Susan Simone : docu-Art Photography

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The People of Shangri-la

Artist Statement

Link to full poems translated with audio and video

The world the mountain country of Nepal is known to most of us through IMAX images of the towering beauty of Mt Everest, the trekking diaries that describe winding trails, and the hard radiance of portraits of the wind-worn ethnic peoples who live tucked away in remote villages. The rich temple art of Kathmandu has been documented in a strong visual images and well-written tales. This is the Kathmandu of legend, the Nepal of Shangri-La.

The real Kathmandu can be overwhelming. It is a crowded, smoggy city, a ghost of the original idyllic valley. Saved from the squalor of the maquiladoras by the absence of a reasonable system of roads (75% of the goods in Nepal are carried on the backs of porters over footpaths), the majority of people in Kathmandu survive in a traditional poverty girded by the caste system and made chronic by endemic corruption in the government and the foreign development agencies. Trying to understand what is going on, how in the world people get through their days in these conditions, became the challenge I faced while living and working in Nepal.

Just as I was about to declare myself over-loaded and temporarily out of the business of documentary projects, I met the Nepali poet Megh Raj Manjul. He came into my life at an art opening where, on a cool February evening in 2000, Manjul paid tribute to a feminist exhibition reading a poem he had written about his own mother. Even though I could not understand the words he was reading, I was fascinated by the feeling of the words. “Ama”, “Tika”, “Raato”.

Manjul is a master of the art of the immediate. His personality is open and curious. When I showed him a postcard from the exhibition, “we are all housekeepers”, he did not linger long on the surface, but began to press me for details, for the story of the lineage from slavery to Civil War to the public institutions and labor struggles of today. In turn, he told me his story. Manjul began his career as an itinerant poet working for the democracy struggle in the 1970’s and 1980’s, singing poems in the remote mountain villages to explain to the people why they needed to support the struggle for democracy in Nepal. He is something of a legend, like Woody Guthrie, especially in a world of illiteracy where song and story are part of the fabric of life.

Since the democratic government was installed in 1990, Manjul has seen many hopes destroyed. Corruption has undermined every aspect of government. Manjul’s verse of the 1980’s is strengthened by hope. The verse he writes now is lyrical but sad. He asked me to take photographs of what I saw, whether I understood it or not, and then he wrote poems in the voice of the people in the photographs.

By the time I left Nepal in July 2000, Manjul had written more than 50 poems in response to the photographs I had taken. From the photographs that I took, I have created a series of images that bring together the people, their stories, and Manjul’s poems. The original photography was shot with a 35mm. camera with black and white print and color slide film. The film was scanned into Photoshop where the composites were built up in layers. The images have been printed to an archival paper using an Epson inkjet printer.

The work for this project was supported by grants from the Puffin Foundation, the Sylvia and Melvin Kafka Family Foundation, the Linda Ironside Fund for the Arts Award, and a Durham Arts Council Emerging Artists Award.