"Ok Jess, let’s do this!" / by Jess Linton

I met Kabi in his beautiful self-built studio in Boudhanarth, tucked behind the majestic Boudhanarth Stupa (which might be wrapped up in its Earthquake splint but still holds its strong presence). It's a minimalist studio space with welcoming hand-built wooden furnishings and plenty to look at: frames of work; large ply woodblocks soaked in old ink with stories to tell that you could run your fingers over all day. Kabi Raj Lama is a brilliantly calm and composed visual artist and print-maker. Over the past few weeks of getting to know him he has proved to have the free-est of spirits, with an undefeatable appetite for humor and laughter but a serious respect for and commitment to his art-form.

Kabi told me about his work in Japan, where he had studied print-making and ended up staying for four years. He was there when the Tsunami hit and when he returned to Kathmandu he took on a residency with Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre. He produced a powerful series of prints – ‘a post-Tsunami montage’ - and when he was asked to work with Srijanalaya on a children’s project earlier this year (just three months before the earthquake on 25th April 2015!) he asked Sharareh if they could explore natural disasters through ‘earthquakes’.

The session asked the children to think about their city and what might happen if an earthquake came. A bold subject for young children but the session started with education around earthquakes and what we should do if an earthquake hit. I'm still fascinated by the timeliness of the work and how the children might respond to a workshop themed in this way. Kabi hopes to revisit the children now that they have had to go through this experience and we have thought about this together.

I talked to Kabi about Art Refuge UK’s work and some possible work with an exciting new initiative Art Works!: Sangai Khelaun (Let’s Play Together) - which was taking its first programme to Gyachchok, Ghorkha. Kabi shared that he was also keen to take his work out in to particularly affected areas of Nepal since the earthquake and that he had been thinking about a ‘portable print making studio’. I was quick to tell him more about Bobby Lloyd (Chair of Art Refuge UK) and Debra Kalmanowitz’s “Portable Studio” approach that was developed through their joint venture Art Therapy Initiative (ATI) which has taken them to various conflict and post-conflict areas to work with displaced communities in challenging contexts. The  "Portable Studio" has been of interest to me and in many ways shaped my practice and brought me here to Nepal.

The “Portable Studio” was based on the premise that, beyond the physical structure we might work in or the physical tools we bring: ‘the internal structure that we carry with us as art therapists can allow for work to physically take place in a wide range of settings …extended from the refugee camp dining room and bedroom, to the hills surrounding the camp, and, at one point, the local rubbish dump’ (Kalmanowitz and Lloyd, 2005: 108).

As they go on to explore, this ‘internal structure’ is made up of several key elements. Elements of course include an awareness of and attitude towards the art-making process, the art object/ image and the individual making it. In my work here in Nepal I have carried with me this central ‘belief in the individuals as possessing internal resources rooted in experience, resilience and culture rather than being a powerless victim for the therapist alone holds the solutions’ (Kalmanowitz and Lloyd, 2005: 108). This feels particularly important here whether working with urban refugees in a country who is not a signatory for the UN convention for the rights of refugee or with Nepali citizens who have been waiting since 2009 for a new constitution and with it Government reforms and policies – both groups living with minimal support, even acknowledgment or guidance, from the state.

The “Portable Studio” also acknowledges ‘the art studio’ as fundamental to art therapy practice, particularly in the portable studio setting.

“Art therapy studio practice involves facilitation of immersion in the art-making process – fostering creativity, playfulness, imagination and authentic expression in a supportive environment.”

~ Kalmanowitz and Lloyd, 2005: 107

I like the way they draw on this idea that ‘art and imagination depend on cross-fertilization. Art generates art and imagination provokes imagination’ (McNiff, 1989:38) - highlighting that: ‘it is through imagination that we can examine and question, reflect and connect… open up new avenues for an individual rather than closing them down’ (Kalmanowitz and Lloyd, 2005: 107). This cross-fertilization of influences, approaches, skills, and a synthesis between our external and internal resources would become a key focus in this collaboration between a visual artist and art psychotherapist and a visual artist and print-maker.  

Kabi's eyes sparked harder and his smile grew even wider when he was reassured about how possible his idea might be. I went on to show him Bobby’s work to establish the ‘PrintBike’ with artist Sally Labern via "The Drawing Shed" at which point Kabi immediately exclaimed: “Ok Jess, let’s do this!”

Kabi and I met again when I had started to plan the trip to Gyachchok in Gorkha  and it seemed to make sense to suggest to Kabi that we collaborate.

We quickly seemed to let over excitement push our "portable studio" to its limits as we attempted to take a plethora of tools and materials way up in to the mountains. Which we managed! After careful consideration it felt important to us to make this gesture at a time when the Gyachchok community had lost so much and had been taken so little in aid. 

I had a brilliant day in and around the backstreets of Kathmandu gathering our resources, led by a man who clearly knew what he wanted in order to take print-making to the heights he felt it deserved. It took weeks for Kabi to find the stores that could help him with the supplies for his print-making after returning from Japan, the great master of the practice. It was such a pleasure to get on the back of a bike and be introduced to all of the spaces that might be missed by the untrained eye and that could bring Kabi so much joy!

We went to one of my favourite stores, the hardware store for tools (and a few other random objects for my collection), another twenty minutes on from the small print and ink shop that stocked printing inks from Kolkata in India. We went to Kabi's local fabric shop, one of the only shops in Kathmandu that supplied canvases. And finally squeezed through alleys and round swollen corners to an incredible woman in the backstreets behind New Road and Chhetrapati to see if our request to cut and hem 15 pieces of fabric (for the next day!) was possible. The shop front was squatted bolding in between crooked buildings and dubious looking planks of wood at 45 degree angles doing their all to keep buildings propped in place. As relentless, slightly disturbing sounds of building works tapped away at our eardrums we were told that a family just a few doors down had lost 6 family members here in their home on 25th April. The space felt stale, uncomfortable, sad and yet these unyielding living conditions didn't deter her. We were asked to come back in an hour to collect the finished work. If there is one thing that must stick with me when I start frowning at a To Do list back in the UK it's this. Such determination to carry on regardless. Barely a flinch of fear in sight or an admittance that life was throwing its worst. And after exchanging a bag full of beautifully made materials for a few rupees (and that was after an insisted tip) off I was sped home to start checking in on those internal resources before our trip the next morning.


Reference: Kalmanowitz, D. & Lloyd, B. "Inside the Portable Studio. Art therapy in the former Yugoslavia 1994-2002" in Art Therapy & Political Violence: with art, without illusion (2005) London: Routledge Publishers, 106-125