Story 1: Wrapped in Green.
In the summer of 2009, while I was busy at work on my installation The Gifts, I posted an entry up on my AN blog the shape of things, to mark the news that there was an uprising going on in Tehran and spreading across Iran (my mother’s place of birth) in response to the illegal rigging of the ‘election’ outcomes. I was following it on twitter (my first experience of using it) and I could not believe some of the tweets coming in, which, amazingly at that time weren’t being blocked.. the authorities had been taken by surprise and it was a live feed, moment by moment for a number of days.
That uprising, which tragically ended in the killing, arrests and imprisonment of so many people – including the shooting dead of the now mythical young woman Neda Aga Soltan and the arrest of the heads of the green movement themselves – became known as the Green Revolution. Except it was never a revolution; it stopped before the wheel could turn to outrun the existing regime, unlike the Iranian revolution of 1979, which shaped most of my teenage years on many levels, despite being a kid growing up in suburban Kent (more on that later).
As I was working with cloth, (one of my preferred media of choice) I tore off a piece of green ribbon from my box and tied it around my wrist, as much in solidarity with the protestors who were all doing this to identify themselves – as in remembrance of my late mother who had longed for this day, when a change might come that would give the people more freedom to determine their futures. I felt full of hope – and a renewed connection to her through the events. I may sound naïve, and I also know that true revolutions take time (there had been a call for an evolution not a revolution) and are far more complex than an uprising can give answers to, but it was an important moment and its echoes remain, as does the lack of freedom in that country.
By the end of the summer of 2009, all that remained was a feeling of a stunned silence at the brutality of the repression of the dissent and the underestimation of the Iranian governments capacity for violence against its people in a bid to prevent any change in the status quo, despite the initial peaceful and creative nature of the protests. I will never forget being tweeted a link to this video on YouTube (one of many featured here in an article on Huffington Post) shot in the dark on a Tehran rooftop during the blackouts, of a young woman reciting poetry amid the calls and cries of her fellow citizens, echoing over the city. Later that summer I went to see Patti Smith in concert, who towards the end of her gig rose like a crow out of the darkness and sang –or howled – a dark and powerful tribute to all those who had been on the streets, ending in her spitting and bellowing the refrain of the opposition movement: ‘Where is my vote?!’.. An Iranian in the audience called out an empassioned ‘Thankyou!’.
As at the time I was immersed in the wrapping of objects for The Gifts, and finding myself a new sculptural language within that, I felt the need to make something in response to the events, which were turning sourer by the day. A deadly silencing was the main element I noticed in all this. And the green, previously very much identified with Islam and the Iranian flag, which now took on a new, reclaimed tone of hope and unity.
In my store I still had my Santoor, a Persian musical instrument – related to the dulcimer, that you play with small hammers, it has an ethereal like quality. My cousin had brought it back for me from Iran by request years earlier. I always had this romantic dream that I would learn it and play my children to sleep with it, if I ever got to have any.
When I then had my first child in 2004, and my mum disappeared in the Tsunami 3 weeks later, never to return, dreams like that disappeared for a long while, and the thought of learning anything new, apart from how to be a mother or adjust to being without one of my own, receded in favour of emotional survival strategies of a different kind. But I always made my work, it became even more crucial to my existence in the wake of these events and a whole new dimension came into my practice – that of relationship with a public and making space for them to materialise the work too. For several years the focus was on experiences of loss, and longing (the first being The Loom in 2005).
Alongside those big public and often complex works I had quiet times of making smaller works in the studio, initially all using objects that had belonged to my mother, as a form of grieving and transformative poetry making. I called that collection The Gifts of the Departed (shown last year at Manchester Craft and Design Centre and documented on another of my AN blogs here ) and I still sometimes add to it, when I come across an object, or something of hers breaks and I can’t throw it away. I then progressed to using found objects triggered by fragments of Sufi poetry and there was more of an emotional distance in the work, which then became a relief and a different kind of journey.
Back to the Santoor and 2009. It had been in my possession for almost a decade, I had not found a teacher or been motivated to travel to find one, and, as the protests across Iran became more and more muted and the blood flowed, I found myself one afternoon taking it out, stripping and ripping up a large piece of bright green velvet, in readiness to mummify the instrument.
After silently asking forgiveness of the instrument for beginning the process of muting it forever (!), I began to slowly wrap and bind the instrument into a gradual silence. I didn’t finish this process until Spring 2012, three years later (santoors have a lot of strings.) by which time the Arab spring was happening all over the Middle East – inspired by the initial events in Iran – and well, that’s a whole different set of stories. I found a reference in a poem by Rumi called The Instrument that Cannot Be Played that fitted well what the object was becoming and the situation I was responding to. Here is the finished piece.
From that piece came a new collection of work, which is also on-going, called Silent Statements, some of which were shown last year at the 100 Years Gallery at New Players, New Roles by Fari Bradley. I always had this sense that a larger work along the same lines wanted to emerge from this collection. I had used children war toys in the first piece ‘Final Moments’ and the very process of wrapping those objects felt like a powerful statement which had a lot of space in it to develop.
However, for this new commission, in using new toys which are destined for play -violence not actual violence, there is a different dynamic at work, which the audience will have to gage for themselves, but out of which many related ideas come which I will be exploring on this blog over the next few weeks.
Right now I’m in the final days of fabricating the work on my studio floor in time for packing up at the weekend. There is also The Book of Debts VII to recite and burn this Sunday, before we take up Volume VIII up with us to sit alongside the installation at Imperial War Museum North (IWMN) (details here if you are in East London on Sunday and want to attend)