In Search of the Missing Images: Analysing a Feminist Shift in Visual Culture in Nepal
The Feminist Memory Project is an on-going initiation by Nepal Picture Library to build a visual archive of Nepali women’s feminist history. The first phase of this project was showcased in Photo Kathmandu Festival 2018 in a public exhibition around Patan Durbar Square area titled “The Public Life of Women: A Feminist Memory Project”. According to the co-curators of the project, Diwas Raja Kc and Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati, the aim of this is to document the progress and struggles of the feminist movement in Nepal for in-depth study public access for further research by building a digital archive of photographs, documents, letters and other visual materials. Kc asks, how do we free our histories—the narratives and images of our past—from the grips of economically and culturally dominant groups? By taking The Feminist Memory Project as a case study, this paper aims to explore the questions of detextualising visual culture to expand the challenge the hierarchy and dominance of texts as the source for Nepali history. The debate between the legitimacy of the textual source versus the agency of visual material has been going on amongst scholars of anthropology and cultural or visual studies, for over two decades in the case of Nepal as well. Their insistence to move beyond text to the visual is being actualised by artists and curators like Kc and Kakshapati who are not just shifting but also expanding the definition of the archive. The paper then questions how researchers and activists are actively searching for missing images for the archive, that exists in the oral narrative and memory of feminist movements in order to fill the gaps in the visual representation of women in Nepali history. This shift in visual culture is challenging the traditional methodology and pedagogy of history writing, through their use of oral histories, through the focus on memory and through personal photographs that get brought out in the public. Can one then call a project like this to be a feminist shift in history? And finally, the question of whether constructing a literal image of women whose actions in the past can be seen as “feminist” through a contemporary feminist stance is problematic if the women don’t see themselves as a feminist, is explored to complicate the politics of being a feminist in today’s Nepal. Since ‘feminist’ is a very politically charged word with varied connotations and interpretations through history.
The questions and issues raised in this paper deal with strands within the larger critical debates of textualisation, feminism and the archive relevant to the ground in Nepal rather than tackle these big questions on themselves. The analysis will not just focus on the specificities of the project/exhibition but also on the visuals of the photographs themselves.
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