Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.
Much of our Southern California culture is defined by the continuous influx of new residents from far-flung parts of the world. At the receiving end of migrations of people fleeing economic hardship, ethnic or religious persecution or civil unrest, we may at times worry about the effect immigration on jobs, schools, and our resources, but we rarely consider the effects that emigration has on the countries left behind. Artist Hit Man Gurung has traveled from Nepal for two month residency at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. While here, he is creating a series of photo collages illustrating the recent exodus of Nepalese youth who are leaving the country to find work. Rows of passport-style photos of young Nepalese faces glued onto sheets of handmade paper, these works read like missing persons posters. Gurung is depicting the unraveling of a country, one person at a time.
Because news from Nepal is rarely reported here, Gurung's residency work offers a unique perspective on the devastating effects of war and globalization on this Himalayan nation. During its ten-year long civil war (1996-2006), fighting between the communist Maoists and supporters of the ruling monarchy damaged Nepal's infrastructure, especially in rural areas where most of the population lives. In the years that have followed, despite attempts by leading parties to establish a representative democracy, the government has been in a state of deadlock, resulting in very little progress rebuilding the country's crippled economy.
Amidst this social and political chaos, young men and women from Nepal's rural regions are fleeing. Many flood into neighboring India, but increasing numbers are drawn to construction jobs in the Gulf States and Malaysia, where they can earn more than they can back in their villages. The regular flow of money that these oversees workers send back to their families is helping to keep the Nepalese economy afloat, but, as Gurung explains, "Their work status in these countries is not always legal, and working conditions are often abusive. Some young women have been raped and they have no protection against this." Also, he points out, "When the country becomes stable again, there will be no one left to rebuild the rural areas."
Hit Man Gurung, whose name Hit Man means "Wise and Helpful Man" in Nepalese, has wasted no time in using his art to make positive change in his country. At only 26, he has already affected change in the art community of Kathmandu, starting as an undergraduate at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, where he studied fine art. In 2007, dissatisfied that his university did not offer a Masters in Fine Art, he rallied other art students from his university and Kathmandu University to stage a very unique demonstration. The students each carried a portrait of themselves painted by Gurung, and together they marched through the streets of Kathmandu in a procession that became both a protest and an art happening entitled "Walking on the Streets."
The Vice Chancellor of his university was won over by this creative appeal for institutional change, and the university soon began its first MFA program, of which Gurung was the first graduate. He now teaches there on the BA course and encourages his students to create politically and socially provocative work. For his 2012 work "How Long Can I Hold My Breath...," he collaborated with his students to create a piece that spotlights pollution in Kathmandu, which is causing widespread respiratory problems in the city. Made up of squares depicting the masked faces of 100 people of different ages, ethnicities and professional backgrounds, the work reflects the fact that many residents are wearing masks to protect themselves from air pollution. Still, as Gurung asks, "Although it is advantageous, will this temporary and easy solution actually solve the problems of pollution?"
In 2012, Gurung was one of 25 young South Asian artists chosen by the World Bank for an exhibition entitled Imagining our Future Together, which was shown in Dhaka, Bangladesh and New Delhi, India and will ultimately reside at the World Bank's headquarters in Washington DC. For this exhibition, Gurung focused on both environmental and political issues with a pair of paintings that explores the conflict between practical and ideological approaches to life. In the first, "Save Yourself First," a character holds a house in his hands, which Gurung explains, "represents the self-centered, ambitious, greedy and desperate position of today's humans who are focused upon their basic needs." In the second painting "Save Life Together," a character holds a plant, symbolizing "the consciousness for preserving nature." Though Gurung is clearly advocating a more mindful and harmonious approach to life, he concedes that in today's world, this vision seems "idealistic and impractical."
Not all of Gurung's social commentary is as direct. Much of Gurung's work contains a strong narrative element. As a visual storyteller, he portrays the lives and issues of local people with great depth and sensitivity. For a 2011 exhibition called "Stories from Locality at the Siddhartha Gallery in Kathmandu, he painted a triptych depicting a local family suffering loss after the civil war. The first panel depicts a young woman with her husband and mother, all smiling. The second image shows the mother and daughter grieving the loss of the daughter's husband, whose picture has been reproduced multiple times behind them. The third shows the daughter alone; her mother is now gone and the background images of her husband have faded.
At his studio in Santa Monica, Gurung adds to each photograph the name of one of the countries to which young Nepalese have relocated in order to find work. In total, there will be 1,300 faces, representing the 1,300 young people who leave Nepal every day. Unlike Gurung himself, many of these young Nepalese will never return home, leaving generational holes in the country's rural areas and upsetting the nation's social balance. This one young Nepalese man, however, has a different goal. By bolstering the artistic community in Kathmandu, using his art to draw attention to the country's issues, and now, by visiting the US, he is helping get the word out to the world about his country's troubles. Hit Man Gurung lives up to his name - a "Wise and Helpful Man" indeed.
Hit Man Gurung is working at the 18th Street Arts Center until late May 2013. He will give a presentation about his past work and show his 1,300 Contemporary Nepalese Portraits at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles on Saturday May 18 from 3:00 to 4:00pm.
Top Image: "Save Yourself First; Save the Life Together," Hit Man Gurung, 2012, acrylic on canvas. | Courtesy of the artist.