How can we think about cultural heritage when life is lost?

Cindy HoArticle, Commentary1 Comment

nepal-before-after

Before and after photos leave nothing to the imagination: Nepal has suffered a tremendous loss to its cultural heritage when a massive earthquake hit the small Himalayan nation on April 25, 2015.

Should we be concerned about culture when the death toll is still mounting every minute? We know countless people have suffered the devastation of losing family members and loved ones. When life is lost, how can we even speak about old pieces of wood and brick? A simple answer is: Nepal will be rebuilt.

Children gathering on the steps of Nayatapola Temple, Bhaktapur

Children gathering on the steps of Nayatapola Temple, Bhaktapur (Photo: ©Ho Mang Hang)

Somehow, Nepal’s heritage will be revived. But how? What will life be for future generations of Nepalese growing up without ever being able to weave through the alleyways of Kathmandu Durbar Square, where royal palaces had stood for hundreds of years? What will it be like to not climb the steps to the ancient temples of Bhaktapur where their ancestors worshipped—kings and queens among them–until the very moment when the ground shook? What will they miss without the gods and deities, carved into the pagodas of Patan, looking down on them? Where will tomorrow’s artists and craftsmen seek inspiration now that their muses have disappeared from the studios and workshops of their predecessors?

Debra Diamond, Curator, South and Southeast Asian Art, Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries said on PBS Newshour: “It’s the largest concentration of World Heritage Sites anywhere in the world, and absolutely unique in their style and in their mixture of Hindu and Buddhist and secular traditions.” The entire area is a showcase of some of the finest craftsmanship and architecture. In one of the world’s poorest countries, these sites are symbols of identity and pride. Homes and centers for social gatherings, temples and monuments are much more than brick and mortar or tourist destinations. Theyre part of life itself.

Nepalese Woodcarvings of gods and deities

Woodcarvings of gods and deities (Photo: ©Ho Mang Hang)

“If Nepal did not exist it would… be well-nigh impossible to invent, superabundantly endowed as it is with the fruits of fifteen hundred years of artistic creation and a wealth of cultural, social, political and even geographical paradoxes.” J. C. Harle wrote in The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent. Harle continues by saying that Nepal’s “centuries-long isolation, allied to a very strong sense of cultural identity, have meant that in many areas time has virtually stood still” and that “art flourishes in the living context in which it was created.”

On April 17, 2015, just one week before the catastrophe, the UNESCO Office in Nepal held a Presentation on Art Theft and Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property. Indeed, the black market trade of Nepalese art is well known. The John C. and Susan L. Huntington Photographic Archive of Buddhist and Asian Art features images by Lain S. Bangdel, author of Stolen Images of Nepal; Jurgen Schick’s The Gods are Leaving the Country “provides a visual commentary on the callous sack of a nation’s heritage, and it is difficult in words to convey the full sense, or horror, of its message.” Neil Brodie wrote in a review of the book. Brodie also wrote about Nepal as “a well-documented example of the damaging effect of indiscriminate acquisition.” Stolen Art of Nepal, a pilot project by Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust provides a digital catalog to complement these publications with regular updates of lost recent thefts. Most recently, Joy Lynn Davis’s “Remembering the Lost Sculptures of Kathmandu,” serves as a response to the illicit smuggling of sacred stone sculptures in Nepal. Plans for The Museum of Stolen Art, to house replicas of stolen sculptures, are described in this web site. The research concludes that the stolen pieces have gone abroad, to private collectors, dealers, storage facilities, and museums.

Nepalese woodcarvings in rubble

Some woodcarvings can be seen at the bottom of a pile of rubble in this photo. (Zhou Shengping/Xinhua via AP)

As we mourn the dead, and focus on saving lives and repairing damage, Milleniumpost observed that “antiques dealers have already swung into action.” The New York Times also reported signs of looting. “People are trying to steal—why not? They are very valuable things.” Newsweek quoted a volunteer rescue worker. After all, with demolished resources in desperate situations, what is one to do?

Cultural heritage is the ultimate non-renewable resource. With a shattered economy and diminished tourism, the recent earthquake in Nepal has made this perfectly clear. If people are picking up fallen temple artifacts and offering them for sale while others are digging through the rubble with bare hands for their loved ones, there is only one response: DO NOT BUY!

We may not fully understand the powers that allowed this natural disaster to happen in the first place, or how Nepal will recover from it; but we can all understand that engaging in the trade of these objects is tantamount to furthering the loss of life for the people of Nepal.

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Cindy Ho

Cindy Ho

Cindy Ho founded SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone in 2003 in response to the looting of the National Museum of Iraq. Born in Hong Kong, she is an award-winning graphic and web designer and art director in New York City. Her professional work has won accolades from the industry, but it is her personal work that best shows her power of persuasion. As a semi-professional photographer, her efforts to bring awareness to and preserve cultural heritage have been exhibited in juried solo and group shows nationwide, resulting in the documentaries Trailing the Written Word: The Art of Writing Among China's Ethnic Minorities and West of the East--A Journey Through Macau, Asia's First and Last Colony. She guest-curated the 2011 exhibition Quentin Roosevelt’s China: Ancestral Realm of the Naxi at The Rubin Museum in New York City of a forgotten and dispersed collection she uncovered and reconstructed from five different locations. She also co-edited the accompanying publication and initiated the first international conference held on the future of Naxi cultural heritage. She is currently the managing editor for the website about Wang Jingwei, the 20th century Chinese poet, revolutionary and statesman.
Cindy Ho

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One Comment on ““How can we think about cultural heritage when life is lost?”

  1. Avgi E. Tzakou

    I absolutely share your views and I have also expressed publicly my opinion, as I noticed that in all these devastating moments of History -repeatedly happening – even in cases that it is related to Human cruelty, or Wars, I am thinking particularly of all these articles about Palmyra, or Aleppo today, in regards to what life was there before. The Public is systematically oriented, even by us as professionals, to be more concerned about the future of Monuments as structures, than what is the fate of the people who live around them, what is really going on, when people are killed, children are abandoned, mothers have no homes or support any more, or when whole populations are obliged to leave their homeland- a new migration of Nations- actually to nowhere.

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