London-based artist Zoe Williams travelled to Kathmandu between February and April 2020 to take part in a residency at the Mcube Gallery, Patandhoka. The residency was part of the British Council’s 60 Years anniversary programming. The residency was organised with the support of Triangle Network/Gasworks

Zoe’s residency aims were to collaborate with craft communities and artisans from Thimi – the pottery capital of Nepal – to produce two-and-three dimensional as well as performative works. However due to the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown measures enforced her residency, Zoe had to switch to a more reflective studio-based practice where she began collating the knowledge that she gathered while interacting with the community prior to mandated isolation.  

Starting from 8 January 2021, residency curator and founder of Mcube Gallery, Manish Lal Shrestha is hosting a presentation of works created by Zoe and her Nepali counterpart, Sushila Singh. The following interview was conducted with Zoe during her last weeks in Nepal.

How has your artist residency been?

It has felt very productive despite the situation with the lockdown. During the three weeks that I was able to move freely, I feel that I have gained a good taste of the Nepali arts and crafts scene, as well as of the culture in general. It also allowed me to Identify a place and people to work within Thimi, an important hub for ceramics alongside Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley.

Working in Thimi has given me a deeper understanding of the importance of ceramics to this community, as well its status as a handicraft in Nepal to a wider extent. This introduction and a chance to at least start working within this context have given me a lot of things to consider and new inspirations to make work with going forward. Even though the situation with Covid cut my time working in the actual community short, I was then able to work within the studio at Mcube to create a series of works in a more meditative way, which I hope can be utilised in a more public format later.

I think there are things from so many different angles that UK artists can take away from being in Nepal and gaining a greater understanding of both the arts and culture there. One of the key things this experience highlighted for me was the real emphasis on community culture that exists in Nepal, both within the art scene, which has had to be very self-reliant due to the lack of funding and also within the different communities themselves.

Tell us about what you did during the residency - the collaborations that were realised and the practices that you explored.

During this residency, I was predominantly looking at the practice and production of ceramics in Thimi and Bhaktapur, which is centred around using locally sourced terracotta clay. Ceramics is an integral part of my practice in the UK and so I felt drawn to exploring its use values in Nepal, especially as it seems to be a craft that is given less exposure locally, although it is one with a long and rich tradition.

After some planning, co-resident ceramic artist Sushila Singh (Nepal) and I began to work with Thimi-based potter Jagat Krishna Prajapati and his family to develop a series of items, which we planned to use as both sculptural and functional objects within a final community feast.  Our aim was to take the traditional forms of the pots and vessels created in Thimi and merge these with our own designs and interventions.

In terms of the other craft practices that I encountered which informed my work during this process; I have become very interested in the traditional woodblock images of Nagas (snake deities) which hang above doors in the Kathmandu Valley and I would very much like to look further into the context and history of these pieces as an additional aspect to the clay work and my research. The designs on the ceramic pieces I have created are heavily influenced by the image of the snake – and I am fascinated with the associations it has with air purification, rain, and crop fertility, as this also seems to me to be interlinked with the notion of clay as earth.

The culture of food and feasting in Nepal, especially within the Newar community of the Kathmandu Valley has also been of huge interest and influence to me during this time. Both before and during the lockdown the practice of eating and cooking together and discussing the symbolic importance of different foods within ritual has been very important.

How were your interactions with Nepali artists and art students?

In terms of working with the students, Sushila and I tried to focus on pushing the idea of clay beyond craft, we asked the students to consider it not only as a functional material to make pots with but also as an expressive and performative medium. The work with the students that we did was interesting and I hope that they got some things out of it.

In terms of my work with Sushila Singh, I think that it came together quite organically in the end with the idea of us working collaboratively on the creation of certain works for the communal feast. For me, it was fascinating to see how individual Nepali artists deal with such a strong tradition of intricate craft and notions of the sacred within their work, and how this is also filtered through the questioning of gender roles, technology, and contemporary life in Nepal. It was also great to work with recent graduate artist Anjila Manandhar as an assistant, her approach to moving images, sound, and found materials were really interesting to see.

How are UK and Nepal residences similar/different?

Perhaps in the UK there might be more of a focus on the practice development of the artist and I think for something where the artist is engaging with the community like this there would be a longer lead-up time with the community itself, but I am not sure. On the other side of this, it feels that people in Nepal are very open to trying things and there is less of a stress on having to book things in advance etc, so the process feels more relaxed and organic in some ways than I think it would in the UK.

Do you find potential for collaboration between contemporary and traditional craft arts in Nepal?

I think there is massive potential here for the two spheres to learn and feed on each other in both an educational and professional context. Especially in the field of ceramics, as it seems that this is somewhere that artists and craftspeople could really collaborate in order to make sure that the trade develops as well as retaining its strong traditional roots. In the context of Thimi, it feels like there needs to be greater encouragement and incentives in place for younger generations of locals and others who may be interested to get into the craft if they want to, but also to develop it to work for them. There are some examples of this with Thimi ceramics and also SOS training centre in Thimi, but I think that artists with an interest in ceramics could also play an important and imaginative role in this.  

The link between sustainable materials, preserving ecosystems, and non-invasive farming methods also seems an essential aspect of the ceramic tradition which could be highlighted and developed within a contemporary art and craft context.

What has been the highlight for you from the residency?

I think one of the main things I took back from this residency, is how the relationships between craft, food, ritual, and the sacred are so embedded within the routines of daily life and the domestic in Nepal. I was also really struck with the proximity of agricultural and animal life even within the urban environment, this was especially apparent in Thimi and Bhaktapur to me. I was especially interested in the way in which farming practices and the production of ceramics have been so interlinked here and feel much can be learned from this for sustainable development – and really should be supported and nurtured within Nepal. I will certainly return, as I feel I need to finish this project and reconnect with the people that I met during my time in Kathmandu. I now also really want to learn more about the different cultural practices in Nepal and ceramics in other regions.

Zoe Williams (b.1983). Lives and works in London and is represented by Ciaccia Levi Gallery, Paris. Her practice incorporates a range of mediums including moving images, ceramics, drawing, and performance-based work. Her work employs a recurrent symbolic visual language in order to implement a playful interchange between notions of eroticism, craft, gender roles, excess, and ritual.