WHY I LIKE CINEMA
In some ways my life has been shaped by cinema. Sesame Street and sitcoms aside, the first feature-length film I saw in Hong Kong that I remember, in fact, was Disney’s Little Mermaid in my friend’s flat. I have early cinema memories from Hong Kong, for instance when I went with the whole family to see first Disney’s Aladdin and then Beauty and the Beast, and my sister falling asleep during the films because she was so young. Then later going to Hong Kong on my own from the UK and watching Waterworld in the cinema (which, although not considered a great film, included tattoos and maps and the future and islands).
My childhood in Hong Kong has now become like a movie to me – the older I get the more faded, flickering and comfortably rosy it gets, like looking back at old familiar videos with a smile on one’s face. I can replay favourite scenes at will, and rewind and fast-forward as I desire. Life through a lens.
As a teenager, I watched old black and white and epic silver screen movies on Sundays with my grandmother at her house. The King and I; Elizabeth Taylor; Indiana Jones with my mother; Star Wars. Shared family watching included American sitcoms at set times, and I especially loved reruns of I Dream of Jeannie (which is actually from my parents’ era) , the Addams Family (which I feel is just like how Patrik and I live today!) and Bewitched, which were like magic realist series – plus I Dream of Jeannie was about the space race! Partly what I love about my parents’ generation – and it is a kind of nostalgia fuelled by the media made at the time, a nostalgia for something I never lived through – is how (at least in the movies and in these serials) everyone is so polite to each other, even when they’re angry. It’s a lost art, and doesn’t happen in my generation.
Clockwise from top left: The Thief of Bagdad (1924 film) with its 1920s polite insults; Anna May Wong, the Chinese actress in Hollywood and the first Chinese-American movie star; Douglas Fairbanks and Anna May Wong; the Mongol (Chinese), Indian and Persian Princes plot against the Arab Prince; the flying horse, which is achieved by superimposing the film, an early cinema technique I used myself in my Bollywood film
Later on as my thought matured, I studied New Wave French cinema in French class at school and watched Luc Besson’s Le Dernier Combat for the first time and thought about science fiction. Then the classic – and my favourite film of all time – Blade Runner – I have never seen a greater film before or since. I watch it every year and still get something new from it every time. I realised that film could really be an art form; le septième art; the seventh art. I went deeper into this and watched as many films as I could; I had a Saturday job in a library so I could borrow as many as I liked free of charge. So I did – I became interested in world cinema and devoured most of what the library had to offer (and it was the biggest library in Kent). I enjoyed learning about other countries through their films and would watch anything to expand my horizons – aged 15-17, when I was also busy studying hard, the only relaxation I allowed myself was watching world cinema in the evenings (I considered it part of my education).
At the Slade, when we had to choose our departments, I unexpectedly chose 16mm film instead of painting because I was so entranced by the magic of it, and figured I had the chance to do it so I should, since painting was already in my blood but film was so new and exciting and textural – in those days you could still learn proper film techniques and cutting the film meant literally cutting and splicing it: editing was a physical process. I really got into this and made my first short film, the Bollywood film (film stills of which are on my website), which also shows my early interest in cinematographic art, matte painting and stories – this is a humorous condensed story wrapped up in 2.5 minutes. We had to also learn Final Cut Pro (I don’t know what software they use these days) and digital editing to edit both telecined films and digital videos, and I was glad that I had the original skills of ‘cutting’ and ‘splicing’, which mean nothing to today’s purely digital editors… I went through the traditional art of filmmaking, whose tangible celluloid surface came first! I continued watching world films every Sunday with my friend who lived in Hackney early on at the Slade and he’d give me a lift home on his bicycle, cycling dangerously sometimes in the early hours, but we were young and reckless then… We used to visit our friend, Umit of Umit Cameras in Hackney as he sold and rented 16mm and 8mm movies. And I joined Close Up, a film library, which was then located on Brick Lane, which I walked to weekly to get my fix of world cinema.
At the Slade we also studied postmodernism and I was excited that my favourite film, Blade Runner, was featured on the course; I painted giant screens in the sky in an early work. I always kept up my painting practise alongside my filmmaking. Then I went to Paris to study at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, and I fell back in love with painting all over again… those really are my roots; I have painted all my life. I shared a flat with a Polish painter and we did everything together. She was my best friend in Paris, and I painted alongside doing film and cinema. I had always loved film’s tactile quality and was looking at the work of Stan Brakhage et al, scratching directly into and colouring onto the celluloid surface. My flat was covered in film reels and lengths of film hanging down from shelves; I also bought a Steenbeck editing suite, my pride and joy; new, they cost in the thousands; mine was second-hand from Canterbury University and it took a father, his daughter and I to lug it up to my flat in Bethnal Green. But we did it, and I spent many happy hours editing, scrutinising, cutting and splicing my films.
In Paris, in the country that invented cinema, I enjoyed going to the cinema alone – by now I’d become used to doing things alone (most efficient way to get things done!) and enjoyed going to places alone, seeing nothing inherently wrong with it. I remember watching the newly-released Borat movie, subtitled into French – but because I also spoke English I’d laugh first, and then hear the rest of the audience laughing seconds later! – and then art films at the beautiful cinema La Pagode (all cinemas should look like this!) and feeling somehow proud of myself for enjoying my company alone and being by myself. Back in London I, unusually, went to a concert alone (I rarely go to concerts, being more visual) – I made an exception to hear the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra play the breathtaking and atmospheric Vangelis Blade Runner soundtrack – favourite music of my favourite film. They got a standing ovation.
At the end of the Slade I borrowed a book from UCL library about the forgotten art of glass painting for film backgrounds – matte painting’s origins. Now it’s all done digitally of course, but it was a real skill in the past and I made my own films that combined film with painting. But just as matte painting itself became a forgotten art, film itself was slowly dying, too. Tacita Dean, another Slade graduate, famously said that she needed the ‘stuff’ of films, analogue film as a medium to make her work… and sadly, in the UK at least, we all watched helplessly as this beautiful industry declined. Now we cannot fully make 16mm films in the UK anymore. We must get them processed in Europe, where they still have the facilites to do so. I remember blissful summer days walking round Soho to excitedly collect my developed and processed films from Soho Images (which is no longer there… how London changes!)… from the ease of that, to hardly anyone making analogue movies in the UK (apart from a small group of artists – some my friends and colleagues – who have always done so).
The film library Close-Up in Bethnal Green was still a constant in my life (in fact, it still is) during my time at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, and now I became interested in world cinema that looked at traditions from around the world, watching them on my laptop propped up on my Steenbeck 16mm film editor. I remember feeling proud that my dad once worked with the company that helped the first Westerners to be allowed in the Forbidden City in China to film The Last Emperor – a fact that he still reminds me of today!
In my second favourite film, Luna Papa (Луна Папа: Tajikistan – this film also features a floating island!) the heroine arrives too late for the movie at the open air theatre – the movie has already finished – and there is a special feeling of emptiness after the movie has finished – yet also anticipation, as it is a warm summer night that has just begun for her. It’s this strange feeling before and after a movie that I want to paint.
After Paris I also became interested in collecting antiques and longed to buy vintage cinema seats. Fortuitously I met my future husband Patrik, and we used to go round London and Paris flea markets together. In the end he bought the vintage cinema seats we now have, which feature in my large-scale work Drive In. In the early days of our relationship Patrik was working on the leather part of an interior for a rich English banker who had his own huge private home cinema, the largest private one I’d seen before in real life and the only nice part of his bland rich house which was soulless (he never lived in it). The doors were triple height and even the cinema was boring!
Memorable times I spent with Patrik watching films included going to see Hugo (about George Meliès, the early filmmaker) after we’d argued, and watching the film made us feel so good that we made up again, and watching Cinema Paradiso, one of our shared favourite films. Later on, we enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel – he concedes grudgingly that I have quite good taste in films.
I started to enjoy listening to dramatic film soundtracks, especially Vangelis and Ennio Morricone while painting, because it reminded me of that special Friday-night feeling of looking forward to going to the cinema, especially when I had the privilege of sharing a large studio for several years with my good friend who regularly paints large-scale works. Music played loud in this place was really something. These were special times before and after my marriage and I will always cherish my memories of this wonderful painting studio – where I first painted cinemas. I decided to paint the actual place, the cinema itself, as I loved the spaces of cinemas and all that they held for me. ‘Paint what you love’, I was told. So I did. Later on we shared this studio with, appropriately, a film composer who provided her own dramatic soundtracks – a perfect combination of art and music. Good times!
I began to entertain the idea that one day I’d like my own cinema as a side business and possibly a supper club… that’s still a possibility for the future when I’m more settled. For now, I’m enjoying London’s cinemas. I used to wear a hoodie and go to the cinema alone in London during the BFI film festival, to see obscure Georgian or Mongolian films or films from different countries where hardly anyone is in the cinema. Cinema is an expensive luxury I allow myself to indulge in.
Patrik and I walked to the Lexi cinema sometimes on a whim to see a movie together. We’d make a point of buying popcorn and Coca-Cola (things we’d otherwise not have) and make a night of it. I noticed the anticipation that always comes with watching trailers before a movie starts, and the 20th century fox drumroll, or the Universal Studios dramatic sunrise over earth credits, and started to remember this feeling, trying to bottle it and paint it.
One of London’s hidden gems: the Cinema Museum in Lambeth
I didn’t think that cinema was that important to me until I painted them; for me it was just relaxation and entertainment while learning something new but now I realise it is so much more. I look forward to sharing it anew with my family, both in the cosy home cinema we’ll create and visiting actual cinemas outside. Although I don’t relish the idea of my children spending hours and hours in front of screens, cinema is projected light reflected off a giant screen and engages your eyes (and senses) differently, as opposed to the projected light from a computer screen. Cinema has broadened my knowledge, opened my mind and shaped my life. Now we have Netflix, so we can watch the latest releases – but not beautifully crafted world cinema, mind you – in the comfort of our own home. But there is still something about taking a trip to go somewhere else, to be transported, to be in a dark place, set apart from the real world, isolated and cocooned and immersed in a story. Cinemas are islands ~
THE LAND OF GREEN GINGER
The Land of Green Ginger
Oil on canvas, unravelled remade carpet fractal
270 x 385 cm
Barbara Hepworth said: ‘Perhaps what one wants to say is formed in childhood and the rest of one’s life is spent in trying to say it.’ I agree. What I wanted to say in childhood was that all islands are floating; the world is sometimes confusing but through the chaos there is beauty abundant; blues and greens are the best colours in the world. In many ways this show brings back my island childhood to me and is a fitting subject for my first solo show.
The Land of Green Ginger, along with the 1001 Nights, was a favourite childhood book. I remember the moment I spied it in the library when we’d just moved to England after Hong Kong, which I missed tremendously, and the book’s cover showed a flying island! It was as if the universe had just given me a gift – a sort of link back to my island – and I was thrilled at the coincidence. And when I read it to myself at home I found myself laughing out loud – the perfect antidote to grey skies. Thus I tumbled back into the world of fairytale – the world of the 1001 Nights that I’d just left off in Hong Kong (in fact I was a voracious reader as a child in England; in some ways it saved me from a dreary existence of school and homework and ignited my imagination like nothing else. That’s why I’m such a fan of books, the book arts and libraries – they are transformational).
I still find myself laughing out loud every time I read it – there has to date not been a single instance of me reading it where I have not laughed. I read it annually and it gets me every time. It’s the perfect de-stressor. It’s stereotyped and a product of the era in which it was written (1937 – the original Tale of the Land of Green Ginger was written by Arthur Barker) yet it’s so ludicrous and ridiculous that it is genuinely funny. Not only is it funny, it’s heartwarming with lovable characters and an exciting plot (what happened after Aladdin had kids?) too. I own almost all editions of this wonderful book and look forward to sharing it with my own family.
My piece is entitled The Land of Green Ginger in homage to this favourite childhood title of mine. A flying, errant island that bumbles along wherever its fancy takes it, despite attempts to control it. When the Magician does manage to steer it properly, he has to go through a lengthy magical process first and although the island is his own creation, it still has a mind of its own. In my painting, lava seeps down slowly, anointing the giant stone which is the signal for it to break free from its womb-like cave, dripping in the blues and greens of island colours. Many a new island is formed by the volcanic process, giving birth to baby islands in the sea. The big rocky island in my painting has detached from its slippery cave and is about to take off and fly, supported by a cloud-like Chinese carpet cut, unravelled and re-fringed in the shape of a fractal. It comes into sharper focus as it unpeels itself from the background and prepares for its own flight. The carpet rests on the floor, as it’s still earth-bound, but is also attached to the painting, in the process of becoming buoyant. It’s resting potential – a subject I will explore in other works (in the tapestry roots pieces the lift-off has already occurred; flight has already happened and the pieces are up on the walls). There is a passage in The Tale of the Land of Green Ginger where the magic flying carpet tries to lift Abu Ali and Princess Budur to safety but alas, cannot fit through the window, so simply hangs there, motionless. Carpets and rugs are supposed to be on the floor, but sometimes they are meant to fly – this one is in the middle of both.
The feeling of lift-off and weightlessness is one I always loved as a child when planes were taking off. I likened waiting to give birth to this feeling (see my earlier post here) – birth in itself is a process of shedding weight in order to become ‘higher’ – spiritually higher also. My yoga teacher mentioned that yogis spend years trying to attain enlightenment and one quick way to glimpse it is simply to give birth! This glimpsing of enlightenment is also pictured in what I call my ‘Pockets of the Universe’ parts of paintings. We live a mundane existence but occasionally – just occasionally – we are given glimpses of greatness, seeing, out of the corner of one’s eyes, slits where the infinite pours in, flashes of the universe where we suddenly see in sharp focus how everything is connected and how we are connected to it. It’s almost like looking down on oneself from high above, floating in space. It’s where inspiration lies and this semi-weightless feeling is encapsulated in this work.
My carpet is remade into a fractal shape. Fractals are themselves forms found in clouds and coastlines and were a teenage interest of mine; I grew up when fractal art, digital arts and Photoshop were just beginning to get good, and I remember getting the latest digital arts magazines and poring over the millions of fantastic digital colours then painstakingly trying to replicate them in oils. It’s not always possible; projected light is different to reflected light, and RGB colours on screen differ from CMYK print colours, or paint colours. The struggle between the two still fascinates me. In some ways my own unique colour sense has been shaped by my early island memories in Hong Kong, my teenage fascination with fractals and computer arts and my longstanding interest in miniature painting. My carpet was obtained after long and steady persistence – it originally belonged to my husband but since the shapes and colours in the carpet were just perfect – the blues and greens echoed perfectly the ones in my paintings, and although I’d obviously had other carpet opportunities it simply HAD to be this one since I saw it almost every day and it became ingrained into my consciousness – after around 7 years of consistent gentle pressure (he would argue otherwise) he eventually caved in and I was able to complete this work (!). It was an old, tired and worn carpet and I wanted to give it new life by lovingly cleaning it, reshaping it and remaking it into art. Luckily he likes it!
A fractal is an infinite shape and cannot really be contained. Similarly, the patterns in carpets and the Islamic book arts (tazhib illumination) are inexhaustible in their variety and so buzzing and bursting with energy that it makes sense to me to allow them freedom (seen also in my Floating Neshan, which is so free that it floats high above the gallery space!). I have always enjoyed playing with the frames and doodling in the margins. I don’t believe that my work should be confined within the edges of the canvas, or frame, or box. Mughal and Persian artists understood this: the rocks, which I studied on my MA, regularly burst free from their margins. Medieval scribes also enjoyed doodling in the margins of their manuscripts and schoolchildren do this intuitively too. I enjoy having the boundaries of the box – if only to escape them later. Know the rules well, said the Dalai Lama, in order to break them effectively.
The dialogue between the painted image and the burst margin is one that interests me tremendously because it’s where you see the true location of the art, the true meaning, the truth! Truth is hidden between the lines, in between the main image and the commentary on the side. And I’m always seeking similarities, not looking for differences, so that sympathetic materials can have conversations. Creative associations and unlikely alliances can be formed.
Having a margin to play with allows for these new realities to be made. It’s not just one image anymore, nor is it simply two adjacent images – it’s two images with a kind of emergent ‘third space’ – the space in between them – where a new meaning lies. The juxtaposition of two complex images creates a boundary or border where they meet. The visual leap between the main image and the image of the margin/frame is like a footnote, an asterisked comment, a ‘by-the-way, did-you-know…?’ that changes one’s entire reading of the piece. This is exciting and this is where the ‘art’ lies. It encourages active, not passive thought processes and the visual leaps inspire mental leaps. Think outside the box. Be creative in thinking. Make unusual connections. Everything is connected. The thing inside the box and the thing outside are always connected. Mine are sometimes connected by colour, or a similar shape or form, or otherwise tenuous connections that suddenly make sense after deep thought or contemplation. In a roundabout way, it’s like being mixed-race (or ‘mixed-race other’ like me!) and having a natural duality in which to spring back and forth. The most interesting things happen at the side, or on the edges, where two (or more) things meet.
So it is with The Land of Green Ginger: for me it is the beginning of something, the resting potential, gathering its energies before it takes off into full flight ~
*Here are some excerpts from the book:
‘Fortune preserve you, gentle reader. May your days be filled with constant joy, and may my story please you, for it has no other purpose.
‘And now, if we are all ready to begin, I bring you a tale of the wonderful wandering of an enchanted land which was never in the same place twice.’
‘Everyone present rose and bowed as he departed for the balcony, and the Lord Chamberlain rather forlornly wrote ‘Bang’ on his piece of paper, and then thought better of it and drew little faces down the side instead, to help him concentrate.’ (Just as I do – doodling is great!)
“The Land of Green Ginger,’ announced the Djinn impressively, ‘was built by a Magician who was very fond of fresh vegetables. The idea was that when he went travelling, he could take the Land of Green Ginger with him like a portable kitchen-garden, only fancier’
“It’s always where you’d LEAST expect it to be. For example, a tired travelled might go to sleep on a barren desert, and wake up with his feet up a tree and his head on a mushroom.’
“You know, your mother always WAS a little too verbal,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Wouldn’t she be more valuable to collectors if she were to stay like that?’ (Thus the Djinn Abdul freezes Aladdin’s mother into a porcelain figurine!)
“By the way,’ he added insincerely, ‘I’ve forgotten the spell that restores decorative ornaments to humdrum life. Does anybody mind?’
‘The Shah of Persia sent a politely worded invitation to his son, the vapid, vindictive Prince Tintac Ping Foo; requesting the dubious honour of his presence on a matter of urgent importance; and after Prince Tintac Ping Foo had deliberately kept the Shah of Persia waiting for forty-two minutes, he haughtily presented himself.
“Ah, Tintac Ping Foo,’ said the Shah of Persia ingratiatingly, ‘I want to have a friendly, man-to-man, equal-to-equal, father-to-son talk with you, my boy.’
“Oh, you do, do you?’ riposted Tintac Ping Foo ungraciously. ‘Well, if it’s about cheating at chess, I wouldn’t bother, because I ADORE cheating at chess; I shall continue to cheat at chess; and if you DARE to stop me, I shall put glue in your beard!’
(On his rival, Prince Rubdub Ben Thud of Arabia)
“That balloon-faced butterball? Do you DARE to tell me he has the silly sauce to pit himself against a paragon of lovable manly virtues like me?’
‘Ho there, Slaves! My camels! My retinue! My magic sword! My jellybeans! I leave at once for Samarkand!’
‘The donkey, laughing quietly to himself, sat down as before; but having reckoned without the tack, he sat down on that.
‘Like a homing swallow, like a comet in the sky – like a donkey that had just sat down on a tack – he sped down the street, and Abu Ali and Omar Khayyam held on like fury.’
‘His name was Kublai Snoo, and he could wiggle his ears.’
‘There in the clearing, dancing about and not noticing them as yet, was a huge, horned, scaly, scowly, nozzle-nosed, claw-hammered, gaggle-toothed, people-hating, smoke-snorting, fire-eating, flame-throwing, penulticarnivorous, bright green Dragon.’
‘Then the green smoke slowly faded to reveal a small, round, fat, fourteen-carat, rueful, green-hued Djinn seated on the grass, looking more than slightly dazed.’
“Would you care to repeat that without a potato in your mouth?’ asked Ping Foo superciliously.’
“LOOK!’ said Sulkpot in an alarmingly hoarse whisper. ‘The next sound EITHER of you makes, you’ll BOTH go straight into the boiling oil! Is that absolutely clear?’
‘Yes,’ said the Captain of the Guard.
‘No,’ said Kublai Snoo.
‘WHAT?’ roared Nagnag, clutching at the couch.
‘He can’t throw us in the oil vat,’ said Kublai Snoo to the Captain serenly. ‘It’s our afternoon off in a minute. We caught a suitor!’
‘Kublai Snoo and the Captain beamed and marched one pace forward smartly, expecting promotion or at least a medal.
‘Sulkpot stretched out both his arms and banged their helmets together.’
There are many more but I can’t include the whole book here. This tale has many plays on language and a tight, witty, clever use of English so I look forward to sharing it with my family. Every sentence is perfectly crafted. It’s also great for reading out loud.
Here are some of the Edward Ardizzone illustrations:
MEANWHILE IN ARABIA…
Morning now dawned and Shahrazad broke off from what she had been allowed to say. Then, when it was the two hundred and fiftieth night, SHE CONTINUED:
I have heard, O fortunate king, that Shams al-Din told his wife: ‘It is you who are the cause of my sorrow.’ ‘Why is that?’ she asked. ‘When I opened my shop today,’ he answered, ‘I saw that every single merchant had one, two or more sons sitting like their fathers in their shops and I said to myself: “Death, which took your father, will not fail to visit you.” The night on which I first lay with you I swore that I would not marry another wife, that I would not take a concubine, be she Abyssinian, Rumi or a slave girl of some other race; and that I would not spend a single night away from you. The fact is, however, that you are barren, and marriage to you is like chiselling rock.’ ‘As God is my witness,’ his wife replied, ‘it is you who are the cause of the difficulty and not I, as your sperm is watery.’ ‘What is the matter with men like that?’ he asked. ‘They cannot impregnate women and produce children,’ she told him. ‘Where is there something to thicken sperm?’ he asked. ‘I shall buy it to thicken mine.’ She told him to search among the apothecaries.
Next morning they were both sorry for having reproached each other, and Shams al-Din set out for the market, where he found an apothecary. They exchanged greetings and Shams al-Din then asked the man whether he had anything that would thicken sperm. ‘I did have,’ said the man, ‘but no longer. Try my neighbour.’ So Shams al-Din went around asking everyone and being laughed at, after which he went back to his own shop and sat there sadly. In the market there was a poor hashish addict, the syndic of the auctioneers, Muhammad Simsim by name, who used to take opium, opium paste and green hashish. This man was in the habit of saying good morning to Shams al-Din every day, and he now came up as usual. They exchanged greetings, but Shams al-Din was irritated and Shaikh Muhammad asked him why. Shams al-Din then told him what had happened between him and his wife. ‘I’ve been married to her for forty years,’ he explained, ‘but she has given me neither a son nor a daughter. I have been told that the reason she has never become pregnant is that my sperm is watery and that I should look for something to thicken it, but I haven’t been able to find anything.’ Shaikh Muhammad said ‘I have got something that will do that. What would you say about someone who could see to it that, after forty years, you managed to impregnate your wife?’ ‘If you do that,’ said Shams al-Din, ‘I shall shower you with favours and benefits.’ ‘Give me a dinar,’ said the other, and when Shams al-Din produced two, he took them and said: ‘Give me this china bowl.’
When Shams al-Din had done that, Muhammad took the bowl off to the hashish seller, from whom he got two ounces of Rumi opium, together with a portion of Chinese cubebs, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger, white pepper and mountain lizard. He pounded all these ingredients and boiled them up in good quality oil, after which he took three ounces of male frankincense in chunks and a cupful of cumin seeds. After having infused these, he made all this into a paste, using Rumi honey. He then put the paste in the bowl and went back and gave it to Shams al-Din. ‘This,’ he said, ‘will thicken sperm. You must take it on a spatula after a meal of mutton and domestic pigeon seasoned with hot spices. Take the mixture on the spatula, eat your evening meal and then take a drink made with refined sugar.’
Shams al-Din took the mixture and passed it to his wife, together with the meat and the pigeons. He told her to cook them well and to take the sperm thickener and to keep it with her until he needed it and asked for it. She did as she was told and then placed the food in front of him. After his meal he asked for the bowl and ate from it. He liked it so much that he ate all the rest of it, after which he lay with his wife and she conceived that night. When her periods had ceased for three months she knew that she was pregnant. As her pregnancy came to its end and the labour pains began, the women raised cries of joy. It was a difficult delivery and by way of a charm the midwife pronounced the names of Muhammad and ‘Ali over the baby, reciting the formula Allahu akbar! and the call to prayer in his ear. Then she wrapped him up and handed him to his mother, who gave him her breast and suckled him. He drank until he had had enough and then fell asleep. The midwife stayed there for three days and then, on the seventh day, they distributed marzipan cakes that they had made, together with sweetmeats, after which they sprinkled salt.
Shams al-Din came in and, after having congratulated his wife on her safe delivery, he asked: ‘Where is the child God has entrusted to us?’ She brought him a baby of surpassing beauty, the handiwork of God, the ever-present Ruler. Although he was only seven days old, anyone who saw him would have taken him for a year-old child. When his father looked at his face, he saw that it was like a radiant full moon and that he had moles on each cheek. ‘What have you called him?’ he asked his wife. ‘Were this a girl I would have named her,’ she replied, ‘but as he is a boy, no one should name him but you.’ At that time, people used to rely on omens in choosing their children’s names. While Shams al-Din and his family were consulting about the name, someone there suddenly said to his friend: ‘O my master ‘Ala’ al-Din.’ Shams al-Din promptly said: ‘We shall name the child ‘Ala’ al-Din Abu’-Shamat.’
‘Ala’ al-Din was left in the charge of nurses, both wet and dry, and after drinking milk for two years he was weaned. He grew big and began to walk, and when he was seven he was put in a room beneath a trapdoor for fear of the evil eye. He was not to leave, his father said, until his beard grew, and he was put in charge of a slave girl and a black slave. The girl would prepare his food and the slave would carry it to him.. He was circumcised and his father produced a great feast for him, after which a faqih was brought to teach him. This man taught him how to read and to recite the Quran, as well as instructing him in the other sciences, until he became proficient and learned.
One day it happened that the slave who brought him his food forgetfully left the trapdoor open. ‘Ala’ al-Din climbed through it and went to his mother. A group of the leading ladies of the city were talking with her, and when the boy came in, looking like a mamluk intoxicated by his own beauty, they veiled their faces at the sight of him and said to his mother: ‘May God punish you! How can you let this mamluk, a stranger, come into us? Don’t you know that modesty is a part of the true faith?’ ‘Call on the Name of God,’ she replied. ‘This is my son, the fruit of my heart, fathered by Shams al-Din, the syndic of the traders, and reared in all comfort and luxury.’ ‘Never in our lives did we think that you had a son,’ they exclaimed, and she explained: ‘His father was afraid lest he be hurt by the evil eye and so had him brought up in an underground chamber.’
Fertility, pregnany, childbirth, breastfeeding and parenting all in the 1001 Nights – all wrapped up in a single Night!
What can we learn from this important Night?
That the world of the Nights is one where magic, medicine and faith are one and the same; that miracles can and do happen; that sometimes help can come from the most unlikely of sources and those that are good and persistent are rewarded. An older couple manages to conceive thanks to a concoction of everyday herbs (cubebs are a type of aphrodisiac Indonesian pepper historically used to remedy infertility and Marco Polo describes Java as a producer of these; note also that the frankincense must be male!) – with the magic-realist addition of a mountain lizard.*
The relationship between husband and wife in this tale is good-natured. The husband listens to his wife in all matters, and the wife also concedes to her husband where necessary. He has sworn not to marry any additional wife – in times when it was relatively common for a man to have two or three wives – so I like this guy. They feel remorse for their argument – they are a normal couple after all – and the wife offers a solution for his watery sperm without blame, which the husband duly follows up. The husband leaves the wife to give birth – a woman’s realm – with other women present and then sees his baby son when all is ready and the time is right for his wife to welcome him. He offers her the chance to name their child but she graciously allows him this honour; their relationship is respectful and harmonious.
No need for a pregnancy test – three months of missed periods is enough confirmation. Since pregnancy is a normal part of life and not an illness, they don’t even bother describing the second and third trimesters – they skip straight to the labour pains. Labour is supposed to be painful. She gives birth in the company of women who raise cries of joy in support. The midwife delivers the baby and recites charms in his ear – magic and medicine combined with faith. Childbirth is a sacred, not medical, occasion. The baby is handed to his mother straightaway and she immediately breastfeeds him – the normal, natural sequence of events since time immemorial. He drinks his colostrum, the first drops of liquid gold, and then promptly falls asleep as he should. They celebrate on the seventh day, when the baby is already one week old.
Breastfeeding continues for 2 years, as is normal and as scientists are only now beginning to acknowledge.
School begins at 7 years old, as also seems normal to me.
His father puts him in an underground chamber, which is not normal… note that this is also a story, with all its accompanying twists and turns… note also the similarities to the Aladdin we know and love in popular culture today, which may itself be a Western creation, based loosely on the Nights – tonight could be a contender for the original inspiration. A merchant father, trapdoors, dodgy ‘uncles’ who waylay innocent boys, beautiful girls, riches galore, commoners raised to ranks of royalty, near-death experiences, love separated then reunited, talismanic jewels (a magic ring?) that can cause sofas to fly and feasts, gardens and palaces to appear from nothing…
*There are other translations of the Nights which describe slightly different recipes such as Richard Burton’s: ‘So he gave it to him and the broker betook himself to a hashish-seller, of whom he bought two ounces of concentrated Roumi opium and equal-parts of Chinese cubebs, cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms, ginger, white pepper and mountain skink; and, pounding them all together, boiled them in sweet olive oil; after which he added three ounces of male frankincense in fragments and a cupful of coriander-seed; and, macerating the whole, made it into an electuary with Roumi bee honey’ – skink is the mountain lizard here.
Mathers 1990: ‘He took two ounces of Chinese cubebs, one ounce of fat extract of Ionian hemp, one ounce of fresh cloves, one ounce of red cinnamon from Sarandib, ten drachms of white Malabar cardamoms, five of Indian ginger, five of white pepper, five of pimento from the isles, one ounce of the berries of Indian star-anise, and half an ounce of mountain thyme. Then he mixed cunningly, after having pounded and sieved them; he added pure honey until the whole became a thick paste; then he mingled five grains of musk and an ounce of pounded fish roe with the rest. Finally he added a little concentrated rose-water and put all in the bowl.’ Both these versions are notable for their descriptions of the origins of all the ingredients, which also belies the fact that these items were traded regularly; we sometimes erroneously think of our world as the only globalised world but the fact is that in the past, their world was teeming with trade too. Since this version includes mountain thyme, I wonder if the lizard could be a mistranslation – any Arabists who can shed light on this?
Miniature painting of a lady breastfeeding from Rashid al-Din, Djami al-Tawarikh, early 14th century
ON THE REST ON THE FLIGHT INTO EGYPT
Picture this: it’s the middle of a long winter night. A young woman, nervous, apprehensive yet resolute, gives birth to a baby, with the support of her equally nervous yet steadfast husband. The child is not even his, yet he is totally supportive – a good man and true. They are surrounded by animals and are miles away from home. This is not by choice. They have no midwife.
They are, essentially, refugees.
The woman has just given birth for the first time. It’s a boy! By the grace of the universe her baby is healthy and full-term.
She’s exhausted. They are happy and nervous, like all new parents, with the added burden of being on the run. She takes a quick breath and snuggles her baby – and then, having barely delivered, they have to go. Again.
So, with the gritty determination that awakens at the moment of birth and unites the couple like never before, they pack up and flee while it’s still night and they are under cover of darkness.
And they ride, with only the stars and their steely resolve to guide them to a safe haven for the sake of their precious cargo.
They ride and ride and are tired. Eventually they realise that they have covered some distance and have not been followed, and it’s now safe to take a quick break. Small relief for the couple, who can finally catch their breath before continuing on their journey.
The first thing the woman does is to pause, scoop up her little boy and breastfeed him. She does this through instinct alone, with no one to guide her, although perhaps she has grown up seeing other women do it so she does have a vague idea. But this is her first time, and she has to feed her son – she has no other choice – he’s a hungry newborn. Infant formula won’t be invented for another 2,000 years.
The woman’s name is Mary. Her baby’s name is Jesus.
This pause is called ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ and it’s one of the most famous, most painted moments, indeed sacred moments, in Western art history. I understand why. It’s the first moment of real bonding of mother and child. It parallels the rise of landscape painting as a respected genre in itself (another vested interest of mine since I locate my own work here). It’s the first break the exhausted couple has – and lest we forget – they are refugees that have just given birth to a miracle.
Artists throughout history would have been surrounded by breastfeeding, if not witnessing their own families, then those of other people. (There are other genre paintings depicting more mundane scenes of everyday life which show breastfeeding.
I’m currently collecting and compiling images of breastfeeding in art and literature throughout history as I continue on my own journey with my child. Sometimes it’s a natural part of mundane everyday life, and other times it is revered as a sacred act. I find these references in unexpected places, when I’m not looking for them at all, and it’s a nice reminder of something that connects me to the long line of our female ancestors since time immemorial… anyone who has ever breastfed is part of this chain that links us to our original, mammalian past.
Meanwhile, in Arabia…
From the Prado Museum, Madrid:
Patinir, Joachim (1480-1524)
Rest on The Flight into Egypt
1518 – 1520. Oil on panel, 121 x 177 cm
‘Walk a mile in another person’s shoes’
As part of my general relentless anti-racist drive I have a mini-project for my baby son to collect shoes from other cultures as far as possible for him to wear. I’m sure it’s been done before by countless parents because it’s also fun. Thus cultivating empathy, respect and love of all cultures. I look forward to more shoes (I love shoes and hats anyway – I am not into buying kiddie things really but books, shoes and hats are great exceptions)
So it starts with these Greek slippers!
ON CARPETS AS FLOATING ISLANDS
May the road rise to meet you, and the wind always be at your back – traditional Irish blessing
I am a floor-based person. Maybe it comes from the East; maybe it comes from living alone for years; maybe some people are just built to sprawl. I love to live on the floor. I love to do everything on a clean floor – painting, working, eating, tea-drinking, playing, sitting, reading, meditating, exercising, napping, dreaming. It is when I am at my most relaxed. I can melt into the floor, wallow in it; it is one of the safest places. One cannot fall from the floor.
Beanbags help with comfort for my back when needed; I am cross-legged with a woven band around my knees to ensure my back stays upright with correct posture in my favourite photo. A meditation cushion sometimes helps ease my lotus position into classic Buddha pose for quiet reflective times. As a child, given a choice and a chair, I would gradually recede and succumb to gravity – I always ended up on the floor. Slumping and sliding until I finally folded over and curled up to concentrate on whatever I was doing. I am happiest and at my most comfortable when I’m sitting on the floor cross-legged.
Being grounded keeps you connected to the earth; yogis and monks both practise on the floor. If you feel lost, hold your ear to the ground and feel the earth’s ancient heart beating. Traditional societies lived on the floor. Architect Witold Rybczynski divides humans into those that are chair-based, and those that are floor-based. Anthropologists remind us that it’s most natural to sit on the floor, and it is seemingly unrelated to climate and culture – you find a mix of both floor and chair people across the globe. Miniature painters work on the floor. Being of either persuasion influences your whole life – how you dress (loose clothes for ease of slinking down), what shoes you wear (slippers vs lace-up boots), whether you take them off when you enter your house, the height of your shelves, the rest of your furniture (if necessary at all)… I dream of Mediterranean marble, or underfloor heating in England. I compensate with a beautiful carpet.
A carpet is like a little island – a whole world encapsulated symbolically in the pattern and physically within the borders. But carpets are not always on the ground – they are portable floors that can be rolled up and removed to wherever they are needed. They can even lift off and fly. And then they become floating islands…
I imagine that the boundaries of my carpet are the edges of my little island. There I am, firmly in the centre of my world, calm and in control with everything I need to hand. It’s all I need, my little piece of the world. My space has a shape and a frame. The 360 degree vision all around me is echoed by the pattern of the carpet, repeating outwards from the centre until it reaches its borders. Whatever doesn’t fit on my carpet, I sometimes imagine, isn’t necessary.
So my rug of choice is a flying carpet, floating serenely through the sky while I sit cross-legged, bum firmly planted in the middle. The cross-legged position, based as it is on a triangle, is a very grounded, stable position. 3 is the geometric minimum number for 3-dimensional stability like a tripod, since 2 collapses. It is a position that, if done correctly, can be upheld for hours on end with only minimal shifting; there is a reason that it is the basis for the classic meditation posture. The following structure is also triangular in form and is always true; everyone on earth shares this same basic design (siblings are a bonus):
The Russian word for family is семья – семь-я. 7 x ‘me’. Here is a basic diagram:
дедушка – бабушка дедушка – бабушка
отец – мать
Grandmother – Grandfather Grandmother – Grandfather
Father – Mother
These are your roots. Visually your roots are triangular and stable in form. Your background is distilled to a fine point, the tip of the triangle – you. The future may be behind you, as it is for the Maoris, always mindful of their forefathers. The future may also be ahead. Both are correct. Inverted, your family tree becomes a pyramid – or a mountain. At the top of the triangle-mountain, you can fly. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pyramid, starting with the physiological, moving through safety, love and belonging and esteem and peaking in self-actualization – the flight of the soul.
One needs to plumb the depths of one’s roots before one can soar. To be secure. To feel the ground under your feet as a springboard from which to fly. Then the world becomes yours. Take your roots with you. Floating islands always have dangling roots – they are memories of places left behind, ready to be planted again wherever the wind takes them. Pandora’s floating islands in the film Avatar are as realistic and plausible as a moviemaker could design and the attention to detail is minute – I always watch out for the trailing roots. Roots absolutely uprooted, all the better to be immersed in new soil.
I have moved across cities, moved across continents. Moving has eroded my island – and therefore shaped my life. A rock, subject to the elements. A lump of clay, handled. They have indeed lost part of their material selves – but they are also refined. They have been formed. They are defined by what has been taken away. I sometimes get the feeling that one must be light: lightweight; spiritually light; made of light; not eating meat; not consuming too much and ready when the wind changes direction. Roll up your carpet and move on to the next pasture. Bring only your stories. Tell only your tales. I don’t believe you must lose your roots if you move. Be like a floating island, and take them with you ~