Lace (in progress, 2014)

A work in progress, began during the Sura Medura Residency in Sri Lanka

A photographic project which explores lace making and its relationship to colonisation.


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The residency was based on the fringe of a busy beach resort, a surfing paradise served by a traditional Sri Lankan community who had adopted tourism as their economy. I lived ‘jungle side’ in the depths of a quieter rural local life, for me this long and hectic road that ran along the coast was a confusing contradiction and clash of cultures.  That somehow fascinated me.

Indra works in one of the maybe a hundred little shops along the dusty Galle road. In between the colourful textiles, bikini and board short stalls, carved coconut shells, straw hats, souvenirs and westernised versions of a Roti restaurant serving beer in t-pots. Indra makes lace.  Hand-makes lace with bobbins and pins on her mother’s wooden machine; a tiny drum partially covered in fabric wedged into a kind of box, the edges crumbling and popping apart after the Tsunami invaded her previous premise. For 12 hours a day she stitches the delicate lace trims into cotton, creating hybrids of clothing tailoring the Sri Lankan and western fashions into beautiful garments to sell to foreign visitors.  Indra agreed that I could come for an hour a day and sit with her and learn to make lace.

The time we spent together started with an interest in how I might connect with this craft to create aninteractive or larger scale artwork with this as my subject but as the time unfolded and the hot midday hours talking, learning about one another’s cultures passed by, this cultural exchange became the draw that brought me back, day  after day. The birth of my first and slightly wonky line of lace became the mechanism through which we discussed at length the complexities and challenge of handi-crafts and also the connection to and similarities they have in both of our countries.

Lace making in not an indigenous craft for Sri Lanka, nor is handmade lace worn or used by local people, a colonial relic, the Portuguese rule brought this skill to the west coast of Sri Lanka and shared it with the local fisherwomen. These women then produced impeccable lace that found its way to the royal and rich garments and interior decors of the western world.  The craft has remained today, practiced by a handful of women, passed on by mother to daughter, but like many handicrafts continues to decline.

Together we opened up many questions which reference wider topics, the sustainability and ethics of tourism, the retaining impacts of colonisation and cast an interesting prospective on the notion of how skills are exchanged globally (a skill passed from the Portugal to SriLanka then to me in Scotland.) Lace remains as it began in Srilanka as a commodity for the wealthy westerner, once for those we would consider rich or royalty and now, in Hikkaduwa for the holiday maker.

Lace back at home is no longer bound by its previous connotations as something elderly people put on dresser, it has re-invented its image, it is a summer dress, it is even considered sexy. Machines and many hands in third world countries make lace that is sewn onto low cost nighties we buy on the high street; we are completely disconnected from the possibility to imagine a woman weaving every one of those threads, hands tossing the bobbins in perfect choreography. Even in Srilanka, we are rarely interested in how the border of the skirt is made or how life is for the person who made it, the majority of the tourists enter Indra’s shop gest towards one of her       garments and ask immediately ‘how much?’ In this Sri Lankan context lace is still a status symbol, but we are no longer necessarily aware of it. The delicate and beautiful ribbons of lace became to me a marker of that extremely complex line which is so difficult to deal with between the ‘first world’ and the ‘third world.’

I made about a metre of my own lace, I wrote at length about our conversations, I created my own drawing language to interpret the patterns and combination of movements that each bobbin needed to make. I made a conscious decision never to film the process or to document it in stages through photographs. As tourists we take great effort to snap at everything beautiful and out of the ordinary, but perhaps less time to simply look and understand the subject in front of us. I was also aware of this dividing ‘line’ I didn’t want to draw attention to, the strange contrast between an expensive digital camera and the simple wooden instrument we worked with. I wasn’t interested in creating a documentary about Indra’s life, as artists and as travellers we can be obsessed with documenting everything, evidencing every part of a process or journey as some form of justification of the validity. For sure this has its place but here I wanted to be able to entirely internalise and engage with this quite special experience and encourage the freedom of conversation between us by removing as many cultural barriers and distractions as possible.

On my final day I took just three photographs, using my analogue camera. I was back in Scotland when I viewed them for the first time and in reflection of the whole experience, these three images work for me as a fitting conclusion to the first step in a wider project that I hope shall allow me to engage with this subject in other countries over the coming years. The images are not about telling a story, but rather reflect through the colours and content on the topics we discussed. They are not made through a transient encounter to capture the beauty of the textile themselves, but taken as a result of the relationship we built. Where the people, the instrument and the environment that together delivered our dialogue are the subjects.

This period in time became the start of a longer journey, which should expand on this conversation.

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