UNESCO has expressed concern over recent death threats against Nepali artist Manish Harijan, whose collective work ‘The Rise of the Collateral’ is currently on exhibition at Siddartha Art Gallary in Kathmandu. The artist was charged with blasphemy on Tuesday by a group of World Hindu Federation activists led by Hem Bahadur Karki, a former Nepal Army personnel, who barged into the gallery and threatened to shoot him.

dsc00277

The paintings which have been in exhibition for the past three weeks depict images of Hindu deities combined with western superheroes. One of the image shows Shiva’s Nataraj (dancer) posture depicted as a Superman while the other painting shows goddess Kali in a western outfit.

The press statement issued by UNESCO on Wednesday states that artists must be given liberty to provoke new thinking and allowed to enjoy freedom of artistic expression, as guaranteed under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “ Tension that may arise between artistic creation and religious and ethical values should be openly discussed instead of becoming subject of intimidation or even death threat to the artist”, says Axel Plathe, Head of the UNESCO Office in Kathmandu.

After the incident, Sangeeta Thapa, the curator of Siddartha Art Gallery informed the police requesting protection. “ We had requested for protection, but the state has become partner in crime by padlocking the gallery.”, Thapa’s son Siddartha Thapa told Nepali Times.

The Harijan and Thapa were both summoned at CDO’s office today where the artist explained his art work. “ Manish explained to them that the paintings did not demean the deities but indicated towards western influence on eastern religion and culture, but the authorities kept insisting that we either make changes to the exhibition or stop it.”, informed Thapa who also made it clear that they were not going to succumb to the pressure and compromise on artistic freedom.

Karki had filed a complaint at the District Administration Office demanding that the exhibition be stopped and seeking arrest of the artist. It is learned that the CDO and police were acting on his complaints. Thapa also told us that Karki had threatened to ‘re-educate’ his mother for allowing such exhibition in her gallery.

This is the first time Nepali artist has faced Taliban-style death threat for exhibiting artistic work. Artists have faced such threats in neighboring Bangladesh and Pakistan from Islamist groups while threats from Hindu-extremists in India forced artist MF Hussain to flee his country in 2010 and seek asylum in Qatar.

Anurag Acharya

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012