Remembering the Lost Sculptures of Kathmandu
Since the 1960s, thousands of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures have disappeared from Nepal’s public temples, shrines, courtyards, fountains, and fields. Prior to the thefts, nearly all of these sculptures were actively worshiped as living deities and their absence is deeply felt in their local communities.
In this project, paintings, interviews, and photographic documentation weave together narratives of these sacred spaces, exploring how people respond when religious art objects—that exist, not as commodities, but as vital living community participants—are physically removed.
Davis’ large-scale paintings bridge the present and past states of these sacred spaces by realistically depicting the sites as they look presently and then visually “repatriating” the stolen sculptures back into those sites with 23 karat gold. The use of gold provides a visual language revealing which sculptures have been stolen and references the commodification of the sacred through its associations with both wealth and divinity. Didactic panels accompany each painting, featuring historical images of the stolen sculptures, current photographs of the sites, information about the sculptures and any replicas, and excerpts of interviews with local elders, devotees, temple caretakers, and children. A website (rememberingthelost.com) accompanies the project, allowing viewers see a map of the sacred sites, and to search and sort a database of information and photographs of all known thefts.
In context of the ongoing problem of art theft—not just in Nepal, but worldwide—this project contributes to dialog about the international art trade and increases public awareness about the cultural significance of Nepal’s sculptures. In Nepal, the website and exhibitions provide a forum for people to acknowledge losses of their deities and exchange ideas on preserving what remains. After being shown in Nepal, the exhibition is intended to travel to public libraries, museums, and universities worldwide, offering visual and cultural context to sculptures that many people would otherwise only see in museums. People outside of Nepal will have the opportunity to see stolen sculptures in their original context, read narratives shared by the communities where the sculptures originate, and engage in the larger conversation about the intersection of art, faith, and the trade of cultural property. The interdisciplinarity and visual basis of this project make it easily accessible to the general public in Nepal and worldwide.
Project Background and Acknowledgments
The research presented here provides a follow-up to three important publications. The books Stolen Images of Nepal by Lain Singh Bangdel and The Gods are Leaving the Country by Jürgen Schick provide photographs of 120 sculptures stolen between 1960 and 1989. Their books inspired and enabled Davis to revisit the sites of thefts, where the photographs contained within them sparked the memories of people in those communities. Kanak Mani Dixit’s article “Gods in Exile,” in Himal Magazine, October 1999, makes a powerful argument for return of the sculptures. Without the efforts of Lain Singh Bangdel, Jürgen Schick, Kanak Mani Dixit, Dina Bangdel, and other scholars of Nepali art and culture, memories would serve as the only record of so many beautiful and significant sculptures.
Joy Lynn Davis has worked independently on this project since 2010, self-funding the majority of it. In 2013, the project received funding from UNESCO to support an exhibition and inclusion in the UNESCO international symposium “Protecting Asia’s Heritage: Strategies for fighting illicit traffic of cultural property and fostering restitutions.” In 2015, an exhibition of this project and accompanying community outreach activities was sponsored by the Swiss Embassy in Nepal. In 2017, The Mudd Center for Ethics at Washington and Lee University sponsored an exhibition of this project and inclusion in the interdisciplinary conference “The Ethics of Acquiring Cultural Heritage Objects.”
Suggestions for sponsorship in order to continue the expansion of this project and allow opportunities for the paintings and research to travel are greatly appreciated! Contact Joy Lynn Davis at joylynndavis @ yahoo.com.