11.17.2017

Nepal: An interview with the artist Milan Rai

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Maskman in Kathmandu


Milan Rai is a young Nepalese artist and in my opinion he represents very well the new generation that's changing the face of the country, not only in a direct political way but by their concept of citizenship and their life style.
I asked him an interview and I'm honoured that he accepted. It hasn't been easy for me to write down balanced questions as I was interested both in his art and in his relationship with Nepalese culture and society.
I'm happy to say that the process of asking and answering was productive for both of us, stimulating a reflection about ourselves and forcing us to understand more clearly what we wanted to put on words.

I hope you'll find it interesting too! Enjoy!

Ilaria:  How would you define yourself? Who is Milan Rai?
Milan: I consider myself as a free spirited soul who is continually exploring, imagining as well as seeking and living life in the present moment. I find contentment here as my encounter with art transforms me, while the practice of self love liberates me.
Ultimately, my practice is rooted in the notion of integrity. It is also navigated by the heart wisdom that has enabled me to evolve both artistically and spiritually. 
Ilaria: I find especially stimulating the link between your artistic work and your social engagement, because your art is public and addressing problems like pollution, peace and tolerance, but it isn't an 'ideological' or even 'political' art. In my opinion that's evident in your White Butterflies project. Do you agree?
MilanAlthough my works contains deep and personal message at their core, they are open to audiences’ personal interpretation.
When you are working in a private studio, no one is going to inhibit you for altering any part of your work. In contrast, the reality of performing in public realms is different as many variables are beyond your control. 
No automatic alt text available.I can recall countless occasions when I proposed my ideas of integrating art into everyday life and receiving adverse response from the authorities in return. They attempted to stop me by restricting my access to the location I desired to perform at.  Aside from that, many people have questioned my faith. 
In my response to the conundrums, I began intervene public spaces by installing paper-cut white butterflies on trees, walls, buildings.  I had even occupied ad-busting billboards without requesting anyone’s permission in prior. 
As the white butterflies became visible around the city, it inadvertently grew to become associated with various activisms in a positive manner. 
The installations seemed to stir curiosity and wonder in the passersbys. Soon after, conversations began and circulated. As a result, the number of people who discover the work soared and I started to receive requests from individuals and communities who wish to spread white butterflies in their environment across the world. 
Following to that, they began to establish networks and expand this movement in ways which have brought themselves the essence of love, hope and peace in their own contexts. 
Over the past 5 years of White Butterfly’s project, innumerable connections have been kindled around the world. In conjunction with that, I feel the tenor ever growing responsibilities and opportunities to promote harmony between people by co-creating, sharing and expanding our perception. 
The White Butterfly project and my other artistic endeavors sparked some political moments when engaged with social contents. I recognize social issues like air pollution, injustice and tolerance and respond to them based on my personal insights by utilizing both the power of art and purpose. 
In some ways, I deliberately expose unethical practice and try to re-think solutions. When the world is brimming with rage, it is equally critical for us to respond to the quandary with the caliber of kindness, beauty and humor. 
No automatic alt text available.In the very least, I believe that art wield the potential to manifest the concept and hence it should also execute it with passion. 
My art is not ideological because it does not seek to preach. Instead, it opens up a portal to which viewers are able to enter and conduct both effective communications and cathartic confrontations
While it encourages conversations to take place, it also helps forming social engagement and opens up the possibility for participants to respond and interact.  
I want all of my social engagements / activism to be understood as external layers of my work since I believe that the deeper work occurs in the internal level of my practice, which is for me to remain honest with my expression.
In my perception, art is first and fore mostly an individual's personal projection of one’s deep and profound experiences that can elicit resonance in others. 
From my experience, introducing art in public realms does not solely generate social engagement. It is the éclat of openness, honesty and letting go of ownership that has actually morphed white butterflies into a socially engaged art process.  
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Maskman isnspires cartoonists

Ilaria: Another characteristic of your work - in my perception of it - is its open, relational dimension. Can you tell us something about this? 
Milan: I never attempted to control the proliferation or dictate the meaning of this white butterfly. Ultimately, an open invitation to participate in the White Butterfly installations has created an opening for individuals to relate it to their own personal stories. Such form of involvement induce both transformational and emotional phenomenon.  
I made my art accessible both on online and offline platforms. Nevertheless,  the social media has been an incredibly powerful mechanism that facilitates the promulgation of the project. With the city of Kathmandu as its epicenter, the project eventually burgeoned throughout the world with the application of social media networks. 
To keep the growing community well informed and excited about the evolution of the project, I upload collected artifacts daily, primarily through the platform of Facebook. The documentations do not only chronicle the project in a journal-like presentation, but also promotes direct interchange between an artist and the audience. 
To quote a woman who participated in a community which created White Butterfly Action in the city of Brussels, “The beauty of this project is that an artist is turning everyone into an artist with his stroke of goodness and beauty.” 
Ultimately, even those who do not consider themselves as artists may unknowingly become active participants by becoming an integral part of the art process.
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Photo : Sharif Fahimi White Butterflies in Aghanistan
Ilaria: Nepal has got a huge cultural and artistic tradition. What's your relationship with it? Your artistic language looks very 'global', still your background emerges, for example in the value of 'kindness' or 'nature'.
MilanUndeniably, the Nepalese art which particularly revolve about traditional paintings (that are based on religious scriptures ) and exquisite architecture of historical sites reflects the vibrancy of Nepalese art and richness of its culture. 
However, my practice contradicts with its defined system as I perceive my art as a way to live within the wrap of time of which I am currently living in. It is an instrument for me to respond accordingly to the ever evolving time and its contextual surrounding. 
Hence, my relationship with the traditional art is merely constituted by the sentiment of a common man who sense and appreciate its unique features, delicate craftsmanship as well as the historical nuances engraved in it. 
On the other hand, a global phenomena that may also be regarded as cross cultural exchange took place when the White Butterfly project crossed geographical borders and thus embrace the quality of universality that constitutes both the notion of interconnectedness and co-existence.  
Such temperament transcends the concept of race, religion and a multitude of other boundaries. Meanwhile People recognize it as a meaningful medium to express their feelings as intangible issues may momentarily become tangible and relatable to the audience. 
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In London
The testimonies you hear from people who have been touched by the white butterflies are truly remarkable. I recall an email from an elderly lady who wrote:  
“I am very moved by your White Butterflies and want to have some for myself.  I have depression, so I do not go out as I used to.  But I would like to make these in memory of my family and friends who have left. Perhaps, if I ever get better, I will be able to go outside. I was an artist. I earned my bachelor's degree in it but I haven't done anything in many years, I think working with butterflies will help my spirit.  I live in Arizona, United States.” 
After I posted the white butterflies to her address, she concluded that it gave her a harness  of hope as well as a reason to go out and spread them. 
This small act of kindness engendered by genuine human connections proved to be an unexpected means of support and comfort to people. 
Whereas, a mother in Scotland wrote her departed daughter’s name on one of the butterflies and placed it on a tree. She calls it a memorial tree.  This act eventually turned into an annual memorial ritual of remembering where the villagers comes together to include the names of their departed loved ones. 
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In London
I see the value of kindness in touching people’s hearts in both big and small ways, making them co-creators in their own style. 
This is a collective effort where we share our stories and experiences which resonate with people's hearts and reaffirm our oneness.   
Still about Nepalese art... it flourished and travelled to China during the time of Araniko. But many other artisans who contributed for centuries have been forgotten because the importance was not given to documentation and distribution nor the nation could preserve them. While travelling to New York, I found a big part of finest Nepalese art collection at Rubin Museum. Late Lain Singh Bangdel, a modern artist from Nepal, did a great research on the lost and stolen arts of Nepal and was able to track down and bring some ancient art back home from around the world
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In London
Ilaria: Your style is quite original, but not naive, so which are your reference points in the history of art and in the contemporary panorama?
Milan: I did not enroll into any art degree program, nor did I pursue any formal education in the vocation.  Hence, I began drawing and painting with limited knowledge on art and its history. 
Initially I began by copying the paintings from the renaissance period.  As a result, I got influenced by the style of the great masters that improved my painting skill to some extent. In spite of that, I still lacked originality and thus I shifted from the discipline of realism to abstract expressionism, hugely influenced by Pollock.
Image may contain: 2 peopleI did not stick to that particular style either. While moving freely between a myriad of styles, expressions and methods, I eventually found a perfect ground for exploration that conjunct the point of intersections between my vision and accomplished work of other artists, which in turn helped encourage my artistic inquiry. 
Reflecting upon these links and associations unfurls new vistas and range of perspectives on current issues that are prevalent both in the world and contemporary art scene. 
Lowe,Project Row Houses is a good example of inclusivity and community involvement in social-practice art that I find relevant to my other ambitious art projects.
I also look at the approaches of Ai Weiwei, Olafur Elliason,Cai Guo-Qiang  and other  emerging artists  who are expanding  the contemporary art’s panorama and its socio cultural horizon. 
A French sociologist, Marcel Mauss is also a key reference to my artistic exploration and social art practice since I started gifting my art (White Butterflies) unconditionally to people, thus allowing them to decide the outcome.
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White Butterflies in Southbank center London 
Ilaria: Concept comes in the foreground in this kind of artistic project, but what's about materials? In the mask and broom performance you took daily objects putting them in a new context so that they assume a symbolic meaning. In the White Butterflies project which material did you use? Which have been the steps in its realization?
Milan: The decision in the choice of materials is extremely fundamental.  In a performance art to address the serious air pollution issue in Kathmandu city, I chose a gas mask and a broom.  I even made a custom bag to carry the broom.  I carried them lovingly and protectively like a musician carries the priceless instrument in their equipments’ case.
There are various kinds of gas masks available in the market but I wanted to embody the vintage character of a Russian army gas mask which was not available in Nepal. So, I had to order it online from USA. Cloth masks that are commonly worn by the general public are ineffective against such harrowing level of air pollution. Therefore I wore a gas mask which is commonly used to protect oneself from poisonous elements. 
I was also particularly fascinated by the ancient symbolism and shape of a broom, especially because the city cleaners in Kathmandu city use similar brooms to clean the town. 
When I walked inside the metropolitan city offices and health ministers’ premises while wearing a gas mask, it took another meaning and questioned the political pollution that is seriously harming the health of the nation. 
After doing a series of this performance in different locations, the images started circulating on social media including the front page of national daily newspapers. Cartoonist started a series that engaged people in a dialectical fashion. Graffiti of a mask man started popping out in public spaces. 
I am interested in art that does not only criticize but also encourages us to engage in thoughtful involvements of an issue by actually acting toward change. 
Before finalizing a distinct shape of a white paper butterfly, I tried making them on various materials, like aluminum sheets, plastics and photographic  paper in different shapes and sizes. 
It was after innumerable trials and errors that I finally chose to materialize them in paper to retain the short lived nature of a butterfly since the paper itself decomposes at the end of its life. Hence, deciding to make paper-cut butterflies had originated from the awareness about its impact on the environment.
Ilaria: Still about the White Butterflies, how did you get the idea? Bring us inside your creative process! 
After exhibiting my work in galleries, I discovered that artworks are largely procured by wealthy buyers or alternatively, handed to intellectuals who maintain their exclusivity to a group of elites and individuals of privileged background. 
I immediately thought that art should be universally accessible to everyone. Therefore, I stepped away from the gallery system and tried various ways to cater my art to all.
I spent a long stretch of time trying to conceive complex ideas to amaze the prospective audience with my art. To my dismay, the attempts were not successful as I hoped. After countless failures and rejection, I was beginning to feel discouraged. 
Then on one fine day, while I was contemplating on a different idea, a tiny white butterfly came and perched in my studio.
In that very moment, an epiphany revelation occurred to me and transformed my art practice. I swept aside all the complex ideas and suspended my intellectual mind just to simply sit and observe the tiny butterfly. 
Suddenly, I felt like a marvelled child.  At an instant, everything looked so fresh and wonderful. It was as though I was seeing anew through a wide-open pair of childlike eyes with both inexplicable curiosity and joy. 
Instead of looking outward toward accomplishing achievements and journeying ahead to the masses, I began to focus inward. Therewith, I started to notice inner transformation happening. 
After the turning point, I effortlessly surrendered to the struggle for me to shift away from complexity and proceed toward simplicity. 
After months of observation and introspection, I decided to use the motif of a paper cut butterfly. I began going around the city to spread White Butterflies. Initially, some people reacted negatively to its presence and tore the butterflies away. When I did not see the butterflies in the same place where I had left them, I would say to myself, “People did not destroy the butterflies. They have just flow away to another place.” 
I felt no urge to persuade the conviction of the audience, nor did I wish to please anyone or change anything with my art. I simply strived to honestly express my sentiments. And in return felt so much joy! 
Thus a nano-scale personal project that started from the small city of Kathmandu began to travel with much élan over great distances across borders and continents, touching the hearts of many. 
People embraced its simplicity and began adding their own message of hope, love and joy. I feel grateful and humbled at the response from thousands of people who have spoken and written to me about what these white butterflies meant to them. I share those creative moments with people from all walks of life who have stepped forward to co-create with me and spread the message of the butterflies in multiple installations in many cities around the world. 
Today, white butterflies have evolved into a global art project. My aim of taking art to the mass did not change at all, but the process of walking towards that goal has changed effortlessly without altering my goal. And in that process, how I have changed into becoming more receptive and accommodative, without the need to control people’s behavior or response. I embarked on this creative journey by translating my personal experience into a subject motif coupled with profound beauty and optimism with very limited resources, fueled with passion.
Ilaria: Finally: Nepal is undergoing an important political phase with local elections and the implementation of the federal constitution. What do you think about the general situation of your country?
In my opinion, Nepal is going through a long and difficult transition. On top of that, the political instability has gripped the nation for a long time. Additionally, the devastating earthquake in 2015 and death floods have left the citizens in the pit of poverty and great difficulties. Nevertheless, a strong sense of resilience, hope and compassion have also emerged amongst the people. 
The old parties have acquired their success by deploying active youths in the streets to enforce strikes and create political upheavals. Although the youth movements in Nepal have accounted over 65 years of history, they are still denied the chance to participate in decision-making affairs. They were also constantly exploited by the old political hierarchical system in the political processes . 
Despite the quandary,  I  remain optimistic about the emergence of the new alternative force in the country  (Bibeksheel Sajha) that is gradually transforming the conventional and commonly accepted method of politics. 
Furthermore,  they are introducing a brand new mode of political participation to the youth.  They also do not seek to acquaint with old political connections or otherwise engage in party activism to elevate their position in the party. In contrast,they dedicate themselves to invent a new era in the Nepali Politics,  completely armed with the capacity and the willingness to empower communities as well as addressing the needs of the nation. 
In that spirit, they are carrying out socio-economic movements, and have been politically active from the ballot box to online activism in relevant issues of our everyday lives. By doing so, they have inadvertently challenged the conventional political hierarchies and are making their mark in the mainstream Nepali Politics. 
The growing participation of their members and meaningful engagement from all public sectors makes this political force inclusive and suggests that youths are departing from the old political system to achieve a sustainable development and democracy. I am optimistic about the transition phase after the implementation of   federal constitution.

You can find more about Milan Rai on his Facebook page HERE and on his Instagram account HERE.

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