In 2014, I, Alberto Rey, had a solo museum exhibition at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. That project outlined the history and present conditions of the Scajaquada River. The river was buried under the city of Buffalo in the 1800’s as a way to keep from dealing with the smell and pollution found in the water. Parts of the river remain buried and it continues to be polluted even as it is monitored by state and federal organizations. My research and installation took about three years to put together, and it presented the complexity of how economy, government policies, lack of planning, lack of accessible information and climate change can dramatically erode an environmental and cultural asset while creating insafe health issues to underserved populations.
It was during this installation that I was approached to consider doing a similar project about the Bagmati River that flows though the middle of Kathmandu, Nepal. After initial discussions with professionals, museum staff and community members in Kathmandu, it was clear that there was a great deal of interest in starting a new project investigating the Bagmati River. I was granted a residency at the Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Center a few months later, and my research began in earnest. Jason Dilworth, a colleague at the State University of New York and a graphic designer, joined the venture early in 2016 and his work has been integral to the project’s success. During Jason’s and my first trip to Kathmandu in March of 2016, we were able to strengthen past connections to the project while building a larger network of individuals and groups committed to improving conditions in the Kathmandu Valley and the communities outside the valley who live along the river. Support for the Bagmati River Arts Project has grown steadily from the beginning through the assistance of Hatchfund donors, travel support through SUNY Fredonia and a Burchfield Penney Art Center grant. It has continued to grow through the sales of the project’s publications and the sales of my artwork.
The Bagmati River Arts Project (http://www.bagmatiriverartproject.com/) includes exhibitions, lectures and a website that houses a project overview, daily of blog of research in Kathmandu, sketchbooks, data, videos and links to the project’s publication and documentary:
- an exhibition at the Siddhartha Art Gallery at Barbar Mahal Revisited in Kathmandu opening on November 20th, 2016. My artwork, water data from the Bagmati River and the video documentary will be presented on the second floor. The first will include artwork by Nepalese artists whose attention focuses with issues related to the Bagmati River and related health concerns in the area. We are also working with the fine art faculty and students at Kathmandu University who will be creating work related to their cultural connections to the river.
- a book ,Complexities of Water: Bagmati River, Nepal and Beyond, is a publication that will examine how the holiest river in Nepal became spoiled by decades of pollution and policies that did not address issues related to climate change. It’s present condition is a result of is the result of government mismanagement and oversight, lack of concern for underrepresented communities who live along its banks, and extreme flooding and droughts due to climate change. Recent reports have ranked Nepal as one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change due to the high rate of urbanization, unchecked industrial development, severely low water supply, high pollution levels, increasingly frequent extreme floods and droughts, predictions of worsening conditions and lack of appropriate planning to mitigate or adapt to these conditions. Reports also list Nepal as an LDC (least developed country), which indicates its potential limitations to address these issues. This project hopes to bring international attention to this issue and hopefully some support to help provide finances to assist in addressing these issues. While examples of pollution and the effects of climate change can be found throughout Nepal, there is no better example of how bad the situation has become than what has happened to the Bagmati River. The river is the most sacred Hindu and Buddhist river in Nepal and its banks border the holiest Hindu temples and several UNESCO heritage sites. Yet, it is the most polluted river in Nepal. The Bagmati River is also a prime example of how adversely climate change can affect a community while, at the same time, highlighting the resiliency and commitment of the residents to continue the fight to mend their river. The importance of the river to the people of Nepal and residents of Kathmandu had resulted in inspiring city-wide community events that have tried to restore the sacred waters. While their efforts are admirable and have motivated government action, little has been done to mitigate climate change causes or to adapt communities to their present conditions or to future projections. The proposed book, documentary and related programming connects the science of water quality and climate change to effects of urban migration, social norms, economics, industrial development, and government policies. The book will also investigate how the river’s condition has affected religious rituals and culture. The inclusion of interviews and artwork by professional artists whose work deals with the Bagmati River will provide a unique visual perspective on Kathmandu’s cultural connection to the river. While the issues investigated are specific to Nepal and the Kathmandu Valley, the general causes of the pollution, degradation of the water and its connection to climate change is reflective of many rivers and communities throughout the world. Through aesthetically-interesting and related imagery, maps, and graphs, we hope to provide a new perspective on the interconnectedness of science, economics, environmentalism, health issues and art as it relates to the complexities of clean accessible water and the related social issues. By understanding the interrelatedness of complicated issues in the specific local region, the audience can begin to appreciate the complexities and connectiveness of their own locality to the global community. The publication was made available in Kathmandu at no cost to the residents to assure wide dissemination of its data to a diverse communities. It also will be available in the United States and sold as a way to fund other parts of this project and future projects. A link to this finished book is available on the project website (http://www.bagmatiriverartproject.com/project-publication-2/).
- a documentary video documents the project and include interviews with water quality and health professionals, community members as well a policy maker in Kathmandu. Songs by traditional Nepalese folk singers are incorporated throughout the video including a commissioned song about the Bagmati River. A link to this finished documentary is available on the project's website (http://www.bagmatiriverartproject.com/videos/bagmati/).
- a brochure and poster written in Nepalese will also provide important accessible scientific and health data about the river. The poster and brochures will be distributed to the communities that live along the entire length of the river in Nepal. Members of the Bagmati River Expedition 2015 team, who created a comprehensive report about the river’s water quality, microinvertebrates, avian population and plastics data, have already established connections in these communities. We have worked with Sujan Chitrakar and his graphic design students in designing the posters and brochures. Sujan is the Academic Program Coordinator and an Assistant Professor for Kathmandu University’s School of Art, Center for Art and Design. We will be collaborating with the students at SUNY Fredonia to finish the design of the brochure and poster.
All elements of the project listed above were finished and presented at the opening of the exhibition on November 20, 2016 at the Siddhartha Gallery in Kathmandu, Nepal.
An exciting extension to this project is to have the artwork, publication, documentary, brochures and posters tour the United States and internationally. The Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, New York is very interested in the merits of the project and they have volunteered to promote and organize the touring exhibition.Water issues are a worldwide concern and the Bagmati’s perils are not unique. Our hope is that, by touring the exhibition and by combining it with site-specific exhibitions, audiences can create connections between their region and other global communities. There is a good deal that can be learned from the history of the Bagmati as well as from the grass roots efforts that created the Saturday Bagmati River clean-up program and the successful community health initiatives supported by the non-government organizations. All of these efforts has unified the underserved residents of the Kathmandu Valley to address the basic needs in their communities while creating hope and motivating government involvement.
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Alberto Rey – Distinguished Professor in the Department of Visual Arts and New Media at the State University of New York at Fredonia and for the past 18 years has been the Director and Founder of Children in the Stream Youth Fly fishing Program (https://albertorey.com/s-a-r-e-p-youth-fly-fishing-program/). He is also an Orvis endorsed fly fishing guide and is an environmental activist. (https://albertorey.com/)
Jason Dilworth – Assistant Professor in the Department of Visual Arts and New Media at the State University of New York at Fredonia and founder and director of several social design projects.
Past, Present and Future
For the past decade, I have been working on site-specific installations that examine the local bodies of water near the exhibition venues and their relationships to enviornmental and health issues. When the regional investigations are included with other investigations from regions around the country and the world, the audience can make connections between their local region and other parts of the world. These installations are complex, ambitious, and include informational publications and with extensive text panels that outline the issues related to the bodies of water. The panels and publications include maps of the bodies of waters being investigated; water samples with scientific data outlining their chemical breakdown and pollutants; and images, graphs and videos from the data collection sites.
We have recently partnered with the United States Forest Service and will begin the process of documenting the stories that outline the importance of clean accessible water in communties and the organizations that are helping communties by protecting this valuable resource.