This first blog relates to the first two weeks of my six-week residency at Sura Medura. It’s been a period of visual and aural overload, which at first this was quite disorientating. It’s such a massive contrast to the culture and landscape (and climate!) of Scotland that it takes time to tune into this new environment, people and culture. However that has also been made easy by the welcoming nature of the Sri Lankan people, whose common instinct is to smile and be helpful.Our international group of seven consisting of artists and performers from several European countries, namely the Czech Republic (Martin), Austria (Steffie), Nigeria/ Austria (Samson), Switzerland (Juri), Italy (Matteo), Ireland (John) and myself from Scotland, are based in Hikkaduwa, which is quite a touristy wee place but certainly not overcrowded, especially as the season hasn’t really got going yet. As the original Sura Medura residency building is out of lease, and a new purpose-built Sura Medura residency building is currently in development we are all staying in a beach-side hotel, appropriately named Sun Beach. This hotel has become our home, studios and workshop space. It’s a very comfortable set up and can be a bit disconcerting at times as it means we are very connected to the beach life activities and not as connected with the daily life of the surrounding community.
However as I’m interested in working with the sea, and in particular engaging with the fishermen, then for me it’s actually ideal. The proximity to the sea, with the constant sound of the waves breaking on the nearby beach, creates a perfect backdrop and soundscape to contemplate making work. As well as the surfers and beach strollers in the foreground I can see a regular procession of supertankers and massive container ships slowly gliding past on the horizon line – a reminder of the ongoing exchange of goods and products that traverse this part of the world, many heading for Europe.
Sharing the same route, but beneath the waves, are blue whales and sperm whales who have a major migratory route – only fairly recently discovered I believe. I will make a point of taking a whale-watching trip at some point, which may also take me close to the shipping route in order to get a better idea of the scale of some of the vessels.
Closer to the coast, approximately 3-4km out to sea, the local fishermen seek out tuna, barracuda and various other fish in their traditional style boats. This unique design of boat has existed for thousands of years, originally in wood with a single sail but now fibre-glass with an outboard engine.
I asked about getting out on one of the boats and was lucky enough to be invited on board a boat with a crew of eight to witness a typical fishing trip (1). Arriving by Tuk-Tuk in darkness at the small fishing village of Dodunduwa, about 5km south of the hotel, I had to find the fishermen and their boat. It was a 4am meeting, for departure at around 4.30am. After stumbling around in the dark and asking a few guys who were waiting around for their own crew to arrive I was finally united with Ji-lay (sp.) who took me to the boat on the beach and I introduced myself to the other fishermen including Sampeth, the boat owner, and Wasantha (Ji-lay’s brother-in-law). After helping to push the boat into the water the engine kicked into gear and we were off at quite a speed. Heading out to sea, with the light slowly changing from black to dark blue, if you strained your eyes you could see the white waves breaking on reefs out at sea. These were obviously known about and given a wide berth by the fishermen. But it was a reminder that even away from the coast there are potential dangers just below the surface and a good knowledge of the area is essential. As we reached the fishing zone the light changed to light blue and then daylight. It was slightly overcast, which I was glad of as I knew I’d be out there for at least six hours and was not so keen on being exposed to a strong sun.
The boats are long and thin with an out-rigger on one side. They have been adapted for tuna fishing in the sense that a scaffold-type wooden construction has been added – long branches, smoothed by the sea and by the feet and hands of the fishermen as they climbed around, lashed together with ropes. This structure allows a few of the fishermen to get a bit of height in order to spot the fish. Shoals of tuna can basically be identified when they begin to break the surface and jump out the water. Only when, or if, spotted will the fishermen drop their net.
But once spotted there is a lot of excitement and shouting of directions…with the fishermen trying to work out what direction the shoal is heading in so they can drop the net in the right place. This is fishing by eye, skill and wits – no GPS or sonar locator involved! [This is very similar to how an ex-fisherman from Milport, Scotland, described the process of fishing for herring in the Firth of Clyde in the early 1960s…which he was involved in as a young man, until it died out only a few years later].
As with herring fishing, the tuna fishing process also involves a ring net approach. The basic idea is that once the tuna have been spotted, and direction of travel worked out, the boat speeds after the shoal, drops one end of the net in the water (with a bouy at the end) and then speeds around in a large circle as the net is fed through the arms and hands of four or five fishermen, eventually coming full circle. The new is a massive 290 metres in length and 28 metres in depth, so it’s basically a big effort to retrieve the net, and therefore makes sense that it’s only dropped if they can see that it may be worthwhile to do so. Once the net has been set in the circle there is a short pause then the long and physical process of pulling in the net by hand begins. As it’s pulled in the tuna are pulled from the net, usually caught in the small-gauge net by their tails, and collected in the bottom of the boat. It seems to be hit and miss whether it will be a big or small catch. On this occasion they only got about 10kg which is a small catch (but on speaking with Sampath a few days later he said they had gone out again in the afternoon and caught 53kg). After the arduous work involved in ring-net fishing they then continue by line-fishing. This involves using drop lines with about ten hooks and feathers. The line is dropped to near the bottom of the seabed and the line tugged at to attract fish to the feathers. This is quite a productive way to fish but most of the fish were quite small. I had a conversation with Sampeth about the state of fishing off Hikkaduwa and he said it was quite difficult as there were not many fish these days. (A story that seems so common in many fishing grounds these days). He said he would soon join a large fishing boat, along with several of his crew, to work 2-4 weeks where they hoped to get big catches. If they hit their target within two weeks they will return but if not they will continue out at sea for up to four weeks. Due to the mechanical nature of these bigger boats they actually require less of a crew than in Sampath’s boat. We all hope that they return sooner than later and in time to join us for our collaborative event, which will take place in their fishing, Dodunduwa, on the 12th December.
During the fishing trip I saw dolphins cutting past and a turtle popped up at one point too. But the most amazing thing that happened was seeing a whale shark…not just seeing it in the distance but seeing it glide beneath the boat and then alongside while the fishermen were line fishing. Sampeth said they had seen whale sharks before but never that close so I was very lucky.
I documented the whole fishing process on video and photographs. I’m very happy with the footage as it covers each aspect pretty well, and visually it looks great too due to the colourful nature of the boats, the nets and the fishermen. At this stage of engaging with the fishermen I didn’t have any clear idea of how I could, or would, like to work with them. An initial idea of creating some kind of mapping project and collecting stories and information somehow seemed unnatural, a bit forced, and especially as language is an issue in most cases. So I had a re-think and decided I would need to find a different way to approach it.
On returning to Dodunduwa a few days later I met Wasantha and he invited me to his house to meet his family. He showed me some shells and a seahorse that he had picked up while diving quite deep. He offered me these as a small gift. I asked him to hold the seahorse in his hand so I could take a photo of it. It was a strong image and I liked the idea that it suggested presenting a gift. This gave me the idea that perhaps instead of stories I should ask people to show me objects that they have found at sea, that they can present in their hand, and that I could take a photograph of. I would then give them something in return… a copy of the photograph was the obvious one but I also felt that it had to be something a bit more personal, something hand-made.
I had been working with the photo documentation that I’d taken of the fishermen and had begun to make small water-colour paintings of some portraits. So I thought it may work to present a photo of the hand & gift plus a copy of the watercolour portrait. If this approach led to stories about the objects in their hands then that would be included too. But for now it felt like progress to have an approach that was some kind of gift exchange and that seemed naturally integrated into their lives too.
As well as trying to decide how to work with the context of the fishermen in Dodunduwa I have also been responding to other aspects of my new environment. As usual for a residency, I had arrived with various video and sound recording gear and photographic equipment. But as well as utilising these tools I felt it was important to remain open to whatever else I may come across and to let that influence me. In particular I was thinking about how this culture is so much to do with the hand-made and I wanted to consider how I may incorporate materials, processes and techniques that are typical of Sri Lankan life and culture into what I do.
Another obvious but important aspect of this particular location in the south-west of the country is the memory of the Tsunami on December 26th, 2004 (for facts and details please see: http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/HELGESTJ/).
As a group we visited the Tsunami Museum, which was developed, and now run by, an amazing local woman. She has created a space, located beside her home, where images from the devastation are combined with facts and figures about the actual Tsunami and how it was caused. The photographs of the immediate aftermath are disturbing and the documentation of the clear up and rebuilding that followed are inspiring and humbling. The impact on the communities, and to people personally, is brought home by this museum format, together with the presence of the woman curator and her family. As well as the factual information provided by the museum, the scattering of small graves that exist along the roadside, and between houses, also underlines the reality of that natural disaster and how closely people here must continue to live with the memory of it. One of the most simple yet striking gestures was a stick attached about 5metres up a palm tree, to indicate the height that the sea reached.
At this stage, it’s a lot to take in and I have basically been observing as well as collecting images, sounds, and materials to try to work out how I may use them and what I would like to say or do with them.
One of my learning experiences was making the mistake of keeping some snack food in my room as I soon realised the sweet smell was like a magnet to ants. I tried tying it in plastic bags and hanging it on a coat hook and even on the shower head, but still they managed to access it! So instead of fighting against the ants I thought maybe I could collaborate with them. If I could make things with sweet materials then I would be able to direct them and maybe create, or even destroy things. I’ll start working on a few ant-art ideas soon.
Another aspect of this residency is to somehow create a collaborative event and/or installation as a collective group. We all get on very well as a group and there is a good mix of makers, performers, and visual, sound/music artists. From the beginning I felt that this residency, and in particular the group collaboration, would be an opportunity to try out a few things that I would not normally do. So I’m currently staying open to what that may be and will try to push myself to make or do something that I could only actually do here. The influence and energy of the other artists has been a positive and helpful aspect of the residency and I’m sure that will continue until the end.
As the site for the public event will be in the fishing community of Dodunduwa there will be natural cross-overs in my individual and collective work, which I think can only help to tie ideas together.
The history of the island with it’s colonial past and involvement of the Dutch, Portuguese and British are evident in many places. The mix of religions such as Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim are evident in Sri Lanka too – and aspects of these are sometimes borrowed, or overlap with, the traditional, indigenous, shamanic customs. That’s not to say there are no tensions between these religions also. But on the surface, as an outsider, there seems to be a sense of live and let live. In terms of being a post-colonial country the image that is presented is a sense that the country has been enriched by other cultures and countries. This observation is only based on what I have read in public museums, where a sense of openness and acceptance for the various cultural and religious influences prevails. This may of course just be a public-facing kind of position, and the situation is obviously more complex, but the fact that public institutions are making a point of being positive about the country’s colonial past is interesting to note.
So for now, lots of ideas, possibilities and connections being made, people being met, and orientation of what’s where and who’s who is going on. As my day usually starts with a swim in the warm sea, and sometimes ends that way too, and the sun shines bright most days (with occassional downpours) it is easy to be inspired, but admittedly the novelty of all this continues and I have to remind myself that unlike in Scotland the sun will actually continue to come out and the sea will continue to be warm tomorrow too. This definitely helps with any work-life balance concerns.
The other side of the coin is that the humidity and heat is often overpowering. It becomes difficult to actually achieve what would normally be considered a full days work back home. There are points during the day when you have to admit defeat and just do something very simple like sit, read, rest, think, talk or write. It seems that a different way to exist and operate is required here and that expectations of what can actually be achieved have to be adapted to suit these conditions. This is all part of this residency experience which requires a certain amount of flexibility, adaptability and resourcefulness.
The adventure continues!
(1)Thanks go to Juri, fellow artist in residence at Suramedura, for introduction to fishermen that I joined on the fishing trip. (And while I’m at it, a general thanks to all the other artists for making the first two weeks such an enjoyable and entertaining experience. And a big thanks to Chaminda and the staff at Sun Beach for looking after us all so well. That is invaluable!)