Girl, unbothered

A young artist explores absences through stitch, fabric and photographs, with striking results

A piece of fabric can take on a dynamic meaning in art, as evidenced by eeSofiya Maharjan’s works currently on display at Dalai La Art Space in Thamel. Viewers are made aware of delicate childhood memories: clutching on to one’s mother’s hem for a sense of security, or perhaps to call, to seek attention, to be invited into a world that is at the outset far from reach for a young child.

Maharjan plays not only with her own memory but also that of her mother’s, and this is the central theme of the exhibition Absence Unbothered. Raised by a single mother who left her husband when Maharjan was only eight, she is as inspired by her mother’s nostalgia for her own childhood as she is by how that yearning and the stories told by her mother shaped her own experience growing up. 

Absence Unbothered art review

Maharjan’s works are visually striking and unique in their execution. Using white fabric, stitch and photo transfer, a vision of an absence is rendered to canvas – an absence of a man, a father, and that her mother made sure the children never felt in their lives. The artworks express a profound sense of loss worsened by the patriarchal fist that limits a woman’s choice, freedom and desires, but at their core, they are about an absence that is not present. The absence also gave her brother an opportunity to step up, filling in the role of her father, as shown by ‘Jhin Nima’.

The idea had been in the back of Maharjan’s mind for some time, but it did not start to take form until her third year in college when she worked with her family archives. “At the time, I was not entirely sure what the idea looked like concretely,” she recalls, “but it was in the middle of the pandemic and that allowed me a chance to know my mother more intimately.”

She began to collect stories of her mamaghar, where she was close with her mother's family. Her mother, too, would tell her and her brother stories of her own childhood in fragments, which then Maharjan would piece together like stitching together a large, colourful tapestry of joys and sorrows, laughter and comfort – almost a precursor to her matured works in the exhibition, where these emotions and stories get concrete shape in objects such as gherwa lamps, karuwa, dalchaa and gha

Absence Unbothered art review

The objects themselves take on a double significance in Absence unbothered. While they are most naturally the tangible connection her mother has with her past, they also speak of another added layer. When her mother left her husband and his family, she had to leave behind many things that she had collected over the years. Some of them were gifts of love from family members while others were fruits of her own hard work.

“When I was growing up, many of my friends used to wear their mother’s jewellery and clothes, but that was not possible for me,” says Maharjan. “When I used to ask my mother for her things, she would say, ‘Oh, I left that behind’. She used to miss them but did not have anything from her past with her that she could share with me.”

Now, the cousins on her father’s side wear the same jewellery and clothes and seeing this fills her with sadness. Maharjan’s mother now keeps a clothing store in Pinchhen in Lalitpur, she re-collected all that she lost: the cha: cha:, the ghadi. The fabric Maharjan uses is also inspired by clothes she found in the store. “And she worked hard, standing tall and independent, warmly holding us in her arms, and giving us space and peace,” says Maharjan. 

Absence Unbothered art review

This fact is immediately represented by a series of three larger works, which show a mother with her children. Each is faceless and the details are in their clothes, meticulous stitchwork that add depth and an inviting texture. Here, it becomes apparent that the story Maharjan is telling is not just her own but of countless young people who grow up in a similar absence. 

“There were times when I felt the difference from many of my classmates who grew up in families with fathers,” says Maharjan, who is 26 now. “But not anymore. My mother built a house without a husband and that’s okay. It has brought us closer. I am who I am now because my father was not around.”

Absence Unbothered

Sofiya Maharjan

Dalai La Art Space, Thamel

Until 6 May

Ashish Dhakal


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