I had been resisting temptation however, before I knew it, ‘Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art’ by Rebecca Wragg Sykes was downloaded on my Kindle and ready to go. In this time of isolation, the vividness of the writing made me feel reconnected to something greater and reminded me of the voracious reader I used to be. It also evoked strong emotions; shame as I recognised my ignorance and preconceptions about Neanderthals and awe at the sense of life the author created through an intense examination of evidence in combination with her imagination and poetic instinct.
In the same way there wasn’t a single Neanderthal type living a single Palaeolithic lifestyle, there isn’t a single human type. However I believe that there is a shared humanity, and this is something I explore in my art practice. A few years ago I created paintings while listening to music (both familiar and unfamiliar) from different cultural traditions. While I didn’t find a unifying visual thread, I concluded that the common human factor could be how we can interpret the creative world and make it our own.
At different stages of my life I have hazarded guesses at what being human is and I am still not sure. At times it feels very complex and at others startlingly clear. To my mind, there is a difference between being human and human beings. As the former more often than not, we act in ways that divide the world between them and us, again and again and again, while the latter gleams with possibilities for us to take our place amongst other living things.
An incontestable aspect of our lives is that we experience and orchestrate diverse events. These may be joyful or challenging, moments that can nourish or consume us. Sometimes we document and analyse them and at other times they leave their own imprints on our bones, skin, hair and teeth. I think of the comment that “Neanderthals and H. sapiensreflect two diverging pathways of being human, each with their oddities” (Wragg Sykes, 2020). I haven’t finished the book yet but have some idea about the end. Reading about fragile remains and what we can learn from them is extraordinary but also confronting. In all likelihood the indestructible evidence we will leave behind us a species will speak volumes about us and how we lived.
Published on 28 June 2021
I stand up and step away to give room for the couple to walk past. This is not a mere courtesy; we all want to keep a distance these days. A two and a half hour drive from Muscat, in the Sultanate of Oman, my family and I have come to Misfat Al Abriyeen, a village situated in the Jebal Shams (Sun Mountain) range. Many of the traditional mud houses here, topped by palm frond roofs, have been constructed on massive boulders. Spring water from higher up the mountain allowed the development of an extensive irrigation system (aflaj), which serves the agricultural terraces. While going down some very smooth steps, we pass the mother well. The smaller channels are blotchy with algae but the water runs clear. Light falling on its ripples reveals the different directions of flow as, helped by gravity, it makes its way down the valley. Visitors are requested to dress respectfully and can follow trails around the perimeter of the village, through the gorge, without disturbing the people whose home it is.
On a rise behind me, someone has chopped and left pomegranate branches, and a tiny bindweed spreads over the low rubble wall I am sitting on. Beads of dates-to-be stud twiggy bundles growing from the high heart of the tree, and shadows curve over me as well as over the ridges of soil that demarcate the terraces. Younger palms, just emerging from the earth, stretch out as widely as the taller ones. Space is precious and well utilised: young corn stalks with fine pink wisps line the base of some of the palms, and banana, papaya, fig, and lime trees are interspersed amongst the growth. The odd wasp and butterfly pass by and in the distance I can hear the sounds of cattle, a rooster, and a donkey. Barring a black rubber slipper and the distant thud of construction, little else intrudes on the wholesomeness of the moment. I jot down notes about what I observe, but I know that my awareness extends to beyond what is heard and seen, beyond the feel of the rock beneath me and the occasional breeze.
Like many people I know, I am not from a single place or culture. For many years I thought that identity was about being a perfect fit somewhere and have struggled to find where that is. In spite of my uncertainty about this, something I have always been sure of is a deep connection to the natural world. As an artist, this knowledge has been an intrinsic part of my creative expression and something I share with others. As of late, I have felt the need to examine this connection more closely and it is on my mind as I walk with my dog every day around my neighborhood. We pass clumps and clusters of foliage, and plants growing between each other. Branches reach out towards us over walls, strung with buds, pods, sprigs, blossoms, and fruit. A few days ago, as we rustled over dry leaves under a mango tree, I had a sudden feeling that something had just happened here. The tree had dropped these leaves some time ago, and we were walking over them today. And then, it came to me. I realised that there is a significant difference between looking at and being in nature, and being aware of the emotions one feels while looking at and being in nature.
Now, seated beneath a thatch of silhouetted fronds, I lean back and look up. I know that while these trees shelter me from the late morning sun, the sense of bounty I feel is not related purely to them or to the light that falls between them. If I were to consider myself separate from nature, how would I find a place for myself in the complex and challenging world we live in? I identify with aspects of different cultures but moving from country to country, time and time again, it was the natural environment that sustained me and grounded my sense of self. As a young child, I remember lying on the grass looking up at the sky and understanding I was part of a greater whole. Self-awareness gives us empathy and a clearer idea of the kind of life we want to live. So as I stand up to give way to the couple, to greet strangers with respect, the water streams along its ancient course. Calm and rested, I pick up my backpack and follow mine.
Published on 27 February 2021
As simplistic as it sounds, the ways in which we experience life can often be the same as the ways in which we experience art; through emotion, depth, layers, movement, scale, texture, contrast and colour - to name a few. It is not just our experience of nature, but our reflection and documentation of and response to that experience which can create a common pool from which we can know ourselves, each other and the world we are part of.
A few years ago, while searching for a visual thread of a common humanity, I created a series of paintings inspired by nature-related music from different cultures. Using the different rhythms and sounds to make marks and add colour, I listened to South Asian and European music I was familiar with, as well as Japanese music which I had not heard before. Although I could identify different moods the paintings lent themselves to, I couldn’t pinpoint a specific human thread. Ultimately, it seemed to me that what united the paintings was that they were a visual response to an engagement with a creative experience.
In my recent series of paintings, 'Inside the Great Circle' I explored the mid-point of movement in natural phenomena such as Stillness and Speed, Ascending and Descending, and Flow and Ebb. It was challenging to try and capture the essence of this, and using some kind of animation in the future might be an option. What I did have a sense of though, was a sense of belonging. By tracing the physical movement through my own creative gestures, I was enacting, recreating and living the phenomena simultaneously. This is what creativity offers us, through language, visuals, ideas and real and imagined experience; we have the opportunity to be part of a greater whole.
As human beings, on one level we are also matter, moving through time and space in our own life cycles. As we move, we notice things, give them a name and become aware of how they are also situated and so our stories about them emerge. These stories are as much about ourselves and the things we have named. However there are times when I don't notice or choose to ignore things as they make me uneasy, which may well be those very things that other people take account of. Perhaps looking for comfort and risk in this common pool of creative and life experience, we can find overlap and a sense of community.
Published on 4 January 2021