Ashna Lama flips a black folio. Each page has a stark female figure in white. Some standing up, others sitting, some lying down or meditating.

The flowy edges enclose shards and squiggles, as if hiding a deep hurt within. The drawings seem to signify how women try to keep their pain inside, while keeping a bubbly facade.

Ashna Lama herself is a chirpy 21-year-old who laughs a lot, makes self-deprecating jokes in her singsong voice. Few can tell that this cheery face masks a difficult struggle with anxiety attacks and depression.

Lama grew up in an artistic family with the smell of acrylic and turpentine. She sketched from a young age, expressing her sadness in art. The current series ‘The Fragility of Anxiety’ was drawn in 2015 after the earthquake when she had panic attacks, and was put on medication.

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“I was traumatised, I didn’t speak to anyone for four days. There were a lot of thoughts running through my mind,” recalls Lama. “Then I turned to my sketchbook and started drawing, and these figures just flowed. When I concentrated on sketching I didn’t think of anything else, and the focus calmed me down.”

Three years later, Ashna is ready to exhibit the sketches alongside her own poetry at the one-day exhibition at Hotel Annapurna on August 12. Lama says the black pages of the notebook spoke to her, and resonated with her art. She describes her bouts of depression as “spiraling into blackness”.

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Art has historical association with mental health. Frieda Kahlo painted self portraits to deal with debilitating injuries, Monet was highly anxious, Picasso was said to be schizophrenic, and Van Gogh depressed and bi-polar. Lama says her art is also a reflection of her inner turmoil.

“When the pressure cooker is about to burst and the whistle goes off, the steam is art. If it is too much to handle, I draw,” says Lama, adding it was not easy to decide to share her work and open up about her deepest emotions. But she decided to go for it to spread awareness of mental health in Nepal, and break the taboos.

Lama found out she was getting too dependent on medication. Once, having lost her pills she started banging her head on walls, hoping she would pass out. The drawings have helped her get off medication, and she says many others with mental health issues may also need an outlet for expression.

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All photos: SONIA AWALE

After she came out to talk publicly about her affliction, Lama found many opened up too. They were lonely, and felt as if they were the only ones suffering. It helped to share.

“Mental health is so little understood in Nepal. There is so much stigma, and I want to generate some discussion through this exhibition. It is for people who appreciate the effort it takes to bare your innermost soul to an outsider,” says Lama.

Once a science student and a part-time model, she decided to take a clean break and enrolled in an art school in Florence. She says formally studying art in the city of Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, and Dante gave more definition to her form of expression. She also paints commissioned work where she digresses from signature black to dabble in rainbow hues.

The future? Lama wants to return to Nepal and learn thangka painting: “I want to sweat it out, grinding gemstones to make colours, using the techniques to make my own kind of art.”

It would be a homecoming for Ashna Lama, shedding black for the vividness of life in her own country.

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The Fragility of Anxiety
Hotel Annapurna
12 August, 4:30-6:30PM

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