Sometimes the smallest moment, a chance encounter, can change the course of your life and lead to an adventure beyond the imagination. For Cora Edmonds, director of the ArtXchange Gallery in Seattle, that moment came in a mountain village in a remote region of Nepal. It was November 2000, and Edmonds had been trekking for almost two weeks with a film crew for Healing Planet TV, which was making a film about traditional healers. It was their last day in Nepal; in order to catch a morning plane, the crew had started hiking at 3 a.m. By the time they reached Simikot, the only village in the area with an airstrip, the group was exhausted, cold and hungry.
As the sun rose behind the mountains, a little boy came to greet the weary travelers with the traditional Namaste greeting, holding his hands in front of his heart in prayer position, the shyest of smiles lighting up his face. It was an everyday gesture in Nepal, but for the trekkers in the cold early morning it was a moment full of joy. Edmonds had just enough time to snap a photograph before the child skipped away.
“I felt he had gifted me,” says Edmonds. “This little boy completely lifted my spirits; he just lit me up.” But it wasn’t until she had returned home to Seattle that Edmonds realized just what a gift the child had given. The beauty and innocence of the developed photograph not only inspired Edmonds, but also hundreds of people who saw it at her ArtXchange Gallery and other exhibitions around the country. The unknown child became known as Namaste Boy.
“This image resonated with so many,” Edmonds says. Among them was Phil Crean, who attended the exhibition — and later became her husband. “We instantly had a rapport, and got married five years later. The series of incidents stemming from that one moment with the boy in the Nepalese village definitely transformed my life.”
This experience of connecting across cultures in profound ways is what inspired Edmonds to open ArtXchange Gallery in the first place. Born in Hong Kong, a city of multiracial culture, Edmonds emigrated with her family to Seattle in 1978, where she was raised bilingual and bicultural — giving her a lifelong interest in worldwide cultures. As an adult she has traveled to more than 30 countries around the globe, where her love of photography increased her curiosity and learning about different peoples and places.
“I wanted to combine my knowledge of art, technology, travel and global cultures into a community-based venue for all to share,” Edmonds explains. “I am constantly looking for links and bridges between cultures. Our gallery is interested in artists whose work articulates contemporary global culture with original and unique aesthetics. The artwork must tell a story, add a bridge of connection and provoke viewers to ask questions.”
One such artist whose work does just that, and has been recently exhibited at ArtXchange, is Deborah Kapoor. The Seattle-based artist creates encaustic works with a variety of materials including wax, wood, beads, lace, string, paper; even rubber bands and dryer lint. Kapoor’s work is born of her own life experiences, and created as a cultural hybrid of the various worlds she inhabits. “Growing up in Texas, Latin culture seeped into our daily lives,” Kapoor says. “We celebrated other cultures’ holidays, mostly with food. Overall, those experiences made me aware of how cultural practices define who you are. At an early age I became a natural observer of people and the places they live, both literally and metaphorically.”
Getting married and becoming a mother expanded Kapoor’s cultural world even further. Her husband is from Delhi, India, and their son’s heritage of half-American and half-Indian means the couple make family choices that provide exposure and inclusivity of his Indian roots. “We are a hybrid organism, navigating our way through the local experience of the Northwest. Together we mesh my husband’s eastern upbringing with our life in the west.”
Kapoor’s art is also a hybrid organism — and organism is a fitting word, as the works almost seem to be living beings. Her ArtXchange exhibit was called Breathing In, Breathing Out, and combined one of the most elemental aspects of human life with artistic expression. The Sanskrit word prana translates to ‘breath,’ and Kapoor’s work explores how prana flows through form and formlessness. Kapoor’s relationship with India through family connections, travel and investigations into Indian spirituality and philosophy is the landscape from which her art emerges.
“Experiencing India is like nothing I’ve known before…it is overwhelming, raw, lush, shocking, beautiful, moving. I am drawn to the ancient beauty, the rich spiritual stories and rituals. And I find the general aesthetic of India to be breathtaking. My husband’s identity is shaped by his Indian roots, and knowing him genuinely impacts what I think about.”
“Art historically exists in every culture for a reason: it helps people to digest the experiences of their lives,” Kapoor continues. “Indian culture is an incredible example of past, present and future all living side by side. It adds to my understanding of being human in this world. Sharing histories helps us to stay connected and evolve; we all have something to learn. Experiencing all of that, in art, lets us step back for a moment and see it.”
Cora Edmonds says that while Kapoor’s work is rooted in ancient traditions, it is decidedly modern — and perhaps it is this juxtaposition that makes it so exciting. “It is a direct reflection of the artist’s imagination, creativity and her embracement of Indian culture and philosophy,” Edmonds says. “It is a reflection of the deep examinations of her everyday family life of the dual cultures of India and America.”
Seattle’s diverse, multicultural population provides the ideal setting for an international gallery such as ArtXchange. “Art is a reflection of culture and I believe as a city, the arts are still catching up to reflect our cultural diversity,” says Edmonds. “Traditional fine art is primarily Euro-western defined and critiqued, and I would love to see a broader, more anthropologically based view of art.”
Last November and December, ArtXchange featured the lacquer work of Bui Cong Khanh, a contemporary artist from Vietnam in his first major solo exhibition on the West Coast. Edmonds has supported Khanh’s career for the past decade, from his years as a young fine arts graduate to the mature mid-career artist he is today. The exhibit traces the evolution of Khanh’s work through his transition from gouache on paper to lacquer and mixed-media paintings in his playful take on traditional and modern motifs of Vietnamese culture. True to the ArtXchange commitment of making cultural explorations in art available to all, mini-exhibits of Khanh’s work have also been on display at Red Square Yoga, the Teacup, Signature restaurant and Ummelina Day Spa.
Buddhism and Taoism have been strong influences in the artist’s life and work. Chinese calligraphy is featured in some of his devotional paintings, adorning prayer books or placed in the heart of a painting to give meaning and significance. Khanh is also a musician and video and performance artist. “I am as interested in the preservation of traditions as I am in issues of contemporary daily life,” he says. “I will continue painting, aware of the world’s current progress, but also aware of my soul, the soul of a Vietnamese artist.”
And what of the Namaste Boy, who led Edmonds’ life down a new path? In the years since that encounter, she has thought about him often. In 2007, she and her husband decided to return to Nepal to try to find him, wanting to give something back for the inspiration his image had provided to so many people. After arriving in Simikot, they set out with a guide and translator to search for the boy, who could have lived in any number of surrounding villages. In the remote area, travel by foot or pack animal is the only method of transportation, and so they trekked, showing the Namaste photograph to everyone they met along the way. One person recognized his style of clothes as the manner of people from Thehe, a village several hours away. When they reached Thehe, the couple was surrounded by curious children and villagers. After showing the photo, they were finally given a name to go with the face: Gyeni Bohara.
Young Gyeni was quickly located, and Edmonds spoke to him through her translator. By then 13 years old, he and his extremely poor mother lived with his uncle since his father had died. Yet despite his hardships, Gyeni was a very bright student at school. He expressed great interest in attending school in a larger city, so Edmonds arranged with his mother for him to have the opportunity. “Both Gyeni’s mom and uncle are illiterate and have worked in the fields all their lives,” she says. “This was their chance to break the cycle of poverty and illiteracy. She indicated that since Gyeni’s father’s death, things have been very difficult for her, and now she feels that Gyeni has another set of parents that can help take care of her son.”
On a return visit to Thehe in 2008, Edmonds learned that Gyeni was first in his class. The small opportunity had given Gyeni such a brighter future that she and her husband wanted to make it available to more children. They founded the Namaste Children’s Fund in 2007 to support community-based education for women and girls in the underserved regions of Nepal. Edmonds also created a new series of photography with images from these trips, called Namaste Reunited.
“The story that I try to tell in the Namaste photographs is the simple, joyful and perhaps rare belief that we are all responsible for each other,” she says. “Their wellness and happiness is our wellness and happiness.”
Shelley Seale is a freelance writer and the author of The Weight of Silence, which follows her journeys into the orphanages and slums of India where millions of children live without families. Her mantra is “travel with a purpose.”
THIS MONTH AT ARTXCHANGE
¡Sense Us 2010!
Presented in connection with the artist collective La Sala, the current exhibit at ArtXchange aims to raise the visibility of Latino/Hispanic artists in the Seattle community and to challenge assumptions about Latino art that overlook the complexity and range of these artists’ contemporary work. The title reflects the upcoming 2010 Census which is mobilizing advocates in all sectors of the Latino/Hispanic community, including the arts. It features both established and emerging artists and includes Wanda Benvenutti’s documentary photography series about Puerto Rican culture in the U.S., and surrealist oil paintings with beaded accents by Pedro de Valdivia.
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