I had just done a round of the smallish gallery room of Kathmandu Art at Le Sherpa. The midday light pushed in through the large glass windows, bathing the water color paintings crammed across the two-and-half white walls. Shadows often blocked the light, shadows of the crowd visiting the Farmer’s Market being held on the lawns nearby. The paintings, mostly light washes with bold outlines in brilliant colors, ranged between images of Tara, the ex-royalty of Thailand and Nepal, scenes from Indian bars, landscapes in faraway lands, and of course, the Buddha. Sometimes bearing scribbled texts, sometimes formatted as what looked like posters, it was quite a mind-boggling mix. It felt as if I had stepped inside someone’s diary without first taking permission. In walked the artist soon, the mysterious and very graceful Maura Moynihan. And we spent the next hour talking about her forty-five years of travels across Asia. And, also her journey as an artist.
Her love for the region began with her first stay in India in 1973, as daughter of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who served as the United States Ambassador to the country. That very summer, they came for a summer retreat to Kathmandu to escape the grueling heat of Delhi. And it was love at first sight. Pertinently, the exhibition was called ‘Who Loves Kathmandu More Than Me?’ and it was a record of her experiences of Kathmandu Valley on her many trips to the country. And, this was certainly not her only exhibition here; the first was showcased at Siddhartha Art Gallery in 1999.
The paintings on display were usually painted on site, as a visual record of the many places she has visited in Nepal, Thailand, Bhutan, Cambodia, and India. One entire set was devoted to the twenty-one Tara-s, though not all were available for viewing. A beautifully executed portrait of the late King Bhumibol of Thailand stood out for its delicate coloring and strong lines. Sketches of Nepal’s ex-royalty filled up many a drawing sheet, often painted together like collaged, family portraits. Glimpses of a time when the hippie generation had taken over India and Nepal were particularly fascinating, especially for their witty speech bubbles. When asked what kind of a painter she saw herself as, she was quick to respond with, “I see myself as a travel painter.” And, indeed, the pages from her drawing book were a visual diary of her encounters with diverse Asian cultures and religions.
“When you fall under the spell of Kathmandu Valley, it is impossible not to paint,” she added. “Every day I discover a new temple, a secret stupa, another jatra. Picasso said, ‘painting is just another way of keeping a diary’, so I use water colors—they dry quickly, and so are suitable for keeping a diary. I have great admiration for the people of Nepal; Nepal's stability is sustained by the artisans, shamans, and pujaris who perform the rituals that are the foundation of daily life, and have sustained a great civilization for over 2,500 years. Lord Buddha was a Sakya prince when most of humanity was mired in barbarism.”
I was surprised to know that she is also the bestselling author of a collection of short stories called ‘Yoga Hotel’ and a novel named ‘Covergirl: Confessions of a Flawed Hedonist’. Both were published by Harper Collins. Apparently, art-making and writing were deeply connected in her mind, for the content was always inspired by Asian realities. “Andy never could understand my passion for Asia,” she commented, and digging a little later, I realized that the ‘Andy’ in question was no other than the legendary pop artist Andy Warhol. He had watched her perform in a band in 1981, and the two had become close friends.
She worked with him and stayed friends till his death in 1987. “Did he influence your art-making at all?” I asked next. “Never, not really,” she replied, quickly adding, “though he was by far the most ferociously disciplined artist I have ever seen.” This perhaps holds the key to the enigma called Maura Moynihan, for even though her visual diary is replete in thematic and formal references to American Pop, none gave away a blind stylistic adherence. All her life experiences were sieved through her own understanding and perception of history, and not received. But, Warhol did put her on the cover of Interview, a prestigious magazine he had co-founded, which made her an instant, international celebrity.
Her interest in painting began in the ninth grade, when she was under the tutelage of an excellent art teacher at the American Embassy School in Delhi. There she received extensive training in a range of techniques, for a large part of her time was spent in copying masterpieces from both the Western and Asian traditions. This initial interest soon grew into a passion, “For decades I have carried paint, brushes, pencil, and paper in my travels across Asia. I journeyed to Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladhak, Tibet, China, Japan, Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma, but I always return to Nepal, where Hindu myths and Buddhist philosophy mingled in Nepal’s rich and varied lands, a feast, a challenge and a quest for an artist,” she explained. Her interest in Buddhism developed into a serious calling when she met the Dalai Lama in the late 1980s. This was also the time when she began getting involved with the cause of Tibetan exiles, a cause for which she worked tirelessly for decades.
Maura Moynihan may come across as a dilettante to an unobservant eye. But, even a few minutes of conversation inevitably reveals a storehouse of knowledge, experience, and practice in different fields that is so very rare to find today. Her unassuming charm belies a quick wit and a sharp, discerning eye that rivals the best. The fact that she prefers to keep her paintings simplistic and genuinely autobiographical is refreshing at a time when professional art-making is reduced to market mechanisms and a myopic insistence on technical expertise. Her commitment to the personal and the small, as opposed to the monumental and popular, no doubt goes against the exigencies of contemporary times. But, that is where exactly stands her charm and relevance. She is a reminder that sometimes it is required of us to move away from the mainstream and take a quiet, good look at reality for it to have any meaning at all.