Surendra Lawoti was born in Nepal in 1972. After finishing his high school in Kathmandu, he moved to the US to pursue higher education. Surendra’s work stems out from his interest in social issues, politics, image-making and activism. He is interested in individuals, social groups and their milieus, generally those on the periphery of the mainstream society. He agreed to talk about his work with Nepali activists who are rallying for constitutional changes.
Noorderlicht: Can you tell something about your project that would help a reader understand why your work is an example of what the festival themes hopes to communicate. Where in this bigger do you fit in - if at all? What is your perspective on this, your personal point of view?
Surendra Lawoti: My work This Country is Yours focuses on activists of six social and political movements of Nepal including indigenous nationalities, women and Dalits during the ongoing process of writing Nepal's new constitution. Many Nepalis, especially those who have been marginalized for a long time have a lot of aspiration for a political space in the new polity. But there is a powerful status quo that dominates much of the state's mechanism such as the judiciary, the legislature, the bureaucracy, the security sectors, the intelligentsia and the media. Because the status quo has so much control over the state, there is not a level playing field in the ensuing political debates. Within such a context of representational deficit faced by the marginalized groups, my work creates a visual narrative in solidarity with the six ensuing struggles.
In the last twenty-five years, Nepal has seen two People's movements, a decade-long Maoist rebellion and two regional (the Madhesh) movements that have brought about significant changes. In that sense, Nepal is not facing so much of a 'crisis of agency' as something else. The unleveled playing field is the problem as there is so much disparity between those who want to maintain hegemony and those who want change.
For example, the Dalits have been marginalized so much for so long that very few of them have university education and very few of them have the socio-economic backing to be an activist and have their voices be heard. So it is not that they do not recognize their agency, they just don't have the means to voice it. So that is why I feel like there is long and hard fight ahead. The marginalized groups, while they are taking movements forward ... there are things they have to learn as they move forward. On the other hand the status quo is a well-oiled machine with all the resources.
Noorderlicht: Based on your experience working with different communities and individuals who are affected by this 'crisis of agency', what impression did you get about the likelihood that common people can regain such a sense of agency? Do you feel there are grounds for a realistic hope for improvements?
Surendra Lawoti: In the communities that I am working with the activists are driving the question of agency, rallying others who might face not being heard or remaining underrepresented. Of course in political struggles and movements, there are periods of waxing and waning. For example, the indigenous nationalities and the Madhesh (regional minorities from the southern plains of Nepal) movements seem to be going through a waning phase at the moment. The Dalit movement still has a lot of ground to cover. But, these movements will gain strength if the state does not guarantee them their proper rights.
History has shown time and again, that the 'common people' do rise up to bring about change. But changes do not come about easily and generally involves long struggles. In Nepal I am optimistic for a realistic hope for improvement, but there is still a long fight ahead. But it is not easy to predict these things of historic proportions.
Noorderlicht: What is the audience that you'd hope would look at your series? Who should see this work?
Surendra Lawoti: The foremost audience for this work are Nepalis. I have exhibited this work in Nepal and will exhibit there again. But, I am also hoping to share it with others; those interested in image making, book publishing, social justice, democracy, political movements, Nepal and South Asia. While the work is specific to Nepal, I am sure there are parallels to many other parts of the world.