20 February, 2008

A Gift of Heart


By Sushma Joshi
ECS Magazine, February 2008

Why Nepal? I ask.
Pourquoi Nepal? Chloe translates.
Christian ponders, then shrugs that slight French shrug. He taps the left side of his chest, where his heart is, with his right hand. “It is a small question with a big answer,” he says.

Why would an art dealer from Paris up and leave his successful business of dealing in 19th century European paintings and antiques, sell his apartment, and move to Nepal? Looking at Christian Salzgeber and Chloe, his wife, I see that shrug mirrored between the two of them again. “It has always been a big dream of mine to move to Nepal,” Christian says, finally.

I dig a little further. In classic French fashion, the big answer is to be condensed in one stylish answer: heart. Or to use Christian’s accent—it appears to be a matter of the ’eart. “Nepali people,” Christian says, “have given us a lot of love. A lot of friendships. There are other places with mountains and landscapes. But Nepali people have ’eart.”

This, then, is why Christian and Chloe now live in a sunny bungalow in a housing complex in Sitapaila, near a dusty bus-stop in the Ring Road. The house is furnished with Newari antiques; pottery made by Kalapremi, a friend who they’ve known for almost a decade; and a rock garden underneath the stairway. The sofa is designed by Christian, and so is the table made of two upturned garden pots resting on each other and painting in bright reds.

Christian says he’s a self-trained artist. Upstairs, two rooms are filled with large, colorful paintings he’s made. These paintings, which will be exhibited in Indigo Art Gallery in February, are the way he’s going to make his living from now on. The couple own no television, and buy nothing but local magazines. Any essential information about day to day life in Nepal, they get from neighbors. After fifty years of a highpaced life as an art dealer, information is no longer their priority. “There is so much information, it becomes disinformation,” Chrsitian says. Now, their priority is learning about Nepal and it’s culture, and to make art that is a gift back to the people who’ve given them so much.

Christian and Chloe first came to Nepal in 1981. Or maybe it’s 1982. “It was a long-long time,” one of them finally says, after a lengthy discussion about the exact date. They stayed seven weeks the first time around. One week was spent with Thakali people in Marpha. A festival featuring archery was in progress, and Christian took almost 800 photographs of that single event. They liked it so much they came back a year later, and stayed for four months. Since then, the couple have been here 13 times.

Nepal changed Christian and Chloe. For almost 20 years, Christian had worked 18 hour days, selling to people all over the world, attending hundreds of openings and events every year. “My life was only my job. I progress, I progress, I learnt a lot,” Art and antiques, and it’s dealing, was his passion. And yet, he was very, very tired. “It wasn’t good for his health,” his wife says quietly. And Nepal beckoned.

After almost 20 years, Christian gave up his fast-paced Parisien life and went to Honfleur, a seaside town in Western France, and opened up a shop featuring Himalayan art. He ran this for three years. “I had ethnographic, primitive art and antiques,” he says. He also promoted Nepali artists like Kalapremi and Manish Shrestha.

Chloe started a handicrafts shop, selling Himalayan artworks, incence and other curiosities. French customers were not familiar with the items, and Chloe found herself explaining the meanings of the items and their usage. Today, this shop is run by their son, an avid Nepalophile.

Christian laughs when I tell him Nepali people want to leave Nepal. And yet here he is, giving up a life in Paris to be in dusty Kathmandu. “The problems are the same everywhere,” he says. “The life is also the same in US and France. I always dreamt of living in the Kathmandu Valley.” Even Chloe’s
80-year old mother wants to come and visit them as they live their dream.

Christian’s goal is simple: he wants to give back some of the love he’s received in Nepal. He does this in small actions. Some of it comes in the form of counselling people who need help. A Tamang friend whose monastery collapsed found Christian willing to go and spend three weeks reconstructing his monastery. Another friend whose old Newari home needed repairs found a willing helper in the artist.

Christian also has larger plans: he wants to start an art school in Kathmandu. He has talked with the owner of an old Rana Palace in Teku—the aim is to renovate the palace, then run the facilities as an art school.

Christian tries to insulate himself from the political divisions of Nepal. The artists in Nepal, he says, tend to work alone, split by ideology. If they worked together, they would be strong. “When Nepali people are unhappy,” he says, “We are unhappy.”

Besides an outsider mediating energy, Christian brings with him his years of knowledge of art. “There can be no good art without good philosophy,” he says. He is keen to expand the notion of art history amongst the artists of Nepal. The cave paintings of France, the antiquities of Greece and Rome are important to the production of contemporary art. These classic influences, he says, are important for creating new artwork. While it’s not copying, it’s important to look at “another mind” in order to be inspired.

“Modern art,” he says, “is all ’eart.” He puts his hand on his heart. “It’s not possible to learn, unlike traditional art, which is technical and can be learnt.”

But is modern art even art? Christian is not sure. “People tell me you are a big artist in France,” he says. “But I am not sure. I think: this is your idea, not mine. I think modern art is about expression. Ideas and expression.”

This idea that the viewer interprets the work through his own lenses is very important with him. As we go through his work in the upstairs room, Christian stresses: “I want people to be able to interpret it their own way. I want them…” he hesitates for a word: “I want them to be free.”

This then, is the core of the French philosophy: la libertie. Everybody has the liberty to read the work their own way. Once a text is put out in the world, the author of that text dies, said French philosophers. Then it is up to the reader to dechiper and interpret the work through their own minds.

Which leads us to Gandhi and Marx. “Marx was a very nice man,” says Christian. “Very good philosophy. But then people take his work, and they transformed it.” This revolution, which has killed 13,000 Nepalis, distresses Christian. He wants to be able to bring Nepali artists together through peace and art, like during the Vietnam war. He is planning a surprise gift for Nepal. Are we allowed to know about this gift he has in mind? “It is a surprise,” he says, smiling.

Whatever the gift is, we can be sure it will have a lot of heart.

Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker. She can be contacted at: sushma@alumni.brown.edu

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great piece on a wonderful man. I’m from California and I was in Nepal for 3 weeks, with a few days wondering around Kathmandu. I heard Christian laughing when a shop keeper told him the age of a mask - impossible Christian said, look no Patina – (an oil mark). I spent that day with Christian and it was one of the highlights of my trip. He taught me about all types of things one should look within antiques. I hope he remains as kind and generous as he was towards me.