Deadly Dogs!

From the moment I took my seat I knew this flight was different to all the previous ones I had flown on.  For a start, the first class passengers were wearing high visibility vests, not suits, half of my fellow travellers wore embroidered polo shirts or sporting team regalia and a small minority were on crutches. There was no mistaking, I was on a regional flight heading to one of Australia’s remote regions, to be precise, Lockhart River, a coastal Aboriginal community situated on the eastern coast of Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, Australia.

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The Great Barrier Reef

 

This is also the northernmost town on the east coast of Australia and together with my wife Morgan, I am travelling there to start an arts based education program.  The ‘Healthy Dogs, Healthy People’ project aims to raise awareness about the importance of animal care as a key element in achieving a healthy community.  I have been employed to use photography as a way to communicate this message.

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Storytelling Session

The town’s population of approximately 600 people consists of a mix of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and a small number of non-Aboriginal people working primarily in the service and education sector.  There are also about 1000 dogs in the community! There were some initial ‘eye-rolls’ when we introduced ourselves as artists promoting animal de-sexing, de-worming and de-bunking some myths around caring for dogs.

However, after our first week in the community we have established some trust with key people and are now part of a team of dog champions.  We’ve sung some *deadly songs, and told dog stories with the kids and lined up models for a photo shoot.`

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Puppy Love!

Added to this we have managed to not get bitten by or catch any diseases from the dogs and most importantly not run over any. When it’s 35 degrees, dogs (and puppies) hang out underneath cars!

We are now back in Brisbane for a week to plan the next course of action.  Our original plan of a dog show and a book have now given away to a calendar and a mural, but we are still working on that killer rap and deadly photo!

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The Kids Club in Lockhart River

* ‘deadly’ is an aboriginal expression for cool, excellent or top.

The Hiker and the Heavenly Maidens

The sun’s rays transformed the water into a river of gold, the trees danced in the breeze and the path leading up the mountain beckoned me to explore the Park’s treasures. It was springtime in South Korea, a perfect season to experience the beauty of Seoraksan National Park. I was staying in the small town of Yangyang in Gangwon province, near the park, and it was here I met a local woman who offered to be my guide.

We set off from the Osaek Hot Springs and headed towards Daeseung Falls.  The track followed a mountain stream and I stopped frequently, not because it was an arduous walk, but the mountain views took my breath away.

My guide pointed out a waterhole in the river and commenced telling the Korean myth about the Woodcutter and The Heavenly Maidens. In the story, the heavenly maidens descend to Earth to bathe in a secret waterhole in the mountains.  They are spotted by a woodcutter who steals the clothes of one of the maidens, preventing her return to Heaven.  While listening to the tale it dawned on me that I was familiar with it. My wife, who is a storyteller, told this story to school students when we had previously visited Korea.  It was one of her favourite myths and here I was, in the very place of it’s birth. Not only was the landscape beautiful, it now felt magical.

Too soon my guide had to return home, so I hiked on by myself. Seoraksan National Park is a popular destination for Koreans and foreigners alike, especially in Autumn when the leaves change colour and the park becomes a spectacular kaleidoscope of Autumn hues.  Hiking in Spring however has the advantage of the park not being so crowded, so for much of the time I was on my own.

As I was walking along I couldn’t stop thinking about the story, and at one particularly deep waterhole imagined that perhaps the maidens also came there to bathe. Although the track to the actual setting for the waterhole in the myth, the Twelve Angels Bath (십이선녀탕) was closed due to maintenance, I sensed the whole area alive with the presence of the maidens.

My daydreaming was interrupted by the sound of voices. I turned around and saw seven catholic nuns approaching. Wearing their traditional habits, they appeared to be floating towards me. Was I dreaming or had some heavenly maidens stepped out of the story and come to visit me? We greeted each other and the nuns proceeded to climb down to the water, take off their shoes and soak their feet. I couldn’t believe the myth was unfolding in front of my eyes.  Unlike the woodcutter in the story, I had no intention of stealing their shoes, but being a photographer I wanted to take a few photos. They nodded their assent and asked me to come and join them to share some fruit. Together we sat, our feet cooling in the waterhole, eating watermelon and enjoying the sunshine.

Eventually it came time to leave and continue my journey. I was saying my farewell when they said, ‘Stop, we a have a gift for you.’ They all stood up and sang. Their voices, pure as the snow melt soared up the mountainside and into the heavens.  Tears welled in my eyes and I felt blessed. After we parted, I could not stop smiling for the rest of the day.

Seoraksan National Park is a truly magical place, with its sublime landscape and great hiking trails where you can meet cheery hikers and if you are lucky, perhaps a heavenly maiden!

PANEN – THE PROJECT

Lain ladang lain belalang, 

lain lubuk lain ikannya.

Different fields, different grasshoppers; 

different seas, different fish.

My artist in residency project in Java at the Jatiwangi Art Factory (JAF), was an exploration of harvest, both physically and metaphorically.  I was fortunate enough to arrive in Jatiwangi during the rice harvest time, a perfect opportunity for witnessing local work and cultural practices. The township of Jatiwangi is a small collection of villages in East Java, where rice farming, brick and roof tile making comprise a large proportion of the local industry. There are however, not many farms left in the town, and I was privileged to accompany the last full time farmer from Jatisura to witness the harvesting of the rice.

All work is done by hand; there are no fancy machines only hard manual work.  I was introduced to one of the workers who proudly announced that he was 72 years old. He and his wife still worked every day in the rice field.  He barely stopped his work to tell me this, and continued separating the rice from the husks. It was at this moment that I conceived the visual and conceptual idea for my project.  I would do my own harvesting of the most precious commodity the village had to offer, it’s people.

The people from JAF are some of the most supportive people I have ever worked with. The wonderful Evni was my translator and guide, and together we set out to ‘harvest’ a selection of faces from the local community.  Having a local guide makes a big difference in my work. It gave me a closer understanding of the environment I was working in and allowed me to create a dialogue with the people I was working with. I even learnt a bit of the local language. A big thank you to Evni for her patience.

The project however was more than just getting a good image; I wanted to know more about the world. Creating an image with my camera also allows me to explore cultural aspects of the situation.  It’s not about exploiting the situation for an aesthetic advantage. The relationship between the person on the other side of the lens and myself has to have some harmony and understanding, otherwise the photo isn’t heard.

I am not interested in the concept of ‘shooting’ picture, I find this idea far too intrusive; I make images.  My aesthetic curiosity is driven by the need to learn something new about a person or a culture. This desire keeps me exploring.  I don’t consider myself a journalist or documentary photographer as I believe in a humanity that unites all people.  Capturing this concept in an image is my ongoing challenge.

While I believe that all photos I make are fundamentally a form of self portrait, it is essential that I also keep my distance and let the subject in the image speak.  Ego is doomed photography!  The more I take photos, the less seriously I take myself. To me, letting go is the key.  Letting go of myself, letting go of the technical side, letting go of my preconceived ideas.  (I just keep hanging on to my camera!)  This will lead, in an ideal environment, to a lightness in the way I move around the subject/situation, and that I become part of the situation at the same time I am looking in.  This feeling of irony and lightness can lead to a more honest image.

The concluding exhibition was held at the JAF gallery and we wanted to make sure that it reflected the locality and topic.  Food was presented on banana leaves and shared together.  This was also the start of Ramadhan, which I joined for the rest of my stay. It seemed fitting that the discussion at the exhibition be centred on sharing and caring.

One of the most precious outcomes of this project, was an email I received from an Indonesian student who is studying in Switzerland.  She recognised her Grandmother in one of the photos and was overjoyed to be able to connect with her in this way.  On the the day I left I presented the grandmother with her photos. It was a most humbling moment for me. All of the portrait photos in the exhibition were given as a gift to the people in the image. Harvest after all is about sharing.

A big thank you to all the staff at JAF, with special thank you to Arief, Ginggi, Abi, Umi, Nita, Al Ghori. Tedi and Beben.  Special ‘terimakasih’ to my wonderful assistant Evni.

But the biggest thank you goes to the people of Jatiwangi who allowed me to visit their world. I am  still a different grasshopper but I now feel at home in your field. Hatur Nuhun.

My Java Diary part 3

May 12

The monkey was wearing a red suit and riding a small motorbike. After crashing the bike he then started to jump through a hoop.
I am crammed into a small mini van, the kind that make up a large proportion of the congested traffic in Bandung. I am heading of to meet Arief and Chief Ginggi somewhere in town.  The monkey is just one of many intersection entertainments where people busk for money.  They range from the very young, who should be at school, to the old, who should be cared for by some loved one.   Witnessing poverty is one of the hardest things that I have to deal with when I travel, but it also firms my resolve that education is the only way out of it.

The driver signals that I have arrived at my destination. I am not sure where I am but I am relieved to see my friends waiting for me.  We attend a contemporary music performance conducted by a Mexican musician who is studying traditional Indonesian music. I feel energized after the performance and I am ready to for the drive back to Jatiwangi.

What should have been a two-hour drive turns into a regular road trip.  As always I’m not sure what is planned, and we stop off at several friend’s places in Bandung to say hello.  We visit a filmmaker, photographers and two artists’ studios. By now I know the routine: sweet black coffee, many clove flavoured cigarettes and much discussion. It is now 10 pm and I think we are finally on the road proper. As we approach the mountain road that leads down to the valley; Chief Ginggi informs me dryly, that many Indonesians die on this road!  Great, I am on the highway to hell! 
What a trip it turned out to, by midnight we are still heading down the road, and it is bumper to bumper in both directions!

When we finally make it off the mountain, it’s time for another stop.  ‘Makan, makan’ Ginggie calls out with a grin on his face.  Of course, time to eat again.  With our stomachs settled by a large helping of noodles, rice and fried prawns we are ready for the home stretch. 
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May 13

I was about to say good night to everyone, as it had been a long day after yesterday’s epic drive home. I was then informed that I was ‘on’ in two minutes! I remembered someone mentioning a possible interview on the local radio station, but something about the timing must have got lost in the translation.  Luckily my years of being a radio broadcaster held me in good stead for the late night live talk back show, I had to be present for.  The broadcaster also turned out to be my assistant Aceng, and together we entertained a lively audience with a bilingual discussion on the meaning of my arts project.  The discussion also helped me to verbalise my ideas and bring the project into a tighter focus.

Earlier that evening I spend some time in the studio working on the sculptures and it occurred to me that my working method changes with the working environment.  I want to involve as many people of the community as possible and this will only be achieved by adopting local methods. Just like a street food hacker, I will take the ‘Basket of Hope’ sculpture through the back lanes of the village and allow the locals to place a wish in it. This way I am adopting a local dialogue method.

I am also making good progress with my photo essay.  Having the luxury of time means I am able to build a level of trust with the workers.  This is starting to reflect in the images.  I welcomed the opportunity to share all of these ideas with the radio audience.
 

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May 14

‘What do you mean your mother told you not to eat with your hands?’ Arief looked at me bewildered, when I blamed my Swiss upbringing for not being able to master the art of hand feeding myself.  Then we both burst into laughter at the ridiculous situation.  It’s Saturday night and I am out with the boys, sitting on a carpet on the front lawn of the senior high school principal’s house and we are having a late dinner.  By now we must have gone trough several six packs of cold sweet tea, as we once again discuss the meaning of life. The air outside is a thick mixture of clove scented Indonesian cigarettes and eye burning smoke from the kilns of the numerous tile factories nearby. 

I finally manage to eat my meal, which came served on a Jati leave, but it was the first time that I finished last.  During my stay at Jatiwangi, I am reading Khaaled Hosseini’s ‘The  Kite Runner’ and tonight, not for the first time, I am struck at the similarities of Afghan and Indonesian life. But I guess, that because Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, it is not surprising. So I sit with the men, and it’s usually only with the men, on the carpet, drink more coffee and we work out the remaining schedule for my residency. There is no need for me to take any notes, as so far all arrangements have been fluid.  It suits me well!
 

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May 15

I was right about having to be flexible!  Sunday morning was supposed to be our second big workshop day with the local school students.  I set my alarm for 6 am and was ready for the planned 7 o’clock start.  My trusty assistant, Aceng, was here as well, armed with our ‘Basket of Hope’ we set off on foot to the school in anticipation of a busy morning.  Unfortunately our hopes for a productive morning were dashed, as an empty school ground greeted us.  I suspect communications broke down somewhere down the line.  Not to be persuaded by this apparent set back, Aceng and I just hang around; somebody will turn up we told ourselves. The local Tae Kwon Do group who arrived to do their practice saved us.  In the true spirit of flexibility, instead of performing martial arts, the group was invited to create contemporary art!

By early afternoon the persistent wet season cooled us down for the rest of the day. I found myself a dry and quiet spot and finished reading my book.
 

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May 16

Now that the project has reached its half-way point, my thoughts are turning to finishing the work.  The gallery space here at the Arts Factory is a fine location to install the sculptures and show the photos.  Much thought is given to reflecting the environment in which the work was created.  The use of bamboo, batik and rattan adds to the local feel.   Later in the day the local video production team, who produced a small documentary about the project, interviewed me.

I spend some time in the evening in the studio by myself, working on the sculpture.  The sound of countless local muezzins washes over me, interrupted only by the occasional rhythmical call of a lone gecko.
 

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May 17

I am back on the bike, it’s probably a size too small for me as my knees keep hitting the handlebars and the saddle keeps slipping into a very uncomfortable position.  Putting on a brave face I peddle on. I am assured it’s not very far; I hope he’s right!  The local screen printer, Denny, has invited me to inspect his workshop.  I am also getting some t-shirts custom made. I’m happy to support the local economy. Danny introduces me to his family and staff and proudly shows off his workshop.  Like many locals, he’s built the house and workshop himself, with the help of local people and local material.  I know I’ll be proud to wear my handmade t-shirt from Jatiwangi.

The Tae Kwon Do team arrived later in the afternoon to listen to a story and work on one of the Baskets of Hope.  The baskets are doing their job, as the boys and girls chat with each other and some keen ones even practice their English on me.  I, in turn ,pick up the odd Indonesian phrase and so the basket has become a social meeting point.
 

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May 19

About eighty curious pairs of eyes greeted me as I entered the classroom; there were no chairs or tables, just a spotless floor.  The students of the Islamic Elementary School at Madrasan Cijati, near Majalengka were lined up against the wall, boys and girls neatly divided.  We had arrived via a mini bus to continue our project at a regional school community. This time I had company and was supported by Melissa, a theatre performer from Mexico, and local musician Tedi En.  My  assistant Aceng was also there to translate for me. I had met the principal of he school a couple of nights ago, and we had arranged for the project to come to his school.  This turned out to be one of the more rewarding experiences for me.  Perhaps it was the idyllic setting of the school amongst the rice paddies and surrounded by volcanic mountains, or it was the shy enthusiasm of the students who made me so welcome at their school.  Hearing the story of ‘Stone Soup’ in two languages and acted out by two grown men had the students entranced. While Aceng and I worked with half of the school on the stories and the material sculpture, Melissa and Tedi found a large shady tree and entertained the other half with songs and dances.

The drive home was interrupted by a stop at the local market to buy a large helping of cooked snails, a local delicacy!

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May 20

As part of the final presentation in my residency, I am going to show the photos of the tile makers to the workers in the factory.  So this morning I was catching up with some last photo shooting at the factory.  This time Chief Ginggi and his camera trailed me as he is making a mini documentary about my photo project here.  Having someone who speaks the local language was a good opportunity to explain some of the shots that I had in mind, and I got some powerful portraits done.

I wasn’t going to fool any one with my dress up; there was no way I was going to be mistaken for a local gamelan player.  If there was any doubts, these were soon dispelled the moment I sat down with the drums. It made for some amusing photos though. At times my jaws ache from smiling, as every body takes the opportunity to have their photo taken with the ‘Mister’.  I am happy to oblige, it seems to be the least I can do with so much generosity given to me.

I had come to watch the local gamelan group practice their music, puppet play and dance routine.  It was inevitable that I would be somehow dragged into the action. I knew the moment had come when one of the players arrived with a costume for me.  By the time I had squeezed myself into the outfit, many cameras were at the ready. I just kept smiling.

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May 21

I’m bouncing up and down in the back of a small truck, surrounded by bleary-eyed Art Factory artists, a large canvas and two baskets of Hope.   It’s just after 7 am and we are heading to the Junior High school in Jatiwangi, our next project stop. This turned out to be the biggest turnout yet, as over a thousand students gathered for the morning assembly.  We were treated to gamelan and a dance performance.  Then it was time to address the students and inform them about the project.  Later, as we split up into a more intimate size, I worked with about 250 students on two of the baskets.  We also set the groundwork on a future collaboration to create a local ‘I Am’ project. (for more information on ‘I AM’ see my website: http://www.schatzblackrose.com/)

As the third week comes to a close, I can now envisage the final outcome of this project.  But there are still some local performances planned with the baskets, including a visit to the local health care centre and a walk through the village with the baskets.  It promises to be an exciting last week.

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I AM in Taree, art and storytelling workshop.

I am  looking forward to working with students from the Taree Public School on the I AM arts and storytelling project next week. This project explores visual literacy, oracy, active listening, cultural awareness,  risk-taking, self esteem building, co-operative behaviour, reflective practice, experimentation, persistence, imaginative thought,  improvisation, spontaneity and self expression!  

The great little artists of Ulsan

Last Friday we finished our art and storytelling residency at Ulsan HFS with an exciting exhibition. Students from Reception through to Year 9 created wonderful text based art works, inspired by artists like Colin McCahon, Jean Michel Basquiat , Christopher Wool and Joseph Beuys. They in turn inspired us with their creations. Here are some highlights.

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