Why This Jewelry Designer Thinks Cultural Appropriation Is Misunderstood

“One cannot talk about culture like it’s static with sole proprietorship.”

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There are two types of people in the world: Proprietors of the "arm party," the "ear party," and any other aptly named bodily fête who would feel naked without buying, collecting, and piling on jewelry; and those who, frankly, could care less. Minus a thin gold band I borrowed from my former roommate and never gave back, I fall in the latter category. And that's why I look up to/ am inspired by/ am fascinated with people like Arpana Rayamajhi, who doesn't just make — but wears — some of the most beautiful and intricate and colorful earrings and necklaces and more.
Rayamajhi was born and raised in Nepal, something that continues to heavily influence her collections. After studying painting and sculpting at The Cooper Union School of Art in New York City, she launched her first brand, ArpanaJewels, in 2014. Since then, she's used her arts training and cultural roots to develop a line that's attracted big-name fans, including Victoria's Secret. In December, Rayamajhi was tapped to design custom pieces for "The Road Ahead" segment of the company's annual fashion show, solidifying her mark as a creative worth paying attention to (and frankly, a jewelry brand worth buying from).
With a new series, Narcissist, in the works — it's her first time working with metals — and some modeling and music projects on the side, Rayamajhi describes herself as a "jack of all trades, master of some." But her first love is art — how it translates to all facets of her life, and how her one-of-a-kind jewelry can help deliver that same appreciation to others. Below, she opens up about her inspirations, her feelings on cultural appropriation, and her advice for people like me, who just can't figure out how to make jewelry a seamless part of their everyday wardrobe.
Tell me about growing up in Nepal. How did that influence your style, your love of fashion, and eventually, your business?
"What I know of Nepal is Kathmandu, my hometown and the capital of the country. I did not like going to school at all because creativity was never encouraged. In fact, it was looked down upon by almost every one, despite knowing that I was raised by a mother who was an actor.
"Nepal is rich in diversity and culture, and I am not just saying that because "culture" and "diversity" are hot commodities in the Western world now. Nepali people know from early on that the world is very big and we don't have much, so we were always taught that we were rich in nature and culture. And that's true.
"Growing up, my style went through many phases — the underground black/death metal concert going, head-banging phase, the support the local economy and only wear things produced in Nepal phase. Now, it's a mix of everything. Nepal influences me in endless ways, but the combination of my travels to Tokyo and living in New York City has made it whole. I am not just Nepali, and my work isn't just about Nepal — I am an artist, and I will always change. I do not hold any identity strongly because I don't care for any labels."
What was the first piece of jewelry you ever made? Did you know it would turn into a career?
"I never in my life thought I would be a jeweler. I still question if I am one. [Laughs] The first piece I made was a pair of all-black earrings with silk thread, silver skulls, and naturally beached urchin shells that I handpicked from the Cook Islands. It was inspired by Tim Burton's book "The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy," and my series was called "The Melancholy Death of the Urchin Girl."
Walk us through the process of making the pieces.
"Each piece (as of now), is one-of-a-kind and made without any drawings. I 'see' them in my head before I make them, if that makes any sense. Most of my materials are from Nepal and New York and some from travels around the world. Beads for colors, metal for form, and everything in between, from erasers to synthetic hair, make it into my work. It is just another extension of my art discipline.
You speak a lot about how fashion and art intersect, and how your work falls somewhere in the middle. How would you describe the importance of fashion to the world to someone who thinks its frivolous?
"I do think fashion and art intersect. The only thing that makes me sad is the language around fashion, and how it's all about being 'independent' and 'strong' and 'sexy;' it's made even the most intricate and conceptual designs sound, well, not so conceptual.
"The best example of art-meets-fashion, to me, is Hussein Chalayan. He might be my favorite designer, and not because I want my wardrobe to be filled with his work (which I also would not mind), but because he has really made me see 'fashion' in a different way.
"Fashion isn't just about clothes, just like art isn't just about a painting or a sculpture. It embodies a world of itself and creates one. It's complex, but as with every other field of creativity, the least complex things get the most visibility."
How did you land your jewelry gig with Victoria's Secret? How did participating in an event that large affect your exposure?
"I was approached by photographer Vanina Sorrenti to shoot an editorial with 10 magazine, and Sophia Neophitou, its owner and editor-in-chief, and also the creative director of the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, was the stylist for the shoot. I always take my jewelry with me to shoots, even when I'm just modeling, because it is also an opportunity for me to see what they look like with designs that I think are totally different. She saw my work, asked me who the designer was, and when I said me (obviously), she explained everything about the show and voila! The next day I was signing a contract in their head office in New York.
"[The show] was a huge deal, and it didn't hit me until I saw it for myself in real life in Paris. 'Representation' is a huge conversation in the West. Coming from Nepal, it isn't easy, especially as a woman, to see yourself going to a bigger city and doing what you love to do. I never thought where I grew up would stop me from achieving my dreams because my family has never made me feel like I am not capable of doing something. So one thing I didn't think about consciously was that I wasn't just representing myself as an artist — I ended up representing a huge chunk of Nepal. It has made so many Nepali people proud, and I get mail from young women and men who write to me about my work. Isn't that the best thing anyway?"
How would you describe your personal style?
"Sincere, colorful (as of now, and most likely will always be), and always changing."
What piece of jewelry is most important to you?
"A pair of silver anklets my mom sent from Nepal in maybe 2009/2010. She told me that if I was ever broke, I could sell them for some money on the side. I never in my life put it together until very recently that maybe my jewelry-making has less to do with Nepal and culture and all that, and more to do with my mother's memories."
What are three pieces advice you would give to someone who doesn't wear a lot of jewelry, but wants to?
"Go for it. (More like three words, really!) [Laughs] There are no rules in fashion, no matter how hard any establishment or magazine tries to tell you "what's hot and what's not." The only limitation you need to break with fashion, as with everything else, exists in your mind. You need to first 'be yourself' fully, as cheesy as that sounds, and spend time figuring out why you like to wear what you wear. Over time, you'll figure out what you're interested in and what draws you in more; that's how it worked for me."
What are three things you can't live without?
"If life came to that, I could live without anything. But as of now: my loved ones, my studio, and music."
How do you work to speak out against things like cultural appropriation as a designer?
"This is NOT a conversation that's set in stone, and how it's talked about is the only way to talk about it. I urge people to be more calm and cool and less angry. Ultimately, we all need to get along, and we must be open to one another; respect goes both ways. We all belong to this world. All these separation and boundaries are what we need to break no matter how challenging and hard that is. I simply want people to look at this from a much larger perspective, and if they disagree with it, that's fine. Here's how I feel about cultural appropriation:
"1. It is symptomatic issue and not an issue in itself. It poses new problems and doesn't solve any existing problem. The way that I see it is, firstly, it's an American issue. It arises from systematic oppression of people and economic inequality. If one wants to get to the heart of the problem, that's when issues like this can actually be solved.
"2. Appropriation talks about ownership. Culture, on the other hand, no one owns it. Culture is what happens when people come together and share knowledge and techniques. That is how we have always lived, and that is part of our collective growth. Fashion is not the only forefront of appropriation — art, music, sports, language, architecture, food, pretty much everything is appropriated. So, where does it start and where does it stop? And who gets to have a say in it?
"3. I have noticed that the conversation around cultural appropriation is often targeted with the most popular imagery and icons, and it is limited with ones knowledge of culture itself. Everything comes from culture, and every ethnicity in the world, including "white people," have culture. For example, dreadlocks are also a huge part of religious practices in Hinduism and Buddhism. But in the West, only one side is seen. One must credit and respect the origin of culture, but if we are all going to be honest with ourselves — before pointing fingers — are we all fully aware of where everything we use and consume comes from? If that was the case, why would we need to evolve if we are that self-aware?
"4. A lot of us in Nepal feel that when a visitor speaks our language, eats our food, and wears our clothes, it's the highest form of respect. So we must understand that not everyone is exploitative.
"5. Cultures are different but also similar. The beads I work with have taught me how Native North American and South American patterns and designs are made in South/Southeast Asia and even Africa, where one would think there is no overlap. But it is not true. One cannot talk about culture like it's static with sole proprietorship.
"6. Copyright infringement and cultural appropriation are two separate things. For example: When an artist's work is directly duplicated, I see that instance to be way more problematic, because it is an individual's idea that was stolen.
"7. The only community this is really affecting is the creative community. Artists are inspired by things that have come before them and what they are surrounded by. One does not fish ideas from the vacuum of space.
"8. When one is traveling and or buying something from artisans, they are supporting their livelihood. I have bought beads from Huichol artists, and if they were to only rely on Huichol people to purchase their work, then they would not have a viable means of living. One must always look at things from a larger perspective and see what the ripple effect of one's actions could be.
"9. Any of the points I have made above shall not be used to defend one's lack of consideration while wearing/doing something and disrespecting it. But to think that only someone of 'another' culture can disrespect a culture is biased and untrue. Disrespect can come in all colors and from within and outside the community."
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