Known for using books from second-hand bookstores to create art, Youdhisthir Maharjan talks about his first exhibition, his artistic methods, and why he thinks art should be universal.
BY: SHRANUP TANDUKAR
In 2003, a 19-year-old artist with hopes in his eyes and familial disapproval at the back of his mind conducted his first solo exhibition at Shangri-La Hotel in Kathmandu. Titled ‘Gifts of Our Ancestors’, the exhibition was a prelude to a rise of a distinct artistic style of the artist, Youdhisthir Maharjan.
“My art style is destructive,” says Youdhisthir Maharjan as he begins to introduce his approach to art while standing in front of his latest exhibit titled ‘WITHOUT A MAP’ at the Bahadur Shah Baithak, one of the venues of Kathmandu Triennale 2022. “Through my art, I aspire to reduce everything to zero and show that nothing is pre-defined.”
Maharjan, who did his MFA from the University of Idaho in the United States, is renowned for ‘reclaiming’ books from second-hand bookstores and creating art out of them. He employs a variety of methods—braiding, cutting, rearranging, weaving, etc.—in order to reduce and transform written text and, in turn, the language itself. All of his methods are laborious, systematic, and monotonous, a deliberate process in which he revels.
Maharjan, who started his nascent artistic journey from galleries in Nepal, has showcased his artworks in the Rubin Museum of Art, Boston Center for the Arts, and TARQ, among others. Maharjan sat down with the Post’s Shranup Tandukar to discuss his relationship with language, his satisfaction in laborious monotony, and his opinion on personal art.
You had your first exhibition in 2003 when you were just nineteen. How did that come about?
When I was young, I would take out time from studying to create art, which I used to hide from my family members. After I had made a decent amount of artworks—which were small—for my portfolio, I approached two or three galleries in the hopes of being included in an exhibition. I was fortunate enough to do two solo exhibitions at Shangri-La Hotel in 2003 and then the Indigo Art Gallery in 2004. I was galvanised by those experiences to continue my endeavour in art; I had also earned enough to cover my travel costs to the US for my undergraduates from my exhibitions.
Were there other creative professionals in your family?
Yes, my father is a commercial artist who paints the exterior of army aircraft. My interest in art was also first ignited by my father, and later on, even in my school days, I was interested in art. My friends were supportive and would tell me that my artworks were good and encourage me to continue to make art. But at that time, there were no good art courses nor art-related libraries in Nepal, so I couldn’t really understand art on a theoretical level. I even went to an art college in Kathmandu for a month to inspect how the courses were run, but I wasn’t satisfied so I started to plan to go abroad for my further studies.
On the other hand, my interest in literature was spurred by my English teacher at Sainik Awasiya Mahavidyalaya during my high school years. I was already good at English grammar and sentence structure, but the teacher’s passion for literature rubbed off on me too.
What do your family members think of your artworks?
They don’t understand it, to be honest. For example, if I am concentrating on my braiding pages into a rope in front of my work table and someone brings me tea, then they would make a nonchalant response, something like ‘Oh, you are making a rope?’ Then they would smile pleasantly and go away.
But I also like this casual response because what I do is ordinary and what I work with—such as books and newspapers—is ordinary. However, if we can find beauty in such ordinary things, then we can be happy and content with anything in life. To achieve happiness, we don’t need to go to resorts in Chandragiri. We can be happy inside our own rooms, walking through the same old alleyways. Or rather, we should find happiness in such things. We should expand the notion of beauty beyond the pre-defined expectations.
How would you describe your relationship with the English language: positively or negatively?
Neutral actually. I aim to make my relationship with my texts extremely objective. There are no feelings involved in my artwork; it is instead methodological and laborious, completely opposite to abstract paintings like that of Van Gogh. My artwork is not personal or intimate but is instead a transformation of context.
There are three entities at play in a book: the language, the writer, and the reader. These converge to create a particular meaning. When someone discards a book and I come across it, I try to distance myself from these entities as I try to change the context of the language. As soon as the context changes, the meaning changes and a new power structure comes alive. I only aim that in this new power structure, everyone becomes equal.
We live in an age where mainstream art is something very much personalised. Inspired by personal trauma, experiences, and struggles, artists today create art that becomes a window into the artist’s soul. What are your thoughts on this?
I think that art should rise above the personal. Everyone has their own struggles and journeys, no matter the caste, creed, or nationality. But art should rid itself of its attachment to a specific group and instead should be universal. Art should transcend the material world. Every person is a global citizen, a human being, and art should be catered for each one.
You seem to enjoy treading the line between meaning and mystery in your works, making the decipherable undecipherable.
Rather than mystifying the meaning, I focus on the power structure of the language. Language by itself is an external voice—it is someone else’s opinion, fact, or interpretation. By reading that external voice, we will incorporate only others’ voices. The more you read, the more you internalise other people’s voices. I am much more interested in the internal voice, and I feel that I connect with my internal voice in silence. My artworks reduce the external voices in artworks, but the lack of decipherable words in my artwork doesn’t mean that there is nothing. It is rather an opportunity for viewers to connect with your inner voice and create their own meanings.
The wider theme for the recently concluded Kathmandu Triennale was decolonisation. How do you think your artworks fell under that theme?
My artwork is a reductive process; I destroy something, separate the text from its identity, and give an opportunity for something new to be able to form. English is a colonial language and it is an extremely powerful language so I try to take this powerful language and make it neutral. I didn’t think about colonisation or decolonisation themes while creating my artworks but the connection occurred coincidentally.
Even though most people may not understand English, almost everyone recognises the English language, words, and the script. The script itself is fused with power.
You haven’t used Nepali texts for your artworks till now. Is there a special reason?
I haven’t seen a necessity for it till now. In countries like ours, India, and other South Asian countries, the English language was forced upon us and most people now recognise it even if they don’t understand it. But for the Nepali language, its script has become foreign and alien to the natives themselves. I believe that making it even more abstract is futile.