see it as putting Nepal on the map?
Gurung Kakshapati: We hope to sustain this festival as a space that embraces diverse narratives, and as a community that supports each other. We hope the festival continues to put Nepal on the map for its rich history and heritage but also its present – its constant effort to negotiate identity and rights and aspirations for the future.
Al Jazeera: Photographs tell powerful stories. One of the workshops discusses how to keep the issue of Nepal alive for an international audience. What do you think is the role of photography when it comes to reminding such an audience that Nepal still stands; that people should visit?
Gurung Kakshapati: Photography has this beautiful ability to impart empathy and connection. The immediacy of the visual medium allows us to shape and reshape popular narratives. Through Photo Kathmandu, we hope to present the vitality of Nepal to the world. We are equally keen to reach local audiences. This first edition of the festival showcases highly acclaimed international photographers like Philip Blenkinsop and Kevin Bubriski alongside local Nepali photographers like Kishor Sharma and Prasiit Sthapit, as well as non-photographers such as Juju Bhai Dhakhwa and Sumitra Manandhar Gurung. Each of them tells powerful stories. Some from the inside and others from the outside. As a festival, we really value this balance in perspectives – it creates rich and diverse narratives. This is an undercurrent of the festival we hope to sustain, where we strive to create space for people to tell their own stories, as well as encounter stories told by others about them.