Earlier this month, a group of Hindu nationalists threatened the life of 27-year-old artist Manish Harijan, citing paintings in his solo exhibition at Siddhartha Art Gallery in Babermahal, Nepal that fuse Hindu deities and superhero icons. Since the incident, authorities have sealed the gallery doors.
Twelve activists of the World Hindu Federation (WHF) approached the artist in the art space on September 11 (over two weeks after the show’s opening on August 22), threatening to shoot Harijan and burn the eleven works deemed blasphemous.
“When I started making these paintings, I did not think things would turn out this way because I know I have not painted anything that is offensive. People have simply misinterpreted my work,” Harijan told Nepali newspaper, República.
Harijan’s show, “The Rise of the Collateral,” features paintings created during the artist’s eight-month residency this year at the Kathmandu Contemporary Art Center. In Harijan’s works, the Hindu god Shiva, strapped in red boots and cloaked in a gleaming Superman costume, poses in a divine dance posture, one hand gripping a pistol, the other grasping a lotus. In another painting, one of the goddess Kali’s six hands offers the viewer the middle finger. The gold-encrusted Bhairav duels with Captain America in another work.
Harijan tried to explan to the activists that the mixture of religious and secular imagery was uncritical of national or religious programs. He writes in the catalogue, “Superheroes espouse the philosophy of most religions: Do not kill. Do not steal.” Sangeeta Thapa, director and founder of the gallery, also writes in the catalogue that superheroes emerged in the late 1930s in America as symbols and defenders of democracy.
Thapa, concerned with the artist’s safety following the incident, went to the police. Instead of offering asylum, however, the authorities descended upon the gallery, issued court summons to Thapa and Harijan and padlocked the gallery’s doors on the word of the chief district officer (CDO), but without a legal warrant.
Prior to the incident, the Hindu nationalists, led by Hem Bahadur Karki, former colonel of the Nepal Army, had been frequenting the art space. They issued a complaint on September 7 to the District Administration Office (DAO) with the demand that the exhibition be closed and the artist arrested. The DAO did not act until authorities visited the gallery in response to the death threat.
“We were told by the CDO that Harijan’s paintings were only appropriate during Gai Jatra and that the artist should paint beautiful paintings that conform to the traditional ways. They also said that the artist did not have the right to interpret Gods,” Thapa told República.
The works of Harijan are not unprecedented. Contemporary Tibetan and Indian artists have thoroughly explored religious iconography in contemporary art practices. Although Nepali artists have used the deities, generally speaking, in a more conservative manner, contemporary art in Nepal consists of more than placid depictions of Himalayan peaks and Buddhist thangka tapestries. For instance, other contemporary Nepali artists such as Sujan Chitrakar, Laxman Karmacharya and Sudeep Balla have borrowed from Pop Art’s commercial symbols.
Harijan sees the threat to spring from misunderstanding, but local artists and international organizations have viewed the event as an infringement to freedom of expression.
“The right to freedom of expression must also apply to artistic expression. Tension that may arise between artistic creation and religious and ethical values should be openly discussed instead of becoming [the] subject of intimidation or even death threats to the artist,” says Axel Plathe, head of the UNESCO Office in Kathmandu.
On September 12, over 100 supporters gathered outside the gallery in solidarity with the artist. Thapa writes to ArtAsiaPacific that it is “a very stressful and absurd time,” and that “what has temporarily saved us is the support of the local artists.”
At a time when democracy looks untenable for this country without a constitution and teetering on the verge of civil chaos, Harijan’s imagery of superheroes who thwart abuses of power may offer a relevant social critique.