Arpana Rayamajhi’s Immortal Inspiration
The New York-Based Artist, Jeweler, and Part-Time Model Talks Death, Defiance, and Soundgarden Versus Britney
- Interview: Erika Houle
- Photography: Arpana Rayamajhi
“Don’t follow any code of conduct. That’s my first lesson,” jokes Arpana Rayamajhi, before adding in passing, “I should fake being a guru.” It’s funny because the idea is not entirely outlandish. The 30-year-old Nepali artist, jeweler, and part-time model has lived a disproportionately full life for her age. But what Rayamajhi’s alluding to is her strong distaste for being typecast. She’s an expert at resisting rules and labels. Ask her to describe herself at any given time and she’ll simply tell you she’s “going through a phase.” It’s not a tactic or a front—it’s just Arpana.
Shifting away from a scrutinous childhood and professional singing career in Nepal, Rayamajhi moved to New York to study painting and sculpture—practices she could pursue without the weight of a live audience. “What other people see is everything I’ve gone through, but not at that exact moment,” she says. Today, that principle prevails in her work as a self-made jeweler and model. Throughout the pages of Vogue, an Apple campaign, and down the runway at Victoria’s Secret, you’ll find Arpana: lively, intricate, rebellious.
A scroll through Rayamajhi’s Instagram can confirm her disinterest in sticking with the status quo: all clashing prints and pounds of tassels. Still, there’s logic to her quirk. Her fixation with color, for example, stems from her rejection of fine art ideals during her studies at Cooper Union and New York’s notoriously all-black uniform. Rayamajhi has never seeked to fit in aesthetically, but rather to belong emotionally.
Amid a series of ongoing projects and a trip to Iceland, Arpana Rayamajhi spoke with me over the phone about her childhood in Kathmandu, coping with loss, and navigating the creative industry with sincerity.
Growing up in a society where it was discouraged to think creatively, what was it like being raised by parents that fostered that?
Living in a system where art is very much part of our culture, we never saw it as a viable means of living. It was never considered something respectable. My mother was one of the first women who started acting in theatre, television, and movies, and her generation—especially as women—had a whole different world to deal with. When she was really young people would believe she was the character she was playing. She would walk home and men on the street would hurl things at her saying, “You’re that mistress!” What still hadn’t changed for my generation was this concept of how you can’t live a life being a creative. My father worked at a casino as a general manager, but I think if he didn’t have to get a job he would have been an artist. He was one of the many people who are very blessed creatively but maybe not karmically. Growing up it was really frustrating because I felt like nobody around me understood me. In retrospect now, I can see that it comes from a society that isn’t very affluent.
I imagine people were very jealous of you if they didn’t understand it was something your family supported.
I was always the daughter of my mother first. I was very good academically, I felt like I had to prove myself so I would work extra hard. If I did really well they would say, “Of course she did really well, she’s Sushila Rayamajhi’s daughter and they have all the means to do whatever,” and if I fucked up at anything, especially math, it was like, “You’re this person’s daughter and you’re bad at math?” My mother was one of the most popular actresses in Nepali cinema. We would step out of the house and everybody would recognize us, but financially, it was literally a story of a struggling artist. Nepali audiences were very critical and ashamed of their cinema, so popularity and finances were not necessarily the same.
It must have been a major shift moving to New York without that attachment.
I love it. I never really did anything back home because I wanted to make rock n’ roll music, be a painter, and do all these things that never fit into the status quo of what it meant to be popular. What I really wanted to get away from was this feeling of being watched all the time—your closest relatives, friends, and acquaintances trying to see how well you’re going to do or how badly you’re going to fall. In New York it’s really nice because I can just be a person and say, “I did work for this.” I had to go to a free school because that was my only chance to pursue art. I didn’t understand my own reality until I got older. My mom wouldn’t tell me the different struggles we had. I think my life since moving to New York has been an everyday revelation of everything.
“One of my biggest inspirations is death. I think that’s one of the reasons I make work, so that I can immortalize myself and maybe deal with myself better.”
So when you moved for school, did you plan to stay?
I moved to go to Cooper Union and ever since I took that cab from the airport and saw the city from a distance I was like, “Holy shit, this is where I’ve always wanted to be.” It was that feeling of knowing that I belonged somewhere immediately. Granted, with social media and the political climate in the U.S., becoming an artist right now is very tricky—especially if you’re in fashion. Everything is being criticized by non-critics. It’s a really tense time. It’s funny for me to think I came here to be free, but freedom is just a concept no matter where you go.
You mentioned that you’ve been influenced by rock n’ roll culture. What is it about it that fascinates you?
The energy when you’re a teenager and you feel like you have to belong; that’s where the love for it started. I think I watched MTV or VH1 and saw Nirvana—these guys on stage doing whatever the hell they wanted and people going crazy over them making this amazing music. Growing up in a culture that told me as a woman you have to be a certain way, rock n’ roll was basically saying fuck you to everybody’s face. I’m talking Soundgarden versus Britney Spears. For me it was about the mediocrity versus something different. I wanted to be a musician and not a face. Björk is one of my biggest inspirations ever and she doesn’t fall in the rock n’ roll realm at all. She does her own thing and I think that was really important to me; to be your own voice and not like anybody else.
On top of your jewelry line you’re also landing modeling and musical gigs—how do you define your job description?
I would say I’m a full-time jeweler doing part-time modeling, but I’m not a model—it was never my aspiration. When I first moved I was getting stopped on the street to be scouted. I was 20-years-old and I did not understand how difficult New York was at all. In my head I was like, “I’m going to go to this amazing art school and be in a rock band,” and two years of part-time jobs later I’m like, “Get me my agents.” [Laughs] I’m very thankful for it. I had a whole other situation happen to me in the middle. My mom was diagnosed with cancer and I went back to Nepal, so I kind of disappeared from the scene for three or four years. Finally, I decided it was time for me to move on and share my life and my work, and that’s when it all kind of happened. I’m working on a few different projects now. I’m also making music on the side.
Have you ever suffered from an identity crisis?
I’ve never doubted myself creatively, but I really questioned who I am as a person after I discovered my mom was going to die. That completely shattered all perceptions of what I thought I was—the fact that my mom was not going to live forever made me realize that I’m not going to live forever. It was the first time in my life where I felt like I didn’t want to see anyone because I thought people would see me for who I really am. Maybe this is what Buddhists talk about when they talk about ego: I had nothing to hide and I felt naked. What not everyone realizes is that people are always acting and putting up a front no matter what. Everybody always talks about culture as my inspiration—America loves talking about ethnicity so they’ll always say anything is “ethnic,” but one of my biggest inspirations is death. I think that’s one of the reasons I make work, so that I can immortalize myself and maybe deal with myself better.
Do you still question how you view yourself as a person?
All the time—ethically, very much. Living in this world, trying to make money and connections, and doing what you want is not easy. I thought five years ago I knew the kind of person I wanted to be—it’s not true. I’m always going to question myself. When I’m in my studio working I’m like, “What makes you think what you do matters? What kind of impact do you even think you can leave?” Those are the kinds of questions that if I’m hopefully able to answer to myself, I don’t need to answer to anyone.
- Interview: Erika Houle
- Photography: Arpana Rayamajhi
- Styling: Arpana Rayamajhi