09 May, 2004

The Buddhist Behind the Camera

The Buddhist Behind The Camera

Wayne’s photos are moved and angered by the same existence that troubled Prince Siddhartha

Nation Weekly, May 9-16 2004

The oft-repeated complaint about Buddhists, especially Western ones living in Nepal, is that they are so engrossed in their meditation practice that they have a difficult time naming the prime minister. The outside world is perceived through a transcendental blur. Wayne Amtzis is a welcome exception to this stereotype.

“That’s an interesting shape over there,” says Wayne, pointing to a crack in the concrete with a twinkle in his eye. “It looks like a Buddha. No, more like a rabbit.” The first impression of irrepressible Wayne is that he does not have any holy cows tied up in his backyard.

In the garden, Wayne has sheets and sheets of his old poems which have been eaten by insects. When the poet, who keeps no backups, recently found his old poetry in such shape, he did not get into a fit of depression. He took photographs of them instead. Those pages were placed with other objects: garden cans, prayer beads and bowls, leaves, street signs, a torn vest, a rubber doll and other random street treasures found by the artist, and digitally remixed in the computer. This series, featuring the reincarnated poems, was exhibited at the Siddhartha Art Gallery this April.

Wayne looks at the darkness and light that makes up Nepal with the same clear-eyed and unflinching gaze, the same steady equilibrium. Unlike the aid workers purring by in their air-conditioned Pajeros, Wayne Amtzis moves down the crowded lanes and streets, slowly on foot, pausing to catch snatches of dialogue, facial gestures, the sound of street static. He has time to listen to a tired coolie over here, watch the spit come out of the mouth of a supposed madwoman over there.

His poems start gently enough, leading you down a modern space full of cars and corpses, technology and organic decay. The dénouement, when it comes, comes abruptly, shocking the reader out of complacency–the suicide of a sixteen year old girl, or a “Welcome to Nepal” sign sponsored by Coca-Cola. The almost unbelievable story, reported in the Kathmandu Post, of a child suckled by a bitch.

His photos, taken in black and white, are moved and angered by the same existence that troubled Prince Siddhartha–stark portraits of a little girl struggling with a heavy steel bucket; a man slumped tiredly over himself holding the stub of a dying beedi; a body sleeping beneath wall graffiti which proclaims a national conference.

Wayne has been writing poetry and creating photographs of Nepal for many years. His deep commitment to social justice is palpable. Unlike the Beat poets who came, saw, conquered the turmoils of their soul, and then left Shangri-La for greener pastures, Wayne Amtzis has stuck around for more painful times.

Wayne’s contributions to the Nepali art field cannot be counted by the number of his publications or exhibits alone. He has translated poems of Nepali poets, and is currently at work on a book of poems about water written by a Newari poet Purna Vaidya. He, along with his wife Judith, who works for the Cornell Nepal Study Program, are also behind-the-scene mentors to young Nepali artists and writers, providing vital and generous support to the burgeoning arts movement in Kathmandu. More importantly, he has allowed a sense of playful experimentation to seep into a world otherwise tightly regimented by gallery requirements and canonical dictates. After all, who but Wayne could dare put a torn vest found on the street up as an art object at a Nepali art gallery?
At the opening of his photography series, Wayne read aloud his poems. “Listen to the sounds,” he urged, “don’t try to assign meaning.” Like his photographs, which have softened with the passing of time, his words are full of compassion. Outside in the streets, protests are raging. Blood flows and fear moves beneath the surface of the country. Listening to the impassioned voice of Wayne Amtzis, it is not difficult to understand that dukkha still stalks the people and land of Nepal.

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