weaving in, weaving out

Drawing, Essays, feminism, India, installation, Sculptures

Weaving in, weaving out, is about femininity, expression, colour, difficulty and the skills we have learnt to create homes and spaces for ourselves.
Being on a residency means having to build a temporary home in a new country. This home is made from local materials and influenced by vernacular structures. I think of architecture as how we arrange the spaces around us, including the small spaces. In India I have been fascinated by how things are arranged; the sweets hanging outside a shop, the bamboo scaffolds; bundles of flowers discarded at the end of the day.
I want to make things which have a sense of being alive, growing, exuberance, and reveal their own fragility and the difficulty of growing. We live in bodies which get broken, and I want my sculptures to be like that. Vulnerable and yet brave, scaffold, on crutches and yet still moving.

There are so many hand skills here; everyday, useful items, made by hand. Everything is arranged beautifully. The skills needed to make them take time to learn, and then become part of the body; as natural and unthinking as walking. I became interested in skills because I know they are part of a community, a culture, that we learn and do things together. Also, skills became part of how I could acknowledge my whiteness in this culture. Rather than repeat and exploit a white history of taking from a country, I wanted to see if I could transform it a little, by being humble enough to try and learn, deliberately doing things which are new to me; to make myself vulnerable.

I am very grateful to Mona for teaching me how to tie flowers, and also a new stitch; forms of structure that I have used throughout this project. Learning the flower tying gave me a metaphor for the project; weaving. At the beginning of a residency, there are no connections. As time passes, some threads become connected. With people and places, new routines begin to create form. Like making a nest; a bird choosing available materials to wedge itself into the local environment. Some threads are temporary, or need replacing. Strengthening is required, re weaving in and adding new elements. All are part of the whole.

I’d like to talk about femininity and femaleness. I have been struck by the gender difference in public space compared to what I am used to. The street seems very male to me; places where men drink tea, eat food and congregate. I wondered where my space could be, where I could express myself, and so I have made it. I have heard stories of Rangoli, and connections between femininity and nature here. I think of nature as wild, much stronger than we think, and disregarding of human control. I wanted to build this structure which spilled out onto the street, in the same way that a tree does. Putting aside the rules, boundaries and acceptable ways to take up space, trees just grow wherever they can find a foothold. This is how I made my work, and how I made connections with women here. I trawled face book groups, went to workshops, said yes to every offer of help, and slowly wove myself in to feeling like I had some threads connecting me. Rani pink threads. Through conversations, gifts of fabric pieces, and working together, I have created this show from fragments of stories in which I both learn, and recognise myself.
I am very grateful to everyone who has made this project possible. The women who have come and shared stories, time and energy with me building and installing the show; Mona, Priyanka, Varsha, Bhavani, Bindu, and Vidhna for the gift of fabric. Also to Asia New Zealand for funding this residency, and Shanthi Rd, Suresh and Sandeep for hosting me here. Particular thanks to Suresh for his wonderful knowledge of this city and materials shopping in the heat! Thank you to Shiva for your help, and constant encouragement and energy! Finally thank you to everyone who befriended me here. Being an artist on residency means I am here temporarily, and I am very grateful for warm welcomes, friendship, and delivery of food and drink while I couldn’t walk!

Title list

Immersion Acrylic paint, pigment, pastel, charcoal on hand made paper
Heap Fabric, coconut husks
Gutter flower Paper, paint, wool
Absorption Acrylic paint, pigment, pastel, charcoal on hand made paper
Gentle holding shape Onion sack, wool, net, fabric, rope, bamboo
Tied back to shelter Onion sack, wool, net, fabric, rope, bamboo
Two more female bodies (1) Pastel, pencil, graphite, charcoal on Fabriano paper
Two more female bodies (2) Pastel, pencil, graphite, charcoal on Fabriano paper
Ropes (1) Pencil, graphite, charcoal on Fabriano paper
Ropes (2) Pencil, graphite, charcoal on Fabriano paper
Flop and slump Onion sack, wool, net, fabric, rope, bamboo, paper, paint
Weaving in, weaving out (Installation) Fabric, hand made paper, streamers, glue, ribbons, bamboo, coconut rope, fabric, banana leaves, coconut palm leaves, paint, tinsel

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In female company

Essays, feminism, India, process

Yesterday two women came and built with me. Wrapping, twisting, layering. I warned them in advance to bring messy clothes, and they weren’t afraid of heights or climbing. Sometimes climbing, sometimes clambering, we found ways to get up, stay up, and be there together. It’s hard to explain how much it meant to me to have this female company. I’m queer, and I spend much of my time at home with female bodied or identified folk. Or people with experience of being female; people with experiences which means they can hear me, see me, make space for me. People who are aware that sometimes you have to create space so others can speak. It never ceases to amaze me how much airspace cis men take up with their talking and telling. The silences we find ourselves in, and watch each other in, are the reason I wanted to only work with women. I wanted female hands on this sculpture which is so much to do with expressing my female, femme identity here in India. I don’t know how else to do it; I don’t have my wardrobe, my swagger, my community. I feel looked at enough, and don’t want to stick out any more. I bought jewellery, even just to wear inside, to remind me of the outrageous, eccentric shine I love.
But I have my practice, and I know how to be brave with that. Priyanka and Varsha made me feel so much braver, with their immediate enthusiasm, excitement and encouragement. Both artists, they had a beautiful visual sense, and the work seemed to grow like a truly living thing in response to their touch. I felt nourished, and seen by them. I unfolded a piece of glimmering pink chiffon fabric, and the noise Priyanka made was a moment of recognition and affirmation for me. Yes, it’s beautiful! Yes, for no reason other than sensual, yummy beauty! These pieces are a gift, from a woman who identifies as ‘obsessed with recycling’. She told me they come from another woman, who had collected them for forty years, ever since she had a sewing machine. They are the second blessing on this project, and they are absolute treasure to me. We sift through them, looking for the pieces which are equally light, to drape from the ceiling like soft petals.
While we are building, Varsha says to me ‘I’ve always wanted to build something like this. Like a treehouse!’ And that is how it feels. The femme treehouse, taking up space, spilling over into the road. No men came to talk to me today.
In the afternoon, I take us for coffee. It began to rain torrentially, and we sheltered under the eaves, laughing as a fat raindrop fell exactly into one of our coffees, splashing us with its force. I had been worried to come out to them; I didn’t want to ruin this natural closeness which felt so good. But we talked about marriage, and I threw it in there, my big queer, eccentric wedding. They were wonderfully fascinated, wanting to know about the dress, the ring, how it is to get married where I come from, and bemoaning when the law will ever change here on same sex marriage. We talked about how in love I am with my sweetheart. We talked about Indian weddings, ceremonies, and how both of them would rather elope.
Feminine space is precious, and sure, it should be everywhere, anywhere, but it isn’t. Today I felt like there was a small space I had created, and we kept creating together, which allowed me to breathe easier, feel myself reflected, accepted, and encouraged, in female company.

I be myself

India, Poetry, process, Sculptures

I be myself. I build these things to express and shelter this being now. There is no shelter, there is only being. I cannot protect myself from who I am, I can only accept it and show it. I am the storm. I am the heavy rain. I am the gentle shy sunshine. I work to make myself visible. I shed layers of shame which would numb me.
There is no shelter, only expression
Making myself visible, finding the threads
To join together in difference
Threads of the feminine
Feminine space
Weaving myself in.

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Stages of making

Essays, India, process

Stages of making;
Opening, listening, searching
Collecting based on attraction with no judgement
Sifting
Trials, experiments, allowing
Writing making drawing photographing
Collecting. Making visible
Remembering,
Step back
Step back in
Trust
Fear
Trust
Doubt
Doing and doing some more
Tidy the studio. Organise into boxes. Sweep.
Letting go of what didn’t make it in time
Accepting a state of finishedness
Sheltering from rain. One fat raindrop to land exactly in her coffee
Allowing miraculous surprises by not trying to make the outcome meet the initial expectation
Finding a title while walking under a bats flight path
Asking for help
Accepting help
Getting up, walking, working, eating dinner, sleeping.

Images by Sandeep TK

I’m building a palace

Essays, India, Sculptures

When people ask me “what are you doing?’ I’m starting to say, I’m building a palace. A cane palace, he asks, and I say yes, and there will be paper, and fabric, and shiny parts. It’s kind of amazing how what I am making really is what I wrote in my proposal. A shelter, an expression of identity, an external showing and letting in. I’m starting to feel comfy up there, even though my arms get sore. I built that platform real strong, layers and layers and triangles like my dad taught me from looking at bridges. I’ve tried all the structural parts with coconut rope, and then I’m adding Rani pink wool. Rani means queen I learnt and Suresh and I both laughed. It’s the colour my hair used to be when it was freshly dyed; a real bright, fuchsia pink. My sweetheart calls me their queen, and it’s not about ruling or staking claim. It’s something to do with femme identity, queer identity. I see it in the gender queer folk here; walking tall and proud because that’s the space you’ve got, so work it. It is making an offer, but not compromising. It is showing with pride the vulnerable as it grows. It is accepting ones nature. All of the people who ask me what I am doing are men. I tell them you see how the street is so male, people like you? Well I am a woman, and this will be something feminine coming into the street. It’s a humble palace, built by one, to house one. It’s an externalised body. The lower deck is the size of a single bed. The boys who come to see after school twitter like birds all talking at once. They get it; Auntie Auntie! It’s a house Auntie!
Down the road is a real bamboo palace; built over three storeys high I reckon, delicate and strong and extraordinary. There’s no platforms on it, just bamboo poles which deft and confident feet balance on, treading the high wires to keep on building.

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Construction and deconstruction

Essays, India

Going to see the Ganesha statues being made (should I call them statues, or icons?) on the street reminded me of many of my most treasured childhood memories. Where I grew up, in a small town in Somerset, there was an amazing carnival once a year. People would spend all year it seemed building these outrageously elaborate floats and costumes. It was an extravaganza of lights, dancing and music, and it came right past our house. Thinking about it now, it strikes me how much I loved the contrast between the people driving the trucks or lorries, and the performers. I always feel comfortable backstage, at gigs or installs, being one of the people making it happen. The drivers were doing a job, in ordinary clothes, maybe smoking a cigarette. I remember how the flat bed trucks would bounce as everyone danced on them, and the wardens making sure noone got too close.
How do I describe my fascination and comfort with this; when you can see the line between everyday reality and the magical, and still believe in it. The way it is only imagination, willingness and that lovely sense of being swept along with it, that allows us to enter that other world of make believe. I had lots of practice; my parents took us to kids theatre, kids festivals, and of course, the mighty Glastonbury Festival. Somerset in those days was a hive of arts activity, and most of what we went to was free. I remember clearly a touring theatre troupe coming and performing at our school (just an ordinary, non-private school). Their show was an adaptation of one of the CS Lewis stories, a watery, boggy one with a character called Puddleglum. They made theatre on the same level as us; children sitting around the performing in a taped off square for a stage. Puddleglum sticks in my mind; beautifully miserable, with ragged clothes and a floppy hat. I’m sure my memory is created through an alchemy between the show, memory and reading the books, but he feels very clear to me. What is also clear is what I wanted then. I decided when I grow up, I want to be like these people. They had dyed hair and holes in their jeans, and they traveled around opening portals into other worlds right there on the floor. They were a troupe, a community, a creative gang with their own rules, and I wanted that.
The Ganesha seemed to being made in a big shed with corrugated iron doors. I so wanted to go in, but they firmly closed the gate before me and put a padlock on. I never saw where the carnival floats were made either. Backstage is where the magic is made, and it’s a privilege to see how. They range from small (30cm) to huge (5metres), and I had a good look underneath to check out the construction. From that, and conversations I gleaned that they are made from Plaster of Paris, or maybe mud (as they used to be), poured into rubber moulds, and strengthened with internal bamboo structures and coconut fibre in the mix. Then they are painted with all of the colours, and decorated, and decorated some more. I watch a man sticking endless strings of jewels over a Ganeshas rounded belly. He tells me that he used to be an auto driver, but this was his fathers business, and his fathers before him, so now he’s doing this. It’s incredible to me that these hugely decorated figures will be pushed into the river. I can’t help wondering what happens to all the jewels and lace and gold glitter. Surely someone salvages them?
When I was doing my MFA I was asked a number of times “Have you ever thought that maybe less is more?” It was a great relief to me to feel for perhaps the first time, seeing these, as if maybe I am not decorating my work enough. It one of my realisations about the huge gift of this residency; I’m having the experience of maybe having enough time to achieve what I want, to make as many layers as I dream of. I photographed a tree which drapes and flourishes all over the side of a building, and I sigh with exhaustion and envy at the time it would take me to build something equally lush. I’m always interested in the lush layers and patina of surfaces as they age and weather over time, and it’s the same with making them myself, that can’t be rushed. I’ve been putting painted boards out in the rain, and I can’t wait to see what happens with the strings of paper flowers when it pours on them. I’m hoping for gluggy fragile lumps which I can hold together with paint and mud.

I’m also hoping to build my own little troupe here; I badly need someone to bless this structure before it opens, and I wonder if that can be done through dance, or song, or chanting. There’s some events going on here about women claiming the streets, and maybe I’ll ask them for help. What I do know is that my structure will be like Glastonbury festival will always be in my mind. Before I even realised it was a huge music festival with famous people, it was this incredible unfolding of a city in a field. People arrived from who knows where, decorating poles, building stages, lifting trapeze. In Thatchers Britain it felt like this small space of resistance and freedom where people could create an entirely different world in weeks, then dismantle it as if it had never been there.

Practice until it feels normal

Body, Essays, Gender, India

Today was my third dance class, and I hit something again. I’ve been doing really great with my compassion and expectations; I started by telling myself look, you will be the biggest, most graceless, clumsy and only white person in there. And that’s ok. Totally ok. Be with your own body and see it progress at its own pace. Last week I didn’t have any moments where I thought I would burst into tears from feeling like I can’t do it, but this week I just couldn’t make it through the last hour. I also have another thing to go to; a dance thing which is apparently more of a ‘ritual performance’. I think it’s something I am more familiar with, so that was part of the compassion too, to leave early and give myself a chance to get there.
I guess it’s the self consciousness that gets me, and when my mind gets involved. I’m trying to remember the sequences, and I have flashes of knowing it’s not remembering through mind which matters, it’s trust of the body. That’s where I hit something. It’s a wall of fear, long taught and held, about what I am able to do with my body. It holds my hips tight as I try to move over them, and makes me clumsy. So many times I have heard ‘be careful, don’t hurt yourself, I’ll do it for you, here, let me, that’s too heavy’. And on and on. So it’s a gender thing, and a being controlled thing. And like all the worst kinds of control and fear, it’s gotten inside my own skin, my own muscles. And I want it out. That’s why I’m here, bringing as much softness and compassion as I can, noticing the shifts, congratulating myself like a small child.
She says release, release! And I’m trying. It’s just that my release, my trust in my body is still so quiet. My faith that the floor will hold me take me time to listen for. I want so bad to release. I love that floor that I can sink into. And sometimes I can do it. Today I nearly managed to spin across the floor, something very roughly like a ballerina.
And I know the release comes with grief. Letting go means losing something which has been held. My body has tried to protect me; to clench around the fear it has absorbed. It has responded to the clear and repeated messages, and tightened. Beautiful, wise body.
I have always had lovers who can climb trees, play sports, who are unafraid to move their bodies; who are loose. I long for that looseness, and the ability to try and fail. To be crap, and still be loved. This class is so welcoming, so warm. It’s a place I can try.
Last summer my sweetheart taught me how to throw a ball, and how to hit one. The simple joy of being able to hit a ball. The pleasure of being shown how to move my body, how to make it easier. The sense of achievement was wild, free, energetic and hopeful. It’s not my fault that I can’t spin yet; I need to learn that it is my upper body turning which will guide me. I love being taught. I love to follow the guidance of a wise teacher with patience and faith. I can rest in that.
Today I tucked my head in further and did a forward roll. It was fast, and unthought. She says practice until it feels normal. Trust in doing, in repetition. The stories are old, and need no retelling.

email Doll

Materials shopping

India

This post is just for images… now I am getting to the stage of putting things together, it’s good to see the constituent parts. The hot days of exploring avenues and roads of tiny shops full of potential pieces. Trying to concentrate very hard, imagining what I might need and which colour goes with what I already have at home…..

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The organisation of things

Essays, India

I am now 5 weeks into this residency, and I’ve been thinking about the process of making a new body of work. The way at the beginning it is important just to start; the trust that the materials and process will do the leading. For me, to make something physical is to reflect and acknowledge the body. When all of the plans are inside my head, it is simultaneously too hard to understand them, and they are too grandiose. My mind can construct anything, but my body is bound by its humanness; tiredness, reach of arms and time, for a start. These things are always very important to me in my work; I want to make things which reflect this embodiment rather than trying to get away from it. I love to see work which displays incredible skill, but I also love to see work which is brave enough to show its clumsiness, fear and vulnerability. I’m always trying to be brave enough to do that. I think it is a way to create intimacy.
People keep saying I’ve made so much work. I keep thinking do I have enough time left? I know that as soon as I start building, these pieces will disappear into and onto a large structure. And also there will be surprisingly and magically enough. Everything will shift once I start building outside. I will be on the street, and there people will engage with me. So it’s been important to have this first part where I am in the studio, making, laying out, reflecting my internal experiences through external materials. What I think I am going to make turns out to be something very different. Often all I can sense is an energy, like I am getting too tight, I need to be more loose. And so I get on the floor with newspaper, tissue and glue, and dip and drip into mounds and clumps. Or I know I want to move my body in a particular way, so I add a piece of charcoal to each hand and move blindly before a piece of paper. When I open my eyes, it has something to tell me. I am going to dance class; I have been drawing the stones which are getting released.
Now I feel more relaxed too, more like I am a part of this place. People recognise me at the coffee shop, and at the post office the woman says ‘you are a writer’, as I post my perhaps fifteenth letter to my sweetheart. I am nervous of how my work will be received, and I also want to be able to communicate. I think I will do a bit of writing which I can get translated into a couple of local languages and leave print outs for people to pick up. Maybe a new piece each week, as things develop.
There are things I have to hide here. They will need soft places to be protected. They will need to find ways to be expressed. Fellow students in my dance class ask me what is your work about? I say femininity, sexuality, alternative structures of meaning. See thing building? It is concrete. My work leans up against that, spreads out its tendrils and reminds you of the thick wild grass which cracks the concrete.
A friend asked me today for some pictures of an old work; The Way you have held things in Christchurch. I found images of the install. When it snowed; when my friend said build with the mud. Here in India there are piles of building materials, as apartments go up everywhere. The old bungalows are demolished and on the pavement there are piles of red clay, grey concrete; pigments to make things hold together. I want some of the mud, some of the clay. I want to wedge it wet in between paper and fabric and glitter and gold. The earth which will liquefy with the rain and run back into itself. I want to see this structure transform and change as the heavens open and drench it all.
When I look at the install images, I am reminded of the other end of the process; when there is a gap wide enough that you can see the work properly. Suddenly it seems enough, even beautiful, and certainly exactly what it needed to be. What it could be. What is was.
The difference between what the mind can conceive and what the body can do is wide. And human. I buy strings of flowers from the women outside the temple down the road. It’s the first time I’ve bought from them, and I squat down to ask to three lengths of marigolds and pinks. Lengths from elbow to wrist and back again. It’s hard to describe how grateful I am for their gentle warmth and welcome, here on the pavement. Yesterday outside the chemist an old man took my arm, and it took me a moment to realise that what he wanted was help stepping down from the high, cracked pavement. His skin was cool and papery, and we talked about the difference between having many gods and having one; what it means to have only a singular outcome of heaven as an option.
I do have a shrine here; it has things from home my sweetheart gave me, a nutmeg from the food forest we visited, and pieces of humble shine. A gold sweet wrapper, a fragment of sequined cloth from the pavement. The motorbikes here have pieces of orange and gold cloth tied to their handlebars sometimes, for luck. The things we do to get us through. The actions of wishing and objects of hope. Mine are these humble, funny, small vulnerable things. We treasure what we want to protect perhaps. They are objects which represent play, imagination, curiosity and wonder. Beauty found in the discarded and left over.
I realise walking home with my bag of flowers tucked gently to my chest, that it is the work I value, the energy and time, the bodies and blessings of these women who spent time tying these together. I hope that comes through in my work I make here too. I often laugh at myself, at how long it takes to recreate the tangles which I see on the street, in seaweed or piles of rubbish. Mona comes into my studio and carefully separates piles of wool, winding them onto paint tubes and rolls of newspaper. I don’t have the language to say she can leave them as they are – that the tangles are what I want. The complicated, multi layered, fragmentary structures for which I need to see piles of tree cuttings to remind me that there are branches as well as leaves. I don’t know if I will have time to make what I want to and dream of here, but it is emerging, coalescing out of the bundles and drawings growing here.

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/