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The landscape of childhood today may be unrecognizable to some. Kids spend more time indoors and alone than they used to, and screens are likely to engage them for several hours each day. In a world increasingly filled with noise, it can be difficult to seek respite. As adults we may turn to our meditation apps, productivity trackers, and yoga classes to restore balance and clarity. Sneha Shrestha strives to do the same for children in Boston.
“As educators we try to create safe spaces, peaceful spaces, for kids all the time,” explains Shrestha, who was named as one of The ARTery 25, a cohort of millennials of color impacting Boston's arts scene. “But as the world gets gnarlier, right, how do we create those physical spaces? And what would happen if we could help kids create those physical spaces in their minds?”
A prolific artist and educator, the Kathmandu native is perhaps best known for her graffiti art under the name Imagine: vibrant Sanskrit mantras covering surfaces internationally, from Boston to Bali. But for “Mindful Mandalas,” a 12-foot-tall and 40-foot-wide mural on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Shrestha designed a project that allowed her to work with children while integrating the mindfulness practice she was raised with in Nepal.
That work began with empowering creative confidence.
Shrestha says she tried to help the kids with their own creative expression — she didn't try to tell them to paint the way she does. “It was about me sharing how I get into a mindful state in order to create and they can do the same whenever they need it, you know? It doesn’t have to be during a creative time,” she says.
“Mindful Mandalas” was created through a collaboration between the MFA and 10 after-school community organizations in the museum’s Community Arts Initiative. Through the program, artists aged 6 to 12 from all over the greater Boston area have the opportunity for their contributions to be showcased in the Edward H. Linde Gallery. That means that visitors strolling by contemporary paintings by masters like Yayoi Kusama, Annette Lemieux and John Stephan will also see the young artists' work.
The mural bathes an entire wall in warm hues of deep orange, blue and purple against golden silk bouquets often present in Nepali paintings. Three forms painted by Shrestha dominate the surface, inspired by Japanese star mandalas that evoke the movement of celestial bodies. These intersecting shapes house smaller individual mandalas painted by the children, their circles arranged like a trio of constellations. The young artists created their mandalas by imagining what peace could look like in their minds; for some, these manifested in images and colors; and for others, in specific words, people or ideas.
“I know I wanted to put a mandala [in the installation] because the circle, the circle shape, is used in various cultures for various purposes; it’s sort of a universal symbol. People use it for meditation as well,” Shrestha says. “Symmetry is a big part of various cultures, too, so it's kind of like interweaving universal themes with themes that are also very specific to that part of the world. I mean, just being present there in a space that maybe, historically, [the culture hasn’t been in] in a contemporary way.”
Shrestha's project is on view at the MFA during a season when the museum's been in the spotlight for how it treats visitors of color. In fact, "Mindful Mandalas" opened just days after the May incident in which a group of seventh-grade students were racially profiled and harassed during a school trip to the museum. The MFA apologized and responded by banning two visitors.
With "Mindful Mandalas," Shrestha is the only living Nepali artist whose work is currently on display at the museum. Diverse cultural representation was important for her to emphasize as she worked with the young artists, many of whom come from underrepresented backgrounds themselves, to create it. Community Arts Initiative projects are meant to be inspired in part by the MFA’s collection, and it wasn’t lost on Shrestha that museum galleries are populated with objects that have been sourced and stolen, even if unintentionally, from South Asian countries including Nepal. In “Mindful Mandalas,” Shrestha aims to start dialogues that build cultural competency by sharing a different cultural aesthetic, which feels like a natural extension of what she set out to do as a street artist.
“When I paint my murals, I don’t have the translation of the mural written anywhere. So unless you ask the questions, you won’t know,” Shrestha says. “I think it’s very similar to the process of meeting people from other sides of the world. Even if you don’t understand their language, you can still appreciate them for being human.”
Mindfulness, Shrestha explains, can mean different things to different people. To her, what it means is being present in whatever it is that one is doing. Presence, and the power that it evokes, was something she wanted to bring to fruition in her teaching as well as in the final installation.
“I curated it in a way where [the children] would be proud of it. It's not sloppy; it's very clean, it's museum quality,” Shrestha says. “I wanted for them to be able to see their work up on a museum wall in a way that is respected — like they're artists! I wanted to make sure that it would be a source of pride for them, too.”
“Mindful Mandalas” is on view at the MFA through Oct. 14.
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