This Conversation was wholly-produced during quarantine. Since we obviously couldn't send over a photographer, we asked Arpana to shoot some of her own.
I’m a stoner, but I’m super high functioning. And I’m not the type that has to blaze before I go somewhere or do something. I don’t have that. I just enjoy it. The one thing I don’t do is wake and bake. Because then I have to bake all day to keep it up. So I just smoke in the evenings and have a good time.
I’m highly productive when high. I pretty much made all my jewelry, all my work, on weed. The one thing that I think I can’t do when I’m high is act. It shuts me down.
I was born and raised in Kathmandu, and Nepal is actually pretty famous for its weed and hashish. The last stop on the Hippie Trail in the 60s and 70s was Kathmandu. But I grew up in the post-War on Drugs era. I’m learning the history now and starting to put it all together. When I was growing up, marijuana and hash were considered drugs—they were not considered good.
The first time I smoked weed, I was 16 years old, and I thought it was incredible. It was also the scariest thing ever. I thought I was going to die but then I didn’t, and that’s when I knew that it was amazing. Over the years, my relationship with it has changed from purely recreational to also understanding the medical benefits of it.
One of the most trying times for me was definitely when my mom was sick and going through chemotherapy—the side effects, the toll it took on her body, and the pain she would experience. At some point, I remember talking to her oncologist and I said, “I’m going to say something that might be controversial. Would you ever recommend that I give my mother medical marijuana?” He looked at me and he said, “I can never suggest that. I know people are doing it in the West and I think there are credible reasons, but I cannot suggest that to you. It’s illegal here and I cannot talk to you about it.”
I remember feeling really desperate at that point to do anything and everything to make sure that my mom was not in a lot of pain. That’s when my relationship with the plant changed because I realized how powerful it was.
I was 20 the first time I left Nepal.
I was 20 the first time I left Nepal, but that was only for a visit. It was then that I learned about Cooper Union and its amazing history—and the fact that, if you get in, your tuition is free. The ethics and ideology behind it really resonated. But I couldn’t apply because I’d never had a formal education in art.
I’d always made things and been creative on my own, but in Nepal, art is not a part of your high school curriculum. So I decided to go to Temple University in Philadelphia for a year. But as soon as I got there, I wanted to escape. I knew New York was where I had to be. I applied to Cooper a year later and fortunately, I got in.
But then my mom was diagnosed with cancer. It all happened within a single month. The entire world was taken from underneath my feet. I packed everything up, I told my boyfriend, “I have to go. I don’t know when I’m going to be back.” And I left.
My first few years in New York I was doing a lot of back and forth. I was doing one semester of school then going back home and taking care of my mom. The world is really small when you come from far away. She passed away eight years ago.
Things were very, very different where I’m from. Life was very simple. It was nothing like the U.S.—or even Bangkok or Mumbai, for that matter. The only really big international corporation we had was Coca Cola. We still don’t have McDonald’s, which I think is incredible. In many aspects, Nepal has not been touched by capitalism. Things are changing a lot now, though.
We didn’t have electricity for 18 hours most days. We had limited fuel, so cars would have to line up for days. Despite it all, Nepali people are probably some of the most resilient people in the world. We rarely complained. I mean, we complained, but we never broke out in violence. That’s one thing that I really appreciate and that I was unable to see when I was living there. The things that would frustrate me about my place in life were also the things that were saving us.
Nepali people are probably some of the most resilient people in the world.
Quarantine feels like nothing to me. I grew up in a time when my country was shut down regularly. Different parties would call for protests and demonstrations and nationwide lockdowns. My life and my upbringing have really prepared me for this time right now, which is funny.
My mother was an actor. She worked in TV and film. She even did a little bit of theater and radio. My father used to draw and paint, but that was not what he did professionally. We were a very average Nepali family, and yet very different. I say average in the sense that we definitely were not rich. Being an actor in Nepal, at least back in the day, meant that you did it for the love of art, because you had a community of artists trying to get together and make work.
Art was something that I was surrounded by, but when you’re a kid you don’t really understand it. I’d see my mom sitting right next to me, and then she would be on the television, and I never thought it was weird. I don’t think I even understood the value of growing up with the kind of family that I had until a few years ago. How different my life would have been had I just been born in a different family. It’s not about money. My mother was considered one of the best actors in Nepal at the time and yet she really was not making money. The men were getting paid a lot more though, as always. But that never stopped her. I do remember her struggles. I remember her talking about how hard she’d been working and how minimal the return was, but it never stopped her from doing it.
I don’t really think I picked art. I think it was meant to happen. I feel like art—and other creative endeavors—are a calling. I don’t really think it’s something that we choose. I think we’re chosen. I don’t think art is about you at all. It’s your work, but you are the medium. That’s how I feel.
Everything that I was making was deemed “decorative.” And I realized that “decorative” was considered a fairly pejorative term.
When you go to a school like Cooper Union in one of the biggest cities in the world, and you’re an international student from a place like Nepal with zero background in art, every reference goes over your head. I didn’t know any of the artists they talked about. What brought me there was that I wanted to be an artist, not that I knew the art world or the history of it—and I still feel like these two things can be very separate. Going to a school that was that heady and intellectual, being around people who were incredibly talented and who had the opportunity to go to art-specific high schools made me feel very insecure. It made me feel like I didn’t know anything. Everything that I was making was deemed “decorative.” And I realized that “decorative” was considered a fairly pejorative term, because the concept of, like, “high art” always looks like it came out of an industrial factory. I was struggling in so many ways.
As a Nepali person with an F1 visa, who had moved all this way, my future as a painter was significantly more perilous than anything else I could choose. For international students, unless you get a full 9-to-5 job and a company to sponsor your work visa, you have a very, very difficult time. Once I was done with school, how would I get a visa?
I had to come up with something. I had to be clever, and I had to remind myself why I was even in art school in the first place, so I started making jewelry. I was making the most fucking “decorative” jewelry in the world, and I was showing it at Cooper. I was like, “Here it is. This is fucking decoration and decoration is art.”
I first joined instagram after I graduated because I realized that I didn’t have an audience anymore. When you’re in art school, you have a built-in community. So I decided to give social media a shot. I started putting my jewelry up purely because I wanted to share my work. I had no expectations whatsoever. I didn’t realize that you get addicted to likes, which I realized, like, five weeks later.
And then this incredible woman, Marjon Carlos, who used to work at Vogue, found my work on Instagram. She wrote to me and said, “I would love to feature your work in Vogue.” I was like, “What the...”
It was so weird. Of course, I said yes. But I didn’t actually think it was going to happen. People don’t understand. I’m from Nepal. Vogue is something that happens in an entirely different universe. It was a small article and it meant so much to me, and to my friends back home. It gave me the encouragement I needed. I started making more work. And the more work I put out there, the more I was comfortable putting myself as a maker out there.
I have always secretly had an audience in my mind.
I’ve always acted. I don’t mean that I act with people in real life—I don’t put on a different face. But my mom would talk about acting and how the complexity of being a person in real life and playing a role as an actor sometimes aren’t that different.
So I have always secretly had an audience in my mind. But I never considered acting professionally because it was so close to home. Then, a few years ago, I realized that if there’s one thing that I might know about without having ever fully immersed myself, it’s acting. My mom shared so much with me and while, at the time, I thought they were just conversations, her advice is ingrained in my memory. I sent my first audition tape two years ago, and I didn’t get the part. But it lit a fire under my ass, and I signed up for acting classes. An apple really doesn’t fall that far from the tree.
Ever since I was young, anytime someone met my sister or I, they would be like, “Are you going to be an actor like your mom when you grow up?” And I would always say no. But they made it seem like it was the normal thing to do. I was so young, I didn’t understand anything. I thought it was just a profession. But now that I’ve lived here, and I see that, like, Johnny Depp’s daughter is an actor, I’m like, Oh, is acting a family business? I think it’s kind of hilarious. For me, it’s really a way for me to honor my mother. I hope that through acting, I’ll get to know my mother as a person—as Sushila Rayamajhi and not just as my mom.
I would like to write and direct my own films as well. Have you seen Jojo Rabbit? It is incredible. The director—and writer and actor—Taika Waititi is a Māori New Zealander. And when I see a Māori New Zealander working in Hollywood, I feel incredibly inspired because there aren’t that many Nepali people in the West who are doing that kind of thing. When people say to me, “Well, what about Bollywood?” I’m like, “I’m not from India, and it doesn’t represent me.” You might look a certain way, but that’s not what representation is for me.
When I see somebody like Taika Waititi, I’m like, Oh my god, there’s a Māori guy, who’s like the minority of the minority, and I identify with people like him more. Bjork, too. She’s from Iceland, this tiny little place, and doing something incredible. When I see them making films and writing stories, I feel like that’s what my future will be: writing and creating my own stories. Because the chances of someone from the West writing a story about a Nepali girl are very low.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Follow Arpana on instagram here. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies.