Pranab Man Singh
Reflections on a Knowledge Pearls
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”
– Audre Lorde
A few weeks after our trip to Heidelberg, I sat down with my colleague and fellow participant, Sagar Manandhar, and we started working on a collaborative course that we intend to conduct this fall. Our intention is to combine the two courses we will be teaching, the Studio Art course being led by Sagar and Art Theory and Aesthetics course being led by me, by displacing the location of learning from the university classroom into an urban city setting, namely the old city of Kirtipur. While this idea was something we have been toying around with for the past couple of years, the trip to Heidelberg allowed us to immerse ourselves in a learning experience built on the city that informed us and gave us a common experience and approach from which to design our own course.
We have tentatively titled our course, “What is ‘art’ in a Newar town?” As the title suggests, a central concern of the course will be to consider what we mean by ‘art’, how we have come to learn the word, how it is used, and the political economy within which it operates. This idea comes from the exercise in building the glossary of urban transformation that was a consistent part of our experience in Heidelberg. However, in Nepal and perhaps unlike in Heidelberg, words and the knowledge they contain are part of what needs to be investigated. The words ‘art’, ‘beauty’, ‘aesthetics’ and ‘theory’ come to us in the global south as a result of centuries of colonial dominance over indigenous knowledge systems. They come shaped by a particular world view that is closer to German history and to the university I teach in than to the experience of Kirtipur. These are terms learned as a result of historical violence and dominance. For us, as faculty members and students, who seek to pursue careers in the ‘arts’ in a Nepal where neoliberal capitalism has firmly established itself amidst its many ethnicities and ways of being, it becomes important to ask individually and collectively what Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev asked in Documenta 13, “What could the word art be a stand-in for?” This is perhaps the first step in developing a glossary of words that might speak better of Indigenous peoples’ ways of creating and imagining.
The week in Heidelberg also gave us ways to consider changes to our own pedagogical practices that would be required to conduct a course like the one we are designing. A major change for me will be a shifting away from the classroom and gallery spaces to explaining theory and history, and balancing it with the exploring and learning we will participate in through our engagement with the city. In this journey, Sagar and I will be learning alongside our students. Rather than being the people with all the answers, we will be taking on the role of helping our students navigate and make sense of a world of incomplete information, social and economic injustices, power relations and bureaucracy, making use of the limited experience we have gained so far. A central role will be to facilitate and manage the experience of the city to make time and space for all of us to read, reflect, share ideas, make connections, and build relationships and trust – all necessary components to find a way to articulate something that you lack the vocabulary for.
I noticed that much of the discussion and discourses that were happening as part of our excursion to Heidelberg was part of a larger conversation that was taking part within the university. The interdisciplinary makeup of the faculty and students from Heidelberg made me realize that this was a sustained and long running conversation that many in the university were participating in. While the knowledge production system and the resources that support this in Heidelberg are not possible to replicate within my department or university, it should however be possible to have a sustained conversation on a number of running themes and ideas. Given the ad hoc nature of academia in Nepal, this will be a challenge, but it has got me wondering how such an exercise might be started and sustained with the resources we do have at our disposal.
In closing, I go back to my final thoughts that I shared at the end of our excursion. If ways of knowing and the knowledge we produce are situational and situated, then what kind of knowledge would a city like Heidelberg be encultured towards producing as compared to a town like Kirtipur? That both towns have a university in close proximity to themselves and are considered historic towns that carry components of their nation-state’s heritage are the most immediately obvious. In these terms Heidelberg and Kirtipur can be talked about as part of a global network of cities in which the former is a valued knowledge pearl while the later aspires to be one. But these are the terms of Europe and its history of colonization, what would it mean to compare them in terms of the town of Kirtipur and its own knowledge system and history?
Pranab Man Singh Pranab Man Singh is a writer, editor, and translator. He currently works at Quixote’s Cove and Satori Centre for the Arts, both companies work to support the creation of art and literature. He is an Assistant Editor at La.Lit, and his writing and translations have been published in several books, magazines, and newspapers. At KU Art+Design, he has been teaching art history and critical theory since 2010 and has been on the BFA Dissertation Committee since 2018. He is currently a part of the MFA class of 2022.