By Shelley Seale
For Northwest Asian Weekly
Sometimes, the smallest moment and 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. They were 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 the weary travelers with the traditional Namaste greeting. He held 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,” said Edmonds. “This little boy completely lifted my spirits. He just lit me up.” But it wasn’t until she had returned home to Seattle when Edmonds fully realized what that gift was. The beauty and innocence of the photograph inspired not only Edmonds but 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. Born in Hong Kong, Edmonds immigrated in 1978 with her family to Seattle, where she was raised in bilingual and bicultural surroundings — giving her a lifelong interest in worldwide cultures. As an adult, she has traveled to more than 30 countries around the globe. Her love of photography increased her curiosity 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 explained. “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.”
Seattle’s diverse and 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,” said 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.”
And what of the Namaste Boy who led Edmonds’ life down a new path? In the years after that encounter, she often thought about him. In 2007, she and her husband decided to return to Nepal to find him, wanting to give something back for the inspiration his image had provided for 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, traveling by foot or pack animal is the only method of transportation. They trekked, showing the Namaste photograph to everyone they met along the way. One person recognized his clothing as the style of people from Thehe, a village several hours away. When the couple reached Thehe, they were surrounded by curious children and villagers.
After showing the photo, they were finally given a name to go with the face. The boy’s name was Gyeni Bohara.
Young Gyeni was quickly located, and Edmonds spoke with him through her translator. He was 13 years old, and his extremely poor mother had lived with his uncle since his father had died.
Despite his hardships, Gyeni was a very bright student at school. He expressed great interest in attending a school in a larger city, so Edmonds made arrangements with his mother for him to have that opportunity.
“Both Gyeni’s mom and uncle are illiterate and have worked in the fields all their lives,” she said. “This was their chance to break the cycle of poverty and illiteracy. She indicated that since the death of Gyeni’s father’s, 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 a brighter future. Edmonds and her husband wanted to make such opportunities available to more children. They founded the Namaste Children’s Fund to serve the people of Thehe and support the local school, allowing the children of Thehe access to a quality education. Edmonds also created a new photography series, 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 the rare belief that we are all responsible for each other,” she says. “Their wellness and happiness is our wellness and happiness.” ♦
ArtXChange Gallery is located at 512 First Avenue South, or on the web at www.artxchange.org. Their newest exhibition is “New Year/Fresh Eyes,” running through Feb. 27.