Saturday, November 14, 2015 :
absence at Studio 20/17

Nothing Comes From Nothing

Carl Jung said, is the most important question we can ask ourselves: “What is the myth that we are living?” The work in ‘Absence’ look at myth and the absence of myth. The truth of myth has no origin in logic, and cannot exist apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning. The world is nothing but your perception of it and there is nothing that isn’t true if you believe it; and nothing is true, believe it or not.

Nothing Comes From Nothing is composed of ephemeral wax vessels emblematic of personal myths. Humans are storytellers and love to create fantasies for ourselves; we are the believers of our myriad of stories and we cling to them like they are our identities.

Mystic Hymn originates from an ancient Bengali folklore. The original story, an ancient myth, represents ‘the woman’ in two modes; Immoral (evil), is seen as a sultry, bosomy alluring witch; and, Moral (good), is shown through a virtuous, godly and obedient princess – a lesson in there, no doubt, for young girls. The original text has been written backwards, then traced and cut out to create a new graphic. By obscuring the original text, I lose all meaning and sense of the original story. It takes a myth to bury a myth, but this is all still part of the myth.

Nothing Comes From Nothing

Nothing Comes From Nothing is an interactive installation work composed of small vessels. The vessels are empty. They are made from a blend of waxes. It is not intended they last, although they may if that’s what you intend. They are in the form of a vessel taken from a moment in my life, replicated to represent the idea of ‘personal myths’. I have invited you to take one and to leave something in return. I observed that some people struggled with this. What to leave? What did I mean? Whereas others came prepared and wanted to share their item’s story, their story, with me. People left items belonging to their deceased parents, a strand of hair, a date written on paper, a drawing on the display table, a ring that they had made, a transport ticket, iou’s … Honestly, I’m not sure what to do next, now that you have left these. I work organically and I was interested in seeing the process and outcomes. I had no expectations when I presented this work, nor preconceptions about what responses would follow. Respectfully, I will treat the items that were left as specimens to begin with, I will document and consider what to do next. The pencil outlines, the traces left behind of your vessels that that no longer remain on the table, are also important to me.

For me, there is no material or emotional value in the work you are taking or the items that you leave. This is my deliberate choice and this is part of what I invite you to think about. How much will you invest in the things that you tell yourself? Remember, these wax vessels are emblematic of your personal myth (this could be anything – what do you tell yourself?). Who would you be if you changed the story that you tell yourself? Who would you be without your story? What if your story didn’t exist?

It seems this last paragraph is challenging to some. As I have said, I presented this work without expectation and I chose not to leave instructions or directives in how to read or interpret the work. If you have placed a value in the vessel that you have taken, and what you have left, that was your choice. I stand impartial; my only plan was for my position as artist to step aside and to be inert so that you could consider the notions (which are essentially very simplistic). But this did not happen. I was pulled in to the work too, by you; but I chose to let that happen.

I wanted the viewer, the participant, you, to think about what I was suggesting – the idea that we tell ourselves certain stories, sometimes repeatedly, and therefore convince ourselves of a thing. ‘I was hurt…’, ‘I am in love…’, ‘I am something…’, ‘You made me feel something…’ And you then believe these thoughts. You essentially construct a version of yourself that can just as easily be changed according to what you tell yourself, what you choose to think. Whence, the wax vessels are ephemeral and were not made to last – however, if you tell yourself they are something of importance, that I as an artist am important, or what I have made is important, then perhaps you’ll have them for life. But, you don’t have to and that is my point. Everyone can question their thoughts, your experience of a situation does not make the situation true.

You did not have to leave behind something of physical, material or emotional value in exchange for a vessel – you could have just taken a vessel and left nothing. I only encouraged you to think – you chose how to think about it.

Perhaps my inability to articulate clearly plays a part in people’s misunderstanding of the installation. But, I also don’t want to instruct what people should think or feel, I have just laid the pebbles for you to upturn and see what is beneath…

to be continued…

Visit a b s e n c e at Studio 20/17 6b, 2 Danks Street Waterloo

Or view the online catalogue at tenmoregirls

Thursday, August 20, 2015 :
draw .. cut .. draw .. cut

Originally a free hand drawing, paper cut, scan, then laser cut silk… photos to come…

Tuesday, July 21, 2015 :
Altered States at Gaffa

Altered States will be on for a further 2 weeks!

Image taken by Luke Killen

Wednesday, July 8, 2015 :
Altered State exhibition at Gaffa Gallery

New work!
Altered State
Garland (mutation iii)
Gaffa 6-8pm Thursday July 9th
Come drink with meeeeee

Part of the JMGA 2015 Conference edgesbordersgaps, Vernon Bowden and Mark Vaarwerk and I present Altered State.

Sunday, February 1, 2015 :
Garland (mutation ii) @ AirSpace Projects

The exhibition opens on Friday 6 February 6.00-8.00pm, the same time as Iconoclasts in Gallery One (Yvette Coppersmith, Chelsea Lehmann, Paul Williams, Heidi Yardley) and an experiencing of Sarah’s garden-in-progress in the courtyard. Openings will occupy the new spaces. There are approximately 35 artists in this show with works of varying sizes, quantities and media. I’m sure everything will look smashing once it is installed, it’s a pretty big space.

EXHIBITION OPENING DRINKS

6.00-8.00pm, Friday 6 February

Gallery 1: Iconoclasts, featuring the work of Yvette Coppersmith, Chelsea Lehmann, Paul Williams and Heidi Yardley.

Gallery 2 and basement: Openings: A Group Exhibition

Courtyard Residency: An ongoing sustainability project by Sarah Newall

10 Junction Street Marrickville NSW 2204

Open Thursday to Friday 11.00 – 6.00
and Saturday 11.00 – 5.00 the first three
weeks of each month.

Thursday, January 2, 2014 :
Special Lassi

The mist has rolled in from the North. The morning bites you around your back and the wait for the chai is excruciating. Although the first to be seen, glowing brightly, we are the last to be served. The sun rarely appears before noon. The singular cloud is thick. Eyes peer out from behind woolen shawls. Steam billows up from the morning defecation. Dogs seem to be in a state of rigor mortis. We mostly have the comfort of a warm room, but sometimes, nauseous, I spend hours swallowing the urge to vomit inside a train or rusting bus in frozen slumber entangled with unknown bodies. The long journeys are, surprisingly, still my favourite time. Although they sometimes bring illness, tears, fear, frustration and force us to be open and vulnerable, it’s where the most unlikely experiences occur. We are dropped off mid journey in the dark, left having to find a way forward. The only white people for miles. Through the barrage of money makers and opportunists we must argue, barter and submit to trusting the few people that want to assist, always for a healthy sum. We are without options and are the only white folk at a station wondering how to get to the next point, surrounded by Indians; all yelling, demanding, enquiring.

A cigarette will buy some time to ease the nerves. Though, not me, I stand there on show before 30 dark eyes. After a series of ‘negotiations’ an over priced rickshaw drives us right, left, left, right around dark corners into the misty dawn. I try to remember the way though I’m immediately lost.
Nervousness sets in.
I see people ahead at another rickshaw that has stopped, and I think, this must be prearranged. The driver taking us this way was planned back at the station. That must have been the last thing he yelled at the group of men watching us. We were taken the long way to get to this place where we will be robbed, maybe raped, beaten. I’m scared but I don’t want to say. I do not look at Bradley. If I see that he’s scared then I don’t know what i’ll do. I avoid looking for confirmation in his face and sit praying for protection. Silence without a breath.
We drive by the group of people standing at the rickshaw. No one even looks up. We reach the bus unharmed, we always do, and the driver looks back at us with half a smile and a shoulder shrug.
“Bus” he says.
And we drink chai.

India has finally got to me. In many ways too. My hair is knotted, my skin dry like the desert, my clothes are infused with incense, unwashed covered in dust, pollution, last weeks samosa stain, yesterday’s mud, some kid’s spit and, I’m certain, trace elements of shit and piss can be found too (not mine, but I’m not sure which is preferable). I am draped in a stink. It’s all I smell. Some moments the odour creeps all over me like an Indian man on the street, it takes me by surprise and gropes me, unashamedly but without me knowing where it has come from. Yet, it’s now the familiar and it signifies home, some days it comforts me. I’m so attuned now to this begrimed funk that I’ve begun detecting the sweet notes. What’s animal shit and what is human shit. I can tell what is bat shit, monkey shit, cow, horse, goat and dog shit, toddler shit, adult shit, living off rice shit, masala shit, railway and train shit; this is a pungent floral kind that lasts the duration from departure to arrival.

For most, in the areas we traverse, they don’t have access to a toilet. The toilet is the street. Sometimes, that toilet is on an ancient site such as Rakhi Garhi that predates 3000BC! It’s interesting to note that archeologists revealed a highly engineered and functional sewer and drainage system from 5000 years ago, yet most places in India cannot establish or maintain a sewerage system or the management of rubbish.

The divide here is great. Not only between the rich and poor. But between all Indians, all castes, each region vastly different with language, clothing, food and crafts. Each with a deeper sense of regional pride greater than the next. As the days pass here my sense of empathy deepens and sense of impossibility escalates. The extremes of wealth and poverty in India are like no other I’ve seen. I find myself disgusted by the well fed Indians and usually trust their words and motives the least.

Walking along, people hold out their hands, we shake and we greet, we lend them our weary smiles. Sometimes we will go to their houses, sometimes not. It’s hard to know who’s legit and who’s abnormal. With every step, we are followed and joined and led to places that we never intended to go. Each day I hand out money; through guilt, through pity, through confused empathy and through another’s dishonesty. Each time I justify and rationalize the parting of money. ‘It’s only a couple of dollars… our economic structure is different… they walked us here… they walked us there… he seemed nice… she had kids…’ It goes on. But at the end of each day I feel like I traverse a world that isn’t genuine. I’m the misconceived good guy, I must have some air of abundance because my pockets extend deep for the Indian stories. And they seem to see something in me they know will weaken. Each one filching me of notes yet overlooking my travelling cohort. They actually give him change when he volunteers a ‘donation’!

We walk through as celebrities might. A constant audience of eyes follow us. Those that are brave or brazen ask “which country you from?” Australia we reply. “One photo?” they request. Sorry, no! We reply. Unfortunately the photography got to me early on and now Bradley’s agitation for the paparazzi esque behaviour has taken a new form too. When I see teenagers or groups of men I cover my face with my scarf. I limit the likelihood of appearing on someone’s Facebook feed, being mocked? Celebrated? Revered? I’m not sure. One man asks me “why” when I refuse his photo. I tell him, because it’s weird. I don’t think he understands. Here, we are the others, the objects. Foreigners but unlike others. Or so it seems as we attract more attention than others I’ve seen. Jaws drop, people fail to take in the monument that may date back to 200BC instead choose to sit and stare, sometimes giggling, waiting for us to move on, and they follow behind sneakily photographing us. We make no effort to dress as Indians (though I’ve seen many Indians who dress more ‘western’ than us). I tried once to wear a kurta but I felt like I’d left the house in my pajamas. So I stick with jeans and a shirt, I cover my arms and especially my chest.
In some villages and situations we do have our photo taken. But it’s always dependent on an honest interaction with the people. Their general joy and intrigue in foreigners as opposed to trophies or objects to laugh at. It’s a hazy subject.
Although I cover every bit of my body except my hands and my face, the men always stare at my chest. I’ve been cooed at and kissed at, and as my time here passes so too does my proclivity to accept their behaviour. I’ve asked them, plainly and pointlessly, to stop staring. I’ve used expletives. The finger. The response: laughter. But none greater than Bradley, who is ready yet terrified should my actions get us into trouble and he has to deal with the male onslaught. But he understands clearly while the animal noise making men are either too lost in translation or socially inept to comprehend my intolerance.

Each day I read the paper; a woman has been raped; a 7month old thrown onto a fire burned alive by a drunk angry father; a pregnant woman beaten and in critical condition for refusing her husband sex; a husband hires out his wife’s body for 20,000 rupees ($345 AUD) to a group of men to rape her repeatedly. They refuse to pay. The husband barters and eventually settles for 500rupees. Less than $10AUD to allow his wife to be gang raped and hospitalized with internal injuries.

Some women are too scared to catch public transport. Some women are too scared to get a job because they will have to commute which means they risk harassment, rape, death on the train. Girls born into this, accepting it. Accepting clothes they need to wear to minimize risk, clothes that cover their bodies so they don’t bring rape upon themselves! I struggle with the gender divide as well as the cultural divide as well as the psychological divide. What I deem normal. I feel that India is deeply connected to it’s traditions and to keeping alive its culture, however it’s so backward in it’s treatment of one another, animals included, that in some cases these accepted cultural norms are actually inhuman acts of brutality, like rape, beating and murder that meet little to no punishment. Is this not a humanitarian issue? Should we, the men and women, from cultures more educated help to change, through education, a country that breeds misogyny?! Punish those that commit these acts of violence against another human.

It is a human right to be safe.

Below is an excerpt taken from writing an experience immediately after it had occurred. I don’t know how to make it part of a grander tale. Or prettier in language than what it was. It is what it is. It’s the end of the trip and this has remained with me, day after day and now in my darker dreams.

I’ve been in India since October it’s now late December and I think I’ve finally just felt India.
I’ve finally been shocked.
I’m finally overwhelmed.
I think I’ve been looking for it.
Wondering why people are so shaken, so affected.
Now I understand.
I feel shaken.

I am in Varanasi where the narrow lanes are traversed only by foot or bike. There are soldiers, overwhelming with their guns, seated near temples to keep calm any communal tensions. The horns still blast, puppies trip under foot, goats scurry, water buffalo intimidate (more than the soldiers) and monkeys jump from rooftop to rooftop. Sitting in a lassi shop, as you swallow your first spoonful, a body covered in orange cloth is carried passed. By the time you take your last bite, three more will go by. All headed for the Burning Ghat, Manikarnika to be cremated.

The daily prayers float over you like the incense. It echoes through the old town and enters your stomach, you feel it in the depths. The other voices in your ear don’t belong to prayer, but to those wanting to sell hash and opium. I’ve heard the voices for weeks now. Sometimes they have a face. Usually it’s just a whisper that follows on from “Madame! Pure pashmina, sari.. Maybe later?”
“Hash? Opium?”
Varanasi is the city of Shiva, the god of destruction and the guy everyone uses as an excuse to blaze up. Om Shiva!

In good spirits, we walk down the steep steps to the Gangas, take a left and walk along to Manikarnika, the main Ghat in Varanasi for cremating the dead. Almost instantly we are ushered along by a young boy explaining the do and the do nots. As we walk toward the bodies burning, I see different levels with areas of flames of different size. Some have been burning for longer than others. A body has recently been placed on the pyre. I already felt tenuous and nervous about what I was going to see in Varanasi. I have seen dead bodies before. I watched a man take his final breathe in the streets of Serbia. So I suppose if I thought about it, I felt prepared for the Burning Ghat.

I walk by a dog tearing something apart. This is not something usual, the dogs rarely have anything to tear apart. They’re usually sniffing around chip packets and rubbish piles, eating soiled nappies. I walk on but look over again as my brain doesn’t comprehend the image. I see a toy. Maybe a cloth toy. It’s in half. The dog has the lower half. It doesn’t look like it’s playing, it looks like it’s eating. We are being ushered ahead but my body resists moving forward. I stare as the dog bites out some kind of organ. Or, is it a stomach? Again I’m not sure what I’m seeing. It’s a toy right? I can see the little feet. The legs are stiff but reflexive as the dog rips into it.
I keep looking, my pace slowing.
I think maybe it’s a chicken? Or does the dog have a baby goat?
I see no fur.
I look harder as it rips out a bloodied cord. I see no bones.
I look. There are little feet and stiff little legs, dirtied skin.
I look.
It’s a child.
Half a child.
Not quite a baby but only just beyond one year not yet two.
I don’t know for sure.
How can I tell.
It’s only half of a human body.
I’m paralysed but still walking.
Bradley and the young usher walk on. I think they don’t see.
I keep looking back. I’m not sure why. My head is dizzy.
The stiff legs become a clear image in my mind.
I don’t see any genitals.
Just stiff bowed legs and an opened body where the stomach would be, being eaten greedily by a dog. I’m confused. I hurry to catch up to the others. We are taken to a tower to look over the ghat of burning bodies. There are piles of stacked wood everywhere. We hadn’t intended on coming here. But it certainly was an impressive view of the cremations. There were fires burning from the river up to the top, closer to us. I ran to the balcony to look for the dog, still uncertain. There it was. Still tearing at the flesh, but I couldn’t make out the form clear enough. I was still dizzy and distracted, already overwhelmed.

There were three women sitting in the tower. A “volunteer” of a nearby “hospice” appeared and began to talk to us. Explaining what we could see. He explained the caste system at the Ghat; there are tiers of round the clock burning fires allocated to the different Castes tended to by ‘the untouchables’. He explains that it’s very costly to be cremated. That it’s very hard for people to afford this. He explains that the very poor are cremated further down the Ganga where the fire comes from fuel or a spark, not from Shiva’s fire that has been burning for 3500 years. Those that aren’t cremated are holy men, pregnant women, lepers, those bitten by a cobra and children.
Their bodies are sunk in the river Ganga. Looking over the tower there are no women. I’m told that women cannot be where the bodies are cremated because they are too emotional. Queen Sati was the last woman at a cremation, but she cried so much and was so distraught she threw herself onto the pyre. Since then no women are allowed near to the Burning Ghat as “they are not able to control their emotions”. He says that their tears also stop the bodies going to nirvana and puts out negative energy. (As do photographs, so it’s not possible and disrespectful to photograph).
Eventually he takes us over to one of the ladies. He tells us she is waiting to die, she is without family. She cannot afford the wood needed to cremate her. She looks resigned but as though she might live a little longer than she’d hoped.
She blesses Bradley and his family first.
Then I am pushed over and told to kneel before her, to lower my head.
I dislike these situations. She begins to mumble and tap my head.
The boy asks my name.
My fathers, my mothers.
I stumble to remember the names in my family because I’m still distracted, upset, thinking about the dog tearing out the stomach of the child. Was it a child? He then says think of the names of my family that havn’t been mentioned. I’m unable to think of my nieces and nephews as he hurries me up.
“That’s enough Madame” he says before I had thought of all names.
Now I must donate money to help with the cost of cremation (and I will have good Karma). “Whatever I can” he says and looks away. I fish out some already prepared notes from my pocket.
200 rupees.
The lady says “No” and pushes it back toward me.
I’m confused. The boy looks at the notes and tells me it’s not enough. It’s the students that give little he says, he then reiterates the cost of burning one body. I get out my wallet, it’s dark and I can’t see. I lost my glasses on the train. I hand over another note. The lady refuses to take it. The boy now eyeing my wallet demands more, repeating his monologue about death and costs and being alone and karma. I don’t know what they want. And I’m alone with them. More, more, more as I keep fishing out rupees (which for both of us are few at this particular moment, given we weren’t expecting to be directed into a dark, quiet tower). I stop at 600 and he disappointingly says “O’kay” but not without telling me that students give little and again the cost of wood to body ratio. The lady looks annoyed. Still holding out her hand. I look at her and I feel dirty and want to undo the blessing, I care less about the wood that burns her body and believe their story about the hospice as much as I do the story that Shiva’s fire has never once gone out in 3500 years. I think I look rich as Bradley explains to me he was given change from his 150 rupees!

We are then asked to give our usher money. To help with smoking some weed later. In my mind I’m walking away, but in reality I stand uncomfortably fishing for a sum of money that will never be the right amount. I give 100 rupees. Again, he looks offended. I tell him we aren’t carrying money right now, which is true. We havn’t found an ATM for days and it seems every lane you turn down in India there is someone telling you they just want to help, that they “don’t want your money m’am” but then linger and we know we must give, so most days I can spend nearly 20 dollars in “donations”. Sometimes I pay them to go away.
So yes, I guess I must be rich, because I’m definitely stupid, a real sucker!
We are brain beaten.
People telling us to go one way, or follow them another way, “not that way, better this way”.
I decide I need to walk back the way I came.
To confirm if I saw a baby, a small child. I can’t rid the image.
I’m still going through images trying to match it to something else but the image only matches that of a small child.

Walking down fumbling with nerves and emotion I fell one foot into a drain of muddied, ashen Gangas. I jumped up and walked on. I saw no body or remains. We walked on to some steps. Maybe Bradley was rattled too? Neither speaking.
We walked up the stairs alone and I said “I think I saw something”.
I said “there was a dog eating something”.
Bradley said “yes I know”.

So he saw it too?

We didn’t say any more.

We walked again, fumbling mentally to see. I was emotional.

I understand why women are not allowed at the Burning Ghats.
We are too emotional!
We walked and I focused to hold my tears.
As I write this I am finally sitting with a beer, hardly able to stomach anything as I keep seeing the half body. I hold my tears.

Later I will cry. Right now I cannot.

Talking to Bradley now.
He doesn’t know what I was talking about. He says it wasn’t a baby or human.
He thought it might be a pig. We saw no pigs the entire week in Varanasi. A goat? A chicken? Another dog? There was no fur. It was skin. I saw legs and feet.
I disagree with him, remaining confused but convinced.
But maybe that’s the difference.
I’m female and emotional it skews my thoughts or clear thinking. He is a man he must be rational with clear thought.

Since writing this, I’ve replayed the image in my mind and have been reading about Varanasi. It’s not uncommon for bodies to wash up on the shore which are then devoured by dogs. I never cried.

Monday, December 16, 2013 :
Night Soil

Most Indians won’t look. They don’t touch. They’ll rarely speak. Their temples are impermeable, their supermarkets are guarded and schools discriminative. The knock at the car window is ignored, shoed away or the car rolls forward. Nobody sees. Standing beyond the locked door are small, tiny, dirty hands that tap at the glass pane of the car’s windows. They see the white glow of western wealth inside and they smile cheekily; hitting the jackpot they think. Glassy, brown eyes, attached to faces too old for this life, look up at you. They tilt their head a little and incline their eyes upward and their mouth downward, looking more helpless. It’s convincing. They thrust their impecunious hand once more at the window. The egalitarian inside the car, an invalid amongst poverty, is discomposed, intimidated and challenged by the dirt covered child. Fishing for some change, they hand it over. The children have become the toll booth and this is the fee for passing through their territory. The Indians in surrounding vehicles glare. The driver keeps staring ahead, in mute silence. The small child runs victoriously away making room for the spontaneous appearance of more children, who impetuously jump up onto the car to scoop their winnings from the white money machine who sits lumberingly inside. One child with money never satiates the demand for more. The driver flicks a condemning look through the rear vision mirror. The children are unsuccessful however. A shake of the head to indicate ‘no more’. Resolute and determined they keep hold of the car in disagreement. Tapping the window, their fingers jammed through the window, although it closes in and they have to stand on their toes to keep their obdurate little bones inside the vehicle. Each finger is peeled and pushed out one at a time, millimetre by millimetre, finger nail by finger nail. The window shuts and they languidly walk on to the next car. Head tilted, eyes down, hand out. The car drives on and at the next stop in traffic, there is another knock at the window.

Men walk through the traffic selling roses and rotting marigolds, half deflated balloons, a sagging Sponge Bob drags alongside knee level. The children sell pens and do acrobats, their lithe bodies inverted and somersaulting between cars with the youngest trying their best to keep up, but falling short they just look up sweetly. Women carry babies (or maybe they are not; limp mounds underneath a faded cloth never reveal what’s really there), they hold their hands to their mouth and look so weak, so pitiable. Supercilious old women who seem less despairing have the air of matriarchal power, having seen it all they care little for you or what’s to come, unaroused, they are resolved to their mortality and smack a coin onto the window sharply, obnoxiously, insisting on money and spitting when there’s none. Cripples walk by, hands in shoes, pulling at your clothes.

Their home is surrounded by muddied puddles, cow shit and each other. Their clothes dry between lanes of traffic and unstable towers of simmering rubbish. Their comforts might permit them a metal roof that balances on a bamboo frame with a modicum of material to insulate. Or, maybe they sleep on the pavement with only the clothes on their back, their new born baby, unconcealed, beside them, they live under the bridge, amongst the grass, or further back from the road in the jungle of over grown vines where they battle for space with the monkeys and dogs. Their home might be on the highway, thatched together through cloth and tin with an illimitable amount of other places; leaning against a wall nursing their children, tired, hungry, hopeless, their life unveiled but all the while smiling.

These are The Untouchables. Once referred to as The Dalits; they are the oppressed people.

In traditional India, there is a complicated structured caste system consisting of four varnas: the Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and the Shudras. A person is born into their caste which means that what ever caste a persons parents are in, is the caste that they are in and they cannot marry outside of their caste. Within each caste there are many subcastes; even more tightly defined social groups defined by birth, marriage and occupation. The higher your caste, the more privileges and benefits; the lower your caste, the more ignominious your work and status.

If you fall outside the caste system you are considered less than human. The members of the lowest caste are called the untouchables, they are not included in the Varnas. Instead they are avarna or outcasts. They live a life of poverty, are discriminated against, and are outsiders in their own home land with more than 70% living below the poverty line.

Purity and impurity was an important concept in India, and the untouchables were considered to be polluted. People of higher caste once believed they could be polluted if they were to come into contact with an untouchable. They would not accept food, water or gifts from them, and they would not enter the untouchables home for fear of being polluted, as though they might contract a disease and risk infection. If they were touched by an untouchable they would remove their clothes and bathe to eliminate the possibility of contamination, or being brought down or lowered.

Traditionally, the other castes avoided the untouchables, looking down upon them and showing only disrespect. Until recently, they were not entitled to go into temples. Although, now it may be possible, they are still socially discriminated against and are generally not allowed to enter shopping malls, temples, museums, some hospitals and many other areas. They are segregated socially and physically.

Through history it has been zealously overlooked by the higher castes that the untouchables have been denied education and work. Accepting their position and the caste that they’ve been born into, the untouchables primarily make their living through manual scavenging, which means, mainly women, remove human excrement by hand from dry toilets and sewers which they then carry in buckets for long distances on their head. Due to the nature of this job there are many related health issues for these people. In recent years human rights organizations have rallied for change (globally, not just in India) and implement better conditions that the untouchables exist within which are often abhorrent, unsafe and unclean, but inbuilt prejudices and non recognition by the government do not help humanize these people nor provide them with basic human rights.

The Indian government has attempted to do something about the situation by stipulating that there must be an allocated proportion of jobs reserved for them, however, so few of them have the educational qualifications that are required for these jobs that they still remain disadvantaged. While they are now allowed to attend schools and gain an education many are unable to due to bonded labour; paying off family debt or pre determined agreements that they were born into. In some schools, although they can now attend, they are excluded from learning English, which limits their opportunity to gain better work.

I am judged when I hand over money or food. Some people believe that by giving we perpetuate their behaviour and situation. I don’t agree! Many of the untouchables are owned by a syndicate, so anything they are given they cannot keep. Trivially, you will try to plead and say “this is just for you” but you know that your words are inconsequential. Though you hope when you buy that bag of rice or food for them that they’ll feel less burdened if they are able to eat and feed their children.

The Indian constitution outlaws discrimination on the basis of caste, but it does not outlaw the caste system itself. Higher castes never see, because they never look down. Although a democratic country, it’s a prejudicial mind set in India and there’s no question that it needs to change.

Friday, November 22, 2013 :
Use Horn Please

India’s fragrance is akin to taking all the feculence and rolling it into slow burning sticks of incense scented with putrescent filth. The streets are a conflagration of odour that I can’t help but inhale. Exposed conduits, open gas pipes, walls that become urinals and beyond the assiduous roads are vast jungles of sewer. For most, there is no choice but to make a home here, amongst it, near it, using it, with it.

The halcyon mornings bring repose. The sun is yet to rise to its hottest state, which leaves the air crisp and clear. The floodgates to my lungs open and I inhale, taking in gulps of breathable air. Free from excitement the quiescent streets allow me to wake gently; inscrutable at this hour, they assuage one’s fears, but not for long. The market sellers wheel their abundant carts slowly through the dirt while the fires that still glow, slowly burn down. In between garbage, chai is served to groups of men that huddle close. Wrapped in heavy woolens, old bones unfold like the lotus flower at dawn, they defrost with the first kisses of the warming sun as it breathes against their weary bodies. Men held in place by sheer cloths shower beneath ice water, brusquely scrubbing their hardened flesh as the commuters hurry by. Women sweep yesterday’s rubbish away, still maintaining their homes with pride. Though, their houses are not as you or I could perceive, tiny enclaves made of sheet metal and torn clothes, with little room to lay for so many bodies. Children sit crouched in grime, looking into the distance, they shit without a second thought. Women stop to bless the streets by crouching low and hitching up their saris to release the night’s liquid. Men, gathered on crates with legs crossed, assemble with smokes and chai, they talk about things I could never know.

Trenches that go nowhere, holes that were once dug, uneven and unearthed, leave debris in the middle of the road, causing new paths to form. Bikes, scooters and cars all traversing the wrong way, moving against the traffic, yet without interruption, the flow remains. Children sit up front of their fathers holding tight the steering while their mother’s hold their baby sibling in between shopping bags. Their brightly coloured saris hover in the wind as kites might if they were to fly behind a motorcycle. Bricks, dirt, tiles and cement lie mountainous under foot. Rubbish piled high surrounds illegally built buildings that now sit dilapidated, unstable. So many empty buildings. No money to invest.

The cacophony of horns, the beeping and the buzz of traffic as the sound of vehicles announce their presence all at once in haste. My eyes are fixated on the hand painted trucks. Like a musical encore, they are joyful explosions of colour, celebration and adornment; something the Indians know best. Decorated with Pom Poms, crocheted strings, birds and flowers. A lopsided truck, frozen, in the middle of the road will add no extra havoc to the warp and the weft of these roads. Walking, I clamber over bodies and bikes, pushing them out of my way, I divert roaming hands from their clutching of my buttocks. Traffic halts and no one is able to move forward or back. I climb over rickshaws to find a sea of people and dead ends. Politely I wait, only to be nudged out of the way by a passing cow, whose right of way trumps mine.

Chaos.
Men.
People stare.
Everywhere.

The streets of India are broken. Piles of everything can be found towering where you need to walk or drive. There is faeces everywhere. It’s hard to tell whose is who. Animal or human? The sole of my shoe has a thick layer of dried shit and I can’t tell anymore if I can smell India or if it’s me.

Dirty fingers tap one finger against the car window, faces covered in sores look at me behind strong willed eyes yet their bodies are distressed and worn. A four year old pleads with me. Do I give them money or will I give them food? It matters not if I do or if I don’t. They will soon forget.

Further out of the metropolis you can breathe the air in almost full breaths. There appears less people, only monkeys that lay fierce claim to temples and surrounds. Women sit by the side of the road packing tightly pressed tiles of cow dung and dirt, for fuel and for houses. Their children, half clothed, scamper around playing games. The men sit chewing tobacco and spitting behind me as I walk by. Staring, glaring. Maybe they’re confused why I am here? What is the appeal? Life goes on here; it’s nothing special to them.

My movements not making sense.

I walk by and try not to stare. It’s hard to take photos without treating people like ‘the other’ or as my subject. I don’t want this. When I am comfortable enough to use the camera I do with respect. Small children often want their picture taken, the women are shy and quick to hide behind their veils lest they are caught permanently on camera not wearing it. The men stare surly or maybe it’s perplexed, interested in what I am. Though, I’ve become a subject too. Young boys are brazen and stand beside while their friend takes a photo, little children zoom in to get a picture of me, young girls stare. Sometimes I feel like the circus that came to town. Or the kid that arrives to school in their pajamas. Everyone is laughing. With me or at me? I can’t be sure.

My white skin emits a light that seems to be seen from half a kilometre, even through the polluted haze. There’s no hiding from the unwanted spotlight my blues eyes seem to cast. If my luminescent skin doesn’t give my secret away first, my length will, even when I sit, I’m two heads taller than most of the men. They always see my glow, as I carefully tread to avoid fresh poo or avoid being hit by cows and cars. Often the children are excited to see me. Sometimes, too, the women. Usually they giggle behind lowered eyes. The men are intrigued but some seem to enjoy intimidating me with a wink. Mostly, I feel like I’m the first white person they’ve ever seen. I’ve never considered the colour of my eyes and skin like I do in India.

Emotionally, some days are hard. Trying to stay strong, open and embracing of a culture so contrasting to anything I’ve ever known. I had an Indian man tell me that

India gets under your skin,

I replied saying

Yes, I wasn’t prepared for the dirt and the pollution.

He looked at me, affronted.

I have 5 weeks left, I’m terrified and excited. I feel like I’ve not yet done what I need and havn’t experienced as much as I could. I feel challenged but there’s a happiness in there. A calmness when there’s havoc. Although most days can be hard and confronting, there’s always something special. I’m not waiting for enlightenment but I’m afraid of returning home unchanged.

So I stay in India because it is under my skin. Namaste.

Monday, October 28, 2013 :
Shakti

The husband of a chaste wife is glorious like the summit of a mountain, but that of an unchaste one is like the prow of a rotten boat. – The Goddess Laksmi

What is reality? We humans only have access to the internal experiences of perception and thought, so how can we be sure to reflect an external world? I am not in India for spiritual enlightenment, I pertain to no religious or spiritual beliefs, nor wish to. There is no God. I expect no epiphany greater than what I’ve had before. But, unlocked in me is an urge to discover.

Each day I wake in a shallow pit of filth, I peer through the window pane and I see, an almost, romantic mist playing on the grass. The silent fog rolls around the trees like a thief in the night, licking the branches it looks at me sideways, it stops, we stare at one another, it charges forward toward me. Thick, acrid ‘air’ climbs to the second floor of my room, passing the monkeys and in through the window and hugs me tight like an elderly relative, deranged, demented. I have no way of escaping. I clean my glasses in a weak attempt to see clearer, but all I see is haze. I’m in it, it surrounds me like the warmth of a pashmina across my breasts. It crawls into my nose and jackhammers it’s way down my throat. It’s inside me, I can feel it in my lungs, behind my eyes, in my hair and on my skin. The pollution molests me and I cannot break free from its urgent grip. It sits on my palate amidst the curries and gulab jamun, it surrounds me like cleopatra’s milk; but I am left dirty. I look up and see only a canopy of brown fog, it is no longer air. I’m not sure how much longer I can withstand this.

The days are long here and I feel every hour. I think this must mean that I am finally living. I am quickly forgetting what my life was like. I can think here, and write and read and draw again. I do not think it is necessary to use a computer so frequently and it is important to distance myself and to connect with and stay with what is important and fundamental to my being here, at Sanskriti Kendra. My mind feels clear and I think I am experiencing a version of what it means to be ‘happy’.

As the days go on, I am increasingly more introspective. India, Delhi at least, is challenging. Anonymity is impossible for a foreigner in India. Beggars, pedlars, women, men, boys, girls, the physically challenged, geckos and monkeys all stare. Their looks are a mix of fear, curiosity, disdain, desire and conviction. People tug on my clothes, they tap on the car door, they slap at my arm and hold out their hands. Following me, like a stray dog, are soft whispers in my ear “Hello Kangaroo you want to spend your money… Hello do you want to buy something… Hello Madame I take you on rickshaw”. Hopeless questions I ignore or or casually say “jaa o” too. Both the men and the women stare, for entire journey lengths on the train, some laugh as though I’m the court jester brought in for their amusement. I stand perplexed. I feel like the cliche female protagonist in a film that travels to a caustic environment and is thoroughly mercurial in nature unable to cope with their surrounds. Sweat covered face with a smear of dirt on her forehead, the white woman with blue eyes and inappropriate footwear is laughed at by the natives as she stumbles over the broken curb, weakened by the unfamiliar yet, eventually, strengthened by humility.

Everything about India is contradictory. In Hinduisim, Shakti is the supreme feminine, it is the word for both “strength” and “power”. Women are feared for their power. However, India is a patriarchal society and most women are subservient to men. In traditional Indian societies women were once separated from men during their menstrual cycles because they were considered so powerful during their menses that they could disrupt the balance of their families and communities. This reason for segregation has now been forgotten and menstruation is now viewed as dirty. Today, a strong sense of patriarchy has convinced millions to be treated as possessions. Paradoxically, the association of strength as a feminine attribute has engendered the empowerment of many Indian women for centuries. Although terrible inequities exist within Indian society, the Indian woman has an inherent strength and phenomenal ability to rise above adversity.

Sangeeta
A modern thinking woman who did not want to be contained or controlled by the patriarchal walls of marriage, she resisted marriage as a younger girl. She liked to work and to travel and exist independently. At 28, After already losing her father to illness Sangeeta’s mother fell sick and the mother’s dread for Sangeeta’s future increased. The mother worried for Sangeeta, begging her to settle down, marry and have children. Seeing her sick, distraught mother, Sangeeta agreed to be married. Her brother made all the preparations for the expressions of interest and, with some regard to ‘other things’, Sangeeta chose the photo of a good looking man and at 29 she was wed and by 30 gave birth to her first daughter.

Sangeeta went on to explain her marriage and said,

I used to think that I could do anything, I could always change and reinvent myself. Once I compromised and married, I experienced true happiness.

She told me that she understood that there are many phases to our lives. That she was in one before marriage, in one during marriage and now, fifteen years later, entering another phase. In four years time, she might be in another phase again.

Sangeeta never thought that she would marry and issued guidance that if someone did not want to compromise and give of themselves, then that person should never marry. She asks if I will ever marry, I fumble for an answer. How do I tell this woman I lack any sense of cultural significance and am without familial custom in regards to marriage? To me marriage means nothing more than an imposed constraint that lacks any social relevance. It is an empty promise of false “I love you’s” garlanded by pretty flowers and lonely tears.
I say

No, probably not.

Sangeeta tells me “As soon as you quiet your mind from trying to find what you want to do or what you want to be, you experience happiness”. For her marriage was this. It took away the questions and left only one resolution. I admire her contentment. Her point? That it’s a desperate act to search for the quiet mind and stillness I see in her if I’m unwilling to accept that you find it through another. And, as a woman I expect too much and am too selfish. I depart the conversation, a little, convinced that she may be right, but unsettled by the heteronormative views.

Adiba
Seventeen and lives in Nagpur.
The youngest of a group of women who came from all over India to participate in a three day workshop at Sanskriti focusing on women’s issues and women’s rights in India. Specifically looking at Muslim women and women living in slums, working towards educating them and empowering them through their voice; emancipating them from the patriarchy that governs them, rapes them and abuses them.

They have to breakdown the mindset of the under privileged women and extinguish their acceptance of subservience, informing them so they know their rights, act upon them and believe that they do not have to be victims of rape or domestic violence. They experience great resistance from the men who are unable to accept that women are equal and are able to think, to work, to have their own money, to be free from being beaten or raped. Men are challenged by these educated women who are revolutionist in behaviour, and changing popular belief that the female is the lesser gender. Seventeen year old Adiba has a strong life force and I am convinced she will use it to give voice to those who are without.

Last week was Karwa Chauth, an annual custom where married women fast for a day to honor their husbands and bless them with a long life. They do this four days after the full moon and 11 days before Diwali; the Hindus new year. A festival of giving gifts and fireworks. They paint their hands and their feet with Mehendi, yet continue their day as normal albeit food deprived. Sangeeta agrees with me that it’s a strange tradition for any modern woman to do. But she tells me that if she didn’t, their culture and their people would be lost. For Sangeeta, she knows that she will continue this tradition, so too will her daughters and their daughters. If they stopped, what would they have left? They would not exist.

In this land women have always evinced a high spirit of sacrifice at the altar of domestic love, and their self immolation on the funeral pyre of their husbands and practice of austere Brahmacharya, have evoked wonder from all. In days gone by, women looked within to find reason for their widowed existence, blaming themselves and drawing conclusion that the death of their husband was owing to their misbehavior in a past life. I have spent the last week reading folk literature, it is traits like truth and devotion that are the armour against which no witchcraft or charm could stand. Human virtues are valued, gods and devils have no affect on a true heart, stories brim with morality and ethical actions from the heroine. The reader admires the heroine who emanates goodness and fairness and obligatory duty, her unhappiness veiled behind her beauty. Though she is meek and dutiful, bound to her male counterpart, the heroine will never question the authority or maltreatment of the Prince/ King/ God. If not virtuous, the woman in Indian folk tales is grossly sensuous, permeating the stories with her immodesty. The wickedness of the woman, her unrestrained passion, coquetry and vulgarism are of great moral lesson to the frightened listener. I have much more to learn in this ancient art of story telling, where oddly, most tales were told by women from as early as 250 to 200 B.C.

It is no wonder that Indian women believe they are the lesser person.

Sunday, October 20, 2013 :
Get it India

Unexpectedly, I am without internet facilities. So, I have had to borrow both computer and dongle. I thought if I was going to ‘blog’ it would be pictorial. But, I cannot upload photos as yet, so I will try to capture moments here, in words. Where to begin?

I have experienced so much anxiety and nerves in the lead up to this residency, I felt that I was timidly knocking on the great unknown’s door again, taking the leap into the unknown and the unexpected. I was, perhaps, too ‘western’ in my approach. Trying to have a plan, a formula in which to tackle this. As I sit in my modest yet exotic quarters, the birds squawk, the monkeys coo, the squirrels bounce and the gardeners sweep leaves, and I am acutely aware that ‘India time’ is a very real thing. And, I’m in it.

I wake just before the metal bell is rung. It’s deep, sonorific qualities evoke a sense of calm, asserting that we cannot begin our day in stress. It calms the hyperactive mind and has the effect of spiritually boosting a person. The ringing bell acts to collectively energise us and ineffably attracts our attention, warding off any evil.

For me, the devotional reverence does not run as deep yet as the Hindus here, they offer a slight bow or place their right hand on their chest.
The ringing bell signifies my breakfast, my lunch and my dinner.

It seems very little has been organised for our residency. Organising requires patience and doing so on India time. We, the other visiting artists and I, will pursue arranging workshops and classes with traditional Indian craftspeople. I will continue to pursue my interest in dance and calligraphy.

Transport here is far more effective than in Sydney. The metro is remarkable. Exact in its delivery of people to place. It falsely nurtures you and protects you from what lies above the subway. A network of dilapidated buildings, barefooted beggars, crowds of human traffic, auto rickshaws, cars, bikes, scooters, children, touts and me. The division between class isn’t as obvious as I had thought. The rich look very rich and the poor look very poor. There are limbs laying across paths, uncomfortably nestled out of the sun, the children dress up the other, sitting and waiting. The world rushes by them, they don’t look up. Maybe a cupped hand, hopelessly, held out. No one gives. Babies sit naked in the dirt at the feet of their mum. The women stare, hollow statues sitting in the sun. *Young child brides walk with stubborn strength, holding the hand of a man four times their age and twice their height. This, I struggle with. The girls look as though they might be eight years old. Their nose is pierced, which symbolises their loss of virginity and marriage. I struggle to not feel enraged, to not weep at this out dated custom. To not feel afraid for the small child on their wedding night. I look away.

My first step into Old Delhi and I step straight into a deep, wet muddy puddle, walking forward I turn to face a rickshaw, I move backwards, and there’s another one. Turning around I knock into a person, stepping back there’s the honk of an auto rickshaw. In immediate paralysis I look and I’m at a cross street filled with traffic. Everyone going every which way; even the dogs rush in Old Delhi. Horns honking relentlessly. I walk forward. I have to lose all trepidation and fearlessly walk if I am to survive!

Everyone looks purposeful, but why? People are in hot pursuit of something and I want to know what. Without purpose I feel idle and meander along, so I follow them. The many hundreds of thousands of people. I try to blend and not stand out. As I take my first breathe of Old Delhi, I am lost. I walk forward, I cross a street, I jump over a wheel, I zig zag between the traffic; the automotive and the human. I seem to go unnoticed. Some men look up, but they don’t seem to be too interested. They don’t seem to want to trick me into a purchase or to make advances. I feel… oddly relaxed. As though I can do this. I can survive India. There is no sky, but for the brown haze that is reminiscent of an aged, oxidised apple. I cannot see the sun, but I know it is up there, burning down on me amongst the shadeless lanes. Testing me, and taunting me, it jests as I swelter, weakly shading my eyes with my dirty hand. The humidity is thick and the odours are pungent. I wonder how so many people procreated in this filthy heat, where did they find the personal space or desire to fuck in these sticky, mud clad streets. There is none. Just activity. Does this town ever sleep?

I stumble through the network of wires, metal piping, bodies seated in holes in walls and men quietly cooking paratha at the side of the street. Everything that could be used or reused, is for sale. Refuse is a commodity and our rubbish is worth something. The rubbish burns at the side of the street as people pick through it, taking what they need lest the cows eat it before them. The dogs all look exhausted. I now know the etymology of the saying “I’m as a sick as dog”. The dogs here all look sick. They trot about, homeless like, almost, everyone else. I look around, how can I haggle or barter with these side vendors? I can’t, and I pay four times the price.

It is the small children that capture my attention and pull at my heart strings. They are tiny observers that store the street’s secrets. The children stare at me, they see. We all grin at one another with joy. They run through the streets, unconsciously knowing where they are going. They scamper between people and under rickshaws and in front of taxis. Barefoot they fade into narrow side alleys adorned with kipple, and I’m desperately curious to see what lies beyond. But terrified to venture into the dark narrow lanes that may well be someone’s home, or may well open me up to the adventure of a life time.

Strands of limp marigold lay squashed and muddy on the street, the vendors turn over another paratha or stir the warm chai. Shop after shop I see beautiful paper, embossed with gold and silver foils. A stark contrast to the murkiness outside. Throw away toys are hopelessly sold, undies and socks, saris and spiced nuts. Reused bottles selling suspect drinks, bite size sweets made with sugar, flour and ghee. Perfumeries selling oils tantalise and lure, and fine silks for the wealthy are guarded behind a glass door. The traffic moves in a beautifully choreographed dance, it is graceful and never tires. The old men in rickshaws puff and heave at the turn of each pedal, wheeling well fed men and women down into the crowded street. There is something for everyone in Old Delhi, you just don’t know it yet.

People disappear around me as I continue to walk in pursuit of a purpose. There is so much movement and no gap left unfilled. No space kept free. Everything is occupied. All movement must be fluid, if you break the flow and stop, it is you that creates the havoc.

*I could be totally wrong here on the child bride observation.

Sunday, October 20, 2013 :
Sanskriti Foundation Residency October 19 – November 30, 2013

Thanks to Adelaide’s Helpmann Academy and the Sanskriti Foundation I was selected to undertake a 6 week self directed residency at Sanskriti Kendra, Anandagram, India.

I am keen to experience the multifaceted and highly contrasting social customs and cultural communities. Immersing myself in a culture that embraces tradition and ceremony as a daily, mindful ritual in unique equilibrium with a vibrant contemporary culture, accessible within the landscape of the city and the host organisation. Experiencing these aspects of the city simultaneously, and having the opportunity to reflect, interact and create in a considered way is key to the aims of this residency.

Experimenting with various methods of mark making through movement in my own practice, I would like to analyse this further in a cross-cultural context. Specifically, I will look at the rhythmical and repetitive elements of classical Indian dance techniques and new ways that traditional dance becomes dramatic art and a language of gestures, poses and mime. During the residency, I will be looking at how stories are told through movement, metaphor and non-direct ways of communicating with our bodies.

In my own artwork, I want to make things that people will be drawn to; I want to share an experience, tell a story and express a feeling. In Indian dance a rasa, denotes an essential mental state and is the dominant emotional theme of a work of art or the primary feeling that is evoked in the person that views, reads or hears such a work. It is an emotion inspired in an audience by a performer and is created by the gestures and facial expressions of the actors. It is this way of inspiring an emotion through gesture that I fundamentally wish to explore.

During the residency I will investigate the ways in which classical Indian dance and Indian calligraphy can be translated into the visual language of my work as a jeweller. I want to undertake workshops in classical Indian dance as well as Indian calligraphy because they are both formalized and exact, reinterpreting the ancient skills of dance within the language of contemporary jewellery and sculpture.

Wish me luck …