Art as a call to action
Sameer Gurung, 30, who goes by the alias Green Brain, believes in the uniting power of football, and will be watching the matches in the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar with the rest of the world. But knowing about the abuse and death of migrant workers, including from Nepal, the artist in him was bursting to come out.
Gurung felt that a world infatuated with ‘beautiful game’ does not know enough of what went on behind the scenes in building the stadiums in the desert.
“The 90 minutes of a matchbreaks barriers, brings players from various backgrounds, nationalities, race and ethnicity together on the same field, playing for the same goal,” explains Gurung. “But people have no idea of what it took to have those games. We pretend not to notice and go on with our lives.”
Gurung expresses this frustration through gigantic wall murals in Kathmandu under the title Chyatiyeko Yatartha ('torn reality') in which the artist uses torn clippings, with song lyrics and three-storey high messages addressing government apathy. It is at once discomforting and revealing.
"The abuse faced by migrant workers is intolerable, but I am neither a public speaker, nor do I protest in the streets," he says. "All I have as a medium of expression is art and, this way, sitting in my room, I can give voice to my discontent."
Read also: Rights referees blow whistle on World Cup fouls, Kunda Dixit
Chyatiyeko Yatartha is Green Brain's second solo project. With it, he wanted to raise the concern through gigantic street graffiti to reach the public, especially Nepal’s youth.
His first series, Buda Paka, in February drew attention to preserving the heritage and culture of Nepal. Drawn on the wall of a building in Asan, the artwork showed a man carrying a kharpan on his shoulders as he walks through an old street as brick walls, carved windows, doors and shop fronts curve before him. The idea here was to remind the youth to preserve and promote the hard work of the older generation, so that the culture and heritage may survive into the future.
His affinity to layers of meanings, that viewers slowly unravel one at a time, is reflected also in his chosen name, which he picked in 2017. For him, green is more than just the colour of nature. "Green is life and positivity which I relate to," he explains. A fluorescent green hue is present in all his work, which also relate to the local heritage, culture and activism.
"As for the Brain in my name," he adds, "that's because I am fascinated by people's thoughts, and how we become our thought."
Gurung's love for art goes all the way back to Grade 2 in school when he would draw patterns on the margins of notebooks, often competing with friends to see who would draw better, faster.
"I always had an inkling for art," he recalls, and when he completed his SLC, he went to a tattoo artist to see if he could train under them for three months before +2 classes kicked in.
"But the artist said I was a little too young then," Gurung adds, "saying I should wait until I had completed high school."
He realised he was not made for jobs, and entertained the idea of leaving Nepal. His brothers are based in France and he has a few friends in Australia, and he thought he ought to do the same. Go somewhere, just anywhere.
But because he did not have the grades, he did not want to limit himself to menial jobs just for survival abroad. So he returned to open a tattoo shop with a friend. At first he practiced on close friends who allowed him to gain some practice on their skin.
When his friend left for Australia two years later, Gurung closed the shop and started teaching himself other different forms of art, including digital.
"I did not want to rush overseas because it was evident that I would not get the space and freedom to be creative, as I would have to worry about working hard just for survival," he explains. "At least here in Nepal I have my family for support. More importantly, Nepal is quite magical, so I threw myself into art."
He participated in various commercial art projects in this time, including the work of French-Tunisian artist eL Seed, who is famous for championing the art of ‘calligraffiti’, a mixture of Arabic calligraphy and graffiti. Titled 'Like Her', the project in Giranchaur in Sindhupalchok was unveiled in 2021 and depicted the words of Yogmaya Neupane (“There is nothing between us, nothing at all. Your eyes have tears, just like my own.”), a pioneer poet and revolutionary who spoke against the Rana regime and committed jal-samadhi by jumping together with 67 disciples into the Arun River in 1941.
'Like Her' explored the role of women in rebuilding villages destroyed by the 2015 earthquake. The 170m long installation covered the rooftops and connected each house to another, linking the voices of the women, sharing their wisdom, strength and resilience.
Chyatiyeko Yatartha too is richly detailed, and a call to attention. The centre-piece is the World Cup trophy and Lusail Stadium, where the final match will take place on 18 December. They drip at one corner under the scorching desert heat, like beads of sweat and tears of the tens of thousands of migrant workers who toiled to build them.
"The Government also hopefully will take this more seriously and ensure their protection such that abuses are minimised in the future," he adds. "If we don’t raise our voices for our fellow citizens, what incentive will there be for the host country governments to act?"
While Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other activist groups launched a global campaign #PayUpFIFA in May, calling on FIFA to compensate migrant workers involved in building stadiums and other infrastructure and to avoid the legacy of what they call a ‘World Cup of Shame’, Qatari Labour Minister on 2 November rejected such calls, calling them publicity stunts and accusing Qatar’s critics of racism.
Chyatiyeko Yathartha is Gurung’s way of protesting abuse and deaths of workers in Qatar and how the families are still not compensated, and he is working with a Scottish colleague on a 8x10m art piece that has taken six months to complete.
He says, "This is how we channel our rage. What has happened cannot be undone, but in the future, hopefully, migrant workers can have a better experience abroad."
The project was not without hiccups. Gurung had initially wanted to set up the artwork at the busy Sorha Khutte junction near Thamel. But the neighbor of a multi-storeyed building refused the graffiti to be painted. A friend in Lalitpur offered the wall of their house.
A documentary on the painting process will take the mural to a wider audience and raise awareness of the reality of migrant workers, and was launched on Green Brain’s YouTube channel on 18 November.
"Imagine if a worker from the West had died in Qatar, the outrage it would spark, the investigations that would take place,” says Gurung. "So many Asians have died over the years in Qatar but no one cares. I am not sure what my art will do, but at least I did my small bit.”
Read also: Labour rights legacy of the FIFA World Cup, Meenakshi Ganguly and Mohna Ansari