The place: Hikkaduwa
My 10th day in Sri Lanka ended with spicy chickpeas wrapped in newspaper, a procession of flaming coconut torches, and thirty or so elephants rather uncomfortably dressed in elaborate textiles and twinkling blue fairy lights. We had joined thousands of people for the annual Kelani Duruthu Maha Perahera festival, unforgettably colourful and musical, elegant dancing and hundreds of performances with fire, ribbons, peacocks and spinning plates. This was followed by a hilarious three hour comedy sketch as we tried to navigate our way home, completely trapped by the parade and thousands of people and families. It was an incredible introduction to Colombo which followed an exciting meeting with the team for the Colombo Biennale and an exploration of some of the venues with them, beginning to map out possible outdoor sites and gallery spaces that could suit our art work for the festival.
Now I have returned to the slightly more peaceful Hikkaduwa by climbing on and standing a little too cosily, just managing to balance on a busy commuter train. These first 10 days have brought an incredible overload of experiences, from kind and warm people, to the sweet young boys playing cricket practically in our garden, to the string of wild dogs lining our road, to eating 10’s of miniature bananas, battling with the mosquitos, visiting temples and budha’s, asking questions and answering smiles, holding difficult conversations about the Tsunami and drinking many delicious cups of tea. Not to mention sleeping to the rattle of monkeys on the roof.
Hikkaduwa where we are all staying is a small town on the beautiful sea, stretched out along a hectic strip of the Galle Road, saturated with shops and stalls, rusty red bicycles and eager but friendly tuc tucs. For its most part every commercial window and doorway is cluttered with garments and objects for sale, locally made and run by Sri Lankan families, but existing exclusively to service the 4 busy winter months of the tourists decent. There is a lot to adjust to and quite a loud and vibrant contrast between a modest local culture and this roads ample supply of contradiction to this, regardless we are inescapably tourists also. The last days however it has been inspiring to meet some folk that integrate with the local community and to begin to have conversations and find moments and mechanisms to form the start of friendships with some of the beautiful Sri Lankan people, which hopefully muddle this line between the two cultures existing here.
We are all in quite a special position because the artists are split between two houses but located ‘jungle side.’ This seems to refer to being the opposite side to most of the hotels, away from the ocean, over the railway track and 10 minutes down a wee and fascinating road under a great green canopy of banana leaves. Each home we pass if you catch someone’s eye you find a lovely smile and in between the glimpses through bushes and doorways a peek into daily village life. Three of us stay in a simple and brilliantly spacious house a fair way along this road, it is raised up a little where the land inclines and is surrounded by a hot green grassy garden. Working outside the front of the house which is a really bright and refreshing treat (most of the time) it feels as though we are on show to the whole street and equally we are spectators of it. The other side of our fence a family of stay dogs defend 4 newly born puppy’s and at 5pm the local boys prop up a broken bit of a palm tree to play jungle cricket, (we can field from our garden) while the kind shop lady opposite waves and greets us constantly. I have begun to find a rhythm to match these surroundings enjoying early mornings at sunrise and the abundance of sounds that accompany it.
Initial Ideas and reactions: Work
I had proposed and imagined to research one starting point here that would take me through to some kind of outcome that stitched this time here together. However finding myself in this incredible situation where removed from the juggling of daily life at home your sole focus is on the development of ideas, absorbing and questioning everything about this new and completely fascinating culture, it doesn’t feel that easy, or necessarily important to fix my focus on just one idea. In the opportunity to live completely submerged in the culture I find my head constantly buzzing with little ideas, details that I feel really inspired by and I get really excited by a whole multitude of things around me. According to this I am allowing my creative process here to follow many of these threads of interest and to play in simple ways with them that respond to my immediate reactions and thoughts about life in Hikkaduwa.
I was looking forward to concentrating my work here on the role and intricacies of local crafts, in particular I expected to engage a lot with the local tailoring community and the unique situation that exists working in a country like Sri Lanka where you can actually meet the people who make some of the garments we import and wear in the west. The disconnection between maker and consumer is universal but I am interested in the moments of visibility where a connection might be possible. I spent a couple of my first days here mapping and learning about the spread of local textile based activities.
The majority of the shops on our end of Galle road sell westernised summer dresses, trousers, hats, bikinis and board shorts most made from either imported Indian fabrics that offer the silky ornate trim that is popular of Eastern garments, or foreign swim wear cloth. Speaking with some of these local seamstresses in the tourist shops I understand that here there is something quite special existing purely through circumstance, in that these women work in the same place that they sell and therefore the foreign visitors on entry to the shops are met by potentially the same machine and lady that made the garment they are interested to buy. The stitching on old sewing machines, the pattern cutting and wee pile of scraps is entirely visible inside and we even have the opportunity to request something customized and made to measure, through this the local process of tailoring is very tangible. I began to feel that despite my own interest in sewing and it’s wider function socially and economically, in terms of interaction and visibility, there is a system of sorts that is already facilitating some sense of this interface between the local maker and the visitor. What therefore became more of a curiosity to me were the steps in the process that were not so visible; the production of the fabric itself.
To look at this I took myself to see some other local aspects to the textile industry. To see handloom weaving, batik and silk making, even rope makers; beautiful and patient people using extremely delicate processes, the outcomes they produce are stunning and there is something very special about seeing this. However for all the time it was possible to watch these craftmen at work, the trips to these shops or centres were monopolised understandably by far more time dedicated to a detailed tour of their showrooms. Perhaps it was unusual for a visitor to be more interested in how something is made, than buying the perfectly refined outcome. Each of these visits made me more increasingly aware that not only were these venues tailored towards foreign visitors but these textiles were incredibly expensive for local people and high end products that would never find their way into the majority of local homes, they were luxury items for export. Furthermore the garments that Sri Lankan people wear are often stitched here, but the fabrics are imported cheaply from India, China and Japan. The official white school uniform cloth for example, worn by every child in Srilanka is not made in the country.
In trying to articulate this quite complex international network of buying and selling, importing goods, ideas, western designs etc, I stumbled across one tiny shop that stands out a little on the street as it is the only place that sells entirely white garments; the lace shop. The lady here had such a great smile and perhaps I was just at that point in my thought process, trying to articulate these incredibly labour intensive crafts such as hand loom weaving and their relationship to wealth and then to find this tiny machine for making this detailed and perfect lace by hand somehow seamed to encompass many of the things that fascinated me about crafts, economy and labour here.
Lace making in not an indigenous craft for Sri Lanka, nor is handmade lace worn or used that much here, in fact colonial rule during the Portuguese period brought this skill to the west coast of Sri Lanka and shared it with local fisherwomen, who produced impeccable lace that found its way to the royal and rich garments and interior decors or the western world. The craft has remained today, passed on by mother to daughter but the number of practicing lace makers has of course decreased dramatically. Perhaps my curiosity also lingered here because unlike weaving or batik the shear miniature scale and speed of the lace makers left me feeling like there was still a mysterious edge to this process and a labour of incredible patience. My immediate reaction was to want to unpack that mystery, to imagine how this lace might look on a huge scale or as a game like maypole dancing where each person became a bobbin, ducking and diving between each other.
I felt very much that I wanted to learn and engage more with this subject before refining these early excitable ideas and also there were so many questions and subtleties to this whole industry that couldn’t be derived from one or two conversations. The lace maker agreed to teach me, I would come for an hour or so each day and sit inside the shop with her and learn to make lace…
There is an absolute abundance of local products made from some part or another of a coconut tree and these are both displayed outside every local shop on the jungle roads and found in all of the Sri Lankan homes. The most common of the coconut items is the indoor floor brush, many families owning more than one and using it at least once a day. The need to brush these concrete floors is evident; the jungle spends all it’s time trying to get inside. We have at least three varieties of ants discovering invisible crumbs and Sri Lankan people take incredible pride in their homes. Many times it is remarked to me ‘how clean is Sri Lanka?!’ The sweeping is a relentless cycle.
The brushes themselves are beautiful objects, a wooden pole with a range of plastic and recycled tin components that hold the coconut fibres into the end, resembling a moustache. I decided to buy one from the local shop and carrying it home I was astonished by how much this made the local people smile. Tourists don’t buy sweeping brushes. But the reaction was such a warm one that I began to think of how actions like walking down the road with a broom are so simple and yet so effective as mechanisms for conversations. Interesting considering the Galle road is so packed with things that are trying to get your attention. I decided to buy a couple more brushes, slight variations but the same indoor natural fibre and whilst wondering how these might look in some form of kinetic sculpture I realised that perhaps since these objects, are quite so local and familiar to my neighbours it might come across to the street of spectators as pretty wasteful and strange to be cutting them up. I also had a really strong feeling for wanting to further my interaction with all these people who live around us in the jungle. Inspired by the quite simple set up of the local shops in the village, window ledges or sheds with items, I placed a sign indicating ‘Broom Swap’ and I made an ordered pile of brand new brooms in a visible place outside our house.
The first exchanges took place with people I had already met, immediate neighbours who found it all quite funny but who were more than happy to make the swap, for a couple of these it was a chance for me to step inside their house or sit for a cup of tea and learn a little of their lifestyle. I chose to use the interior brooms because the interior spaces of these homes are still something of a mystery most of these buildings are penned in by fairly substantial walls or fences. As a few more exchanges took place and word began to spread I began to think more again about these walls. One lunch time 3 women separately came to the big gate of our garden and despite our language barrier they understood this swap and began pushing their old brushes through the fence to me on the other side.
I met one lady who lives in a small and beautiful little house alone as a full time carer for a handicapped daughter; her home is completely cut off from the community by the strong tall walls that surround it. She told me, over a cup of tea how Sri Lanka used to be different and she felt better, only tiny fences or bushes between homes, everything was open and space and life was shared and social. In the 60’s under new leadership the government encouraged many people to go abroad, particularly the Middle East to find work and in the process people saw how we were living and building public and privatisation of space in the west. On return these influences were transferred and the built landscape began to change and the walls and property boundaries became more defined.
Word of the broom swap somehow spread through this neighbourhood like wild fire, a true testament to the close communication and travel of person to person news that still exists here. On one day I even ran completely out of brooms to exchange, I started to buy the brooms from the two closest little shops and when they ran out I noticed they made a new order, these tiny micro economies are fascinating and I felt essential that the swapping supported this. After 5 days I have 22 swapped brooms and have met many new and friendly faces who have shared a bit of time or an invitation into their home with me in the process.
The used brooms are wonderful weathered objects, totally reshaped by the repetitive action of daily brushing, somehow as a collection I no longer want to cut them up, they each have a great presence and identity. I am beginning to experiment with them like giant sticks, thinking about their properties for play and the relationship they might have to simple skeleton structures, the constant building and construction here or the lost presence of a basic garden fence.
Washed up objects
I have always loved collecting pebbles and shells along shorelines and the process of getting totally absorbed in scouring grains of sand, barefoot after barefoot. On one of my first days here in Hikkaduwa I visited the Tsunami Photo museum a few kilometres from the town, assembled in the remains of a ladies house, which had been completely destroyed and slowly rebuilt. There were two things that stayed with me a while after leaving, one being the scale and impact and sheer sadness of the destruction and the second being the approach to the definition of the space as a museum. It was precisely a museum in fact, but with a completely homemade, wonky, hand written style of assemblage that made all the terrible images and descriptive text even more powerful and far away from the expectations of western ordered and graphically designed displays. The exhibition contained not only photographs but letters, objects, fabrics and a glass case with an example of the debris and rubble left over on a tiny piece of land. Speaking to the lady who ran the museum, I also learnt of the changes brought about by this disaster, she explained how everything was put into prospective for a lot of local people, that material pursuits and the whole relationship with possessions and objects changes when you lose everything and yet remain in a place where this could potentially happen again. We also talked of how so many people left this local area and moved inland, they are still afraid and they cannot live by and look at the ocean.
I left the museum which is right at the ocean’s edge and I also changed for some moments the way I was viewing it, I was somehow completely compelled to wonder a bit up the shore here, staring out at this mass of water, trying to imagine what had happened and to articulate the incredible and unstoppable power it contains. At some point the clean and perfect beach was broken by a rock barrier, part of the coastal engineering, on my side of this there were suddenly lots of ripples and clusters of debris washed up in various tidelines, the assortment and fragments were sort of beautiful and ironic and as I couldn’t help myself from picking some out, I realised how much they played sculpturally with each other, the fine structure of piece of broken coral that mirrors in size, shape and colour the bleached plastic dislocated dolls arm. The natural and the man-made, blending into one another, where some objects were literally impossible to categorise, totally unified and at the mercy of the waves and the sea. I almost left my gathered collection on the beach, the connection between these pieces and the larger broken materials left behind by the tsunami at first felt insensitive and inappropriate, however I knew that it wasn’t the destruction of these objects in a negative sense of the term that interested me, rather the beauty in the simplicity of the shapes and colours that these became. These were also from a much more recent time period and talked to me more directly of environmental impact and consumerism and waste.
I went several times out to this section of the beach to gather a handful by handful of these unusual washed up bits, I had no plan for them but this process of gathering became really reflective on this completely empty beach. I guessed that this wave barrier meant that this particular tide line was rounding up a combination of the local litter that dogs and weather moved away from the curbs as well as the inevitable scraps of rubbish from Hikkaduwas beach tourism. In my continued pursuit to understand the relationship and impacts of tourism on this town I found it fascinating that in this very concentrated place evidence of the culture and consumption of both Eastern and Western lifestyles was lying out together here peacefully in the sun in a place completely ignored and unused.
I began to plan to carry cut away bottles and bags for my collections it was becoming almost methodical and I was increasingly aware that my activity shared something in common with the rubbish collectors and range of inventors and resourceful individuals in Sri Lanka that gather, reuse, recycle or recreate objects out of discarded stuff. The only difference which I enjoyed was that I was perhaps at the end of this cycle of gathering and re-making, collecting objects that no longer had any capacity for a future use.
Back at the house it was impossible to resist playing with the finds and ordering and arranging them in different ways. Colour was absolutely key to this because the subtle shift in shades seamed to span precisely the colours of the ocean and in little group’s assortment by tone made the collection really intriguing visually. I decided that I might also like to play with the definition of a museum as an attempt to find an interesting space or mechanism to make this collection public. I was interested in how this whole process of collection and display could become a performance or a mobile process replicated in different places.