04 December, 2007

The Work of the Wind

ECS Magazine, December 2007

By Sushma Joshi
Giovanni Battista Ambrosini is 59 years old, but as he crouches on the ground and assiduously draws his signature image—a figure that could be a bird, a child, a spirit—with a white wax-stick on a canvas stretched out on the tiles of Babar Mahal Revisited’s courtyard, he appears centuries older. The white mane of hair looks familiar, so does the high forehead. Does Giovanni descend from a long line of artists in Italy? Did his ancestor exhibit alongside Leonardo da Vinci in some of Florence’s prestigious studios? This question goes unanswered. He seems as blithely unconcerned with the vagaries of history and parentage as he is with the sacredness of the canvas, which Nepali artists treat as a treasured space that would be sullied by the slightest disrespect. Meanwhile, on the canvas spread out on the courtyard, Giovanni directs four young women to dance with naked feet.

Like the wind, the young women are his collaborators. He gets their dancing feet to make shapes and patterns on the two squares of white canvas. Giant copper vats, filled with green, white and red colors, are dabbed, thrown on the canvas, and then as the performance proceeds, sprayed on an unsuspecting audience. The four young women are joyous sprites who appear to break the solemnity of an art opening with their sequined veils and silver anklets. Sequins gleam in the strobe lights, and a small fog machine even exudes a slight exhalation of fog, turning the floor, however briefly, into a modern disco. The dances, repetitive and clich├ęd in other contexts, appear fresh and light when directed by Giovanni. For a moment the audience is mesmerized by the beauty of the movements and the riveting shape of the female form, as they should rightly be, instead of turning away from the mind-numbing ritual of yet another traditional dance. The young women dance lightly, amusing themselves, muses as ethereal as those of Greece or Rome, while the old artist bends, intent in creation.

This re-contextualization of the familiar, it appears, is Giovanni’s specialty. The performance was part of the opening of Ambrosini’s exhibition, and like the performance, his paintings have gone through a special process. The artist allowed his canvas to hang like prayer flags alongside Maiti gomba, and the colors he spread on them bled and were washed out by the wind and the monsoon rain. The wind, with its playful fingers, spread the paint. The silica-sprayed cloth, dirty, exuberant, and as earthy as young women sprayed with Holi colors, were then painted over with the same signature emblem—a bird, a child, a spirit.

Giovanni says he doesn’t see a bird, or a child. He says the image is his own, something that will identify his work so that people will know who did it when they see it. Italian art critic Enrico Mascelloni, who flew in for the exhibition from Italy, calls this image a “cell.” If these images are cells, then Giovanni has constructed whole bodies out of them. One in particular, with a large upturned eye, or a black olive standing perfectly upright, is surrounded with the buzz of cells. Another one, orange and green, blinks on and off like a psychedelic body. A plywood board printed with the Hindu swastika shows black and white cut-out shapes of cells flying through brown wood. Upstairs, in the gallery, a red and black canvas seems to reflect the red and black moments of Nepal’s democratic movement.

Ambrosini says he’s foremost an artist. His works are sold in Austria, France and Germany. But to make a living he does other work on the side: He’s an advisor to FAO on how to grow olives in the mountains of Nepal. “Do you know you have a wild olive growing in Nepal?” he asks. The artist’s face darkens as he talks about the way the olive is being promoted in Nepal. Pesticides and chemicals distress him. He likes to indulge in (and here I listen to catch the Italian accent) “biological thought”. Biological thought? Through the meandering phrases of Italian, I catch this wonderful line: “Even the olive is an art”. Unlike Nepal’s art world, which often sees art as a bloodless expression of paint on canvas, Ambrosini is still in touch between the flesh of food and the flesh of art. And the connection between the creation of the earth and the fire of creation, it seems, is still firmly interconnected for him.

Ambrosini says he went to university to study architecture, but he never practiced it. “I went to work in the fields instead”, he says romantically. Well, not quite: He went to the fields instead to test out an interesting scientific pursuit. He spent 10 years trying to develop new kinds of “plants in geometric form that modify the landscape as they grow, like a sculpture”. Perhaps this invention would only occur to an Italian. In Tuscia University he was a faculty member in agriculture, and worked in landscape design.

In 1999, Ambrosini came to Nepal to work on olive production. But art was never far from his mind. In Bajura, west Nepal, he experimented again. He built a ‘paint machine’, a wooden box in which he allowed rainwater to collect. The tannin from the wood stained the water brown, and when the box was full it flowed out, coming in contact with iron. The resulting oxides—dark green, brown, yellow—flowed to the canvas. The villagers changed the canvas and sent each to Kathmandu as the paintings were done.

Does the artist find Nepali art similar to Italian? He shakes his head. “Nepali art,” he explains, “is influenced heavily by Lain Singh Bangdel, who trained in Paris with the Expressionists. So Nepali artists are still working with Expressionism.” He doesn’t say much more, but I get the impression that the varied experiments in which he himself has taken part in are not something he sees Nepali artists easily indulging in. Which Nepali artist would take oil and smear it on their canvas? And yet for Ambrosini the olive oil is, itself, the paint. Food and art are indistinguishable, as are earth and rain. The land and water are not separate from art: They are part of it.

If this sense of curiosita (curiosity) and experimentation is what characterized Renaissance art, then Ambrosini has it in good measure. “Of course, he’s Italian, its part of him,” Mascelloni says. Ambrosini’s son, who runs the Nuovo Marcopolo restaurant in Thamel, continues the Italian tradition of art in another form: food. He’s married to a Nepali woman, and they have a young son, making Giovanni a proud grandparent. The sense of exploration, it appears, has been passed from father to son, and may leave its trace in Nepal in more ways than one.

As the performance comes to a perfectly timed and choreographed end, the musicians’ stop their flute, sarangi, tabala and guitar. The evening, though cold, was enlivened both by a potent spiced wine and an amalgamation of the different arts. In the words of the artist, the performance brought together “the tantric aspects of earth, fire and water”. And there couldn’t have been a better way to spend a November evening.