Sadie Edginton reports back from Joshua Sofaer’s workshop for socially engaged artists and commissioners.
On November 30th 2018 I was a participant in Joshua Sofaer’s workshop ‘No Shortlists’, a three hour session commissioned by Axisweb’s programme ‘Social Works?’. Here are my reflections on the process in reference to the term ‘validation’ in socially-engaged art practice.
We met just before 2 pm in the activity room of 73 Mildmay, the extra care facility where Joshua and I share a Cubitt community studio. We pay a subsidised studio rent in exchange for four hours volunteering in the care home every month.
I went into the pink activities room on the ground floor to find a few women sitting around a long table surrounded by heavy pink velvet curtains. We introduced ourselves, commenting on the pinkness of the colour-coordinated interior and the warmness of the room. It was very warm. When the others arrived, altogether there were nine of us there, four people representing art organisations, four socially-engaged artists and Joshua Sofaer, artist and facilitator for this event. The artists were Amy Pennington, Elsa James, Juan delGado and Sadie Edginton (me). The organisation participants were Cara Courage from Tate Exchange, Emily Gee from Heart of Glass, Elena Gifford from Festival of Making, and Dimity Nicholls from Cubitt Education.
Workshop participants sit around the table. Drawing by Sadie Edginton.
After introductions, Joshua explained the premise of ‘No Shortlists’. He put the artists’ names into a bowl and pulled them out one by one, matching us to the four institutions. We were reminded that ‘every artist had been nominated by someone else in the room’. It was like a secret Santa, each institution bringing an artist and starting a project with a different artist. I was matched with Cara Courage from Tate Exchange. Next we were due to go off for a chat, present our work for 20 minutes and ‘workshop together towards the goal of creating a new piece that will go on to be fully commissioned.’
Earlier in the day, I had written ‘I am interested in this idea of ‘principles of validation’, how do we validate socially-engaged art practice? Is validation read differently from institution to institution or between artist and commissioner? How does the structuring of the commissioning process validate different art practices?’
Looking at my notes from before the session, I can see that I felt frustrated with the commissioning process. I am sure it was related to a recent experience that was drawn out over a few months that ended with no commission. This is not unusual in this sector. I hoped that this workshop would give the artists an understanding of the nuts and bolts behind the decision-making and hopefully make institutions aware of the precarity that artists face when bidding for work.
Cara and I went up to my studio on the second floor of the care home where we sat and talked for an hour and a half at my desk. The conversation flowed easily and we seemed to share an appreciation of the issues surrounding collaborative practices. Here I was speaking to someone who was interested in my work, rather than critically examining it and that was already a validating experience.
I couldn’t help but compare the conversation dynamic to tutorials from my recently finished masters course. I am used to being in situations where socially-engaged practice is misunderstood, as it still is by many tutors and educational institutions. For this reason, a few preconceptions continue to hold back practice development in this area. One is the confusion with ‘community art’, another is that tutors assume the artist is not clued up on the ethical dilemmas involved with participatory practice and get distracted by debating these. Often valuable time is wasted in those preoccupations rather than getting on with discussing what the artist is doing with their practice. But in ‘No Shortlists’ we were able to cut to the chase, as it was established that all involved had a specialist knowledge in this area beforehand.
‘This workshop wants to flatten the hierarchy’, Joshua had written in the project introduction, but did the concept work in practice? Certainly, institutions hold the power in their relationship with artists; they are able to choose who they work with and how they work with them. Artists are often in a position of uncertainty; we generate creative material before the point of offering up a proposal and then it can be rejected after a series of communications back and forth. In the typical scenario, this conversation would be the equivalent of the interview stage, where the artist would be carrying the pressure of competing for the commission. Many practitioners would feel uneasy in the interview, as of course there are no guarantees. But imagine if the uneasiness was suddenly removed and the work is guaranteed to be yours! By creating the ‘No Shortlists’ format Joshua has done just that, removing many of the barriers for socially-engaged artists.
Sadie and Cara talk about socially engaged practice. Drawing by Sadie Edginton.
When we were talking it didn’t feel exactly like an interview so that changed the atmosphere of the conversation. It felt informal and relaxed, I was able to be more honest. Where I normally check myself, here I felt comfortable to disclose. I was able to share critical reflections on other projects and explain the benefits of particular institutional approaches for artists. We returned downstairs with an understanding that this was the beginning of a conversation towards something happening, with an eye to meeting up again in January at Tate Exchange.
The others returned to the pink room with new collaborations forged; Amy will have a commission with Festival of Making as part of their Art in Manufacturing strand; Juan is going to visit Heart of Glass in St Helens to begin discussing a potential collaboration; and Elsa is going to have a mini-residency with Cubitt Education over the upcoming months.
The workshop allowed me to meet artists who were able to work full-time through their socially-engaged practice. There is nothing more validating than seeing examples first-hand of what you want to achieve. It was inspiring to hear of how Amy had produced her own self-initiated project the ‘Mildmay Collective’ in 2015 in this very building. The workshop experience was adding to a growing realisation that I could continue to develop my practice in this area.
Did the workshop lead to more awareness of socially-engaged art? Although the workshop itself did not specifically increase awareness of socially-engaged art with members of the public, it introduced all involved to a range of approaches to working with artists and organisations. Connections were forged between the four nominated artists and four organisations that will lead to more instances of socially-engaged art being created. This will create more moments between artists and a range of audiences and therefore more awareness of socially-engaged art practice. The workshop was a starting point, allowing an understanding to grow on both sides of the issues practitioners face, as well as making a space for new ways of working to emerge. Perhaps this will come to challenge the hierarchies in the commissioning process in the future and become a blueprint for organisations to take more risks in commissioning experimental art practices.
When I mentioned to my friend and colleague Roberta Mock, that I was in Copenhagen, she responded: “I’ve only been there once but thought it was an amazing place (the tree in the park where children leave their dummies!).” This got me intrigued.
Asking around my new Danish friends it seems the Pacifier Tree (or Suttetræet) is almost as much a part of everyday life as the tooth fairy or Santa Clause.
There seem to be several (maybe even many) such trees around Denmark, but the focus for the dummies in Copenhagen is a grand tree on the north-east path of Frederiksberg Have, a park a little east of the centre of town. Such is the status of this tree (it is after all only a tree) that it is marked on Google Map alongside Copenhagen Zoo, Frederiksberg Palace, and the Storm P Museum. People need to know where it is.
Approaching the tree in the late afternoon, on a rare day of blue sky, the coloured streamers, ribbons and plastic baubles, glitter off the branches, votives to an unknown spirit.
This is the place where pacifiers go to die. Or at least, it is the place they are offered up to the tree, in one of the first ritualised rites of passage for children of Denmark. The pacifiers are given to the tree at the moment when parents consider a child too old, or overly dependent on the plastic nipple. They are handed over as a way of bridging the world of baby and of emerging individual.
As Ellen Friis, one of my hosts said, recalling the moment she and her husband Henrik took their 3 year old daughter to the Suttetræ, “She could tell that we were taking her sacrifice seriously.”
Many of the strings or bags of pacifiers have notes attached to them. ‘Dear Pacifiers, I love you but now I’m a big boy’, ‘Hi Santa. You can have my pacifiers if I get a present. I’m not using them any more’, ‘Dear Pacifier Tree, here are my pacifiers. Take good care of them.’ The subject of address in each of these examples (written by the parents) is different: the pacifiers themselves, Santa, the tree. It’s clear that there aren’t really ‘rules’ about how this should work.
Each November, when the trees are prepared for winter, the gardeners strip the tree of a year’s worth of pacifiers. So if you want to see the tree laden with pacifiers the best time of year is probably mid-autumn. I was aware that I was only looking at less than one-third of a year’s worth of tributes.
The modern pacifier as we have come to know it, developed in line with the discovery of new materials. In 1900 New York pharmacist Christian Meinecke patented a baby comforter with the teat, shield and handle design. But the practice of giving babies something for them to put in their mouths is almost certainly ancient. In 1506 Albrecht Dürer painted Madonna with the Siskin which clearly shows the infant Jesus holding a tied cloth pacifier. A spoonful of sandy sugar, flavoured meat, or other such chewy edible, is put in the centre of the cloth and it is then tied into a cloth sphere.
When I was toddling around in the mid-1970s I don’t think the research was in on the potential hazards of using pacifiers, and we were not given them. We did however have other non-edible things to chew on, including iced plastic rings, rusk biscuits (somehow I can still remember the milky dry taste) and of course, our own fingers and thumbs.
What I love about the Pacifier Tree is that it is a coming together of an informal collective agreement, a kind of contemporary folklore by citizens to help smooth the passage of their loved ones through life. It places value on psychological care through an imaginative leap.
A commuter’s ride away from Copenhagen, across the Øresund Bridge, is Sweden. It was with a glow in my heart that I boarded the train, not to Malmö, the usual destination of a Swedish day-trip out of Copenhagen, but to Lund, a little further down the line.
My Skandinavian nose tour continues at Nasoteket in the Akademiska Föreningen at Lund University. Yes, amazingly, there are TWO Nasoteks with less than an hour’s journey between them. “Specially deserving” individuals are given the honour of having their nose cast and installed in a wood panelled frame. The Lund University Nasotek was opened in 1987 by Swedish comedian Hasse Alfredson who conceived the idea and whose nose is No.1 of nearly 200.
Here is Hasse with a copy of his nose cast, together with Håkan Westling, vice-Chancellor at the time.
In a happy coincidence, as I wandered through the town after visiting the Nasotek, I stumbled across an exhibition celebrating Hasse’s life. It was put together a little hastily but was informative nonetheless. Born in 1931, Hasse died in September 2017, just 3 months before my visit to Lund.
Hasse Alfredson and Tage Danielsson were a comic duo who established AB Svenska Ord (Swedish Words Ltd.) in 1961. During their 24 years with the company they produced revues, films, recordings and books. The exhibition mentioned in passing that the Hasse & Tage humour was probably not to contemporary taste (well, we can imagine) but that nevertheless they were a national institution.
I also discovered that Hasse’s original idea for the Nasotek was much much more ambitious. In 1986 he described imagining the noses fixed to the ceiling of the Small Hall of the University, where they gradually would form a stalactite cave.
On the one hand the Nasotek is grand in a wonderfully ridiculous way, and on the other, it’s just on the wall in the student café, opposite the kitchen hatch. My own personal preference would be for a more salubrious position within what is actually a very very grand building.
The settings themselves are, however, very well designed. Nose casts are displayed in angled mirrored frames so that you can see the profile of the nose as well as the front.
A names of recipients are given in gold print on framed wooden slats. The awards are made by the Academic Society, Nasal Committee. More information (in Swedish) can be found here.
At number 61, I noted the inclusion of the nose of Tycho Brahe, the 16th Century Danish nobleman and renowned astronomer, who lost a part of his nose in a sword dual. Clearly this was not taken from life… so I’m wondering how they made their cast.
Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was a Danish nobleman known for his accurate and comprehensive astronomical and planetary observations. Well known in his lifetime as an astronomer, astrologer and alchemist, he has been described as ‘the first competent mind in modern astronomy’. His observations were some five times more accurate than the best available at the time.
On 29 December 1566 Tycho lost part of his nose in a sword duel with fellow Danish nobleman (and his third cousin), Manderup Parsberg. Tycho had earlier quarrelled with Parsberg at a wedding dance and the two ended up resolving whichever issue they were quarrelling about, with a duel. Although the two were later to be reconciled, the duel two days later (in the dark) resulted in Tycho losing the bridge of his nose. For the rest of his life, he wore a prosthetic nose, said to be made of silver and gold, kept in place with a paste or glue. In November 2012, Danish and Czech researchers, after chemically analyzing ‘a small bone sample from the nose’ from the body exhumed in 2010, reported the prosthetic was ‘made out of brass’.
Just underneath the Nasotek is a rather sad looking pine vitrine, with another 3 dozen or so nose casts of the latest people to be ennobled into this select group of honoured individuals. I hope the case is temporary and that the University will commit to the full wood-panelled-angled-mirrored frames for all recipients!
As part of my residency in Copenhagen I am experimenting with porcelain in the workshop of ceramicist Christian Bruun. It is hard to imagine a kinder or more patient mentor.
Christian has been working with clay since he discovered the ‘clay room’ in kindergarten. His output loosely falls into four categories: creator of hand thrown functional ware, designer of large-scale planters, teacher, and collaborator with craftspeople in Vietnam where he makes giant decorative pots. “When I sit and do nothing I regard myself as an artist,” he jokes.
The separation between ‘art’ and ‘craft’ has always been fraught, at least in the West. Even when he is producing objects that serve no direct utilitarian function he has come to expect that they will be regarded as lower status. “Working with clay, we are always aware of the hierarchy, because we are at the bottom.” He cites the huge discrepancy between the value of a Picasso painting and a Picasso vase as an example. “It was never like that in Japan,” he says. Perhaps painting has been offered so much status in the Western canon because of its service to religious iconography, and therefore is seen as closer to God. Perhaps it’s just easier to put something on your wall.
What I had not really thought about was how much physical labour there is for a ceramicist. Lugging around bags of clay, kneading, stacking kilns, shifting giant pots. Christian describes how his body, and those of his colleagues, are worn out from years of pushing, pulling and twisting on joints and muscles, made harder by the reduction of their lung capacity from inhaling ceramic dust.
I had also not really thought about how much engineering is involved. To keep pots the shape you want them, to exert some control over the vagaries of heating something up to 1350 degrees celsius, to stop things breaking or sticking together. A recent commission Christian is working on is for a series of giant planters for the new Architectural Association building in Copenhagen. The pots are massive. They all have to be the same size. They all have to maintain a good round shape. And… the client also stipulated that they should be on wheels. An ingenious solution was to knock out the bottom of the pot and replace it with a steel clamp mechanism on casters.
It has long been a desire of mine to spend some time with clay. Despite working with all sorts of sculptural materials it has been many years since I twisted open the tie, pealed back the plastic, and dug out a fistful of fine-grained earth.
The workshop is a paean to possibility. I want to try everything. But my time is limited and I have a project in mind. Of course I’m not going to become a ceramicist in two months, and that certainly isn’t my intention. I want to think about the lives the noses in the Nasotek might lead, when the doors of the Glyptotek museum shut for the night. And I want to imagine that in porcelain.
And while I work on my noses, Christian and the other users of his workshop, many of whom attend his weekly throwing class, are spinning the wheel to make vessels, which slowly dry out on racks.
One thing I probably won’t be experimenting with is glaze. The boxes of powders are extremely tempting but I have to keep my unglazed noses to the grindstone.
The glaze samples are displayed on tabs of fired clay and hang on a board. Even in themselves they are extremely satisfying.
I tag along with Christian as he makes the four hour drive from Copenhagen to Herning to collect some pots which have been in an exhibition. On the way we stop at Guldagergaard, the International Ceramic Research Center in Skælskør. They offer artist residencies, educational programmes, studios and exhibitions. Christian was one of the founding members of the organisation and uses the wood fire kilns here two or three times a year.
The main reason we paid them a visit was to see the amazing way in which Eglė Pakšytė, a former Kiln Technician from Lithuania, decided to create the glaze samples. Christian knew I would be extremely excited to see the hundreds of press moulded dog noses that she made to demonstrate the variation of colour and effect. This project of accumulation represents hours and hours of work. As well as making the noses, Eglė has carefully annotated which nose is made of which clay, what glaze was given to it, which kiln it was fired in, and where in the kiln it was positioned.
Created in order that ceramicists using the facilities would better be able to determine glazing techniques, a highly utilitarian proposition, this collection is nevertheless full of resonance. Repetition and difference are key motifs in art practice. She offers them with absurdity and imagination. Christian and I continued our conversations about the place where craft meets art, triggered by the status of these wonderful ‘glaze samples’ that for me at least, could not escape the label ‘art’ even if they had wanted to.
I’ve heard many art critics and academics define art as anything that the artist designates as such. For my own part I’ve always considered art as being something in the eye of the beholder and I haven’t really cared whether people have thought of what I do as art or not art. I’m more interested in what it does than what it is. As we walked out of Guldagergaard I caught sight of the clay waste bin, where unusable, overworked, or dried out clay is dumped. Caught in the low Nordic light coming through the window, I couldn’t help but think that these scraps too had their own integrity and that their step towards art was close.
It was very exciting to open a kiln for the first time in my life to see my own scraps. My early experiments with porcelain. I want them to feel like lost pieces, ruins that once belonged to something else, barely recognisable scraps that nevertheless stare up at you. Odd little things that may, or may not, be art.
The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek is an art museum in the centre of Copenhagen, and where I will be spending part of my residency here in Denmark, at the invitation of Live Art DK (and thanks to the Danish Arts Foundation and the Danish National School of Performing Arts Further Education).
Jacob Jacobsen set up the Carlsberg brewery in 1847 and named it after his only son, Carl. Carlsberg has the Danish meaning, ‘Carl’s mountain’. As an adult, Carl set up a rival brewery, the ‘new’ or ‘Ny Carlsberg’. (Father-son rivalry gave way to reconciliation and the two breweries were amalgamated on Jacob’s death.)
Carl was a very wealthy collector and his foundation, the Ny Carlsberg Foundation, built the Glyptotek to house his collection, for benefit of the nation. (Glypto-, from the Greek root glyphein, to carve and theke, a storing-place.)
The museum philosophy, from the beginning, was that it was a place to wander, to stroll around, rather as if in a garden, and to learn afterwards. This idea is built into the fabric of the building with an impressive Winter Garden at its heart. A glass covered dome lets light into a central courtyard where the leaves of Mediterranean plants brush marble limbs.
Interesting vistas abound. Around one corner I spied a selection of busts that looked remarkably similar to each other.
And that was because they were. These are all busts of Carl Jacobsen and his wife Ottilia by a range of different early 20th Century sculptors. Collecting these together in a single display appeals to me enormously. Repetition and difference, ‘having the set’, and lining them up, are key attributes of the ‘collector type’. (It is said that there are two types of people: those that are collectors and those that are not.) These principles of display carry throughout the museum. The most basic tenant being displaying on a straight line.
I opened the bottom drawer of a cabinet and came across Carl’s death mask. I suppose it makes sense that the ‘not-art’ would be relegated to a bottom drawer but it also seems somewhat overly apologetic, given that this was cast from his actual body.
Up some steps from the Winter Garden, the pathway opens out into the colonnaded Central Hall, an impressive (though bordering on stage-set artificial) neo-classical structure, which houses original works from ancient Rome.
Beyond the Central Hall are rooms which display marbles from antiquity. Again, the arrangement is orthogonal. Take a look at this company of heads.
Rumour has it that this exhibition is currently subject to review and a plan is afoot for a more contemporary set of display principles. I can see why they might want to try something else, and at the same time I can’t help but feel the unremitting use of the set-square has its own uncompromising attraction.
Although perhaps the stars of the show are from ancient Greece and Rome, the Glyptotek also has an important collection of 19th Century sculpture and painting, as well as a collection from ancient Egypt. Whether Degas ballerina or Etruscan tomb figure, the straight line display prevails.
I was reminded of, and somewhat experienced, The Artist’s Despair Before the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins, as graphically depicted by the 18th Century painter Henry Fuseli.
And although I was aware that most, if not all, of the works would have been painted in bright colours when they were originally in situ (and there are ‘recreation’ reminders dotted around), it is almost impossible not to be seduced by the way in which time has knocked these marble shapes about.
Strolling through the galleries casting your eyes over these rows of heads, every so often one will turn its neck to face you and return the gaze.
But while most of these heads can see, more often than not they cannot smell. Noses are remarkably absent in the antiquities of Glyptotek. It is possible to see whole lines of noseless portraits.
And it is this state of noselessness, that I have come to poke my own nose into.
Restoration of antiquities is an ever evolving discipline. The rights and wrongs alter with vicissitudes of curatorial approach and the archeological record. Many of the faces in Glyptotek that do actually have a nose, are the result of restorations, of replacements that someone (often an important artist of their day) have made many many hundreds of years after the original was lost. At Glyptotek, the nosejobs that have survived are left ‘obviously’ stuck on, without attempting to disguise the fracture, in order that we can recognise that they are replacements.
Up until the middle of the 20th Century the fashion was to restore ancient marbles. Complete pieces were considered more aesthetically pleasing, and were worth a lot more money. Arms, legs, and many noses, were carved as replacements. Ideas changed, and ‘authenticity’ at all costs, meant undoing a lot of the work of previous restoration teams.
At Glyptotek, one of restorers was instructed to remove the noses (several ears and a few locks of hair) from a range of busts. This he duly did, and he stuck up the noses he had removed to the wall of his workshop. Seeing this collection of disembodied appendages, the curator couldn’t resist putting them on display. And so the Nasotek entered the halls of Glyptotek.
It is this case of noses that I am interested in thinking about. What is the status of this collection of disembodied noses? How were they picked? What might they do now that (like the nose that left the face of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov in Gogol’s famous short story) they have left the face of their former masters?
Exhibited on either side of the Nasotek are two busts of Emperor Commodus (161-192). The first shows him as a young man. Rust has severely effected the stone. It was caused by an iron pin that was used to secure a new nose. The nose has now been removed, but the damage from the rust cannot be corrected. A label underneath states: ‘Not suitable for exhibition.’
The other bust of Commodus has the whole front of the face sliced off.
You can see the chisel marks where a restorer has dug into the ancient marble in order that the new prosthesis will adhere. It’s pretty disconcerting.
Again, the label under this one states that it is ‘…not worth exhibiting’. (I like this tension between showing and not showing and the obvious struggle that the curatorial team have had between aesthetics and education. I like very much that they have put these busts on plinths and then told you they are not worth exhibiting. I also want to say that these portraits of Commodus, with his rusty rosacea, or his flat chiselled face, are for me, somehow more aesthetically interesting than those where he is better preserved.)
In the centre of the Nasotek, about a meter or so away from the chiseled ruin, there is the nose, eye and forehead that a sculptor of the modern era created for the flat-faced Emperor. It has its own beauty and integrity. It has a life of its own.
The ancient walled city of Pingyao in Shanxi province in China has a history dating back 2,700 years. Somehow it has resisted both natural and manmade disasters and is now the best-preserved walled town in the most populous country on earth. It is a World Heritage site, a tourist magnet, and home to 50,000 residents.
Having spent days in the domestic minutia of the Chinese epic masterwork ‘Dream of Red Chamber’ and hours watching Chinese historical dramas, I wanted see if I could time travel inside its 6,000 meter perimeter walls.
Going during the National Day holiday week, which celebrates the founding of the PRC, and during which an estimated 100 million Chinese travel, meant encountering the most extraordinary crowds imaginable. It was like trying to squeeze the Hogmanay celebrations on the Royal Mile into a camper van. But what we quickly learnt was that the tourists, who were mostly on day trips, and exclusively Chinese, stuck almost entirely to the two main shopping streets.
Turning down a side street you quickly escaped the hoards. Staying for a couple of nights, we could experience the Ming dynasty layout in the early morning and late evening, almost uninterrupted.
We stayed in Zaibiechu Inn Leifu, a recently refurbished converted traditional courtyard mansion that had once belonged to a bank manager.
Pinyao is famous as a historical centre for banking. In the Qing dynasty there were 20 major financial institutions in the city, 50% of the country’s total at that time. You can still visit Rishenchang, the first Chinese bank, and if like me, you forcefully suspend your disbelief, as you stare through the doorways and windows into the waxwork chambers, you can almost travel back in time.
Pinyao is a marvellous antidote to the skyscrapers and factories of the major industrial cities of China. Around each corner is a threshold, vista, or surface begging to be photographed; rendered more beautiful by the layer of fine red earth particles and coal dust which kiss every facade.
Decay, or rather the continual struggle to resist decay, lends a beauty. The city carries its history in its flakes and patches.
It is not a museum by any means. It is a living and working environment for many.
A traditional family run shoe shop, now in the hands of the fourth generation, try their best to maintain the old handmade skills despite the competition from machine fabrication.
The balloon man wheels his trolly towards the crowds. In amongst the ‘minions’ (the Universal Pictures 1.4 billion US$ grossing animated movie) are some more traditional koi.
Those koi appear in ponds and basins around the city, and in architectural details as well, like this beautifully carved banister.
Walking the city walls gives another perspective: one of splendour and simplicity. The yellow tiles of rooftops, the modest courtyards of private dwellings.
The colours are generally warm and muted, working on the complimentary orange of the brick and the blue-grey of the slate and stone pathways. The reds and yellows of flags and lanterns decorate portals and stretch between buildings.
These flags with their traditional ‘double luck’ characters indicate that a newly wedded couple have been welcomed to this home.
What I will remember most about Pingyao is something incredibly intimate. On the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, the Moon Festival, a night long associated with courtship and matchmaking, as we sat in the courtyard of the 400 year old mansion, and as the clouds parted to reveal a full round silver moon, I got down on one knee and asked this handsome fella if he would spend the rest of his life with me.
Since my last blog post three weeks ago, the pace at Sura Medura has changed. My fellow artists-in-residence and I have been trying to process the abundance of sensory and cultural experiences that we have had and to think how they might influence or direct our work. This time next week we will have made our public presentations, I will have travelled 8,700 kilometres, and will be drinking my ‘souvenir’ Ceylon tea in my flat in London. The world seems simultaneously so vast and so small to me right now. It’s somehow extraordinary that the waves will still be lapping the sands of Hikkaduwa as I take the Piccadilly line from Heathrow.
The focus these days has been very much on developing ideas and co-creation, at the same time we have managed to fit in short trips. Just down the road from Hikkaduwa is Ambalangoda, the centre of the mask making industry, and the location of the Ariyapala Mask Museum. Masks are a big thing in Sri Lanka. Historically they have been used in dance and drama but also for ceremonial and even ritualised medicinal purposes. The tradition is kept alive by the tourist industry but occasionally you will see one of the good fortune masks mounted on the side of a house. Some of the cobra demons, from the Raksha Kolama parades and festivals are considered by some as effective deterrents of evil spirits. The one above is Gurulu Rakshaya.
The most prominent demon in the Sanni Yakuma, the ritual exorcism for the sick, is the Kola Sanniya mask. Offerings are made to the demon in a ceremonial performance at the house of the sufferer.
Before the demons arrive, the 12 Pali come to clean the space and prepare the site for the ritual. I was very much taken with their big mouths and exaggerated noses.
The masks are made from the wood of Cerbera odollam, commonly known as the kaduru tree. The kernels of the tree are highly poisonous, and have been used in both suicide and murder cases across the areas of Asia where it is native. Some people refer to it as ‘the suicide tree’. I don’t know if it is ironic or fitting that the masks carved from this tree have been used to try and cure people. The wood is strong but very lightweight, making it suitable for masks worn in dance.
I wanted to try my hand at working a piece of this wood, thinking about adding to my collection of false noses. Although it is easy to cut it doesn’t behave like wood I am used to. It’s more like cutting a very tough vegetable than whittling a piece of wood. Perhaps it’s better to leave it to the experts.
In a dance studio across the road from the Ariyapala Museum we see masks lying around. These well-worn fellows look to have given long service. Their romance was somewhat tempered when the dance mistress explains that they are mostly used in tourist performances.
There are masks for sale at every spot a tourist might stop in Sri Lanka. I wanted to bring one home but the ‘tourist selection’ was nothing like as exciting as those I saw at the Mask Museum or in the superlative Martin Wikramasinghe Museum of Folk Culture in Koggala (no photography allowed unfortunately) which had an extraordinary range of beautiful historical masks. So I decided to ask one of the craftsmen to make me one not readily available. I opted for the Kadu Paliya mask, the final of the 12 Pali, who completes the preparation of the space before the demons arrive. He is unique in having a deconstructed face of elements that are separately articulated. He also has a thinly disguised penis nose.
Despite the inevitable creep of plastic and synthetic fibres, there is still a strong industry in Sri Lanka that uses its natural resources in a sustainable way. This is not just as a result of heritage tourism, as in the case of the use of kaduru wood. Coconuts are abundant, and the fibrous material found between the hard internal shell and the outer coat is used to make coir rope, or weaved to make mats.
Close to Hikkaduwa is the village of Donanduwa. Inside a very non-descript pastel yellow warehouse, with no signs to tell you what lies inside, is a coir factory. It was like stepping back in time.
Giant spindles, turn the coir rope ready to be woven. The mat itself is strong and coarse. It is probably more familiar to you than you might at first think possible. Ikea uses coir for many a rug, and often doormats are made from coir.
Here two guys are weaving giant lengths that are then sewn together to make the floor covering in cricket practice nets. It is backbreaking work.
In the corridor giant rolls of coir matting stand proud.
On a boat trip around Donanduwa Lake we saw a number of fenced off areas close to the bank. The fibrous husks of the coconuts are soaked here to swell and soften the fibres, making them easier to process.
I would love to bring home a cricket pitch sized coir rug but I don’t have a cricket pitch sized home. However, I did make use of an afternoon after we had given artist talks at Colombo University, to visit Pettah Market. A world of stuff is for sale across this sprawling neighbourhood of stalls and shops but I headed for textiles and specifically a street of trimmings. At the behest of Tsai-Chun Huang, the costume designer for a project I will be making in Hull this summer, I was in search of geometric embroidered edging. The choice was overwhelming.
One very weird video call later, in which I had attempted to display thousands of samples in the frame of a smart phone, I left with 33.5 metres of geometric embroidered edging, and barely a dent in the costume budget.
Taking advantage of the fact that Hikkaduwa is close to one of the foremost whale watching sites in Sri Lanka, Ross Whyte and I decided to take the journey along the coast, south, to Mirissa. Rising very early the following morning a tuktuk picked us up and dropped us off at the harbour. Tourists from around the world lined up to board about 8 indistinguishable vessels, almost certainly all having paid a great variability of prices for a similar experience.
The colours of the morning light on the sea seemed to have an added intensity, as the last fishing boats returned to land with their haul. Then the whale watching boats take over, travelling out for about 45 minutes to a likely spot. And then we wait.
The skipper takes a call on the boat radio and a shout goes up. One of the other boats has spotted a whale. We zigzag across the waves, passengers straining over the side for a glimpse.
A grey mass floats on the surface of the ocean. It rolls forward and down. As the tail flips the passengers gasp. There is a strange recognition in this. You are looking at something you know, for the first time. The tail flukes are so much part of our collective imagination that when you see them, it has the same effect of looking at a photograph of a loved one taken before you knew them. It is both familiar and strange.
They are extremely majestic and wondrous but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. Much has been written about the polarity of exploitation and conservation of animals in Sri Lanka, especially of elephants. My thinking about the whales was, as fellow artist-in-residence Mary Genis put it, ‘‘at least they have the ocean”. However, chasing the whales across their natural habitat and surrounding them with a collection of tourist boats in order to peek at their tail, felt somehow less honest than if we had been hunting them for their meat. Several years ago working in Lofoten, the archipelago of islands in the very north of Norway, I was invited to dinner by a local colleague and was served whale meat. It tasted like a very meaty tuna. It was delicious. It seems to me there is a lot of hypocrisy about the life of some animals over others. I’m not an advocate of hunting whales for their meat, I think it totally unnecessary, and likewise, it would seem, I am not an advocate of whale watching either.
Back at Sun Beach I have been developing some proposals for artworks that arise out of my research into Ceylon tea. I have also been working with the other artists to create a collaborative piece that we will show this coming Friday. One thing we have been experimenting with is long camera exposures and drawing with light. We are hoping to create a mass-participation night-time light image with the audience. I have very much enjoyed working with my camera in this way and the playfulness of creating images on the beach in the evening. Here is a group portrait of my colleagues: Lewis Sherlock, Zoe Katsilerou, Mary Genis, and Ross Whyte.
To be honest, I was not particularly looking forward to being thrust together with strangers on a beach on the other side of the world. It seemed too much like a reality television format. But above everything it has been the shared experiences with these guys that I have found most rewarding during my time here in Sri Lanka. We have bonded through discovering things together: the country, its culture, working methods, each other. There have been moments of incredible tenderness, of vulnerability, of solidarity.
Tipsy from a long after dinner cocktail, Zoe, Lewis, and I, run down onto the beach. They strip naked and dance in the sea. It might look like the stage of Sadler’s Wells but it is in fact a 30 second ‘exposure’ on the edge of the Indian Ocean. I like the photograph for itself, but what I really like it for is this moment of magical shared abandon.
After a week of golden sand it was time to explore inland. It has long been an ambition of mine to take the trip from Colombo to Kandy, the capital of the central province of Sri Lanka, and to continue further to Nuwara Eliya, often described as the ‘Champagne of tea’. The train journey, reputed as one of the most beautiful in the world, did not disappoint: pale coloured houses give way to dense jungle, which opens up to epic mountain vistas.
This was something of a school trip as all the artists based at Sura Medura were keen to eye Kandy.
Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya
We spent the first morning in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya. The history of the gardens dates as far back as 1371 when King Wickramabahu III ascended to the throne and kept court at Peradeniya. Palm lined avenues, bamboo forests, flower gardens, and an area hosting memorial trees planted by such diverse guests as The Prince of Wales (not Charles but Albert Edward, son of Queen Victoria, later to become Edward VII) and Yuri Gagarin, (the first human to journey into outer space). In the orchid house, specimens abound.
The yellow bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris) which is native to Sri Lanka, is covered in carved graffiti.
It was the trees that captured my attention most forcefully. The jack fruit hanging off this one were not only beautiful, but also made sense of a batik design I had seen earlier in the morning. The large fruit nestled and hugged by their mother trunk.
I don’t know what these trees are but they look almost like they are formed of plasticine.
This is a famous tree: a Giant Java Fig whose broad canopy needs to be supported by metal struts.
If you stand underneath some of these trees, you see a fluttering of black shapes.
They wobble and broaden and then take off. They are flying foxes (Pteropus giganteus) otherwise known as the fruit bat. This colony in Peradeniya numbers around 24,000. They feed on fruit and nectar and contribute to pollination, seed dispersal, crop protection, and elimination of various pests.
A day trip out of Kandy is Sigiriya. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982, Sigiriya is a unique and extraordinary landscape city, created in the 5th Century AD by order of King Kashyapa, embracing a 200 meter rock and its surroundings. It is a kind of nature driven architecture, comprising buildings, pathways, terraces, ponds, paintings and sculpture. Yes, Kashyappa built his kingdom on top of this rock. It has to be one of the most impressive palaces in the world.
A seemingly endless series of steps take you from the pleasure gardens at ground level up to his private chambers at the top.
The architecture works in harmony with nature. This giant boulder arched gateway is an example.
The royal city is often carved into the pre-existing stone. An audience hall (top right) is created on a flattened summit of a boulder. The main seat at the southern end is carved out of the living rock.
These cheeky chaps have made the trees of Sigiriya their home.
About halfway into the climb, a sign sensibly advises that only the sober should continue. It is an extremely vertiginous route at times, and it’s not hard to imagine that there must have been many fatalities in the creation of this rock kingdom.
Before the way opens to the summit, a giant pair of lion’s paws signal the grandeur and foreboding of the inner sanctum. Archaeologists conclude that once the head of the lion would have sat above these sharpened claws and that you would have literally been walking into the mouth of the lion were you to attempt a visit to King Kashyappa at home.
At the top, the views are monumental. After the climb, even more thrilling than they might otherwise have been. I found myself in wonder and awe, and also somewhat jealous, of a long dead king.
Cave Temple Dambulla
The Cave Temple, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, another World Heritage Site, is the largest and best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. There are a total of 153 Buddha statues and over 2,100 square metres of murals. Prehistoric peoples would have lived in these cave complexes before the arrival of Buddhism.
Relatively recent (early 20th Century) colonnaded porches give way to the ancient caves.
Behind a narrow entranceway, you glimpse something…
…which turns out to be Buddha’s reclining thighs. I wouldn’t describe myself as a spiritual person but I found this first, more modest cave, extremely moving. The space is very confined, dimly lit, and almost entirely taken up by the reclining figure. You are clearly in the presence of a giant – both literally and metaphorically. It is impossible to have the entire view. You must navigate him as if he were a landscape.
The gold and ochre painted feet glimmer in the half-light.
The other caves might be more impressive in terms of grandeur but it was in this first one that I felt a bodily reverence. Nevertheless the other caves are each as spectacular in their own way. The image of the Buddha repeated again and again.
The walls and ceilings are painted in extremely beautiful patterns: geometric, floral, human. The design follows the natural curve of the cave and it is almost as if a gust of air has been caught under a billowing cloth.
Sigiriya and the Cave Temples were my highlights but they were by no means the only things we saw. Sri Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic was also an exceptional experience. One of the holiest places in Sri Lanka the temple complex is built around a tooth of Buddha, which was saved from his cremation pyre and carried secretly in the hair of Princess Hemamali across the Gulf of Mannar to Sri Lanka for safe keeping. Beautiful as it was, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic could not quite live up to the story of its inception, which for me, is where the magic lies.
Feeling somewhat over-stimulated it was time to remember my reason for being here, and so I focussed on trying to find the perfect cup of tea. Now it was time to say goodbye to Kandy and to my fellow artists-in-residence and to head off on my own into the heart of tea country.
Ceylon Tea Museum
Located in a former tea factory in Hantane, just outside of Kandy, is the Ceylon Tea Museum. I had read mixed reviews but was determined to judge for myself.
The building itself was worth it. Most of the original factory structure has been maintained. Walking through the wooden shuttered walls, vented floors, across internal balconies and bridged partitions, is already enough.
The main ground-floor exhibit is of historic machinery. Each piece afforded its own space, like the sculpture hall of a European museum.
I wasn’t really prepared to be interested in the cogs, wheels, pistons, and levers, but (not least due to the repeated colour palette of red and green) I found myself intrigued.
To get a sense of how all this machinery functioned in a working factory, I turned to a miniature. This model tea factory was built by the apprentices of Colombo Commercial Company (Engineers) Ltd, for the Centenary Commemoration Exhibition in 1967 (1867 was the year of the first commercial tea planting in Sri Lanka) and is a replica of Imboolpitiya Tea Factory.
I loved staring into the tiny rooms and imagining tiny people operating the tiny machines. It also gave me a practical insight into the processes of withering, rolling, breaking, oxidisation, drying, and grading that I have read about and heard about so many times. And of course I had a giants-eye-overview of a tea factory layout.
There are another 4 floors in the Ceylon Tea Museum, a whole floor of tea sales, a whole floor of tea rooms, and 2 other floors of oddities. Here is a picture of ‘The Oldest Tea Packet in Sri Lanka’ from 1944. I know it doesn’t seem that old. That’s part of my interest. This massive industry which is so vital to the Sri Lankan economy and that has also spawned much of the tourism, which is also an integral part of its economic plan, is relatively recent.
The Oldest Tea Packet sits in its very own bespoke vitrine on a wooden column.
James Taylor, the Scot widely revered as the ‘father of Ceylon tea’ has his own special room.
He has his own relics that are afforded internment. The bulb of his pipe:
And then, very oddly, this broken baby plate, with tea themed nursery rhyme, labelled, ‘A plate used by James Taylor’.
If the fairies came to tea,
How very jolly that would be,
They’d say ‘Hullo’, I’d say ‘Come in’,
And then the fun would all begin.
Taylor died in 1892 at the age of 57. The plate was illustrated by Mabel Lucie Attwell (1879-1964). Attwell produced a series of designs for children’s chinaware for Shelly Potteries, who first commissioned her in 1926. Oh. Should I mention this to someone?
Another spectacular train journey (although admittedly I was standing in an unbearably crowded carriage for the first 2 hours) weaves its way slowly up hill, south, passing in front of Pidurutalagala, the highest mountain in Sri Lanka at 2524 meters. Everywhere you look the stepped terraces of tea plantations fan out over the contours of the landscape.
Nuwara Eliya, sometimes known as Little England, and Sri Lanka’s highest town, was almost entirely created by the British. Before tea, there was little there. It has a municipal green area (Victoria Park), a golf course, boating lake, racecourse, and a collection of colonial houses and hotels.
It was in one of these old colonial buildings, whose foundations were laid in 1892, that I was to board. I lucked out on Air B&B with possibly the nicest man in Sri Lanka: Asela Shirin, who was born into this house, lives with his wife and children, works for a pharmaceutical company, and rents out rooms as much for the interest of international connections as for the possibility to supplement his income.
We laughed together as I pointed out the circularity: the British come to Nuwara Eliya, they exploit the land, they create a town, Sri Lanka becomes independent, Asela’s grandfather buys the house which was handed over by the British government to the Sri Lankan government, and Asela rents out rooms to the British, who come to look at the tea plantations. Asela described his house and the town itself as a “gift” from the British. I thought this approach to colonial rule generous. But then my own grandfather, born in Burma, the son of an Iraqi immigrant, would often refer to Pax Britannica, despite the fact that the British were sneering at his father’s thawb (the commonly worn ankle length Arabic tunic) and their desire to be naturalised as British citizens.
A woman who kept a stable that supplied the racecourse modelled the bungalow in the English style. Asela represented his role as owner as “maintenance”. Indeed many of the original features where left intact. I guess not quite original but I did particularly like these resin light switches.
Immediately on leaving the house you are in the tea plantations. They are everywhere. Portions of land belonging to different estates are marked onto cut out signs on living trees.
You can pluck tea – 2 leaves and a bud – with a rest period of a week. Evidence is everywhere, both of a bud ready to pluck…
…and one that just has been.
There is a looming crisis in the Sri Lankan tea industry. In the 19th Century the British exploited the land and imported cheap labour from India to pluck the tea. This brought economic success, first to those British Colonialists, and then, on independence, to Sri Lanka. Ceylon tea is so good because it is plucked by hand. It is by limiting the harvest to 2 leaves and a bud that quality is maintained. No machine can do this.
‘People were brought in from South India to work on the plantations and were confined within the structure, creating a pool of ‘residential labour’ which was totally dependent on the management for all aspects of their lives. […] Considerable changes have taken place in the estate sector since independence as a result of direct, targeted policies and as a response to national changes.’ The Estate Workers’ Dilemma: Tensions and Changes in the Tea and Rubber Plantations in Sri Lanka, 2008 p.xi
One major change is that all Sri Lankans’ are entitled to free education. As the sons and daughters of tea pluckers become educated, they may or may not want to continue the work of their parents. The pool of inexpensive labour for the tea plantations is diminishing. The consequence: machine plucking will need to be considered. If machines are used, the quality of the tea will be in jeopardy. This could potentially decimate the tea industry. One solution: pay more for tea. Make plucking more attractive.
Early in the morning of my second day in Nuwara Eilya, I took a bus through dizzying hairpin bends, the 20 km to Mackwoods Labookellie Tea Centre. Although everyone still refers to it as ‘Mackwoods’, the lease was recently bought by another big tea manufacturer: Browns.
The factory lies in the most idyllic of settings. A waterfall flows into a stream that passes through a valley of tea plants, each bush at its regulation height, ready to be plucked.
Inside I was offered my very own tour and could see in practice all the processes I had memorised from the machines and models at the Ceylon Tea Museum in Kandy.
All tea comes from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. It is the treatment of the leaves that creates the type of tea. At ‘Mackwoods’ they make orthodox Ceylon black tea. The tea is plucked as early in the day as possible. It is brought into the factory and laid out in large troughs. There it is left to wither for 14 hours reducing the water content and starting the process of oxidisation.
The withered leaves are then funnelled down a chute to a machine roller where they gently pass over a series of rotating soft wooden spines that twist the leaves without breaking them.
Leaves are then rolled again, this time breaking them into smaller pieces, releasing tasty chemicals. They are then spread out on trays at controlled temperatures to oxidise. The amount of time leaves are left to ‘ferment’ affects the taste and strength of the brew.
Tea is then dried to stop the fermentation, and graded. Leaves pass along a jiggling conveyor belt and various sized bits fall through different holes.
Tea is then packaged and sent off to auction in Colombo.
Leaving the factory, I head for the tearoom. Surrounded by the gardens from which the tea was planted, nurtured, plucked and prepared, I had the perfect cup of tea.
I have been nominated by LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) to be artist in residence at Sura Medura in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. I will be researching the production and consumption of tea.
It was a Scot, James Taylor, who in 1867 supervised the sowing of the first commercial seeds of camellia sinensis, the evergreen plant from which we make tea. 2017 marks the 150th anniversary. And even after only a few days here I have witnessed the iconic status Taylor has here, amongst tea industry folks.
Sura Medura, which translates as ‘heavenly place’, was born out of tragedy. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, sometimes known as the ‘Boxing Day tsunami’, affected 14 countries, caused major destruction, and killed hundreds of thousands of people. It devastated much of the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. Neil Butler (artist, curator, surfer) who has had a relationship with Hikkaduwa for many years, asked the local community what he could do. They told him to set up an art centre. The residency scheme is part of his programme of work. I am one of 5 artists currently visiting on a rolling programme.
Until the dedicated building is completed, artists visiting Sura Medura stay at Sun Beach hotel, which sits, as the name would suggest, in the sun, on the beach. It is one of many hotels along the treacherous Galle Road, which stretches 125km from the capital Colombo, to the Dutch colonial port city of Galle. On the west side of the Galle Road is the ocean, on the east is the jungle. It’s quite a polite jungle here, somewhat tamed by the villas and more modest homes that are scattered among its narrow concreted pathways, but it gives you a sense of what might lie beyond.
You don’t need to look very far to see why Sri Lanka has a reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful islands. Flowers frill, spike, and pleat their bright colours on a background of rich green leaves.
Those same leaves are used to particularly stylish effect in this woven wall-blind-door system, which wrestles the unruly natural world into a practical and pleasing thing.
This picturesque ‘jungle convenience store’ had an extremely charming set of balance scales.
And then there is the beach: miles of golden sand and surf. Hikkaduwa is a ‘surfer’s paradise’ and that is one of the main draws for Neil Butler. I admit to not really getting surfing. In New Zealand last year I gave it a go and found the 5 second exhilaration of cruising the wave too small a pay-off for being battered by the board, the rip tide, and the salt-water assault. Neil says you either let it go straight away or become an addict. He also explained that part of the hippy culture that has become synonymous with surfing is about a respect for the ocean, an understanding of global tides and currents, the physics of the wave, and learning to be in tune with the white-capped swell. This has given me a better appreciation for what surfing might be: not so much an attempt to control nature but rather a way towards better understanding it.
My trip to Sri Lanka however, is not about the water that rolls out of the ocean but rather that in a teacup.
After China and India, Sri Lanka was for many years the third largest tea producer in the world. (It has now been overtaken by Kenya.) More than 1 million people are involved in the tea industry (5% of the population). Tea is responsible for 2% of GDP.
Tea is the stuff of social chitchat and of international wars. Tea is at once a very English thing and at the same time ‘foreign’. It is an example of how international connections and trade routes have made England ‘English’. Tea challenges the common sense assumptions about nationhood because it is an immigrant culture that has been assimilated and transformed. It is immigrant to both Sri Lanka as a non-native crop, and the UK as our favourite drink. Tea troubles the politics of identity. It is also a refreshing drink.
I want to explore some of the contradictions inherent in tea (from tea garden to pot). Travelling from the ocean at Hikkaduwa to the mountains of Kandy, mirroring the journey of the seeds that were planted 150 years ago. Tea operates on the social level between two individuals chatting over a shared pot of tea, and on the global scale of major nation defining industry.
Although there is more surf culture than tea culture in Hikkaduwa, tea is everywhere in Sri Lanka. At the local ‘wholesale and retail’ merchant, Golden Lanka Tea, the signs appeal to customers in Sinhala, English, and Russian. (There are many tourists from Russia in Hikkaduwa.)
I order my first 100g of tea from the famous Nurawa Eliya region, often referred to as Sri Lanka’s ‘champagne of teas’. The owner delved into a massive sack with a scoop and measured it out. She scores 101g on her first attempt. She deposits the contents into a simple foil bag and secures it with a heat seal. It cost 150Rs, about 80 pence. In conversation, I express some basic knowledge of tea varieties, regions, and preparation methods. She gives me a bunch of samples. “Try them and come back when you’ve decided which one you like,” she says.
Along the road is the supermarket. It is wide-aisled and pristine, though no less interesting than Golden Lanka Tea, albeit for very different reasons. Tea is the most expansive section.
It is packaged in an amazing array of boxes. Elephants feature widely.
Of particular interest were these oddities. Tea caddies carved out of coconut shells in the shape of monkeys and bunny rabbits. I think it would be safe to say these are seeking to appeal to the heart of the tourist market rather than a local, or a tea connoisseur.
And the cultural appeal is often very targeted. What is essentially the same tea, is packaged either as authentic Sri Lankan…
…or perfect for that English breakfast… oh, or, erm, that Finnish breakfast.
This is especially interesting to me because it seems like ‘evidence’ of the slippery way which tea is somehow performing nationhood and belonging.
For my own part, I chose to save my life. Although Sri Lanka is known for its ‘red’ tea, or what we know as ‘black’ tea in England, 1982 saw the first production and exportation of green tea. It has struggled. Green tea is marketed as a medicinal product. Nowhere could this be more explicit than on the packaging for this Paradise Farm Organic Green Tea. A blazing typeface proclaims potentially fatal diseases: cholesterol, strokes, cancer, gastric, diabetics. ‘SAVE YOUR LIFE’, the helpful label proclaims, ‘with Organic Green Tea’. How could I resist?
And I might need my life saved, because I have been getting some sharp electric shocks from my tired computer charger cable. In fear of both the shock and of being in this garden of Eden without the ability to check my emails (erm…), I decided to take the 2 hour train journey to Colombo to try and find a replacement. The picturesque image of the tracks stretching north through the jungle belies the reality of the most extraordinary theatre of the train. Next time I shall attempt some discrete documentation. Hawkers, buskers, beggars, inspectors, clergy, lovers, families, and workers, pass along the gangway in a constant flow of human activity. It was an extremely filmic and rapidly changing world that passed in front of me. I barely turned my head to look out the window, and at 160Rs (about 85 pence) one of the best value experiences of my life.
Arriving at Colombo Fort station I was immediately accosted by a plethora of tuktuk drivers and after some failed haggling, I agreed the price. (“You may have paid 160Rs to get from Hikkaduwa to Colombo but there were 3,000 people on that train. We will be crossing to the other side of the city. It will take half an hour. Just you and me. I am a licensed driver!” Fair enough.) We were on our way to Future World, one of the few official Apple product resellers in Sri Lanka. This first experience of Colombo was of my tuktuk driver’s bun and the heady taste of carbon monoxide. I felt I might as well have been sucking a car exhaust as though a straw.
I was however safely deposited at the relative serenity of Future World where the authorized technician told me there was nothing wrong with my cable charger. In the euphoria of having successfully found the shop and in the suspicion that he might be wrong, I allowed myself to make the purchase anyway.
As I was in Colombo with a few hours to spare, I decide to further my research, and walk the 20 minutes to the Sri Lanka Tea Board.
The public face of the Sri Lanka Tea Board is tea sales, where you can be assured that the ‘Ceylon Tea’ symbol of quality means what it states.
Here you can buy a full range of Ceylon Teas, from the everyday to the exceptional.
A sign on the wall asserts the ‘DIVERSITEA IN SPECIALITEA’ and indeed the regional variation of tea taste resulting from the land in which the gardens are planted is, by all accounts, unparalleled for such a small land mass.
I had not come to buy tea. Instead, I make my way around the side of the building to the office reception. The first sight that greets you is an enormous bust of pioneer tea planter James Taylor. (It’s difficult to tell from the photograph but his head and torso reach up to the height of an average man.) A sign reads, ‘It is to him that Ceylon Tea owes its worldwide fame.’
The most welcoming of receptionists asks how she can help me, and on the presentation of my business card and my request, she calls up to the Librarian. Skirting round the building a bit further I come to a sign marked ‘Analytical Laboratory’. This is the action end of the Tea Board, where the quality of Ceylon Teas are established and checked. It is also the site of an archive.
A little overwhelmed by the volume of titles, all on one subject, I skim the shelves for something that might be useful. This may only be the first of several trips but I want to make the most of it.
I stumble upon an explanation of the way in which the plantations historically operated almost as tiny surrogate states.
‘In structural terms, the estate sector was developed under the colonial administration as an enclave separated from the rest of the economy due to the plantations depending mainly on foreign entrepreneurship, immigrant labour from South India, and either imported or reinvested capital. They cultivated just one important indigenous resource – land suitable for cultivation of tropical tree crops. This land was cheap and plentiful.’
[Snodgrass, D.R. (1966) Ceylon: An Export Economy in Transition p.4]
This further promotes the idea that tea sits at a cultural intersection, oftentimes one that is painful. It also complicates the Tea Board’s assertion that Ceylon Tea is ‘…a product of Sri Lanka and no other origin’. Of course it is a product of Sri Lankan land, but not Sri Lankan land alone. The seeds that grew the plants on this soil came from Assam. They traveled as part of a global network of trade routes, commercial exploitation, and colonial power.
One the way out of the building I pass the Tea Tasting Unit. Wafting from this humble door is the wonderful smell of fresh, perfectly brewed tea. It is overpowering: floral, malty, fresh, and alive.
People have been combing it, cutting it, styling it, dying it, covering it up, extending it, and shaving it off, since the beginning of recorded history. It clogs up our drains, smells pretty awful when set alight, and lasts longer than our flesh. I am, of course, referring to hair.
Curly or straight, buzz cut or ponytail, our hair is one of the primary signifiers about who we are and how we feel about ourselves. Historically, particular hairstyles have indicated rites of passage into adulthood, denoted piety, social status, and even been reserved for specific people. There were all kinds of rules in the Japanese warring period about who could wear what kind of topknot. Often overlooked in the maelstrom of personal identity issues is the fact that hair is also a natural material used by crafts women and men to make stuff. Most commonly, of course, these are hairpieces or wigs, and in the Horniman Museum anthropology collection alongside a number of wigs, there are also objects that are not wigs, that use human hair for decoration.
As the anthropology galleries are shut for renovation, it was back to the stores, where Helen Merret, Collections Officer, had very kindly laid out some objects that I was keen to see, on an archive table.
This is a mid-19th Century man’s wig from Fiji in Western Polynesia. ‘Ulumate’, literally translated as ‘dead head’ were worn for a number of reasons: to cover natural hair loss, or heads shaven during mourning. They were also in some instances a ‘badge of office’ for men with specific tasks to perform. Human hair is woven into coconut fibre strands.
This sperm whale ivory and human hair necklace, or lei liho palaoa, is from Hawaii. Literally a whale (palaoa) tooth (niho) necklace (lei), these distinctive pieces of jewellery were worn by both male and female chiefs. It is likely that an entire head of hair went into making the intricately woven braids that form the body of the piece. They are especially rare because Hawaiian people did not hunt whales. Only drowned, beached, or washed up whales could provide ivory for niho palaoa lei.
The whale tooth has been carved into the shape of a licking tongue.
And the detail of the braided hair, tied together with twine, is extremely satisfying.
This ceremonial hat or helmet is from India, possibly from the Naga culture. It is made with thin cane strips that have been woven in the diagonal. The plume of dyed red hairs has been identified as ‘possibly human’.
It really is a gorgeous object. The inside shows the deftness of the intricate twill.
The date is uncertain, listed in the catalogue as ‘before 1949’. It looks barely 70 hours old, let alone 70 years.
Perhaps the quirkiest thing in this little human hair line-up is this man’s costume tail, also from India, possibly from the Angami, a tribe of the Naga people. It would likely have been used in a ceremonial dance. It was donated to the museum in 1916.
This piece inverts the way in which we use materials from animals to adorn our bodies. Here it is human hair that goes to make us become animal. A cane loop at the top of the tail allows it to be strapped to the body.
Close up you can see the plaited basketry and way the human hair has been woven into the cane.
I am using my residency at Horniman Museum to take inspiration for a series of false noses, and I have wanted to make one that uses human hair in this ornamental way. For the last 30 years, I have kept my mother’s ponytail, which she had woven into a secure weft when she decided to have a short hairstyle.
My plan is to use this hair to make a hairy nose. I carved a form out of oak onto which to mount the hair.
The next step was to look for a wig maker who would take on the task of knotting a nose wig. (Actually, my initial plan was to see if I could do it myself but the investment of time and money into a wig making course proved a bit too much of a stretch for a one-off hairy nose. Of course, if I were to make a series of hairy noses, it might be a different matter.)
Founded in 1899, Raoul is the oldest wig-making company in the UK, and was the first to offer wigs through the NHS in 1949. As it is so labour intensive, a lot of knotting is subcontracted to countries with cheaper labour costs, but Raoul does almost everything in-house at its studio in Paddington, London. Their client list is long and illustrious. Up until her death in 2002 they made the hairpiece for the Queen Mother.
The odd thing about a wig maker is that their customer base exists at polar ends of the spectrum of human need, from desperate people who have lost their hair when their life is in jeopardy from illness, to someone needing a period ‘do’ for a play or film shoot. I was a little apprehensive about approaching them for a nose wig but I shouldn’t have worried. Liz Finan, who owns and runs Raoul reassured me. “We love a challenge and anything a bit different.” So there we were in one of the private client rooms discussing how to best make a wig for my oak nose with the ponytail my mother had cut off when I was still a teenager.
Even for those of us with a full head of hair, these protein filaments growing out of the follicles on our scalp are a cause of emotional instability: of satisfaction, of upset, at the very least of bad hair days. This emotional instability has to be increased dramatically if you are in the position of loosing your hair, or you have a condition that means you simply don’t grow any. Liz has set up Raoul to be as much like a normal hair salon as possible, with the kind of public shop at the front that you would expect on any high street. A series of private client rooms sit down one side of a central corridor, at the end of which is the studio, where the making happens.
The basics of wig making haven’t changed much in hundreds of years. You need hair, something to knot it onto, and a hook to do that. Most of the tools fit in a little box. The things that take up room are the client files showing precise colours and styles, and the head blocks.
And then it’s a case of knotting in the hair, one or two strands at a time. It requires precision, skill, and focus.
The first step on the way to making my nose wig, was to undo the wefted ponytail of my mother’s hair, without breaking it, and keeping the length. As I peered over her shoulder Liz, confidently inserted a thread picker with the precision of a surgeon, and soon the coil unravelled.
Four hands were needed at times, to safely untangle hairs that were caught around the securing wire.
Liz then handed over the hairs, let loose after 30 years, to Anselme Bonson, known to her Raoul colleagues by the pet name ‘Pressy’. She whips the hair against a hackle, a board that looks like some sort of medieval torture machine, and which Liz said could well be as old as the business. This process combs out the hair while leaving behind the short ends, which are no good for knotting.
And then there we have it: an untethered lock of auburn hair ready for knotting.
A few days later I returned to meet Karen Werther, the woman who will be doing the actual knotting. A net cap has been made following the shape of my wooden form, and, as there are not generally wig blocks in the shape of noses, the same structure was created out of plastic film stuffed with tissue paper, to give a solid but pliable body to knot into. This was then mounted onto a more conventional canvas block as a base to work on. So we were in the rather surreal situation of looking at a large nose shape pinned to the top of a head.
And then Karen was off; one hair at a time. “She’s an extremely neat knotter,” Liz says cheerily.
So the hairy nose begins to take shape. It is painstaking work. I drop back in some days later to check up on the progress. It’s not hard to see why wig making is an expensive business. It takes a long time.
The effect is already uncanny as I see my mother’s hair take a new shape.
I return to Raoul to pick up my nose wig. Karen proudly knots the last few hairs.
There is still plenty more to do before it becomes the object I want it to be but thanks to Karen, Liz, Pressy and the team, the hard graft has been done. As Liz says, “What’s left is for you to personalise it. You can style it the way that you want. You could braid it one day and curl it the next.” I leave Raoul my head full of possibilities for nose wig styles.