Posts Tagged ‘art inspired by words’

Living-Language-Land: Word Portraits from the Earth

Friday, August 12th, 2022

Hello to all! I’ve missed you! I hope you’ve been able to navigate these past two years with grace and good health. With this first post in four years, I am pleased to present my newest exhibition, just completed.

Here’s how it started. In January 2022, I learned about a project called Living-Language-Land: a collection of specially sourced words from endangered and minority languages. The creators of this project invited 26 indigenous groups from around the globe to each choose one special word, in their own language, that attached them to the land. Then the organizers created a website with information about each word, including definition, correct pronunciation and video created on the respective native site (check out the link above). This word collection was presented in conjunction with COP26 (Conference of Parties on Climate Change) that occurred in Scotland in November 2021.

The project entranced me. Each word provided a window into a fresh and unfamiliar world of thought and action, from people who’d had intimate and direct connection to their native lands. The fact that many of the words had no direct or easy translation to English ignited my imagination. They danced in my head. I decided to approach the creators, visual artist Neville Gabie and neuroscientist Philippa Bayley from the UK, with the offer to make a visual version of the collection. The idea was met with great enthusiasm and support.

The basic plan was to make one stitched artwork for each word. That sounds simple but so many possible directions: how big? should they vary in size? which techniques and fabrics? quilted or framed? I’ve always maintained that art making is more about eliminating choices than making them… which became clear as I sifted through the morass of possibilities. I finally decided, after a few trial runs, that they should be framed in 12×12″ shadow boxes with glass. That’s a bit small, but after all I needed this project done within my lifetime.

I had no trouble which to do first: it was Danbwa, from the island of Mauritius. I was drawn to this word because it’s so obviously rooted in my own native French, meaning “in the woods”. Mauritius has no original indigenous population. Its culture arises from waves of settlers from many countries that eventually evolved their own language. It was fascinating to learn that this word began as a literal description of the wild woods of Mauritius, but over time it changed to mean ‘confused, lost, out of mind, wasted’. With this interpretation, as with others, I tried to show the breadth of the meaning: the deep woods framing its intense, wild interior, roots drawing on moving streams.

Danbwa. Island of Mauritius. 12×12″ framed textile.

In this piece the edges are frayed, just as the language of the poor and disenfranchised is fraying. This is true of many of the other languages in the collection. Thousands of indigenous languages all over the world are threatened by invasive, and mainly commercial, forces. At this point, I decided to include the words themselves in the pieces. The words are beautiful in themselves, and remind us about the limits of our own language.

Next came Napuro, a Cuyonon word from the Philippines, meaning, a forest that looks like ‘an island within an island’.

Napuro. Philippines. 12×12″ framed textile

For this I chose to do an aerial view of the forest. The ‘forest within a forest’ refers to pockets of forest surrounded by rocks, that contain delicate food and medicinal plants and their associated good and bad spirits. I imagined one might need to know exactly how and where to enter these special places, and that perhaps it was a secret only known to certain individuals or families – hence an arrow to show the passage.

I wandered through the words like a wide eyed child: a thrill for the senses and a test for my visual vocabulary. Kallpa warmi offered a technique challenge. This Quechuan word from the Peruvian Andes means ‘women’s strength’.

Kallpa warmi. Peruvian Andes. 12×12″ framed textile.

The online video shows an elderly mother teaching the native crafts of her culture to her daughter, one being how to make colourful story panels depicting current and historic events. The drawing tool is a pelican feather. My challenge was, how to make a feather? After several tries, I settled on silk fabric that frayed ‘authentically’ like a feather might, and added stitching and light paints to show the rib and the inked tip. The background is a collage of bright flowers like those used to decorate the story panels.

Morfa, a Welsh word meaning ‘a place of, near, or shaped by the sea’, presented another technical challenge.

Morfa. Welsh. 12×12″ framed textile.

For this one I chose an aerial view of a landscape subject to the tides, with its resulting pools and rivulets. Normally I appliqué fabrics on top of each other to achieve a design, but in this case I found that cutting away was the better option… it gave the effect of water sitting within, instead of on top, of the sandy edges. The use of reflective sheers for the water and extra stitching on the sand enhanced the effect, and the white dots represent shore birds, like the locally endangered lapwing.

A novel design experience was Coble, a Northumbrian Coastal word for a flat fishing boat, built without a keel.

Coble. Northumbrian Coast. 12×12″ framed textile.

In my career I’ve created hundreds of imaginary boats but this one had to be specific, and look three dimensional. It was a delight to find I could actually achieve the effect in fabric. The wave patterns are from mens’ cotton shirts, one of my new favourite sources of fabric.

I left Ixau, Ixam from Southern Africa, for near the end, struggling for ideas. It means ‘shooting a magical arrow, or going on a magical expedition’. I wondered how those two seemingly different meanings could be combined. It came to me that the arrow and the path to mystery might both indicate many choices or possible outcomes, and that the arrow shooting into a multi coloured fan would portray it well. This has become one of my favourites, as it was a clear message about a full life lived with the earth, and the resilience needed to survive.

Ixau, Southern Africa. 12×12″ framed panel

Most difficult of all was Saff, from the Mehri language of Southern Oman. It means “track; print; unexpectedly, it turns out to be”. What an odd combination of meanings!

The Mehri are desert dwellers specialized in tracking animals, notably herds of camels, as well as other humans both friendly and not. The skill of tracking was a matter of life and death. With the advent of concrete, tracking in many places became impossible, but the word lived on in the next generation as a way to describe an unexpected turn of events.

Saff. Southern Oman. 12×12″ framed textile

How do I show the disintegration of one meaning, to begin another? I decided to portray the sands of the desert with camel prints disappearing onto concrete road. The sands are burning away at the bottom, as is the environment, so the road takes over and leads away in a different direction. Language evolves.

There are 20 more pieces in this collection, and I have a story for each one. To quote The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig: “… we don’t usually question why a language has words for some things and not others. We don’t really imagine we have much choice in the matter, because the words we use to build our lives were mostly handed to us in the crib or picked up in the playground. They function as a kind of psychological programming that helps shape our relationships, our memory, even our perception of reality.”

When we learn that there is a word for something, it becomes real to us. This is the purpose of this project: to expand the vocabulary of our minds, to make real the invisible. And with this collection I also attempt to show jewel-like glimpses of what could be lost.

I leave you with a wall hanging called “All the Words“, meant to pull it all together with the symbolism of words from the earth, drawn up through the trees and into our lives and cultures.

All the Words. 40″ round fabric wall hanging.

The collection will be shown at the Elora Centre for Arts in July, 2023. Watch my Upcoming Events Page for other venues! Currently, as of August, 2022, they are in my studio in Dundas, ON, Canada. You are most welcome to visit by appointment, and where you can also see my newest pieces.

Living-Language-Land: Word Portraits from the Earth. Hillcrest Studio, Dundas, ON.

%d bloggers like this: