What It Means To Be Nepali
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What It Means To Be Nepali

Photography exhibition explores Nepali identity through raw portraiture

Being Nepali © NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati/Nepal Picture Library 2016

NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati has a knack for turning turmoil into art. As Nepal undergoes yet another period of political unrest, the Kathmandu-based photographer and curator used art to reflect on the state of her country and its citizens. The result is “Being Nepali,” a month-long exhibition at Trinity-Spadina’s Gallery 44 that explores Nepali identity through simplistic and raw portraiture.

“With all the recent events going on, more people are talking about being Nepali,” Kakshapati, Gallery 44’s winter 2015 artist-in-residence, says. “But it’s also raising a question for me [an American-educated Nepali], that if I’m in Nepal, are we insiders by just being Nepali?”

Kakshapati’s portraits feature Nepalis of all ages, ethnicities, and genders. They are each stripped down to their shoulders, bare of any facial ornaments and head gear. “This is a chance to look at all Nepalis and to really remove a lot of their exterior markers,” Kakshapati says.

Also interspersed with these photos are archival portraits from the Nepal Picture Library (NPL), which Kakshapati co-founded in 2010. Her work with NPL inspired Kakshapati to create the “Being Nepali” series.

Being Nepali © NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati/Nepal Picture Library 2016

“Based on how you look, people can tell what group you are from and a problem is who gets to define who is a Nepali. Internationally, Nepal is often stereotyped for the Himalayas or third-world poverty, so the NPL and [the exhibition] are my efforts at bringing a different perspective,” she says.

Nepal suffered a massive earthquake in April 2015, destroying infrastructure and homes that must be rebuilt. Shortly after the earthquake, Nepal’s major political parties voted to divide the country into seven states. The division caused upset among Nepal’s various ethnic groups, many of whom argue that the states should be split along ethnic lines. Several Nepali residents living on the Indian border are also unhappy with a clause that prohibits citizenship for children born to Nepali mothers and non-Nepali fathers but permits it vice-versa.

Nepal officially dissolved its Hindu monarchy in 2008 after more than 50 years of pro-democracy movements. Still, about 40 people died in protests and clashes with police in the summer of 2015.

Manjushree Thapa, a Nepali writer, said the country is in “permanent precariousness” at a January panel about the exhibit. “For many Nepalis, there’s this sense of not knowing what will happen next,” she says. “And it becomes a strange environment for those who are creative because there is so much inspiration but the circumstances are unfortunate.”

Machindranath, 2010  Photo by NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati/Nepal Picture Library 2016

Being Nepali © NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati/Nepal Picture Library 2016

In November, the South Asian Visual Arts Centre invited Kakshapati to visit Toronto. Her stay in the city has allowed her to focus specifically on the “Being Nepali” series and its interconnection with NPL.

But her work also connected her to the diaspora in Toronto.

“When I came, I only knew a couple of Nepalis here, but I’ve been really impressed with how tight-knit the community is,” Kakshapati says. “I’ve started talking to many people about how they can help with the NPL work.”

Kakshapati says that she will involve this diaspora in the “Being Nepali” series and the NPL; the photographer has recorded Toronto Nepalis’ stories—both visually and orally—to better understand what their identities mean to them. The “Being Nepali” series and associated stories will later be hosted online.

“Being Nepali” is open until February 6 at Gallery 44.