Refugee Spotlight: “Art was the candlelight that illuminated those dark, shadowy days”
For Bhutanese refugee Pralhad Gurung, art is a central part of life. From a young age, Pralhad has continually found artistic inspiration in his surroundings, whether he be in his home village in Bhutan, Goldhap refugee camp in Nepal where he spent nearly two decades of his life, or his new home here in the United States. As he made the transition into each new setting and new set of challenges, art served as a source of stability, comfort and happiness.
As early as two years old, Pralhad began expressing his natural affinity for creativity and art. Even before he could hold a pencil, Pralhad drew pictures in the mud with his hands, copying the footprints made by chickens and ducks around a local pond. These playful childhood activities soon turned into a more serious interest in drawing and painting. Noting the young boy’s talent, Pralhad’s uncle, who was an artist himself, encouraged Pralhad to develop his skills by replicating sketches and creating artwork of his own. Pralhad often painted and drew pictures to send to his uncle in place of written letters.
Those pictures, symbolizing his nephew’s love and affection, helped Pralhad’s uncle get through the dark times in Bhutan when the Lhotshampas, or people of Nepali origin, were stripped of their citizenship and human rights. From the 1960s to 1980s, the Lhotshampa population grew significantly in size and their position in the economy also improved. Consequently, the Drukpa majority began to view the Lhotshampas as a cultural and political threat. In the late 1980s, discriminatory census practices resulted in thousands of Lhotshampas being labeled as “non-nationals” and policies were enacted to suppress the practice of Nepalese cultural traditions and language. Public demonstrations against these and other repressive policies led to violence, mass arrests, and the eventual expulsion of “non-nationals” from Bhutan. Approximately 100,000 people fled from Bhutan to neighboring India and Nepal between 1990 and 1993, and of that number not one has returned home to this day.
Pralhad and his family were among those who fled to Nepal in the early 1990s. Shortly after winning his first art competition in Kindergarten, Pralhad’s school was shut down and he and his family were forced to leave their village in Bhutan. When they first arrived at Goldhap refugee camp, there was no formal school system in place. Instead, Pralhad and his peers were taught in improvised classrooms under trees and open skies. When the UN instituted the first formal education system in the camp, art classes were unfortunately not included in the curricula, much to Pralhad’s disappointment.
In the absence of formal art classes, Pralhad and his friends viewed nature as their teacher. They froze ants with saliva to practice sketching the details of the tiny insect bodies. Art materials were hard to come by, so they drew pictures on old notebook covers using shared, broken pencil stubs and squeezed leaves for color. As interest in art slowly increased among camp residents, Pralhad began collecting donations of rice which he sold in order to buy art supplies for himself and other aspiring refugee artists.
As Pralhad grew older, he not only became a reputable artist, but a well-respected leader as well. In 1994, Pralhad and friend, Bal Bahadur Rai, founded the Institute of Fine Art and Commercial Art – Bhutan (IFACA Bhutan). Initially consisting of sixty members, IFACA Bhutan aspired to share its knowledge of fine arts with new generations of refugee artists. Together the members established the first art classes in Bhutanese refugee camps, teaching refugee youth how to express their emotions and create new lives for themselves through art.
Pralhad’s impressive artistic abilities and strong leadership skills were also noted by various government and non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Save the Children Fund, and the Nepalese government. These and other agencies called on Pralhad and IFACA Bhutan to create posters, banners, pamphlets and other materials to help raise awareness of various issues in the camps regarding health, sanitation, environmental concerns, human rights, safety, and education. In addition to earning him numerous awards, Pralhad’s illustrations transcended language barriers and helped improve conditions across refugee camps in Nepal.
In 2008, Pralhad entered yet another transition in his life when he was resettled in Oakland, CA by the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Pralhad considers those first few months following resettlement as the most difficult period of his life. Although his new life in the United States was far from easy, Pralhad found solace in a familiar friend: “Art was the candlelight that illuminated those dark, shadowy days. I went to work at a plastic modeling company, using my spare time to visit museums and practice sketching and drawing. My love for art overcame those anxious and otherwise gloomy times.” After resettlement, Pralhad also began volunteering as an art teacher for both Oakland International High School and the IRC, which inspired him to further his own art education and to move to Washington State.
Today, Pralhad is attending Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle where he studies painting, photography, print, sculpture and media arts. Pralhad also continues his involvement with IFACA Bhutan, which has expanded to seven different Bhutanese refugee camps and now consists of over 3,500 members! Pralhad and other IFACA members who have been resettled around the globe continue to support IFACA by raising awareness of the organization and by providing it with financial assistance. On June 22nd, Pralhad will participate in the IRC in Seattle’s Refugee Artvocacy 2011, an annual refugee art event aimed at increasing awareness of world refugee issues. Pralhad hopes that by sharing his experiences and artwork at the event, he can help spread awareness of IFACA Bhutan among the wider King County art community.
Pralhad wishes to share his powerful story with as many people as possible in order to motivate and inspire others. There is nothing more inspirational than Pralhad’s passion for art and his positive outlook on life: “During the vicissitudes of life, my art is always with me. I shall go anywhere it leads me. With it, I am living my life to the fullest – happy and content.”
Pralhad and several other talented refugee artists living in King County will showcase their work at Refugee Artvocacy 2011, taking place on June 22nd from 6-8pm at Art with a Heart Gallery in Seattle. For more information, visit www.Rescue.org/Seattle or contact us at Seattle@Rescue.org.