Growing, multiplying, breathing

Body, Essays, India

On the last night of my sweetheart being here with me, we heard a fight happening on the street. We heard a woman’s voice, and both of us froze. It was right outside our building. We listened; shall we go outside? We opened the door. There was another woman who was putting her body between the man trying to grab a woman he was yelling at. My sweetheart said to me, there are seven men out there, shall we go and add two more female bodies to balance it out? I didn’t want to. I was scared. I have known violence, and in my own country I know how to combat it. I know the phone lines, the ways to donate, and the ways to knock on the door and intervene. I know that the police will probably help. But this is not my country. I don’t know the rules, and I don’t know how to help. My body does not feel strong here. I don’t know how to understand my body when it is in the closet, when it is white and means so many things to others who look at it. It doesn’t quite feel like mine. I wanted to go inside with my darling on our last night together; back into the arms which make it clear what and who my body is again.
I felt ashamed. Selfish and powerless. We went outside. There was shouting, and a crowd of people. A car had stopped. The man shouting had her by the arm, and was saying she’s my wife. The family in the car were Indian, with a man in the driver seat. As soon as he said she’s my wife, the driver said right, that’s it, let them go. The French woman who had got in between them was screaming, saying what, it’s ok, because they’re married, its ok? You just let him go? And we did. He walked down the street, dragging her by her arm.
Last night I watched a dance show by young contemporary dancers. There were parts when the women were thrown on the ground, and others where they held the men aloft and threw them down. It was complicated, powerful work about violence, the street, and complication. It was made from here. I understood some things, and not others. Sometimes it is so much easier when it is through the body.
The street I am living on has a lot of men on it. At night, it is almost a completely male space; drinking tea and eating samosas. In my proposal, I wrote that I wanted to make work on the street. But this is not my street. Where should I make it? I miss my body, and I miss womens bodies. I miss female energy. And at the same time, I hear about Shakti, the mother goddess. Suresh tells me stories and shows me the drawings on the street which symbolise the lotus, and the womb; creation, growth. He says you start with a cross, and then you join those points, and then you join and join, until you fill the room. In Bangalore there are billboards which say “When you kill a girl, you kill many others.”
Shanthi Rd is built around a Badam tree. It is huge, reaching almost the height of the house, and far onto the street. Growing, multiplying, breathing, it forms a curving roof over the courtyard; one with holes that the full moon crawls through, offering surprising patches of light to skin. It reaches over the row of black motorbikes which park on the outside of the wall.
I plan to build a scaffold on the private side of the wall. I want to make temporary sculptures which will reach over the wall. Shy, trying, dripping, getting stronger. This will be my feminine intervention into the street. This is my body. She is solid and process based and feeling. This is not my city, and not my country, but I am here. I am invited here and I have to find ways to speak. I will speak about my experience and about my body. I will offer my femme and my feminine to the street. I will make an enclave where maybe I could drink tea with other women. It will be made of bamboo and tied with coconut rope. They feed it out from their aprons and it weaves into rope as if by magic. Maybe we could share some skills. Maybe I could invite you. There is a generosity that I need to learn; to offer and to accept. I’ve been painting banana leaves purple and blue. They are the same colours as the houses down the road. I have dripped blue onto them, like the fat rain. I am making a roof. I am laying a floor.

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Images by Cop Shiva http://copshiva.com/

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Ways of joining

Essays, India

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I have been thinking a lot about skills. About how they take time to learn, and there is no way around that. There are so many hand skills here; people making everyday, useful items by hand. In the market there are piles and piles of small clay bowls for incense, and outside temples there are huge baskets filled with stringed flowers. Everything is arranged beautifully; useful, and temporary. The flowers last perhaps a day, and are remade all over again. They are made and remade by women (as far as I have seen) sitting on the street, with baskets of pinks, whites and bright oranges. Flowers adorn womens hair and gods in temples. After my sweetheart bought me a string of these, I became fascinated with how they are tied together. I asked Suresh if someone would teach me how to do the tying. Mona, his housekeeper said yes, and brought flowers and string.
We sat outside in the shade, flowers between us. Her small and nimble fingers started spinning like the wind, while my mind tried to work out what it was she was doing. She showed me. She showed me again. My fingers were clumsy; unable to bend or move. My mind was in my hands, telling me how hard it was. I think it’s always like this with a skill. The mind tries to understand it, but that is not where it is learnt. When I have learnt drumming, it is like this. Listen, watch, repeat. Follow with the hands. As soon as the mind gets involved, saying “whoah it’s so fast”, I can’t do it any more. Once I had sort of grasped the idea, I tried to let my hands do the work. I watched how confident her movements were, and tried to fake it till I made it; just breathing into my hnds and letting them pretend they knew what they were doing. That made it go easier, like the flowers were more comfortable with a firm grip. But still, I was useless. Clumsy and slow, but determined. She spins them together as if the wind is on her side, tying and pressing so that there are no gaps at all. Mine flop and slump, falling off after a few seconds because I haven’t been able to pull them tight at the same time as holding them, at the same time as tying the knot.
And I love it. It is humbling, and releasing. I am an unskilled person from somewhere else; unskilled at this thing. She is kind. She tells me to practise on newspaper, and shows me how to fold it. Then she tells me that when she first learnt, she spent three days doing it.
This is how I resolve my approach to my project. The reality is, I don’t belong here. I am transient and this is not my country. I spent the first week frozen in fear about repeating an ugly colonial pattern of taking from other cultures and claiming it as ones own. I don’t want to just use what is here to make myself look good. I don’t want to try and comment on a culture which is not my own; one which is ancient and complicated and which I know so little about. I am comfortable listening, looking, taking in. I am uncomfortable being asked what I think. I don’t want to try and reduce anything I see here. India is many, and I love being in a position of nowhere firm, everything shifting.
But I do want to communicate, and connect. Three months is too long just to look, I have to get involved. I keep trying, and making. Most of all, I want to connect with women. I want to be somehow accepted. I feel so grateful when women smile at me on the street. After a few days, when I am feeling deeply homesick and anxious, Mona comes upstairs to my studio to visit. She comes in, looks at everything, then starts picking up materials and showing me how to use them. She draws on the floor these patterns which are drawn in a kind of chalk dust, for blessing, good luck, good fortune. This is my understanding so far. They grow from the middle and spread out across pavements and doorsteps, based on lotus forms sometimes, so related to the womb, to women, to the mother goddess I am told. She draws swiftly and easily. I drip dust from my hand in clumps. But together we make something which I think is pretty beautiful. Part lotus, part body, and all I really care about is that we did it together. We tie some flowers together, and I finally work out the part I’ve been doing backwards. I feel so happy, delighted, and I sit and string flowers for ages. We’re joined by another artist, who translates for me and tells me that Mona says she likes my work. I’m so surprised, like astounded. I realise how much fear I have, that what I’m doing is not ok. I think this is pretty common for artists, but when I am working in another culture, the sense is heightened with awareness of so much history and abuse of culture by white colonisation. The relief I have at hearing this is palpable; my shoulders drop as I ask, ‘but even though it is so messy?’ Yes comes the reply, because it is messy, this is why she likes it.
I know that the answer is always through the materials, through making, and a dear artist friend reminds me of this. The flower tying shows me that this clumsiness, this trying, this shonky version of something which people here are so skilled at, is my way of making here. I am not an expert. I am learning.
The three of us sit, tying together. I realise how lonely I have felt; that this is the kind of atelier I want. She talks about how it reminds her of her grandmother; says she can hear her, telling her needs to get better at these things. They are female skills and maybe we are always and never good enough at those. It feels like that’s a part of being female everywhere; that we are never doing it quite perfectly, and always being watched to see how hard we are trying. Making things with these women is a little space where those things can come up, over hand work, over and under and back the other way than I thought it was.
I want to make my own kind of offering towards these incredible skills which I see everywhere. Skills which are a part of life. Skills which do not make people rich. Skills which are hard to learn, and essential to life. To join together, beautify, bless, carry and build.

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I have to try and remember things

Essays, India

I have to try and remember things. So much happens in one day that it is easy to forget. Already I had forgotten the antique filled shop (it is a bizarre travesty to call it a shop) where enormous room after enormous room opened out filled with treasures like a museum. A full bellied sculpture led me in, and once inside whole church facades opened out; huge colourful ancient chickens and gods standing in corners and on ceilings. The woman who followed me laughed in the end, at my open mouthed wonder. The same wonder as when my meditation teacher told me about monks sitting with tigers. The same wonder which made me feel part of the stars all the way I rode home. Part of it was that these objects are for sale. I imagine vast white modernist houses inset with intricate fragments of palace walls, and figuring out how much space is needed to really appreciate her fierce glare and male / female form. At the counter, the woman asks me about my hair; is this the new style? I tell her yes, it’s very common in New Zealand, and that women with long hair like hers also shave it up the sides.
Outside, my friend tells me that the huge lorry piled high with sacks is full of ginger. The way things are carried is also a wonder.
There is a ladder on the back of a motorcycle.
In the night, dogs howl in harmony, an offbeat rhythm.
My favourite time is at seven or so, when the call from the temple drifts on the air, traffic slows down, and sometimes it rains. The rain is always a relief, like breath; a pause. Everyone shelters, under awnings, in shops. People stand close together and talk and laugh, and wait. When it eases a little, two children are sent out, her long arm reaching out to take his small hand.
Suresh brings me cough sweets and says they’re ayurvedic, not synthetic.
Also, a funeral procession seen from an auto rickshaw. First, men dancing using all of their bodies, falling against the drums which beat with arms and backs straight marching them. Of course the traffic stops, and no one complains. There are uniforms blue and maybe gold, a clarinet. Suresh tells me you see, it is an expression of emotions, an outpouring. The men are drunk, and behind them, the women are sad. The black car is piled high with strings and strings of flowers. And when I say strings, I mean lush wide belts of colour layered.
Further down the street, another funeral. The body held behind makeshift sheets which form a tent outside the home. Next to it, a construction which looks like an enormous crown, with flowers covering its papier mache bones. This will adorn the procession. It is built here on the street, outside the home, next to the body.


I find the most beautiful piece of gold sequinned fabric. There is metres of it, tiny sequins like fish scales, with orange thread weaving through sections. It is old, it is not good enough for wearing, but for me, it is perfect. The edges are folded and in one corner there is still a sewing machine needle tucked in.

Walls walls walls

Drawing, India, Painting

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Fort Cochin has the best walls I have ever seen. The first one I see is opposite our guesthouse, where we arrive late at night. It is the wall of the offices for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which none of us knew existed until we came here. It is painted with an intricate mural of interlocking shapes creating vibrant figures in movement and transformative dance. While we are here, we ask questions about the biennale; find out that it is a huge international event. We piece together galleries, artists, a catalogue and residencies to form a map of an ambitious and visionary event. There are beautiful high ceilinged galleries next to crumbling buildings overtaken with vines and creepers. Everything is alive here, everything grows, and nothing is what you expect.
In the morning, we walk down streets with ancient walls made of brick, plaster, and layers and layers of paint. Each layers moves, cracks and is held together with moss and vines. Texts are erased by green growth and rain and heat. The word clad comes to mind; one layer is clad with another, and another, until they bulge with time, addition and decay.
There have been some graffitti artists here, and I can only presume it is they who have left paste ups of pink leopards and women weaving in paper on these painterly surfaces. They must have been put up a few weeks ago, although it could have been days because of the hot, wet climate which roughs up paper pretty fast I imagine. Parts of them have been sloughed away, so that the images become part of the pinks and ochres layered underneath.
I don’t like to photograph people while I travel. Without their consent that is. I feel like it’s part of a colonial sense of entitlement to feel it is your right to snap away without any consent from those you take a photograph of. I think the last picture I took was many years ago, of a woman in her hijab in Morroco. Her glare was fierce and furious, and I was sure I never wanted to do that again. Confronted with my own lightness of looking by her rightful possession of her own body, I felt ashamed and wished I could give her image back to her. I had no right to it.
So my images are of walls. To me, they are intensely beautiful. They show the actions of people, weather and time. They are enough of a record of this place.