Barrier-breaking art showcased at Western Gallery - Salish Current
November 6, 2023
Barrier-breaking art showcased at Western Gallery
Questen Inghram

Artist Jyoti Duwadi demonstrates meditation bowls in an interactive piece in an exhibition of his work at the Western Gallery on Western Washington University’s campus. (Questen Inghram / Salish Current photo © 2023)

November 6, 2023
Barrier-breaking art showcased at Western Gallery
Questen Inghram


Whenever he goes traveling, Jyoti Duwadi keeps a zip-close bag in his backpack — he’s always on the lookout for dirt.

Dirt to paint with, that is. 

“We’ll drive by and suddenly see this amazingly beautiful earth all over the place, and so the idea is to bring that — the beauty of the nature — into a gallery,” Duwadi said. 

The earth pigments he finds for his art are bright and warm browns, reds, tans and surprising greens and blues, which then, together with gum arabic as a binder, he rubs onto handcrafted Nepali paper.

“The paper is amazingly beautiful. I’m using my hand, my palm and my thumb to rub it,” Duwadi said. “It’s like I’m putting my energy into [it].”

“Himalaya to Cascadia: Transcending Boundaries” is an exhibition currently showcasing 50 years of Duwadi’s work, which spans mediums — sculpture, sketches, digital art, and more — as well as continents. Duwadi grew up in an intellectual and political Nepali family living in exile in Darjeeling, India. He got his master’s degree in Katmandu and moved to Missoula on a scholarship to study political science at the University of Montana. He completed a doctorate degree at Claremont Graduate University. 

‘Visual poetry’

A number of works painted on traditional Nepali paper adorn the walls of the Western Gallery at Western Washington University. Shristi (Creation) is colossally large, taking up the center of one wall, and is surrounded by vessels of multicolored earth. Duwadi calls his art style “visual poetry,” inspired by petroglyphs, hieroglyphs and jazz improvisation. 

Visitors to the exhibit are first greeted by pieces inspired by staffs used by shamans. Two of these pieces are made from garlic knots from Joe’s Garden, encased in beeswax. Beeswax, as well as found objects, feature heavily in Duwadi’s work. 

“He can see the potential in the smallest item, things that we would throw away,” Barbara Matilsky, Duwadi’s wife and curator of the exhibit, said. 

Three elements from an installation by Jyoti Duwadi employ the rich colors of earth pigments. (Questen Inghram / Salish Current photo © 2023)

Digeridoo, standing taller than the average person, is made from beeswax and found keys, among other materials. Old sanding belts from Smith and Vallee’s carpentry shop act as canvases for some of his works, including Spectrum. Folded in such a way that it looks something like a large clay pot, LED lights give the center a cool glow of rotating colors, presenting itself as both ancient and futuristic.

The works, taken together in the gallery, give a sense of transcendence of both time and place, and engage all the senses. Duwadi said he often incorporates incense in his work, but burning it wasn’t allowed in the gallery. Visitors can, however, lean in to smell the sweet aroma of his beeswax sculptures and, in one interactive piece, ring the singing bowls to make a pleasant sound. 

“When you go to a gallery installation or museum, you only use mostly one of our senses — that’s the visual — but we don’t use touch, smell, sound. Those are valid experiences,” Duwadi said. “People can go and make sound, and you are actively participating. You’re not just an audience.” 

In the center of the gallery, carved redwood posts spring out of crushed oyster shells like a forest. Duwadi’s work Installations of 33 Sculptureswas first displayed in Joshua Tree National Forest in 1988, one of his favorite camping spots.

Climate and rifles

A video display shows one of Duwadi’s most famous conceptual pieces, Melting Ice. A large stack of blocks of ice, intersected with LEDs and fossils, sat in the courtyard of the Whatcom Museum in 2013 and, for 28 days, slowly melted as a part of a larger exhibit on the loss of glaciers due to human-caused climate change. Melting Ice was installed in other places, including El Paso (where it survived only a few days), Toronto (a few months), Minneapolis and Katmandu. 

Themes of environmental ethics and peace permeate his work. In 2001, a massacre killed much of the Nepali royal family when the country was already torn apart by a years-long civil war between royalist and Maoist factions. Duwadi created a conceptual piece which displayed a replica M16 rifle alongside the bags and bags of rice the government could purchase for the same price. It also displayed the names and details of those who had died in the years of violence.

Yak Bell, a large hanging piece made of baskets, yak rope and a bell, was made specifically for the show.

‘There’s a certain barrier between art and life in Western culture. I am trying to break those barriers.’

Jyoti Duwadi

Duwadi and Matilsky met through a mutual friend in 1987 on a camping trip in California and married in Nepal in 1993. They moved to Bellingham from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 2009 and Matilsky became curator of the Whatcom Museum.

“I wanted to create a total work of art. Even though there are individual elements, when you come in, it reads very harmoniously, like one big installation,” Matilsky said. “I really wanted to present the diversity of his work.”

“Himalaya to Cascadia: Transcending Boundaries” will be on display until Dec. 9. Western Gallery, located on the campus of Western Washington University, is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Saturdays from Noon to 4 p.m. Western Library’s Special Collections will be displaying more of his work during the same times, except Saturdays. 

“For me, art is a meditation, and it’s also about sharing. There’s a certain barrier between art and life in Western culture. I am trying to break those barriers and boundaries,” Duwadi said.

— Reported by Questen Inghram


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