One man’s junk is another man’s treasure”. I have yet to see a more credible proof of this classic quote than the genius behind “Tales from the junkyard”(2011) by Meena Kayastha. When you manage to create art that literally can’t be put into words for a mental image, only seen to even believe, then you just know that you’re doing something right. How do I describe two unearthly floating statue heads with tentacles spewing out from below the neck resembling a half man-squid? Or an incredibly sophisticated creature/entity/alien made from common metal springs and brown stuff and God knows what else? And that’s part of the magic.
You see these beautiful, puzzling yet creative pieces of art, yet fail to even know what fifty percent of it is made of. Many simply fail to understand her work and just carelessly criticize it as random garbage thrown together but that’s their take on it. People are simply way too lazily accustomed to “simple” mainstream art which demands zero effort from the audience. Her works subtly but surely urge you to think; on themes of love to innocence, from abstractness to inspiration.
After viewing pieces like union (2015) and untitled (2014), the rare works of art that I couldn’t quite understand the meaning or purpose behind, I just had to ask if she ever created randomly. Or if there were always some underlying theme in her mind. She admits she doesn’t always know what they are supposed to end up looking like, but that some base skeleton of an idea guides her through till the very end of a fully fleshed out wonder. It takes time and it takes patience for the humble seed to grow into a mighty cedar tree.
So what about the root of all this complex creative beauty? Where do the ideas, desires, passions, innovations all come from? “It’s just always kind of been there,” she responds. The discarded containers for all the junk foods she was fond of as a teen, the yet useful but wasted items you often see strewn along the streets etc. More than simple on-the-surface junk, it was something deeper that resonated within her. The sad reality reflected behind stuff turning to junk and being discarded as a queer metaphor for typical life in our own societies. Thus with a mindset of old is gold, she set out on her journey after graduation in 2007. Her first major exhibition, “Tales from the exhibition” made a huge dent in the game although she admits it wasn’t all rainbows the first few days. Yet, by the end she managed to make waves and surf all the way to success primarily due to her unique style.
Despite it being a relatively well known form of art in Europe, she was the first to present “junk sculpture” in Nepal. You could say her techniques are primarily focused on a Hybrid style, fusing both modern and traditional elements. Somewhat like mixing Mona Lisa with color filters, touch ups, and a retrica tag at the bottom; in the best way possible. With regard to materials, she mostly chooses to roll with papier mache (chewed up paper), ancient artifacts, mud color, brick dust, preferably steel items from the junkyard and various colors of tiles for a mosaic. It’s all about cleverly piecing and gluing these isolated individual pieces together which virtually amount to nothing on their own but when it all comes together, the sum is infinitely greater than the whole.
While some pieces have a more mainstream feel such as clearly defined pieces and mud sculpted into figures (“Lyrics of the queen” where you see two human king-queen looking figures), most are just simply undefined, raw, weird, beautiful and thought provoking pieces that leave you guessing forever on the intentions behind it. Take “lyrics of chaos” for example, which is made of bike wheels and papier mache. My friend saw a harmonious link between wheels of chaos while I thought it was more of a darkly cheerful nod to the circle of life. I wasn’t a bit surprised in the least to learn that in minimum, it takes her around a month or so to finish up on an idea. Harder yet is to come up with the idea in the first place and it’s not so much a matter of preparation and planning as it is of free-flowing work and random strokes of inspiration. “Plus you don’t really know what you’re going to find in a junkyard either,” she quips. So it’s more about the journey than the destination itself and not knowing what she is going to ultimately end up with that adds all the more joy to her passion.
Her current work, “Divine Debris”, is currently on at the Siddhartha Art Gallery in Babar Mahal Revisited. This exhibit takes a slightly different approach/ style as these are more of paintings than three dimensional sculptures.
The 19 pieces on display are based on Navadurga goddesses and deities such as Vaisnavi, Kumari, Indrayani, Ganesha, and Yamaraj etc. These were done in loving tribute and fond memory of Bhaktapur’s local heritages. Beautiful century-old craft all sadly reduced to rubble in light of the April 2015 earthquake. In perfect line with her goals and themes, she wanted to pick up the literal pieces of a now past glory and attempt to restore it to at least some of its old majestic charm. From debris, wooden artifacts to paint to her signature: leftover scrap metal from junkyards, all is laid bare in a beautiful mix for the beholder to witness. These paintings have a sort of thangka feel to it mixed with a traditional Maithili art style, perhaps due to the portrait-esque drawings of deities. The colors seem bright, full of contrast and occasional dark overtones here and there.
I was caught a bit off guard by the project at first as I didn’t know her artistic prowess extended to paintings and minimal styled crafts as well. Instead of her signature style of abstractness, these follow a more traditional and simple route. Simple as in creating something an everyday painter would do (portraits of gods) and elevating it with her unique touches. Because when you add in the “3D” elements popping out from the surface in the mix, it creates an explosive match made in heaven. And it might not seem like it on first sight, but so many physical elements are on play. To start off, traditional wooden doors itself are used as canvas instead of paper. Look keenly enough and you’ll also catch sight of items like shovels, lawn mowers, bicycles and more.
Words cannot do her justice and describing her work is a challenge. Give the exhibition a go and see for yourself. The refreshing change of culture is pleasant and you might just get into it too. Plus it’s a good way to pay tribute to the victims by simply visiting these creations made from materials that teemed with life once upon a time in the valley.