Stencils in Kathmandu: Anya’s Way of Expression

It looks like street art has taken Kathmandu by storm. We interviewed Anya Vaverko, an artist and a witness to this growing culture, about how she sees, feels and participates in street art. Anya, who is also a photographer, a stencil artist and the co-founder of Sattya Media Arts Collective, talks about her line of street art and its place in Kathmandu.

We arrived at her office come creative workspace in Lalitpur where she was sitting cross-legged on the floor with her dog Kanchi. Born in Ukraine and brought up in the US, Anya has adopted Kathmandu as her home and is fluent in Nepali as could be seen on her sticker stencil that read ‘Dal bhat nai mitho!’

 

How did your journey in the street art field begin?
I have been doing photography and I majored in photojournalism from the University of Texas. When I saw the street art in Kathmandu I thought ‘so many people are doing it, so why not I?’ I really wanted to learn this form of art but I had no idea where I could learn it. So I posted something like that on Facebook and met a mutual friend who was into street art. Stencils are just cutouts from pictures and photographs that you spray on to achieve an image. I have been stenciling for about a year now.

Before that you were into photography then?
I still am! Stenciling is just something I do- it is not my career or anything, it is just something I use to express ideas. For example, when I was younger I used to write poems and stuff. When I want to say something, I just put it up as a Facebook status. Then I stopped writing poetry and nobody really cares about Facebook statuses. Sometimes when I feel mad about something and I have to express it in some way or the other, I put my energy into the artwork. Sometimes I really like a photograph and I turn it into a stencil and think of a message to put with it.

So when did you actually start doing street art?
Well, last month I had some free time so I got together with a friend and practiced some stencils. I didn’t really spray on a wall when in the US because I was still learning. My friend had a lot of art space where we prepared a bunch of stencils.

Does it take a long time?
It doesn’t take a lot of time. You just take a picture, cut it out, spray over it. Usually it takes one or two days. My most intricate stencil took around two days with me spending every bit of my free time cutting it out. But you still need the right energy and the right vibe to do it the proper way.

How different is it from other forms of art?
The thing about stenciling is- anybody can do it. You can recreate the same image over and over again. Other forms of art cannot be reproduced the same way- you’d need to copy it precisely and draw over it’¦ with stencils, you just cut it out and spray over it. It is a simple thing and a lot of people can do it.

What kinds of ethics are attached to this form of art?
With street art, I see to it that I am not doing it on someone’s front door or on a property. In Kathmandu there are a lot of spaces that are nobody’s property.  It should not be harming someone in anyway and should usually have a purpose. If a company is doing a really terrible thing, for example, and you want to draw on their wall as an act of protest, then that might be a pretty good reason. Otherwise, if you are just doing artwork to make the place look nicer then why do it where it harms someone?

What do you have to say about the ethics of the content of the street art?
The guy whom I learnt stenciling with, well, he is not the innocent type and he is some kind of activist too but he is used to tell me- there is so much negativity around’¦ people just come and scribble obscenities all over the walls which has no point at all.

Banksy makes very strong statements without ever using offensive language-half the time he doesn’t even write anything.  He is just clever the way he does it. What I am saying is, you don’t have to censor yourself and put up pictures of flowers and bunnies. Express yourself but be clever about it. Not everything has to be a negative statement and not everything has to be a positive statement- it can just reflect your mood.

How have people been responding to your art?
Most of the time, people don’t even know that it was me who did the art work. Some that I did on a framed glass and hung around here gathered response like ‘Oh hey, you made that? I used to see it whenever I passed this way and it always made me laugh.’ There have been good responses so far.

What is the role of your organization- Sattya Media Arts Collective?
My organization is not directly related to this art but Sattya is basically a research center for filmmakers, photographers and media people. Sometimes we just show movies and documentaries and sometimes we hold workshops for things like creative writing and photography. Everybody is welcome here. There were people who wanted to learn stenciling and Sattya could be a platform for it because it is where we share and learn things. It is kind of a creative space for people.

How long have you been in Nepal?
Eight years-coming and going. I was nineteen when I first came here.

What kind of changes in the scenario of street art have you seen here?
People have begun taking up street art these days- there is this one near the Himalaya hotel which has replaced the political slogans. First, aesthetically it looks better and second, it drew people together to do something good.

Do you think it will make a difference-even the slightest, in these times of political disorder?
I don’t think it will shake up the leaders or something because I don’t really know WHAT it takes to shake them. Like I said, it is a means of expressing and I don’t think it will make a lot of difference whatsoever.

 What, related to art, bothers you the most in Nepal?

Advertising is getting way out of hand here. I mean, in the west it is worse but Nepal is quickly getting there. You cannot escape them’¦companies are buying space and it is crazy! I don’t see how the space belongs to them more than anyone of us. Somehow their slogans are considered more ‘legal’ and ‘harmless’ than a piece of art put up on a wall just because they paid money to do it.

What difference do you see personally between the convention of street art in the west and here?
I don’t really know because, like I said, I never did art back in the US. One thing- in the US, street art can be serious crime which I really disagree with. That is what I like about Nepal. There are walls that nobody really owns. I just wish they were not so commercial.

In the West, there are people who appreciate street art’¦ but sometimes they tend to look down upon you. In Nepal, people are curious and do appreciate it. My neighbour, a little kid, thinks it is utterly cool (laughs). It is interesting how street art is growing in Nepal. Just a year ago there were hardly any and today everybody is doing or talking street art.  Before people mainly drew anarchy symbols, but now murals and art itself is cropping up. The city is starting to look better.

Anything for people who want to begin stenciling?
I would encourage it because it is kind of empowering. All your life, you walk around a city that you didn’t help design or leave a mark on. However, don’t do anything random. Let it at least have some meaning. Express yourself but don’t offend unnecessarily.

 

Junction Café : From little things big thing grow

The reason why Junction Café is more than just a chill place to hang-out is that it represents an initiative of four young men, each leading a different life but together running this quirky little café in Manbhawan, Lalitpur. Atypical to other twenty-something college kids, Sajan, Anish, Susan and Binay have started a business, and a successful one at that.  Running Junction Café this all on their own the guys exchange the roles of the cook, waiter, cashier and delivery among themselves. With limited prospects of landing their dream job in Nepal’s difficult job market, the four friends didn’t want to wait for the world to come to them. Instead they took the bold move to jump straight out into the world.

While larger, fancier restaurants were mushrooming all over Kathmandu, Junction café started off with one shutter. Yet it soon grew into a more spacious café with a kitchen out the back, making the guys the proud owners of an established and popular eatery. This is expansion was facilitated by the gutsy decision to take out a loan from a finance company. They really did then take control of their own future.

Such motivation to do their own thing stemmed from the instability and weaknesses in the current job market. A government job, explained the waiter of the day, will not go far without corruption and a job in a private sector is unfulfilling as it is a platform for rich to get richer and poor to get poorer. With the growing competition in the market, these four decided that they had to make place for themselves on their own. Instead of shoving and struggling, we find the owners quite relaxed, moving about with the sureness and enthusiasm of young business people and efficiency of old timers.

Upon entering the café you are greeted with a warm self designed interior which pulsates with love, enthusiasm and warm vibes. The menu is simple and the owners, friendly. People frequent this place for the ambience and its food. Over all, these guys have done a great job!

Outside of café life, each of the owners have different pursuits that you wouldn’t normally think correlate with that of a restauranter. Sajan Shrestha, who handles the counter and customer service is a computer enthusiast and fixes computers as a hobby. Anish Nepali, who is responsible for the cooking, is a momo specialist and a former A-division footballer for Brigade Boys Club. On the other hand, Susan Kapali, who is actually a priest (wow!), handles the delivery. Finally, Binay Nakarmi who is there for customer’s service also works at a bank as a junior assistant. They are hopeful of expanding the café and dream of running a chain of restaurants in the future.

Theirs is a simple yet inspiring story which reminds one of the saying ‘little things are little things but having faith in little things is no little thing.’ I hope the spirit that they hold now, takes them far in life. I also hope their initiative strikes a chord among the youths here: to get off that couch, get some friends, start a restaurant, start a band, start a book club, whatever it takes to make that something little bit extra special of your life.

People of Clay

I

Gunjan still plays with her doll.  It is ridiculous; I make fun of her, taunt her, and laugh at her all the time. She is taller than Mother and nearly as tall as Papa but she still has that doll tucked tightly between her hands and waist. Minutes after she carefully lays her doll in its cot as if the doll would wake up if you’re not careful enough. I am beside there kicking my feet in the air, laughing at Gunjan. Mother comes and brings me up to my feet, yes, she nags and shakes her dainty little index finger at me and then she sighs and gives up. It just makes me smile more. And I love having Gunjan by herself, when she is so vulnerable. You take her doll away and put it on top of the cupboard, she’ll cry there for hours. The funny part is, she is just tall enough to reach the doll. But that’s Gunjan, she’d rather sit with her hands pulling at her hair and crying for the doll than tiptoe on her feet to bring the doll back.

Like I do.

This one time I found Gunjan in front of Mother’s mirror with lipstick making a clown’s smile on her face. It was one terrible sight but the thing with Gunjan is, she looks at me with that half-scared and half-amused look on her face that makes every disaster so funny that I can’t help but hoot with laughter. And since I cannot help it, it is certainly not my fault that Mother comes rushing absolutely knowing what she is going to see. Oh then, Mother grabbed her by her arms tightly and gave her a good shaking. I laughed because to and fro is sort of giddy. I laughed harder because Gunjan’s hair was all over the place- on her face, on her shoulders, in the air. Bottles of perfume, lipsticks, lotion cases and make-up boxes flew over heads. I screamed then but not because I was scared like Gunjan was. Mother said that she was sick of Gunjan but she cradled her in her arms again and rocked her silently.

I cannot understand her at all.

Gunjan feeds her doll even though the mouth is but a black thread sown across her face. The oatmeal and milk dribbles down the doll’s already filthy clothes, to Gunjan’s skirt then to mine. It sometimes makes me so mad that I tip the bowl all over the doll. Gunjan does the same but for a different reason. She does it when she scolds the doll for not eating. The doll used to have a white dress but now that Gunjan bathes it almost everyday in her breakfast, it is yellowish brown now. Her hair used to be soft, brown and curly but now it is frail and frizzy.

But Gunjan carries it with her all the time.

Mother had tried getting rid of it once. I told her that Gunjan would be very angry if she did but Mother was determined to get rid of it. Nobody does listen to me, do they? Gunjan threw a wild tantrum. She threw herself on the ground like a mad person. I felt really bad for her. I told Mother again and again that she should return the doll to Gunjan or else she would probably die. Gunjan got her doll back but whenever I want something from her, I threaten to burn her doll. She clutches her doll like I would carry out the threat that very instance. I told you, it is very funny.

Gunjan is not wrong though.

Gunjan is older than Mother because she is taller than her. How can that be so? She still plays with her doll. She talks to it all the time. Even in my presence they carry out conversations. I can, of course, never hear the doll reply ‘don’t leave me.’ But I do hear Gunjan tutting at the doll, explaining that she has to go get dressed for a party. I can also see her say, ‘okay, okay, there is no need to cry now, there, there.’ And carry the doll away as if it actually has a weight. Oh dear, she can be a darling at times. Did I ever mention that Gunjan is very pretty? She has these huge eyes, brown curls that she rests on the window sill. Last week, or was it last month? Well, Gunjan had her birthday and Mother made the best sandwiches ever. I ate mine and the doll ate Gunjan’s. It was okay, Gunjan said, because she didn’t feel hungry then. I thought that was pretty stupid of her so I made fun of her. And also made her cry on her birthday. I threw the doll in the little fishpond we have behind our house.

I ruined my perfect white dress.

Gunjan still has the doll.

Mother comes. Gunjan is telling on me. I want to tell on her too but I don’t want her to lose the doll.

‘Gunjan. Gunjan! Where do you have it? Give it to me, this instance.’

‘I don’t have it.’

‘Where is it?’

‘Gunjan’s got it.’

Mother searches me impatiently.

Mother puts her hand in my pocket and takes away that piece of mirror too.

‘Good riddance, Gunjan and her stupid doll’.

II

‘I cried because she wouldn’t give me my doll.  I would run to tell Mum on her. Then I would turn back because she’d get the doll down from the cupboard. I hope she gets her punishment too; Mum is always shaking her dainty fingers at me.

Gunjan threw my doll in the fishpond behind our house. I cried for it for an hour or so. Gunjan would just laugh louder so I ran to the pond myself. But she was such a dear; she ruined that white dress for me. I got my doll back. I fed it as I watched Gunjan dry her pretty brown curls on the windowsill.

III

I wiped my tears. I feared the food would get salty and soggy. It is my daughter’s birthday. My daughter, my only daughter, how pretty she looks with her brown hair on the sill. I cannot cope up with it anymore. My daughter, she laughs tyrannically to herself and cries madly. I had hoped to bring her up as such a lady. And she still plays with her dolls. Gunjan still plays with her dolls.

I had carried the tray outside. Below the huge tree sat my dear daughter talking to herself in the little mirror she carried. The same mirror that she carried along with her doll. The mirror and the rag of a doll, she always walks around with. Tears welled in my eyes again. I had gone back to the kitchen. Through the window I suddenly saw Gunjan throw her doll in the fishpond and I was somewhat relieved to see the last of that doll but suddenly she herself jumped after it some time later. I screamed.

I got rid of the mirror but the window is still there and so is the pond.

IV

I cannot answer. I am a doll.