I first met artist Milan Rai at a peaceful protest against the government's decision to cut down more than 1,200 trees for road expansion in Kathmandu. It was raining and I remember noticing a dozen peaceful protesters with paper white butterflies pinned to their coats or glued on the banners they were proudly holding high as raindrops fell from the sky. As I started talking to the man behind this minimalistic creation, I quickly realized that Milan was unlike any other artists I had met before. Over the years, his simple idea literally generated a 'butterfly effect' across the globe. Now referred to as the 'Butterfly Man', his handmade cutouts have traveled to over forty countries and have been photographed as a symbol of social change from Central Park to the Machu Picchu and Taksim Square. Milan answered a few of my questions about the White Butterfly art project and his vision for a better world.
What's the philosophy behind the White Butterfly art project?
White Butterfly was born out of love. I embarked on this journey by translating my experience of personal transformation into a motif coupled with profound beauty, optimism and the desire to move beyond the confines of the gallery walls. Butterflies through their transformation constantly remind me of my own struggles. The essence of my work is a deeply personal experience. Yet it shows how the microcosmic can have a much broader macrocosmic resonance. Butterflies engage people's imagination in an immediate way, inspiring many others to discover their own personal cabinet of wonders. We are reminded of the simple things in life that we often forget.
Why do people share and create your butterflies?
On many occasions, people end up sharing butterflies with their innermost secrets expressing their deepest emotions. It is amazing to see how uplifting the gesture itself is to so many. Those who are facing hard times often see butterflies as a sign of breakthrough and freedom. I remember someone telling me, "Your butterfly just made me forget all my problems." It is absolutely beautiful to observe how it allows people to open up their heart. It makes me feel that universal solidarity - the true bond that underlies every living being. The artwork is deeply personal, yet it extends to all. People can reproduce; reinterpret it in their own ways. I have never held a copyright to my art, you can add your own colours and words to butterflies.
There is a small village in Scotland where people write the names of their lost ones and place the butterfly under a tree. This memorial tree was started by Linzi Barbour paying tribute to her daughter on the 6th anniversary of her death, but has now become a ritual for the entire village. One of the most interesting aspects of the project as it grew, was to see individuals opening up and relating their own personal stories.
Your butterflies are constantly on the move. How many countries have they visited?
The project started as I went around Kathmandu spreading or installing butterflies almost on a daily basis. The installations seemed to stir a sense of curiosity, wonder and joy in passersby. A conversation began. As more people started discovering my work - via personal encounters and social media - the project began to take on a life of its own. It has been a humbling experience to see my work reach more than 40 countries around the globe. Living tucked away in a small town to traveling to the world's largest cities has changed the way I feel about myself and about the world around me. My heart is filled with great happiness and love for the people I have met across the globe and the ones I am yet to meet or may never encounter in my lifetime.
Following the earthquakes that recently hit Nepal have you distributed white butterflies to relief camps?
I mostly contributed to relief efforts by providing basic sanitation to victims in an attempt to save lives, prevent further threats to public health and preserve human dignity. I am currently visiting camps and listening to people coping with the shock and lasting difficulties over losing loved ones and homes. Many other artists, groups and individuals are creating butterfly installations in different countries to raise funds and send prayers to Nepal. I have distributed butterflies to some locations but not everywhere. I have received this heartfelt message from a hospital patient saying, "Milan I am injured and with all the chaos around me I am thinking of you lately. I will contact you as soon as I will be able to run again and I will take some of those butterflies to spread them across my neighbourhood; in the community temple and in the children's playground!"
What's your message to the world?
The world is praying for Nepal in the midst of this disaster. But, the world too is suffering from other great challenges; there is war and violence, man-made climate change, political instability, hunger, modern slavery, poverty and impunity all around. Let us collectively pray to heal the world in these difficult times. May everyone be empowered to strengthen their communities and repair the breaches dividing nations and people. The need for solidarity in the face of natural disasters has connected us all. Let this solidarity not only come alive when the Earth starts shaking, but in every moment that it spins.
Our foundations are shaky. The earthquake is a new call to re-root ourselves; to create communities grounded on deeper values of compassion, peace and equality for all. Let's pray for the courage and wisdom to learn from adversity, for the strength not just to survive, but also to build a new and better life. Wherever I go, butterflies are a medium for me to connect to individuals and places, with a clear intention of spreading the vibration of the deep love that I feel for all. It is a beautiful way to strike a conversation and share moments of pure presence and joy. The butterfly wings sculpt an imaginary design that engenders love, hope and peace. Through the White Butterfly art project, I want this message to travel far and wide.