This is a guest post by Sunara Begum, a London-based visual artist and filmmaker whose work is perfectly placed between East and West. She uses the worlds of film, theatre, photography and text to heighten people’s experience of the arts, and her work seeks to draw out answers from the past to address the present. Sunara visited Sri Lanka in August, and the Lionel Wendt Gallery hosted “Retracing the Eye”, a collection of etchings, carborundums and woodcuts by her.
A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth. And since myth is a projection of the depth wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being re-minded of the wisdom of your own life.— Joseph Campbell
5000 Steps of Creation
The sounds of my mother’s memories filled my ears, she would sing songs, recall chants and recite stories of moments passed. A deep sense of longing lay at the core of all that she spoke of, sang about and whispered in the sacred-silent nights between dusk and dawn. Her memories were her personal connection, a guide to who she was, a compass that was leading the way, and a navigator for her consciousness. I was seven when my father passed away, leaving my mother with six children in a foreign land. She never truly dealt with the loss. How do you? He, the crescent and she the star, a literal meaning of both their forenames. Her vivid recollections and transient moments with him held her together and for the next twenty years she made her past her present, her memories her reality and her thoughts an outward manifestation of who she now was.
As a child I escaped deep into my mother’s stories, songs and chants, not wanting to return. They took me to a place of possibility that I recognised and knew so vividly. A place I had visited before. I was transported. I drew with my eyes closed, I painted in my dreams, I held onto still images of her memories and kept them close to me. I developed a love for the visual arts. Photography, printmaking, film, theatre and the written word all became my compass. My images became a reminder of a disappearing thought my mother felt but no longer carried, a memory she possessed but no longer saw and an idea she nurtured but no longer passed on. She would often ask me ‘Why? Why images, Suna?’, and I, reluctantly eager to speak became mute. I was left with a lingering unanswerable question. I didn’t know. I just knew.
I am a woman, I am brown, I am an immigrant. I am majority. Though I may be classified as South Asian, Indian, Bangladeshi, I try to define myself in a way that’s unique to me. It is far more complex then colour or one very restricted geographical space. It’s a plurality of tangible and intangible places, peoples and influences over thousands of years. Modern nations and border lines help us latch onto an exterior sense of self and in doing so we lose aspects of our core. Seeking to find its true name gives us a sense of belonging and it is here that new identities are formed. Ones that we can define for ourselves. It is here that new stories begin to emerge.
Ideas Are Sacred
When creativity comes to us, knocks hard at our door, we can’t ignore it, we have to listen, we have to let go of what we are doing and submit in that precise moment, if not it will follow us, and continue to. We do not choose an idea, more often it chooses us and we have to manifest the idea, or be in pursuit of it. Embrace and follow in the journey of the unknown. Let it lead the way. This was our journey, our journey up five thousand steps to Adam’s Peak or walking up the ascending mystical temples filled with the movement of life, where the old and the young would leave their indelible mark as they walk the path of their ancestral spirits. Or the haunting frescos deep inside rock caves still luminously shining the essence of hundreds of years. The true manifestation of an idea in its purest and rawest form invariably stands the test of time.
Though we live in a world where ideas are manifold, essential ones stand out in our life and in a way guide us to a higher state of creative consciousness, often giving us a sense of direction and placing us on a path of true purpose. A path that is our essence, ultimately leading us to a higher plane of existence, a kind of transcendence. Ideas are sacred. Each idea emerges from the ethereal spaces within, between and constantly around us, is a new piece of creation; unborn, untapped, unseen, unfelt.
Our perception is shaped by our environment
Our environment is shaped by our perception
The very temperament and frequency of our surrounding is shaped by what we do to it. Each day we are accountable to ourselves and the physical and metaphysical realms of our own and collective existence. I was always told by my mentor and fellow artists, ‘To create art you have to really live and feel. Pain is a part of creation’. These words never resonated with me at the time. I had to travel thousands of miles to feel their true sentiment and understand that art is not fiction, it is not a made up fantasy that we should create and escape to, often avoiding what is right before us. Art is creating an everlasting present. Art is present, eternally present.
Ancient Meets Modern
Sri Lanka, they say is the Island of the concrete Buddha. A month-long sojourn traversing the Island and being a witness to a myriad of realities, philosophies and lifestyles, but above and beyond all, sheer greatness. We journeyed through many distinct terrains visiting ruined cities, cave temples, rock fortresses, ancient frescos, meeting snake charmers, native villagers, local workers and exquisitely strong and beautiful women tea pluckers. It was an overwhelmingly rich experience to see the old and the new coexisting, both in terms of traditional practices, architecture, outlooks and value systems.
We set out with an overly ambitious itinerary; one month, eleven cities, audio-video equipment, photo assignments, a week long exhibition, meetings and a lot of charm. With an almost impossible schedule; a maximum of two days in each city/town or village, early starts and late nights, photographing, sound recording, no guide and no translator, just a map and our intuition, we really did step into the unknown. One thing we tried to maintain aside from everything else was to be in synch with the people, closely aligning ourselves with the earth and the natural dwellers of the space. The people, Sri Lanka’s greatest asset. They seemed to be so in tune with their environment, ingesting seasonal blessings and growing with the spirit of each time. A strong sense of presence, contentment and appreciation lay at the core of their humanity.
A Place of No Words
It was great to be in a space for an entire month and not understand or be understood through verbal language alone but through an intrinsic energy that transcends the boundaries of national borders and modern linguistics. Intuition, receptivity and essential principles founded and based upon fundamental human communication was our guiding force. Meeting, greeting and eating with rare souls, captured in the midst of flight, I was truly fortunate to be a witness to several moments of greatness. Being truly present is difficult in these times. We are all multi-taskers, all doing everything all the time, yet the ancients committed to one idea and collectively manifested a single vision. A vision that still remains a testimony to their craft, commitment and creativity. I realised that there must be a language we speak in silence. One that allows us to access our original truth. In a space that’s filled with noise, our voice gets muffled, unable to hear our self and thereby blurring the simple truths within. As a result we find ourselves walking in our own shadow.
It was a tumultuous yet immensely serene and healing few weeks with many adventures. Experiencing and walking in the path of my old spirits and selves was truly effortless. Flowing with the rhythm of time and embracing the moment’s glories in its fullness. Meeting old souls and kindred energies and being in a place of no words. I kept whispering to myself, ‘I’ve been here before, I’ve walked, smelt, touched and felt this part of the earth’. My old selves would kick in at strange moments when I forgot myself. I was reminded of the present, but also the past. The two conversed without me and I became an eternal listener.
The journey taught me without teaching, pushed me without pushing and challenged me without challenging. Just by being open. Looking into the eyes of people, a simple way of absorbing the goodness we each carry. Our light, our truth and our essence is stored in our eyes and yet we hardly look into the eyes of so many people so close to us. Afraid of receiving the light. It seems that we live in a time where we must deny ourself the sun. We look up and see the light but call it darkness. We look down and see the darkness but call it the light. Life is filled with contradictions, a myriad of dichotomies. No longer a trace of truth, no longer a yearning soul. We deny ourself the light of the sun. We deprive our soul from growing in that light.
Remember, as a documentarian you are an observer, an author but not a director . . . a discoverer, not a controller. — Albert Maysles
Spending one month on an Island surrounded by the great oceans and seas of the world; the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, the people really are a piece of that constant flow, they in turn seem to embody a great sense of fluidity within the very temperament of their soul. A reflection of this dimension is what their spirit conjures. One could really feel the convergence, a unique meeting point of diverse peoples, traditions, languages and customs all forming what we know as Sri Lanka.
With Art Comes Responsibility
If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.— John F. Kennedy
When watching the news and the ever-changing events of the world; the placeless people stranded and dying in the sea, it is very easy to see a part of myself in those seas. They look just like me. We are the same. I then have to tell myself in the quiet of my mind how fortunate I am to have the liberty to express. As challenging as creativity is, I do feel an incredible sense of peace to have an outlet to understand myself and the world. To tap into the pulse of the voiceless and conjure up unspoken stories. This is also why I believe art to be the ultimate healing. Through my work, I strive to be a voice for those not able to express theirs. Being a witness to the face of injustice and imbalance comes great responsibility. I can only feel blessed and honoured to be able to be an instrument of nature that was chosen to give. To give in the best way I can through the arts and through film and text. The union between the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine. I believe that to be the reason for the very existence of art. To deliver a message of hope and a space for us to re-examine our views of the modern world.
Lionel Wendt Gallery
Being invited to exhibit at the Lionel Wendt Gallery was one of the highlights to the trip. I felt extremely honoured and fortunate to be exhibiting in Sri Lanka for the first time in a gallery of my photographic icon, Lionel Wendt, one of the founders of the ’43 Group, a collective of contemporary Sri Lankan artists.
Art is for transformation
A journey from home. Performances about life. Actions of everyday. Stories of all colours. Across borders. Of human struggles. Of love. Breaking stereotypes. A time between tradition and modernity. Re-inventing cultures and celebrating identity. Spirituality. Community. Identity. Things that keep us sane. We create art to make peace.
I come from a long line of sufi saints who brought Sufism to Bangladesh. It’s quite a spiritual approach; my work isn’t religious, it just reflects the way I am in my life.
To know yourself as the Being underneath the thinker, the stillness underneath the mental noise, the love and joy underneath the pain, is freedom, salvation, enlightenment.— Eckhart Tolle
Text and images © Sunara Begum