Cover Nepali artist Tsherin Sherpa talks about his native country's historic debut at the 59th Venice Biennale (Photo: Riccardo Tosetto)

This year marks the first time Nepal is participating in the Venice Biennale, which opened in April. It exhibits the works of Nepali artist Tsherin Sherpa—here, he tells Tatler how he brought the art of his native country to the landmark event

Nepal made its debut at 59th Venice Biennale—the first time the country is participating in the illustrious international cultural exhibition. 

Helming the debut is Nepali artist Tsherin Sherpa, who is known for his work in the traditional Tibetan artform of thangka painting, featuring illustrations of a Buddhist deity on paper or cotton. Sherpa also often incorporates pop culture references in his work. 

The artist’s creations are now on display at the Venice Biennale’s Nepal Pavilion in an exhibition titled Tales of Muted Spirits—Dispersed Threads—Twisted Shangri-La. He hopes the pavilion will challenge the image of Nepal as a “serene and secluded Shangri-la, static in its ideas and lifestyle”, he says—and instead showcase what else the country, and its art scene, have to offer.

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Established in 1895, the bi-annual cultural exhibition—which returns this year in Venice after a three-year absence, thanks to the pandemic—opened on April 23 and runs through November 27. Meanwhile, Sherpa’s works are also set to be exhibited at Art Basel in Hong Kong this year from May 27–29. 

He talks to Tatler about his experiences in bringing traditional Nepali art to the world stage—and what he hopes viewers will take away from the exhibition.

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What are your thoughts on Nepal’s inaugural national pavilion at the Venice Biennale? 

Nepali society has always been prolific in expressing itself through diverse art forms over the centuries—an artistic legacy that has continued to this day by traditional and contemporary artists alike. 

Since establishing my studio in Nepal five years ago, I have had the chance to observe its vibrant art scene. However, the voices of Nepali artists are still vastly muted in the global art scene. I’m overjoyed to represent the first Nepal Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, as this is an unparalleled platform for making these voices audible.

Tell us about your work exhibited at the Biennale.

For the Nepal Pavilion, I collaborated with artists across Nepal to produce work that incorporates artistic traditions, such as metal sculptures, woollen carpets and thangka paintings. 

Tales of Muted Spirits—Dispersed Threads—Twisted Shangri-La is curated by [Nepali artists] Sheelasha Rajbhandari and Hit Man Gurung. [It] stimulates the sensorial experiences of the audience through sights, touch and sounds. Oral histories, archival footage, and performative traditions are presented in a manner that bridges the intertwined histories of the Himalayas with the rest of the world.

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What was it like to work with fellow Nepali artists? 

Nepal has a rich lineage of artistic traditions that merge adept craftsmanship with layered iconography. I was astounded by the talent of these artists working in various traditional mediums across Nepal, so I’m excited to share this platform with these artists and generate greater visibility for their work.

How does your work at the Nepal Pavillion celebrate Nepali art? 

The Pavilion is possible because of the collaborations with various traditional artists across Nepal. It’s a celebration of Nepal’s contribution to the artistic lineage of the world. The presence of materials like woollen carpets, thangka art and bronze sculpture images—entrenched in the collective Nepali psyche—pay homage to the aesthetic sensibility and communal history of this place. 

However, it is important to point out the rapid loss of culture and history that has taken place in Nepal over the past five decades. As Nepal opened up to global markets, the steady commodification of Himalayan art,  coupled with a lack of adequate government support or supervision, has led to a loss of respect and reverence for this art, both within and outside Nepal. 

This Pavilion is an important platform to reexamine our judgment of this art. I hope viewers see our project not only as a celebration of Nepali art but also as a call to re-evaluate its worth.

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You’ve been part of other art biennales and triennales before. How is Venice different?

The Venice Biennale is the oldest and arguably the most significant international stage for the visual arts. A Pavilion at the Venice Biennale provides artists from each participating country with an invaluable international platform to showcase our work. I hope the Nepal Pavilion positions our country to contribute to a broader narrative on contemporary art.

How has the art scene in Nepal developed over the last few years? 

I have witnessed a dramatic change in it within the last five years. There is definitely more financial support from various international organisations. There are also more commercial galleries as well as non-commercial art spaces and visible art programs. 

We’re also hopeful that there will be more collective effort, both from the government as well as non-governmental sectors, to support local art programs.

What excites you the most about participating in the Biennale? 

The Venice Biennale has been a distinctive opportunity for me to collaborate with various artists on a large scale. With the Nepal Pavilion, I had the freedom to create [art] in collaboration with skilled traditional artists from across Nepal, who, despite their talents, have been relegated to the shadows. I’m thrilled to see these artists, and by extension, traditional Nepali art itself, get its due exposure and reverence.

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