Sun-drenched swathes of primary colored prayer flags drifted in the wind as did voices of young girls using the word “squad” on a crowded street in Kathmandu, Nepal, a city Arpana Rayamajhi knew to be home. It had been five years since she walked its streets and yet, everything remained familiar, like her body had never left but her mind had wandered to foreign shores to find fulfillment and clarity. Finding pieces of herself that she had left behind in the corners of her childhood and under the guise of the Himalayan peaks, lucent in the distance, she saw the city through unjaded eyes and in turn, saw herself as being of this place but not defined by it.
For Arpana, an esteemed jeweler, artist and part-time model, home has been elsewhere, 7,456 miles away in New York, where she has has been living for the past many years. Being away from Kathmandu has given her clarity in the form of a lived cliche, she needed distance in order to see the city’s beauty, for what it was instead of what it wasn’t and never could be.
In losing her father at an early age, Arpana was left with an anger that bubbled beneath the surface of her skin, along with bound books filled with her father’s drawings. Touching these pages with her own hands, she felt him to now exist between brushstrokes, filling the negative space with memory and an enduring sense of kinship. “I didn’t know what art was until I saw my dad’s drawing books. Post his death were the years in which I really tapped into creativity and his drawings were the first things that inspired me. I don’t think I even cared about art but I just wanted to draw like him,” she said from over the phone as 2018 dawned on our horizon. As the family mourned and Nepali tradition demanded that her mother strip color from her wardrobe, Arpana got her first taste of nonconformity as she watched her sister shave her head and light the funeral pyre, a practice normally reserved for sons. It was during these years in which she learned how to rise, how to use art as catharsis and how to sit comfortably with only her own hands to hold.
Going on to study at the Cooper Union in New York City as she came of age, Arpana started making jewelry because she said she “missed home” and “needed money”. Believing that “the person has to be free in order for the artist to be free,” the move to New York gave her wings but the ways in which people perceived her, as this “ethnic jeweler” of sorts, prevented her from using them to fly. “Back home, I was considered so modern, so liberal and so western and what’s really funny is that in New York, people would say, ‘oh my god, you’re from Nepal!’ For me it’s external and that’s not how I see myself. I’m never not going to be Nepali and but it doesn’t define me as a person, it never has, and it never will,” said Arpana.
Yet she would be forced to rethink her connection to her home and her own individuality when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. “The thing with mother’s getting sick it’s that they’re never supposed to get sick and when I started accepting my mom’s reality, I started accepting my reality,” said Arpana. Her understanding of “home” morphed from being an engendered feeling to simply being a place on the map. In turn, her understanding of herself too shifted to mirror a singular existence by which she began to define herself. “I started feeling connected to the world around me because I realized that I’m not the only one who is going to go through this. When the concept of yourself and your life crumbles, what do you have left?” she mused.
For Arpana, the answer manifested as two, silver anklets. Cleaning out her jewelry racks one Summer, amidst scads of stray beads, unshaped wire and forgotten attempts at creating beauty, Arpana found the pair of anklets that her mom once sent her from Nepal. “She told me that if I ever needed extra pocket money, I could sell these. I’m so glad I never sold them and it’s one of those things where you ask why does someone decides to become a musician, or why does someone want to become an actor? It’s because they know. When I started making jewelry that was the last discipline I seriously thought I would go into but jewelry helped me feel better,” she said. In jewelry she found a form of “child’s play”, a medium through which discovery again became tangible and experimentation became synonymous with learning. Jewelry is often regarded as a symbol of one’s heritage or family that can be passed from generation to generation and for Arpana, it provided a way to immortalize and recast her mother’s spirit while creating a legacy of her own.
Arpana’s jewelry draws its power from color and finds freedom in its expression. Intricacy finds its definition here as hundreds of beads are woven together to create a pair of earrings, or a single choker. Because she is “brown” (an Americanized term in its own right) and her work is inevitably imbued with the rich culture of adornment that she grew up witness to, her work is often subject to the politics of identity as the burden of “having to uphold the sacredness of a culture” rests on her shoulders. “It makes me feel limited in my creativity as though I can’t take from somebody else, or my own culture, or art, and I don’t know what taking from art even means, what taking from history even means? I feel that I’m being boxed in and the way I see my work as cultural or artisanal is that it also has the same potential to be commercial but we have to be open minded about that,” she said. Her work, while it is symbolic and carries meaning, doesn’t equate itself with being a commentary on the culture from which she hails, it is simply artistic expression. Yet, she found herself bound to conversations doused by accusations of cultural appropriation as if art is immediately “cultural” if the person making it is “ethnic”.
“People think I just exist on the Internet. There’s this assumption that because I look a certain way and I’m on the Internet, I’m this Instagram girl. My being Nepali in Nepal, my understanding, my actions and desires were very different and very western so was I fully Nepali ever?” Arpana questioned. While #activism has made everyone increasingly woke and increasingly sensitive (sometimes overly), Arpana, whose Instagram account boasts a following of over 56,000, has found that social media in a culture of globalism strips individuals of their identity outside of the collective. Feeling pressured to conform to what she calls “superficial aesthetics” and hungry for external validation, Arpana feels that our generation will ironically only know true individuality if that individual is autonomous “and that they don’t need a group identity validating their belief. We might throw the world ‘individuality’ around a lot because that’s what this culture is based on but aesthetics are not culture.” The responsibility she feels to her culture is the same responsibility she feels to herself as she says, “my responsibility is to be the best version of myself, as a person, as an artist, and be that person that Nepali people can look up to and say, you know what, if she can be Nepali and also be kind of free and not have to identify herself in one way, then we all can,” she said.
While a sense of community is an integral part of being human, Arpana hopes that we can change the culture of the communities we live in to become an open space for individuality to writhe in its becoming. She wants people to be able to see her and her work for what it is, the same way that she had come to see Nepal for what it is. “People need to see people for who they are and not what they were born into because it’s been this way for so long historically and why certain people are oppressed, and why women have been oppressed, and why every ethnicity has oppressed other ethnicities,” she said. While she does not feel or identify as American and wishes she could be “a formless thing without gender, without a body that defined, that could float around the universe” in the meantime, she just wants to be, Arpana, a citizen of the world and a bonafide individual.