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Best known for the White Butterfly Movement that has reached over 40 countries, Milan Rai is a multidisciplinary artist whose work spans across paintings, installations and public art interventions. His concerns aligned with ecological and socio-political issues led him to embark on public art and community based social art practices that leap beyond a single movement, style or form. His initiatives question and strive to find practical solutions to issues that affect daily life of the common man.

A recipient of the Harvard (South Asia Institute) Visiting Artist Award 2016, Milan recently made headlines for Lunatic, installation of the moon’s map at Patan Durbar Square. Talking about it he says, “People say nothing can happen in this country. The youth are prey to brain drain. Most people who are powerful are corrupt and careless about social welfare and nature. If a few show concern, it doesn’t last for long. We are distracted and wasting our time on superficial things. I wanted to pull them together and ask: “What if we engage on the same scale and foster conversations around social spheres as we engaged around this spherical artificial object, the installed moon?”

Making art accessible and impactful by going beyond convention is at the core of Milan’s work. “I have huge respect for traditional and historical arts, but am inclined towards contemporary art. As Araniko and other artists sang songs in their times, we have to write poetry of our times in a different style”, he explains.

The artist who gives priority to humanity, nature, environment, social welfare is also working consistently to transform neglected public land into green spaces and urban parks with his team called Vriksha Foundation. It started as an art initiative called Green Spaces – A Love Letter to The City.

His art forms are interconnected with each other. “My art is an ongoing process. There is a chain, one idea invites the others. Every succeeding art is born or the need for the previous. My art is not only about what I love to do but also the need of the hour,” shares Milan.

In conversation with WOW’s Pabita Dahal, the talented Milan speaks about his work, goals and challenges. Excerpts:

What is the relationship between Milan Rai, the individual and his art?

Art and Milan Rai are not two different things, they are one. In fact, my life is an art and art is my life. My way of living is art. What Milan Rai thinks; what he does; entities that affect him and his responses out of these all define art.

When did you realise the need to go beyond conventional art?

After my first exhibition, I realised that art was limited to a group of privileged people. I did not witness people from other walks of life like doctors, engineers, lawyers, politicians, musicians, administrators, etc. I then thought if people do not come to the gallery, art should reach them. This thought forced me to endeavor into public art. These days, I am focused on public art installation and community based art projects.

Tell us about Lunatic.

Lunatic was born out of my curiosity aroused while working on social issues. It is very tough to make the government and people understand public art. The government authorities rejected my ideas several times and they seemed reluctant to give permission to exhibit in public places. So it compelled me to search for a common object to attract public attention and hence came the moon. When I researched further about the moon, I found that the artificial moon has been used multiple times in many places around the world. It again aroused: What if I install it in Nepal? Would it be art? If yes, what type of art would it be? Can it fulfill my purpose? So, Lunatic was an attempt to respond to my curiosity. Here my art is not the object itself but what it investigates about the challenges of curating public art in Nepal’s context.

Did Lunatic meet your purpose?

It was an attempt to shift the perspective on art and I think the public observed it some way or the other. I had not informed anyone about the Lunatic’s exhibition but Patan Durbar Square was jam-packed within a few minutes of installation. I noticed that the moon refreshed people that evening who were tired after hours of work. We need a lot of artistic activities to enrich public life. Likewise, the moon also enchanted local officials and they wished for the same moon to come again in another part of the city. This can be instrumental in realising arts in the public domain.

Many people visited the site to see the moon even after the installation was gone. They were asking me where the moon is. I replied “Look up in the sky. Are we distancing ourselves from the natural sensations and the occurrences of the moon up in the sky and need an artificial object to be ecstatic?” I am however planning to install it again.

Lunatic also came into some controversy of plagiarism…

I installed a commercially available inflatable moon at Patan Durbar square and called it art. It spurred debate and discussions, and I wholeheartedly welcomed all the criticism and the positive responses. The discourse was needed to explore other aspects of arts to progressively advance and update our understanding of the notion of art.

In light of new technologies and AIs, we are witnessing unprecedented advancements in reproduction. The image used in this installation is a publicly available moon’s map taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, printed in a factory located in China and installed in Kathmandu. This is a manifestation of accessible technology, information and modes of reproduction. This data has been used for moon installation by various science museums, schools, institutions, events celebrating moon landing and artists, notably Luke Jerram. It then opens other questions: does this installation belongs to science museums, or a said artist or an event organiser? Or say, are installations like these just another version of the data that have been used in a similar way before? Similarly, it also raises the question that in the case of publicly available data and cultural practice of installation, what does plagiarism means? Instead of claiming this idea of using publicly available data and using a commercial factory in China that can mass produce it in thousands as an original piece of work, it welcomes further discussions and questions about the use of information and widely available technology of our times at our disposal. It challenges preconceived notions of art and echoes about our culture of consumerism in underdeveloped cities and its effects on our thoughts.

Tell us about your ongoing social art practice – Pocket Park?

Pocket Park is an initiative to transform vacant plots of Kathmandu valley into green open spaces. To make art accessible, I am advocating the need for public art for a long time. I have designed and curated many arts in public spaces, but the aesthetics would fade away because of dust and polluted environment. It was not secure to put up the art for a long time due to lack of proper management. It was also inconvenient for the audiences to observe. Due to the unavailability of proper spaces and surroundings, I could not execute many ideas of public art even if I wished to. So, I started planting trees in the valley involving the communities and my team. Now, we are making urban parks. It further contributes towards reforming the environment for art to thrive in the city.

Currently, we are planning to make eight pocket parks in collaboration with Lalitpur Metropolitan city. The Mayor has been very supportive. Up to now, we have completed one pocket park which lies next to Alka Hospital. This project was completed by Vriksha Foundation in collaboration with A for Architecture. For the rest of the seven, we are working on the design phase and collaborating with the communities for its long term success.

The concept of public art is still new in Nepal. What are the challenges?

The main challenge is convincing the government body and getting approval for the space to exhibit the art. Several of my ideas have got rejected in the process of getting a green signal from the government. Talking about the hurdles I faced for the social art practice Green Spaces, the journey is etched in my mind forever. I alone visited Kathmandu and Lalitpur metropolitan offices regularly for 14 months to get approval for the parks. I was aware that government procedures are not a cake walk. During my attempts to establish dialogue with the authorities, I struggled to pass the petty politics and narrow mindsets. I was no exception to unnecessary hassles. I waited for four to seven hours regularly. The line between performing art and my daily activities were perhaps indistinct. So self-motivation was the only key to survive. Finally, after 21 months of hard work, we were able to initiate the first pocket park in Lalitpur. Starting without any financial support, we moved along with the processes solely on our will and the kindness of volunteers who were willing to invest their time, energy, knowledge and resources. Indeed our people have been our only and the most exemplary asset.

What has the response been like?

My principle is to make art accessible to a larger audience. People from all around the world write to me mentioning the positive effect of my art. Here, I want to share two specific incidents created by White Butterfly Movement. A lady who is a writer and lives in Scotland asked me for the butterfly and wrote the name of somebody on it, then put it on a particular tree. When I asked for the reason, she replied that it was her message to her daughter in heaven. Seeing that, another older man did the same thing in the name of his departed wife. They spread that message to the community and gradually writing the name of dead loved ones on the butterfly and putting it on that tree became a culture. Now it has been four years since people have named that tree as Memorial Tree. People gather there and share their sorrow. They also donate every butterfly they put to go to hospitals, elderly homes, orphanages, etc. These white butterflies have helped to heal and bring the community together.

Similarly, once I received a call from an unknown number and a lady asked me to copy an IME number and withdraw some money immediately. I was surprised to receive Rs 10,000 from an unknown person. I then got a message that read, “Dear Milan I am working in the Gulf . Your butterfly movement really touched and motivated me. So I have asked my wife to contribute some amount from the Dashain expenditure for the sake of humanity.”

These gestures fill my heart with gratitude. I am overwhelmed that people send me handwritten letters from different countries even in this digital age. Some children have formed a butterfly wave in New York and a song is composed in Finland about the white butterflies. There are countless such heartwarming stories to share.