IMAGINE

Graffiti Art in Nepal

All photos © Sneha Shrestha. Inquiries: imagine876@gmail.com.

By Stephanie Genkin

In her early teens Sneha Shrestha would paint on her bedroom walls of the family home in Kathmandu. “I’d make peace signs,” said Shrestha, the 27-year-old artist who has since become the Founder of Nepal Children’s Art Museum.

“I enjoyed painting and drawing for as long as I remember. It always made me happy,” she continued with childlike delight.

She still paints walls.

The World Learning Guest Artist-in-Residence prides herself on being the first female graffiti artist in the Himalayan nation.

She was creating abstract art when she discovered her passion for graffiti.

“I used to do photography,” she explained. “My friends created pictures on huge walls, it would get painted over so they would ask me to photograph it. Slowly I became more and more interested in it.”

Diminutive in stature but by no means short on enthusiasm and drive, Sneha explained patiently that, while street art had been booming in Nepal, “it’s not the same as graffiti.”

“Graffiti is working with letters. It’s associated with hip-hop culture. Street art is the rest of the stuff,” like portraits or cartoons, she pointed out.

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The Nepalese artist, also known by her graffiti street name Imagine — a direct English translation of her mother’s name — creates art using Nepali and Latin letters.

At first, she tried to write in English to create graffiti art. But she soon turned to her native alphabet for inspiration.

Referring to her innovative use of Nepali characters as an artist, she said, “It has never been seen as aesthetic. It doesn’t have the prominence of Chinese or Japanese. Now there are more artists starting to stylize Nepali letters. Before you only saw it in books.”

The letters made vibrant and alluring by Sneha’s brush seem to have universal appeal. Her fans span many countries, and people around the world contact her via Facebook and other social media to tell her they like her work and ask if a piece is for sale.

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“You don’t need to read Nepali to connect to it,” she explained. “It’s all about how art moves people. They are drawn to things that are aesthetically pleasing to them.”

She did her first solo art show in Nepal in 2013 and sold almost all her pieces to admirers at home and abroad. “In Nepal, people never saw the letters being treated this way. It’s a new art form in Kathmandu.”

Today she sells her works in both the U.S. and Nepal.

“It’s really about a vision of my two worlds coming together,” she said. “For me, that’s really cool. I’m translating my culture through art, mixing living here and there.”

Though art is central to her life, she admits that she didn’t intend it to be the focus of her curriculum as a student at Gettysburg College, a small liberal arts institution in Pennsylvania adjacent to the famous battlefield, which emphasizes experiential learning.

“I didn’t intend to major in art, but I took an art class every semester. I had so many credits I realized I could major in it,” she said.

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Before coming to the U.S. to study, the furthest Sneha had travelled was neighboring India. But that all changed thanks to two study abroad programs with World Learning through the School for International Training.

In 2008, she went on the SIT Geneva Switzerland program, which focuses on International Organizations and Social Justice. Her independent study project dealt with human rights of Burmese women, as well as human rights issues worldwide.

While she found the endeavor to be intellectually stimulating, Shrestha soon found herself wanting to engage in a more arts-focused academic discipline. A year later she enrolled on the SIT Bali Indonesia program, where she studied Balinese Art and Social Change. Her final project was on modern painting in Indonesia, and she had the opportunity to spend two weeks learning from a couple of prominent contemporary Indonesian artists.

When she returned to Gettysburg College, she entered a piece she had made in a school-wide jury exhibition, having few expectations.

Much to her surprise, she was awarded the Gettysburg College Senior Prize Juror’s Award in Studio Art.

“I wasn’t even an art major then. I just submitted a piece,” she said. “I just wanted to be in an art show. I didn’t think it would win an award.”

Sneha graduated with honors with a BA is Studio Art and Globalization Studies in 2010. She moved to Boston shortly after finishing her degree for a job with Artists for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that provides underserved youth with mentorship and paid employment in the arts.

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Connecting youth and art is something Sneha remains passionate about.

In 2013, she was able to realize her dream of establishing the Children’s Art Museum of Nepal. That year she received an Advancing Leadership Fellowship from SIT which came with a $10,000 award for a social innovation and leadership project. She used the money to open the Children’s Art Museum of Nepal.

“It was important to me to make sure that kids have art growing up,” said the artist.

“Art was so important to me as a child. It was a place where I could be myself,” she said, adding that the Nepalese teaching system is very strict. “There’s no room for creativity or art. Art was never really a priority for kids in Nepal.”

The museum has been up and running for 15 months. Sneha is the director of this space in Nepal — the first of its kind — where more than 1,000 children have visited and created their own art. For the vast majority of public and private school students visiting the museum, this was the first time they even held a paintbrush.

“Kids love it and there is no space like it in the country,” she added.

In addition to grants from other institutions, the museum has received support from international organizations such as UNICEF and UNHCR. And there are currently two Gettysburg students doing internships there.

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Still, Sneha continues to pursue her dreams.

In September, she is starting an intensive one year masters’ degree program in education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on a partial scholarship.

But she insists she’s not changing gears. “I’m still an artist, and I’m also all these other things. I want to combine all these things. I just don’t know what to call it yet,” she said.

It should be of no surprise that the founder of Nepal’s first children’s art museum already knows what she wants to focus on when she gets to graduate school: how people learn informally in museum spaces, what kind of designs work in museums, and how children learn best.

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“I’ll still be painting,” she said. “I’ve always chosen multiple career paths. I want to be an artist, and I also want to do all these other things.”

After she completes her education at Harvard, Sneha isn’t sure whether she’ll stay in the U.S. or go back to Nepal.

“I think I’m always going to be an international artist. I don’t see myself settling down,” she added.

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