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Furnishing Papers

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Displaying the original identification documents of the people of Nyeshang, a place nested in the mountains between Tibet and Nepal, the exhibition explores how a group of people who lived extra-territorially—not only in the trans-Himalayan region but also as traders to as far away as Southeast Asia—interacted with the bureaucratic needs of the modern state of Nepal. From an earlier time, the Nyeshange community had secured a special prerogative and tax exemption from the feudal government of Nepal to trade freely even beyond the borders of Nepal. After the passage of Nepal’s Passport Act in 1967 (and following the escalation of the Tibetan uprising in the region), Nyeshanges sought to preserve their historical traveling privileges and became one of the earliest groups to apply for Nepali state IDs in order to acquire passports.

The documents we see, preserved by Nyeshang elderly Karma Tara Gurung, are notably commonplace like most state artifacts. But they are, in fact, wonders of alchemy. They belie the spectral way in which personhoods transform and states becomes real. In striving for mobility, earlier Neshyanges expertly forged identities and identity papers—legally, quasilegally, illegally—navigating bureaucratic regimes transregionally. The new identification regime was also susceptible to mimicry, but even its manipulations created new effects on identity, mobility, and territoriality. 

In the process, the materiality of paper stands out as the most consequential enabler. Not only the attributes of graphical iterability and portability, but it is also the medium of the single sheet that visually merges the indexes of the state with personal inscriptions and creates a spatially unified experience of documentary life.

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