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India done, Now what happens?

To give you some background ... In October and November 2017, I took part in a Textile Residency based in Fakirpur, a village outside of Cuttack in Odisha, India.

Fakirpur is a silk village. The residency’s aim was to explore Odishan textile; from sacred khadi to double ikat and indigenous textiles. As artists we were introduced to traditional Odian textile materials, techniques, and concepts

The group was made up of artists from Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Fiji, France and Holland. Their practices ranged from hands on textiles to design, all had visual training.

My observations of each follow;

Janette Theobold, New Zealand – Strong practice in natural textiles. An amazing knowledge base in weaving and dying techniques. Very capable.

Don Theobold, New Zealand – A very successful medical career as an anaesthetic surgeon (I think that is how to explain it) has brought that attention to detail and compassion to bear in his art practice concentrating on woodwork. India was his first try at weaving. He brought a table loom that he had made (stunning) and wove 3 panels based on the changing DNA of India!

Michelle (Shelly) Tindale, Textile Designer, Australia – Tindale Designs is based in Perth, WA. Shelly is an exciting, innovative textile designer. We struck up an instant rapport and friendship, sharing ideas, discoveries, and a lot of fun. Shelly worked in natural dying, garment design and embellishment. The results she achieved were inspiring and beautiful.

Jen Roseman, Australia – Over the 2 months I came to see Jen as a very skilled and talented artist. Her direction was weaving, and she had just come from time in Japan exploring Saori weaving at the source. She had been in Japan with Janine Kok, who was also on the Indian residency. Her exhibition piece was a delicate, well thought out installation that conveyed her experience of India.

Erna Janine Kok, Holland and England – Janine stayed with us for the first 3-4 weeks of the residency. She is a certified Saori teacher with a studio in London.

Aline Thivolle, France – The majority of us spoke English as a first language, so Aline had the added challenge of trying to understand the nuances of Australian, English, and Indian culture. A formidable background in weaving and especially Jacquard.

Quishile Charan, Fijian Indian, grew up in New Zealand – She is just finishing her degree in New Zealand and is an exhibiting artist. Her practice is based on her ethnicity and her background story of Indian indentured labour in Fiji.

Constanza Thiers, Chile - Connie is also finishing her degree. This was her first adventure as a practising artist overseas and she showed immense courage in choosing India, a country and culture half the world away from her own. While she was there she worked on small intricate, detailed, sculptural textile pieces in silk and gold thread. As her confidence grows I hope that the scale of her pieces increases also.

The Journey Begins ... We spent 3 weeks on the road, travelling the length of Odisha, then 3-4 weeks back at base camp (Fakirpur) and finally installed and exhibited at the Buddha Art Gallery in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha.

Our first introduction to textile India was in Fakirpur, the silk village where we were based. Here we saw the Tussar or wild silk spun from cocoons gathered in the forests nearby then boiled. Cocoons were rubbed back and forth on a womans (an older woman and usually married) oiled thigh. The thread is very strong.

We saw three types of cocoons, the Tussar was a golden beige then there was a yellow and a white cocoon. One was mulberry silk from China.

Everything we saw was handloomed. Even when we went to a “factory” it was still handloomed, but the factory compound housed and looked after approximately 15-20 families, including their spiritual and educational needs. It was very forward thinking but had been established 40 years prior.

Typically, every village house in a weaving village has a loom in the front room that produces saris. A sari is a 5 ½ to 6 metres by 1.25 metre piece of fabric. The design will depend on the region it in which it is made. The production is a family affair with spinning and weaving techniques handed down to the younger generations.

Techniques are time consuming and labour intensive. There is real concern that the arts will be lost due to the younger generation not wanting to follow the traditional path. Leading artisans are looking for ways to make these traditional arts relevant.

As we travelled from the North West corner of the state, through Sonapur and Sambalpur, we saw versions of Ikat weaving. A basic adaption of tie and dye technique that can be seen throughout the world. In Sambalpur double Ikat is employed where the warp and weft are both tied and dyed before being woven into a single textile.

We saw jacquard edges with ikat central panels, where an impossible number of threads are employed while weaving a central panel. Actual gold thread is used that is so fine. I purchased some gold thread and was surprised at how heavy the spool was and then frustrated at not being able to use such a fine thread. It kept on snagging.

Every day brought introductions to new villages and techniques. We also saw Dhokra casting. A method of metal casting with lost wax.

In the Koraput region of Odisha we stayed at Jeypore and had to have government permission to visit villages. This is to protect their way of life and maintain traditional weaving and dying skills and environments.

The knowledge and use of vegetable and mineral dyes goes back to pre-historic times in India. Dying can take days or weeks and is all hands on. In Koraput Madder and Aal are used to produce rich reds and browns. The weaves I saw were tribal. The combination of the earthy dyes with the cotton weave and tribal patterns is very sensory. The smell, the feel and the sight create the whole experience of the cloth.

We then travelled back to Fakirpur in a somewhat straight line, taking us past Bhubaneswar and through Cuttack. Then we spent 3-4 weeks in the studio creating our exhibition.

India was a cultural challenge. My aim in India was to find a way to combine the textile and visual paths of my art practice. The conditions in which I was to achieve this were 100% humidity, which translated to being continually sweaty and needing to hydrate yourself. Our diet was vegetarian and although I am not a heavy meat eater, total lack of protein through meat or fish had to be accounted for.

There’s a saying that you can get anything in India and you can, but it should be added that you can’t get it when you want it. Indians are very inventive, they use what is the most convenient. We had to learn to work with that.

The studio was beautiful. A big white, traditionally built structure in the middle of “Prakash’s” garden. Plenty of light, which was good because the electricity would go off at any time for unknown periods.

Our day in the studio began at 9am and finished at 6-7pm and we worked 7 days a week for 3-4 weeks.

We helped each other, shared knowledge, and soldiered on. The way that we worked was so different from our practices in our own countries that every creative thought was conceived differently and therefore created differently.

My work took the form of a block printed 5 metre length of madder dyed cotton, a modern take on a sari. Also 2 block printed pieces of 2-3 metres each of cotton silk. The pattern inspired by “Prakash’s Garden”. I block printed 2-3 colours and hand painted during the second block.

Two “story” paintings were done in gouache on sari clay canvas. Clay canvas is a process by which old saris are layered and sandwiched with fine clay (a porcelain type clay) then polished down. A binding medium is used not unlike a Guar Gum so that the surface never dries out and the canvas is always flexible. I “borrowed” a traditional format but interpreted my journey into it. I also block printed tussar silk dupattis.

The final pieces for the exhibition were two silk rag dolls. Male and female, they represented new India created from traditional resources. Each were hand stitched and made from silk and naturally dyed cotton. The only chemical dye used was for the hair. I purchased natural silk thread and had it dyed. To achieve black naturally is very hard and would have been detrimental to the shine on the silk.

I used some of the gold thread in the hair and created two mask-like faces, with inspiration taken from traditional drawings of Lord Krishna and Lakshmi.

The dolls were stuffed with old saris which you can purchase by the weight. I choose patterns that when seen through the sheer silk bodies gave an impression of what was within.

After the exhibition myself and Don and Janette Theobold travelled to Puri, an Indian resort town on the coast from Bhubaneswar. It is half way between the Sun Temple at Konark and Chilika Lake.

A UNESCO world heritage site, the temple at Konark was built in the 13th century. The technology employed to build it, the patterns and reliefs are relevant today. The temple is built in the form of a chariot. The wheel of Konark strongly influenced my sari block printing.

Chilika lake is south of Puri and covers an area of 1,100 square kilometres. It’s the second largest coastal lagoon in the world. My impression was of “Paynes grey” haze giving way to patches of green grey topped up with “Prussian blue”. It’s shallow, humid, and quiet, crisscrossed with fishing traps made from upright bamboo poles. Nets in brilliant “Cerulean blue” flag the end of a trap.

I have a series of three long landscapes in my studio and am half way to capturing the way Chilika made me feel.

Final thoughts ... India’s history and culture are written in her textiles. The act of creation, of making fibre from resources that the land gives willingly and then weaving that into cloth is a circle of birth and death. Nothing is wasted, cloth is given life in the form of a sari, serves its purpose then is resurrected as mattress stuffing and finally fades into earth.

Every woman owns a sari. Sari’s are stories. Stories of dreams, histories, expectations, love, and disappointment. What they are made of, the weave, the wear, the way they are worn, the women who wear them, why they are worn, the men and women who make them.

If fabric was the body of India, then the warp and weft would be the veins and arteries, the patterns and dyes would be the essence.

India in my Practice ... What India has given me are experiences that I will draw on for the rest of my life. I have acquired questions that I never knew to ask that will give me answers that I have no concept of. That’s an exciting place to be.

I am going further with weaving and have enrolled in a Saori weaving workshop. Saori is a free-style hand weaving with no rules and restrictions and would suit my mindset totally.

I want to weave my impression of India as if I am painting. I have an idea of “drawing” on paper silk. A very fine, stiffened silk I found in Fakirpur.

I’ll block print more and make each stage of the process from designing the block to carving, to the finished block printed fabric, all individual artistic forms, but part of the same.

I want to draw and carve more, which may lead to wood block prints or a variation of that.

I have found my path to melding my visual and textile practice. It just involves breaking down the barriers between paint and canvas, charcoal, and paper and fabric.

You can paint or draw with thread, you can wear the landscape and you can see a feeling.

MY THANKS ... I want to thank all my companions during the residency in India, everyone I met, who helped me, who contributed to the experience. Thank you to my family for supporting me and in doing that allowing me to pursue my passion. Lastly to Jeremy and Helen Villani of New Lambton Family Chiropractic for helping me financially. Also thanks Jeremy for keeping my skeleton in shape. Phone 61 2 4952 9559

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