Work developed during the Sura Medura Artist Residency in Sri Lanka (with UZ Arts)
This work takes a simple every day object, made from the trees we were surrounded by in Sri Lanka, a coconut fibre sweeping brush, used daily in every rural and modest Sri Lankan home. The brush was adopted as a mechanism that created interaction with the local community, built relationships and led to an understanding and reflection on aspects of their home life. From this starting point these same objects were used as material for the project in forms that are at times interactive and at others narrative. The work is site specific responding to the local women’s relationship to these brushes, these families were the primary audience, however some of the wider references of the work speak of universal issues and details of everyday life perhaps applicable to many societies.
This project doesn’t confirm to a linear idea of artwork that commences, develops and then reaches conclusion. It gathered its own momentums and outputs at different stages, for contrasting audiences and was led through responding to each element as it took place. The form became a sequence of actions that used the properties and the personalities of the brushes to inject a playfulness and social political suggestions.
(The project is divided into 5 Actions, surmised here with more detail below)
//Action 1 : A 78 piece broom Swap
78 new brushes exchanged with village households for 78 used brushes, an interactive process that built the foundations for relationships and an understanding of the local cultural and social context.
//Action 2 : A broom Pilgrimage to the Colombo Biennale
An exhibition of the 78 used broom collection, in the capital city of SriLanka, a white space, an arts audience, a defiant army of sticks and bristles representing 78 rural households, a pause for reflection.
PUBLIC VS PRIVATE
//Action 3 : Brooms, borders and boundaries
A participatory afternoon reconstructing our tall gates and replacing them with a simple string of brushes, a reverse shift challenging the move towards privatisation of personal space and boundaries, copied from the West.
//Action 4 : Broom boards, umbrella and wickets
Completing a cycle, integrating the used brooms back into the public realm, in the form of interactive objects; each piece designed as a response to the functions and details that were shared about the village life.
//Action 5 : Broom portraits, playing cards, projection and a small party
Using photographic techniques the brooms were translated into anthropological portraits, printed in the form of a game and projected as an animation, a final night invited the village to participate.
Sri lankan women take extreme care in keeping their homes immaculate. The need to brush their concrete floors or mud floors at least once a day is an essential part of the daily routine, the jungle spends all it’s time trying to get inside. Many times it was remarked to me with pride ‘how clean is Sri Lanka?!’ The sweeping is a relentless cycle. I soon found myself in need of and carrying it home along our long road into the jungle I was astonished by how much this made the local people smile. Tourists don’t buy sweeping brushes. The local reaction was unbelievable children shouting out to their mums, women waving and smiling at their gates. The brush in my hand had created an unexpected diversion from a perception that I was simply a holiday maker.
Suddenly I was seeing these brushes everywhere, outside ever Sri Lankan shop or stall, propped in and out of every household. The brushes themselves are beautiful objects, a wooden pole with a range of plastic and recycled tin components that hold the coconut fibres into the end, resembling a moustache. I was fascinated in them, they are as locally sourced as you can get, they also belong to a social economic status, the simplest and cheapest models of their make, inferior to the more expensive and colourful plastic species, we might also be more familiar with in the west.
In an eagerness to repeat and explore the potential that might come from using more of these brushes as mechanisms for engagement with my local neighbours, I bought a couple more of them and rather bashfully asked if my neighbours might be happy to exchange these new brushes for their old ones. Luckily they found it really funny but were more than keen to, during the exchange they invited me into their homes for a cup of sweet tea and I was introduced to their families and photo albums. Word very quickly spread and others begun to enquire and before long I had plunged into a fascinating process of exchanging old brooms for new, meeting all of the families we were surrounded by and sharing stories and glimpses into one another’s lives. The collection of old brooms would become my material for the next action but the process of gathering in itself was a fully integrating and overwhelming experience, creating the friendships and foundations for my understanding of local life, opening up the invisible element of this new culture that as a tourist remain behind doors.
Inspired by the quite simple set up of the local shops in the village, window ledges or sheds with items, I placed a sign indicating ‘Broom Swap’ and I made an ordered pile of brand new brooms in a visible place outside our house. One lunch time 3 women separately came to the big gate of our garden and despite our language barrier they understood this swap, the simple configuration of the new and old brush piles had created their own language and they began unprompted pushing their old brushes through the fence to me on the other side.
Word of the broom swap somehow spread through this neighbourhood like wild fire, an unbelievable highlight of the power of verbal communication that is the glue with in this community. A stark contrast to the mechanisms we use for interaction in the west, where a broom swap might be expected to have its own Facebook page and fly around twitter. On one day I even ran completely out of brooms to exchange, I started to buy the brooms from the two closest little shops and when they ran out I noticed they made a new order, these tiny micro economies are fascinating and I felt essential that the swapping supported this.
After 10 days I had swapped 70 brooms and had met most of the village who kindly shared a bit of time or an invitation into their home with me in the process. It took another 8 broom swaps before I managed to get on top of the enthusiasm and persuade people that I would need to commence. I took along with the huge heap of second hand brushes new ideas for the transformation of these objects into new forms that would respond to the things I had learnt in the exchange process about how local people use their public space.
The Colombo Biennale, Srilanka’s Art festival celebrated its third edition this year (2014), including around 50 artists from both Sri Lanka and internationally. We were invited to participate during our residency, so my collected and well used brooms, all 78 of them made their way to Colombo. Several neighbours watched them pile into the back of the van, they had created a sense of mystery and as a group of brooms they had some kind of collective identity that people were aware of locally. On my return one man came up to me and asked – ‘my broom – Colombo going?’ he was delighted when I said yes. I also interested in a bigger potential for this group of brooms, on holiday in Colombo that could work in some really interesting political fields, beyond the exhibition, trips to sit outside parliament. The brooms were not just objects, they were each echoed by a family in the village who once owned them and was curious to know their whereabouts.
The exhibition in Colombo was a kind of pause, a chance to share a sense of prospective with a different audience, a short period of time to stand back and observe the brushes simply as they were a collection of objects before they returned to their village. I wasn’t interested to make anything with them in the gallery, just to let them rest, to stand strongly together as the community they represented, some young, some old, a few resting on others. This action was sculptural, sticks and their bristles, stacked in a way that created a sense of movement. They stood in tension as if mustering the energy to move forward en mass in one powerful sweep. There were two moments of physically interaction with the work during the exhibition; one was a beautiful piece of improvised dance, by Tom Pritchard (one of the other resident artists) which to me addressed the energy I was trying to capture in their configuration as a group, posed in sweeping position. The other was during install when I was informed that the ‘minor staff’ would come to sweep the gallery before the opening, two ladies came in with brushes identical to mine and myself an couple of others joined them with my brushes to clean the floor, everyone was smiling and laughing.
In a gallery the brushes gave a chance to reflect on, connotations that within the community context were harder to observe. Their relationship to class, to female roles, to the immediate natural environment they were created out of.
One of the inspiring local people I met lives alone in a small and simple little house and as a full time career for a handicapped daughter. Her home is completely cut off from the community by the strong tall walls that surround it. She told me, over a cup of tea how there is a Sri Lanka she misses that used to be different where people only had tiny fences or bushes between their homes, everything was open and space and life was shared and social. In the 60’s under new leadership the government encouraged many people to go abroad, particularly the Middle East to find work and in the process people saw how we were living and building big gates and walls. On return these influences were transferred and the built landscape in Sri Lanka began to change as property boundaries became more defined and private.
There is a mixture of housing borders in the village, the few newer builds or places that are rented to foreign visitors are all contained within tall and solid walls, our house was perhaps unique in that the wall remains relatively low. Else-where in the village there are still some beautiful examples of home-made fences, sticks and pieces of ribbon, rope and palm tree branches. In a community context where very few people access the internet and there are barely any social building or common spaces to congregate boundary markers play an incredibly important role in how people communicate. My broom swap and our fully submerged integration with the community was shaped significantly by the size and dimensions of our walls. It was only the large steel gates that presented an obstacle. The young boys in the village play cricket every evening on the road outside, one or more boys sat on the wall of our garden and jumped in to retrieve the ball, every minute or two as it landed on our grass. Someone had put broken glass along the part they sit on and the first few missing balls brought them very apologetically to our gate. We laughed and welcomed them to jump over as many times as needed, there is nowhere for them to play and we loved watching them and sometimes helping to field.
On occasions we left the gates open and other children would come in to play with us and the women would come to look, the only thing that needed to be kept out were the many stray dogs. The position of the gate (open or closed) was an undiscussed signal that marked our wish to be involved in the daily comings and goings of the community or not. As a statement and exploration of this topic of boundaries I spent an afternoon replacing our solid gate all together with one that all the neighbours could interact with us through, made from the brushes they had given me. No sooner had I started and several local children came to help me, we couldn’t communicate verbally but they understood perfectly what I was making and their tiny hands were completely accustomed to making and mending processes, tying knots and working with the local coconut fibre twine.
My final days in Hikkaduwa were spent trying to resolve the matter of 78 old brooms that on their return from Colombo had no home. I felt that the work should be a complete cycle, in which I had exchanged these objects as a mechanism for meeting people, building relationships and learning something of daily life here and that therefore the brooms should also be used in my response to the understanding I had gained. I was interested in the very simple connection between a mundane every day object and something that makes us laugh a little.
I designed a few simple structures to create which allowed them to somehow infiltrate back into the community and to react to ideas that originated during my time learning about the village. I made a set of cricket stumps for the boys who play cricket at the end of our garden every day. I also made a shop sign for the lady who runs a tiny wee stall and a guest room in the house opposite us, the place is barely visible. A 1/3 of the brooms were de-headed, bundled up and donated to the local community project run by our neighbour who was setting up new premises in one of the women’s gardens. These were going to be used to create the fence for the perimeter of this dance hall for children. The remaining brooms were joint together to make the Skelton shape of an enormous umbrella. Shade and shelter is is extremely valuable in the village and the climate. For an afternoon I opened up the garden gate to invite some of the local kids and families to help add colourful fabric to this shape before hoisting it up into our tree. The location for it, was chosen to directly shadow the round concrete platform in our garden above the water supply. Although this was un-refined in its aesthetic and form, this structure was really effective, addressing the space above this circle in this way completely changed the platforms function; it became a social space to gather under and to sit in a round. The people who had helped to build it took ownership of it while it hung and used the space and shelter it provided.
The used brooms are wonderful weathered objects, totally reshaped by the repetitive action of daily brushing according to the specific way in which the owner moves. Some clearly had vigorous and energetic owners, ferocious at brushing; others had been treated more gently. Most are worn away at one side more than another, some in the middle and others are used until there are only three bristles left. Each brush becomes a portrait of the person that worked with it. They are more or less all portraits of women. I began to photograph each brush as a head shot, the bristles become hair, having a bad hair day. In quite a contrast to the immaculate and beautifully presented appearance of Sri Lankan women, the brushes tell a more tiresome story of labour and daily work, but maintain a kind of brilliant humour.
I explored how the pictures worked printed in passport photo style and then I made a simple pack of snap cards with them. The idea of returning the images back into something you might interact or play with and in a form that requires you to really look and observe the individual differences of each broom head. As a game this plays with the social interaction I maintained an interest in and it is close to the kind of games commonly used and understood in Sri Lanka. I made several packs of cards to distribute in the village.
These days of activity ended with an evening collaboration between the other artists, Jo and Robbie that I lived with. We tensioned a bed sheet into the space at the front of our house porch and as dusk came on the final night, we organised a projection of two animations onto this screen, very large and visible from the road and our open gate. For mine I showed a sequence of the broom portraits, comical and as a spectacle and Jo and Robbie made a beautiful and fun animation using paper flip flops and flowers, accompanied by some energetic music. We placed kerosene lamps around tables and under the broom shelter with packs of the broom playing cards and cups of juice and biscuits. Many of the neighbours came and lots of them bringing children. The young men sat for the whole evening in a circle under the umbrella structure, playing cards by lamp light. The women took up positions on the chairs, watching the animations while the children grew steadily more hyper with the sugar, but between dancing huddled around the lamps to play with the cards.
From here the components and experience of the project remained as playful elements or memories in the community.