Freckles

January 20, 1978, Melanie smells of soap and talcum.  The freckles on the round of her right shoulder spread from her face, like wild grass, to the top of her arm just above the bit where her bicep curls.  Her skin is golden brown, the colour of gula melaka on sago pudding.  She likes doing cartwheels in the grass and running barefoot on the roads.  Melanie is a wild child.

February 17, 1978, Melanie tastes of coconut cream.  The coconut oil she spreads on herself promises full protection from the tropical rays, Ibu Minah says.  I lick a patch of freckles near her clavicle and she shivers.  Then she giggles, softly at first, then her giggles turn into raucous hiccups and we both collapse in glee, unable to stop laughing.  Our stomachs ache, tears pour down our faces, our joy is immense and wild.  Melanie is my wild child.

March 14, 1978, The wind is in our hair as the boat glides over waves in the Indian Ocean.  Uncle Robert, Melanie’s father, owns a small sailing boat.  They sail away from the city every weekend and I tag along eagerly.  After a swim, we have sweet mangoes to take the salt away from our lips.  We feast on grilled shrimps and squid tasting of the sea and wash our lunch down with lukewarm ginger ale, then we laze about in the cabin below deck to escape the hot afternoon sun.  Our stomachs are round with food and drink; we hug and we cuddle, we read and we chat and sometimes we fall asleep spooning each other.  Melanie is my sailor girl.

When twilight approaches, we sit on the upper deck, legs dangling off the edge of the boat and wait for the night to come.  The sea is silent and still; a light breeze blows.  We lie back, heads resting on folded hands waiting for the stars to appear one by one.  They are like the freckles on Melanie’s right shoulder.  We count the twinkling stars; I count Melanie’s freckles.  One, two, three, lick, giggles.  Four, five, six, lick, giggles.  The stars twinkle and her freckles dance in the moonlight.  Melanie is my best friend.

March 30, 1980, Melanie says she misses her mother; sweat is beading on her upper lip.  She wishes that it wasn’t so humid, so her mother would stay.  I push the button of the electric fan to stop if from rotating so that it blows only at Melanie.  “Why did she leave?”  There’s more going on in New York.  “Have you seen her since?”  She never writes nor calls.  “It’s better to forget her then.”  Melanie nods but I know that it’s hard for her to forget this woman, her mother.  Melanie loves her nanny, Ibu Minah; she’s a native woman from the island.  Ibu Minah plaits Melanie’s hair and sings her a song in a foreign language.  “Sayang, sayang, sayang” Ibu Minah’s voice sashays as she massages Melanie’s scalp and separates her long auburn hair into two parts before turning each part into a neat plait.  Ibu Minah’s velvety song sends Melanie into another world where she is cocooned in her mother’s love, where she is smothered by her mother’s kisses.

April 23, 1980, Melanie is mewling like a new born kitten; she is forbidden to see Ibu Minah ever again.  Ibu Minah left in a flurry of shouting; Melanie’s father is punching the wall as he tells her that Ibu Minah is a bad woman.  The days are filled with despair and the nights desperation.  Melanie hugs me sobbing, she doesn’t know what to do without her Ibu Minah.  Who will plait her hair?  Who will hug her to sleep at night?  Who will sing her a song she doesn’t understand and can only sense?  Melanie’s anguish interrupts my dreams; the depth of her pain and the intensity of her loneliness disrupt my sleep.

*

April 30, 1980, Melanie stands naked in the bathroom; the floor is a pattern of different coloured mosaics.  She hasn’t eaten properly or bathed in a week.  I pour water over her head and spread some shampoo into her wet hair.  I rub and massage her scalp until the yellow shampoo lathers, then I wash it all away with buckets of water; her head smells of the metallic shampoo.  The tap is running, filling the Shanghai jar until it runs over.  Water splashes everywhere.  It’s time to soap her body.  I pass the bar of soap over Melanie’s chest; it glides smoothly over her budding left breast first, then her right.  I bring the soap over the round of her tummy.  The triangle between her legs is a feathery bush.  Melanie shudders a little when I soap the top of her thighs; the bruises are from Ibu Minah’s pinches to stop her from missing her mother.  Melanie is covered in white foam; greenish-yellow patches peep from beneath the foam.  I pour buckets of water over her until all the soap is washed away and her freckles are shiny like newly polished buttons.  But the blue-black, yellow-green patches won’t wash off.

*

May 14, 1984, It’s Melanie’s birthday.  Her wispy bangs are swept slightly away from her face.  She is wearing her hair high to one side in a bushy ponytail.  She is sweet sixteen.  Her eyeshadow is turquoise and green and her eyes are lined heavily; her lips are ripened cherries.  Her date is Andrew Martins.  I watch Melanie climbing into Andrew’s car.  I am full of rage; bile sits at the base of my throat.  She turns around, looks into my eyes, waves and mouths “don’t worry, I love you” though her feline eyes say something else: they are dancing with pleasure and fear.  Something’s not right, I sense; it’s too late, the car disappears round the bend; I missed out on saying “I love you too”.

*

January 29, 2004, The sun has set over the horizon.  I am on a boat with Mark; we are in the Philippines.  We relish the tropical warmth as anthracite skies spread over London.  I lick the freckles on Mark’s right shoulder; he tastes of the sea.  He laughs and kisses me hard on the lips.  The wind is in my hair as the boat sails back to the resort.  It’s our honeymoon and I am five months pregnant.

February 5, Our flight will leave in the afternoon.  The outrigger will take us to the airport on another island.  Mabuhay, El Nido, we will miss you, I whisper as the resort staff sings us good bye in a foreign language I don’t understand but can only sense.  I feel the sadness in the words as they croon and wave us goodbye, their voices floating out to sea as our little boat takes us further and further away.

The baby kicks as I open the overhead locker to stow away my bag.  I rub my tummy and whisper “don’t worry, I love you.”

May 14, 2004, I am pushed into the theatre for an emergency caesarean.  The pain makes me delirious; I feel the baby pushing against my pelvic floors unable to get out.  Everyone is talking in loud gibberish and Mark is running alongside the bed on wheels holding my left hand, my right is tethered to a catheter.  He whispers “don’t worry, I love you”.  The car turns round the corner and I sense something’s not right.  A loud explosion punctures the quiet of dusk; the sirens of the ambulance makes a ruckus.  “Road accident, No survivors, Victims both sixteen”.  I tear at my scalp screaming.  I feel a searing sensation below as the doctor makes an incision; the local anaesthetic isn’t working.  I howl like a wounded animal.  They place the baby on my chest as someone sews up the cut.  The baby is wet and slimy with freckles all over her shoulders.  I weep.  “I love you, Melanie, I love you.  I love you, my wild child.”

 

Eva’s Notes: 

Brock Elbank is a London based photographer who celebrates the beauty of imperfection.  In 2015, he started to document people with freckles. Elbank says:

“I’ve always loved freckles, and what I find interesting about individual characters that I meet and have been fortunate to photograph is that, generally, they’ve struggled having them in their infancy and either hated them, or grown to live with them or even like them in adulthood. Many of the subjects shot so far are such incredible-looking humans that are simply freckled … It’s really why I shoot what I love to shoot. Just amazing-looking individuals from all walks of life.” (Maria Yagoda for Peoplehttp://people.com/bodies/brock-elbank-freckles-photo-series-see-the-inspiring-pictures/)

Beauty is skin deep, as they say, and the standards and criteria of beauty are as arbitrary as the freckles on a person’s face and body.  I love how Brock Elbank celebrates beauty by taking portraits of people with freckles.  He also has another project, documenting men with beards.

Undulations

Nora looked down at her feet; she can’t see them past the folds of her post-pregnancy tummy.  Her beautifully manicured toes are hidden from sight.  Three babies and what is left of her svelte figure is a terrain of undulations, flaps and scars.

When Tom brushes against her accidentally, a thousand ants bite.  She recoils into herself when he suggests intimacy.  She’s happy with the odd night out but can’t wait to come home to her babies; there’s always the excuse that the babysitter is a high school student and has a curfew.  The reality is that her post-natal body has become an excuse for going to bed with the kids.

*

Martin shuts his eyes as he comes inside her, his right hand cupping her left boob.  The sensation is so intense that he collapses on top of her seconds later.  Sharon is relieved that it’s all over.  She pushes Martin off gently; he snorts in his post-coital slumber and mumbles something incoherent.  Sharon gets up and takes a pee, her post-coital routine.  She habitually tiptoes into the twins’ room to listen to their breathing as they sleep.  A euphoric sense of satisfaction fills her to the core; there is peace in her world.

At high school biology, Mrs Carter said that pregnancy occurs when a sperm meets an egg; gestation takes 40 weeks; human mammals have one of the shortest gestation periods, and the most helpless offsprings at birth.  An elephant’s gestation is 22 months and baby elephants are expected to stand upright almost immediately after birth.

When Sharon and Martin got married, she’d wanted children immediately.  Who would’ve thought that it would take 6 miscarriages, 3 failed IVF attempts before Jenny and Heather finally arrived.  Mrs Carter was wrong: pregnancy doesn’t come so easily; biology lessons don’t tell you the whole truth.

*

Nora breastfeeds Lilly as Sharon buys the coffee.  The two women met at a ‘mother-and-me’ dance class a year ago.  The twins are strapped into their double stroller waiting for their babycinos.  Sharon is the more organised of the two.  Fifteen years in corporate finance means schedules and datelines are met even on the home front.  Sharon stopped breastfeeding when the twins turned 12 months exactly.  She is also strict on the exercise: pilates on Mondays and Fridays. boxing on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Yoga on Wednesday mornings.  When the twins were 6 months old, she decided to take another 6 months leave and subsequently decided not to go back to work at all.  She figured that the corporate finance world didn’t need her and she didn’t need them either.  Martin makes enough to support them all and with more embryos frozen at the IVF centre, they could even have a couple more children.  Nora has always gone with the flow; Kylie, her oldest was unplanned which took her and Tom by surprise; she was on the Pill too.  Nora had a good position in a marketing company and was looking forward to a promotion when the doctor told her that her food poisoning was really morning sickness.  She remembers floating out of the GP’s office dazed but very excited.  Julie came fourteen months later and finally Lilly when Kylie was five.

*

Sharon says that she has no body issues and that Nora should love her body for what it is.  Easy for Sharon to say this, she’s as thin as a rake.  Nora chuckles as she pondered on the phrase; for the first time, she finally understood this saying which she’d learnt as a child in ESL classes.  Sharon really had the dimensions of a rake if Nora had to be honest.  She shakes her head in mock disbelief as it dawned on her just how much a picture really speaks a thousand words.  Yet, she knows that Sharon’s size didn’t come easily to her; years of dieting and obsessing about calorie intake and food consumption kept her the size of a gardening tool.

For Nora, obsessing about weight is a privilege that only other folks had.  She lived with her parents in a one bedder above a takeaway in Chinatown when the family first arrived in Sydney; she was nine years old.  There were no rakes in her cockroach infested room.  Her parents had shared the apartment with Mrs Chen, also from Hong Kong.  Mrs Chen, the landlady, would sometimes babysit her while Ma and Pa were at work; Mrs Chen had all her possessions under the sofa which doubled up as her bed.  Ma was a cleaner by day and waitress by night and Pa washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant nearby.  When there was food, everyone ate their fill.  Nobody talked about big bottoms and flabby arms or six packs and toned biceps when she was a child.

When Nora started high school, some of her female classmates were always talking about the latest dieting fads.  Christine was on a low carb diet.  She refrained from eating potatoes and rice; Nora couldn’t understand Christine’s reluctance to eat rice since it was a Chinese staple.  In Nora’s home, rice was a precious commodity; her parents couldn’t always afford to buy rice; sometimes they had congee because it took less rice grains to make a pot of rice porridge.  Christine must come from a rich Chinese family and therefore privileged enough to push away a bowl of rice.  Nora was impressed but she kept her circumstances quiet; nobody asked and she didn’t offer answers either.  Then there was Cheryl who kept going on about thigh gaps; Nora had wondered what that meant.  She learnt about thighs gaps later when she met Tom who couldn’t stop talking about his ex and how thin her legs were and how much space she had between her thighs and crotch.  Nora thought that she had a normal body until that day.  Yet, she listened to Tom; Asian bodies are so different from Australian ones, he had said.  Nora didn’t have a thigh gap; her hips are too small; her stumpy legs too short to leave a space between them.  But Aunty May Ling had said the opposite.  Aunty May Ling, her mother’s boss, had said she had hips wide enough to give birth; Aunty May Ling was Chinatown’s matchmaker, she owned the speakeasy which doubled up as a brothel at night.

*

By the time Nora started working in advertising sales, she learnt that talking about diets and detoxing were popular topics amongst the girls; they came up in conversation naturally.  To fit in, she indulged in eating less carbs; she allowed herself to order a soya latte and talked about being lactose intolerant.  Every once in a while, she would remember how hard it was for Ma to get Min the milk powder she needed.  Min was two years old when she died; Pa had lost his job at the restaurant when the owners invested in industrial dish washers.  Ma’s salary wasn’t enough to pay rent, buy food and the special milk powder that Min needed; she was severely lactose intolerant.  The doctor had said that death from lactose intolerance is rare.  The social services came calling and took Ma away for questioning.  She told her interpreter that she couldn’t breastfeed Min because she was working two jobs since her husband had lost his.  Min’s case is a tragic one, the judge had said.  There were no further prosecutions because both parents had tried their best within their circumstances.

*

When Nora had her first child, breast milk was the only option; Kylie was breastfed until she was four.  No child of hers would ever die of lactose intolerance, if she had her way; Lilly, her youngest, is still on the boob at three.  All three children were breastfed until they could eat solids and then were given soya milk as an alternative.

Tom feels that Nora complicates things far too much.  Co-sleeping with each child meant that sex was a rare occurrence.  He excepted the reality of their marriage and found that he actually enjoyed sleeping in a big bed by himself.

Nora’s nightmares continue even whilst hugging one of her babies during the night.  She slept with the three girls in the guest room on a queen size bed.  In her dreams, Nora finds herself alone, running away from being caught by the spectre behind her; she is knee deep in sludge and instead of running, she is wading, arms flailing to keep from falling facedown.  She is breathless, her chest is squeezed, she is enveloped in fear.  She cannot be caught.  One of the girls stirs and Nora wakes up with a start and is relieved that her world is safe and her babies are snoring softly.

*

“You have to remember that men are simple compared to women,” Tom announced during a dinner party one night.  “The man I am now, at forty, is the same boy I was at fourteen.  Women are complicated in comparison.”  Everyone laughed for this is true.  Nora took a long sip of her wine.

“I wish that I could have the same privilege as you Tom,” she said slowly whilst looking at her husband.  “I wish I could be the same girl I was at fourteen now at forty.  Life just took over, I guess.”

 

Eva’s Notes: 

This oil painting is called Waves on the Hudson River by Yayoi Kusama, [©YAYOI KUSAMA]. She painted this in 1988.

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) is an influential Japanese abstract artist who was influenced by Surrealism.  Her artworks are reflections of her mental state and many speak about her psychosis: she is obsessed by ‘self obliteration’ and she expresses this by using dot motifs in many of her works.  She says that the dots obliterate the subject, the subject is often herself.  Yayoi Kusama has been living in a psychiatric hospital since 1977, the year she voluntarily checked herself in. She set up a studio nearby where she works daily, creating art that manifests her internal angst and suffering.

To interrogate her work, is to enter into her psyche.

I like this oil painting because the undulations are mesmerising. There is a calming effect upon prolonged viewing of the canvas.  This painting is abstract because the wavy tubular lines are meant to represent the waves that Kusama saw on the Hudson. But it could represent anything for the viewer who hasn’t read the title.  Dots never leave Kusama’s work; you can see them in orange on this piece.  The dots mirror those that Kusama sees in her hallucinations which she’s had since childhood.  Dots have become her emblem and signature.

 

Noli Me Tangere

Noli Me Tangere means ‘Touch Me Not’ or ‘Don’t Touch Me’.  This Latin phrase has such a poetic ring to it; the sound of its English translation is dull by comparison.  It’s perfunctory; it’s bland; it’s arid: ‘Touch Me Not’.

‘Touch Me Not’ is functional too: it’s the vernacular name for a type of plant.  The verdant fronds of the Mimosa Pudica closes up automatically in an act of self defence when touched.  The compound leaves of this perennial herb close in on themselves when they feel violated.  It’s Mother Nature’s signal to the perpetrator that the plant feels unsafe.

As a child, my favourite past time was to titillate the plant which spreads itself wildly among grassy patches and watch its fronds clamp up.  Watching the leaves recoil and droop would give me immense pleasure.  I didn’t understand that my action was causing the plant to react in self defence.  There was power in my touch.

Noli Me Tangere

Noli Me Tangere

Noli Me Tangere

Which word in the phrase should I say shout out?  Should ‘Noli’ stand out?  How about ‘Me’?  ‘Do I scream ‘Tangere’?  The words on their own don’t mean much; ‘don’t’ is insipid; ‘touch’ conveys a sense of the tactile; ‘me’ is a personal objective pronoun.

But when strung together, ‘Noli Me Tangier’,‘Touch Me Not’ is empowering.  With this phrase a woman marks a personal space between her body and her date.  With this phrase, a man tells his drunk opponent to keep his distance.  With this phrase, a child says ‘I’m not comfortable with what you’re doing to me; I feel unsafe.’

“Mama, touch me not!” screams Layla as her mother’s palm flies yet one more time across the six year old’s face.

“Daddy, don’t touch me!” Ruben screams at his father as the leather belt hits his ankles again.

“Papa, aiya! Noli Me Tangere!” Maria yells as her father yanks at her hair to make her stop crying.

‘Touch Me Not’ means ‘STOP’!

 

Eva’s Notes:

The image that inspired my ramblings was painted by a man named Fra Angelico.  He painted it on a wall and this type of painting is called a fresco.  I first saw this in Florence where it’s still well preserved on one of the walls in the Convent of San Marco.

Who was Fra Angelico? 

Born Guido di Pietro, circa 1395, Fra Angelico was a monk of the Dominican Order.  After his death in 1455, he became known as Fra Angelico because of his paintings.  It was Fra Angelico, the ‘Angelic Painter’ who pioneered the trends in styles well known in the Early Renaissance: Stylistic trends like how pictorial spaces were handled and how the interplay of light and shadows created shapes with more volume made Fra Angelico a sought after artist.

He was commissioned by Dominican institutions to paint altarpieces and frescoes.  These images were used as propaganda to advance the order’s missionary work.  In the Early Renaissance, images known as icons were used as educational tools to promote Christianity to a largely illiterate population. Icons were images that acted as a conduit between the spiritual and earthly realm; such images were venerated and worshipped.

Artists who could translate Biblical narratives into images held important positions and were quickly noticed by the authorities.  Cosimo de’ Medici commissioned Fra Angelico to paint frescoes in the newly renovated San Marco Convent in 1435.  This was the cherry that topped the pie in Fra Angelico’s artistic career.

Fra Angelico died in Rome in 1455.  He is buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

The artwork:

Noli Me Tangere, John 20:17.  Jesus said to Mary Magdalene “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father […]” when she found Jesus after his resurrection; she was the first person who saw Jesus when he rose from the dead.

It is unclear why Jesus said these words to Mary Magdalene. The English Standard Version Bible translates the Latin Noli Me Tangere to “Don’t Cling to me” while the King James Version uses the literal translation of “Touch me not”.

There are many scholarly readings for the reason behind his seemingly unkind words.  It is important to take historical contexts into account.  During Jesus’ time, there are ritualistic taboos in handling the dead and touching a dead body was prohibited.  Another reason could be the position of women in Biblical times; it was not appropriate for women to touch a man.

The Bible can be read in many ways.  Some take the Word literally while others understand the Word as a metaphor for a more multi-varied reading.

Noli Me Tangere has become an iconographic interpretation of the the Word/s.  Fra Angelico was not the only artist who transcribed this narrative into imagery.  At the British Museum, you can see another painting of the same theme by an unnamed artist (many icons were painted by unnamed artists).  This icon produced in the 17th century is an hybrid icon.  By that, it means that the icon combines Western and Eastern (Byzanitne) elements.  Click here if you can’t make it to the British Museum to see the icon for yourself:

Image: Museo del Convento di San Marco, Noli Me Tangere, wall fresco, 1440 – 1442, Basilico di San Marco, Firenze.  I found the image on Wikiart which is an online space that sells reproductions of images.

Fun Fact:

Reproductions of icons were produced all the time during the Renaissance but the images of the holy persons were considered to be the holy persons themselves and not reproductions of them.

Maria and the portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio

 

Maria stares resolutely at the portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio; she has been wondering about the lives of the aristocracy since discovering that her great-grandfather was a nobleman in the service of the British empire.  He was a colonel in the East India Company’s army and was sent to India to oversee the administration of the Company’s trading regulations.  He became a Resident in one of the Indian states and married an Indian woman of high caste.  Maria’s great-grandmother died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her sixth daughter; the townsfolk gossiped about the curse of the White Man’s blood.  Maria’s relationship with her aristocratic family is laced with tension; any questions of her family history met with either a defensive silence or a click of her grandmother’s fiery tongue.  Maria learnt long ago not to rock the family boat.

Ginevra’s skin has a peachy glow; her cheeks are accentuated with a muted rose tone blusher.  Maria is mesmerised by Ginevra’s immaculate creamy complexion, she has skin so fair that its almost translucent; Maria’s is three shades darker by comparison, a result of the tropical sun and her Indian father whom she never met.  Yet, her grandmother insists that they are of British stock.  The mystery of grandmother’s obsession with skin tones never ceases to amuse Maria; her grandmother who has an olive complexion was always trying to lighten it by washing herself in lemon juice.  How many shades of brown can there really be?  Claudine, Maria’s mother, is obsessed with Vitamin D much to her mother’s vexing.  Claudine who has dark green eyes with a hint of blue is constantly trying to make her skin a shade tanner.  Maria stays out of the UV rays because she knows that the sun can cause premature aging.

Maria notes that Ginevra’s chin shows some signs of aging; Ginevra would be about 38 years old; maybe even 40.  Maria is a facial therapist, she knows faces.  It’s her job to advice women on the conditions of their skins and how to combat signs of aging through regular facial treatments and products made by skin labs in Europe.  Her clients are mostly wealthy women – old money – as this strata of society is called in Delhi who are preoccupied with staying young and fair-skinned.

There is a slight sagging of the chin just below the jaw line but the artist has painted Ginevra in a good light.  There are no visible wrinkles around her left eye; an opening, a window perhaps, shows the city below; Ginevra is looking out, her gaze fixed at a point not visible to Maria.  Ginevra’s eyes are set deep and framed by a faint brow which has been pruned according to the beauty requirements of Ginevra’s time.  There is a stoic resignation in her thin lips which belie any emotion.  Maria can’t tell if this aristocrat is happy or sad; her face gives away nothing.  Maria, by contrast, wears her heart on her sleeves.

“This child has the mannerisms of a peasant,” grandmother’s voice penetrates the silence of the room where Ginevra’s portrait hangs.  Grandmother is always present in the grey mass of Maria’s subconscious.

It intrigues Maria that aristocrats extol certain ways of behaving.  Grandmama – with an inflection on the last syllable ‘ma’ – as her grandmother preferred to be called, used to say that princesses would never behave this way if Maria were to slip out of line during their routine Sunday lunches at her grandparents’.  Claudine simply chewed her meal in silence and glugged down her wine.  It’s bad form to drink so heavily and noisily, Claudine knows, but she is past caring about how her mother feels.  The wine is the only liquid that would calm her nerves when chai wasn’t available.  Claudine doesn’t stop her mother from chastising Maria; there is no ammunition powerful enough to combat an angry dragon.  The hurt of being a kutcha butcha has led to years of unresolved rage and Claudine can only shield her daughter so much as she grapples about how she can save herself.  Her defiance in keeping the bastard child of a summer fling with an Indian intern at the bank resulted in a wave of unmitigated rage in her mother.  Claudine’s English father remained determined that her rebellion was to spite him for insisting on remaining in India when many of Claudine’s cousins had left for Canada or England.  Robert FitzWilliams was born in India to English expatriates and India was where he wanted to remain.  Little did he know, it was really Claudine’s insistence on brining an Indian child into this world that was the reason for keeping Maria.  She would bring Maria up Indian and Feminist.

The sudden discovery of blue blood in her family connected the missing dot for Maria.  It explains why grandmama insisted so incessantly on her keeping out of the sun and why she should refrain from being too dark-skinned.  This discovery led Maria to researching her family roots, of probing into a racial category of people known previously as the Eurasians before finally being called Anglo-Indians.

Since then she is enveloped by a sense of calm; Maria also knows now why her mother insists on a bohemian existence in the city where she teaches yoga and meditation.  Yoga helps in focusing the mind and meditation helps in keeping the mind still; both are ancient practices that predate Hinduism and Buddhism; importantly, both are practices that Claudine chose to mark her identity as Indian.

As for Maria, she has never doubted her Indian identity.  She is resolute about who she is and remains so even after discovering that she has blue blood.

 

Eva’s Notes:

Ercole de’ Roberti (c. 1451 – 1496) was an important painter in the Early Renaissance.  He was one of the painters of the School of Ferrara.  Ferrara was ruled by the Este family who was well known for being patrons of the arts.  Ercole de’ Roberti rose to being a court painter for the Este family.

The art historian Giorgio Vasari documented de’ Roberti’s life and work in his famous book which is still used today by scholars of the Renaissance to understand artists from that period.  Vasari writes that de’ Roberti was a bon vivant.  De’ Roberti died young from his excesses; his paintings are few and many of his works have been destroyed.  Those that survive show his skills and talent.

This portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio has a partner: The portrait of Giovanni II Bentivoglio, Ginevra’s husband, who was known for being a tyrant.  The two portraits can be found at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Portraits were symbols of status during the Renaissance.  Only the wealthy and powerful had the means to commission artists to paint them in their true likeness.  Portraits were also documents of fashion and style; Renaissance scholars are able to understand how the wealthy families in Italy dressed and looked by studying their portraits.  De’ Roberti painted Ginevra Bentivoglio so meticulously that her pearls and gems seem real.  I like this painting for its realistic reflection of Ginevra’s dress and head dress.  I see lines and shapes in her profile and bust which indicate de’ Roberti’s skills as a draughtsman.

Apart from portraits, de’ Roberti also painted diptychs and icons.  The National Gallery in London exhibits ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ and ‘The Dead Christ’.  The two portraits form ‘The Este Diptych’ and were bound together in purple silk velvet.  They belonged to Eleonora of Aragon, Duchess of Ferrara who was also the consort of Ercole I d’Este.  She would have used the portraits as an aid to meditation and prayer.

Image credit: The National Gallery of Art, Washington. Portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio, c. 1474/1477, tempera on poplar panel, overall: 53.7 x 38.7 cm (21 1/8 x 15 1/4 in.)
framed: 80 x 66 x 7.6 cm (31 1/2 x 26 x 3 in.)

Guo Pei – Couturier Extraordinaire

Welcome to the world of Guo Pei, couturier extraordinaire.  The eponymous brand is based out of Beijing and Paris.  Guo Pei is renowned for dressing Rihanna for the Met Gala, held to inaugurate the 2015 exhibition: ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’.  The exhibition is a retrospective on how Chinese aesthetics influenced Western fashion; Guo’s designs were displayed there.  Dressing Rihanna propelled Guo onto the international stage.  Her first solo exhibition was held the same year at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.  She collaborated successfully with cosmetic giant MAC in a make-up collection that took the world by storm, also in 2015.

Guo Pei has been sewing since the age of two.  She is China’s darling couturier and has been in the Chinese fashion scene for more than 20 years.  Her gowns have dressed celebrities, socialites, royalty, and the political elite; her creations transform already beautiful women into magnificent ethereal creatures.

Combining traditional artisanal savoir-faire with an eye for detail and design, Guo’s pieces are crafted with technical precision.  She was invited into the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture whose members comprise primarily of Haute Couture houses.  This means that the House of Guo Pei is recognisably a protected label and is permitted by the French Ministry of Industry to call itself a Haute Couture brand alongside Dior and Chanel.  This is France’s highest accolade for designers, enabling Guo to take part in the Paris Haute Couture Week in 2016.  She showcased her ‘Courtyard’ Collection in Paris which anchored her firmly in the Parisian fashion world.

Today, Guo’s atelier can be found on rue Saint-Honoré, a prestigious shopping street in Paris.  Her success harks back to a childhood dream of aspiring towards perfection in the contemplation of beauty.  And Guo Pei’s designs are indeed beautiful.

Guo’s Spring/Summer 2017 Collection – ‘Legend’ – features jewel encrusted gowns in hues of muted emerald green and shimmery antique gold.  Skirts are set in frames but with sufficient fabric left over to billow as the model glides on the catwalk; a model strides confidently in a pair of structured trousers that hug her androgynous hips.  This collection reflects Guo’s dedication to detail, three-dimensional embroidery, her trade mark, and meticulous craftsmanship.  The collection is romantic and dreamlike.  The fabrics are canvases for Guo’s artistic expressions much like paintings and embroidery were for Old Masters.

‘Legend’ was inspired by the murals in the dome of Switzerland’s St Gallen Cathedral.  For the collection, Guo collaborated for a year with Jakob Schlaepfer, a haute couture fabric designer, to produce the bespoke fabric which pay homage to the cathedral’s Rococo paintings.

The twenty-one pieces in the collection reflect Guo’s appreciation of the “spirit of handicrafts” and the “spirit of devotion”.  Guo shows her spiritual side in these creations full of motifs of holy saints, heavenly goddesses and medieval warriors.  The spectacle lends a romantic and mysterious ambiance to the catwalk.

Guo is a storyteller.  Inspired and fascinated by the origins of Mankind, creation myths and the mysteries of everlasting life, she sutures these fantastical legends on fabric.

The 2017 Haute Couture Show was held at La Conciergerie where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned before her execution.  Opening the show was ‘the Revenant’ a luminous dress invoking the queen’s ghost as she wanders the corridors of her castle prison.  The music accompanying the spectre’s entrance onto the catwalk is as hauntingly mesmerising as the dress.  The model wears a crown, tall and ornate, signifier of Marie Antoinette’s position as the Queen of France who will forever be remembered as the legendary queen that the Revolutionists sent to the guillotine.

“Legends have alway been one of my greatest sources of inspiration, unlocking my infinite imagination.”  Guo says.

A legend of the catwalk Carmen Dell’ Orefice, 85 years young, closed Guo’s couture passerelle.  She was the “bride” – the model who traditionally closes Couture Shows – clad in a flaming poppy red gown flanked by two elfin male attendants.  A structured cape opens up behind the model’s head like a flower in full bloom; a sea of red trails behind Dell’ Orefice as she traverses the catwalk path.  Choosing to dress the “bride” in red reflects Guo’s deconstruction of Chinese wedding rituals in which the bride gown is traditionally red.  The auspiciously coloured gown is made from pure silk that has been specially treated.  Interwoven into the thin and airy fabric are wires so fine, they resemble human hair.  This is a manifestation of Guo’s fantasies which are inspired by legends.

Guo Pei is herself a legend; her name will go down the annals of Haute Couture.  Her designs, which often combine Chinese craftsmanship with technical innovation and Western style evoking emotional responses like art does, will ensure that Guo Pei stays a legend amongst legends.

Image credit: Guo Pei

Eva’s Notes

Can fashion be considered art?  Haute Couture is high fashion and not for the faint-hearted when it comes to dress.  Names like Chanel, Dior, Yves St Laurent are familiar brand names most of us would have heard of. They are established fashion houses that have the right to call themselves creators and purveyors of Haute Couture.

Guo Pei is a new comer to this scene. Her designs combine her love for sewing and dress making with Chinese traditional craftsmanship. I was bowled over by the artistic flair of her creations. Her latest designs were inspired by Rococo paintings found in a church. This combination of art and craft marks her as a fashion designer whose work I would call art.

Chinese Eyes

‘What are you doing, my puppet?’ the woman asks the little girl with blonde hair.

‘Making my eyes Chinese,’ the blonde girl replies as she pulls up the corners of her eyes towards the back of her ears.

The woman who has dark brown hair looks on as the little blonde girl continues to make herself look Chinese.

‘Why is that so important, my darling?’ the woman wants to know.  ‘Mummy doesn’t have eyes like that, does she?’

The little blonde girl looks away from the mirror, she is four years old but very wise, and takes a long look at the woman with dark brown hair.  She frowns a little and then looks back at herself in the mirror.

‘No, she doesn’t,’ the little blonde girl answers slowly. ‘But I want to look a little Chinese, because I’m half Chinese.’

The little blonde girl, her name is Heather, is serious and light hearted all at the same time.  She asks existential questions like ‘Where will I go when I die, Mummy?’ and ‘Where do butterflies go to die?’

Her mother, the lady with dark brown hair, her name is Evelyn, is young and ancient all at the same time.  She is Chinese from around the world.  Her ancestors are known as Peranakans who lived a hybrid life that incorporated Chinese, Malay and European cultures.  Evelyn’s eyes were double lidded, big and coloured brown.

Heather was born bald as an eagle.  Her eyes were blue at birth but they soon turned light brown.  Evelyn was all alone when she gave birth; her English boyfriend had abandoned her long ago.  She was exotic until the day the baby was born.

Evelyn was young. just a month past 24.  Sex had been an exploratory journey of hunger, urgency and loss.  She was still a virgin when she met Steve; he was charmed by her innocence but couldn’t contain her yearning for love and her appetite for touch.

She couldn’t fathom that she was pregnant even though all the signs pointed out the pregnancy so blatantly.  Her breasts were tender, her nipples hurt and she felt like throwing up for months.  She kept telling herself that it was the flu.  The weather was turning and winter was approaching.  She just needed a padded bra so that the cold wind won’t hurt her nipples; maybe a thicker coat.  The bulge in her tummy was due to too much beer.  They say that beer is fattening.

Beer was Steve’s favourite drink; a pint didn’t cost much in those days.  There were discounts at the Union House, perks of being a Phd student.

Dusk was nearing that Sunday when Evelyn felt a dull ache at the base of her cervix.  She still had a week to go, so she wasn’t worried about the Braxton Hicks contractions she was feeling.  The train was approaching the platform and they were still at the top of the stairs.

‘Let’s make a run for it,’ Steve shouted out as he ran down the stairway. A day at the local pub had lifted his melancholy.  He wants to fly like the wind; with arms stretched out like an aeroplane, he flew down the concrete stairs.

Evelyn hobbled down holding the base of her rotund tummy, this comes naturally to pregnant women.  Steve held the train door open, forcing the train to be stationed for longer than its intended duration.  The station master shouted in irritation and blew his whistle.  Evelyn finally made it down the stairs, panting, breathless and in need of a seat.  Her tummy hurt and she could feel the last swirl of dinner percolating at the base of her throat.

A kind gentleman gave up his seat for her.  She plonked herself down gratefully.  She could feel the acid ride up her throat and she gagged to keep the contents in.  She would have to wait for the next stop to throw up, she thought. Confucius had taught that it is wise to be mindful of others; the carriage just wasn’t the right place to puke.  Steven shifted his weight from one foot to the other, looking around him nervously.

The embarrassment of wetting yourself in public is a conditioned fear.  Toddlers happily pee in the sand pit or in the swimming pool.  Part of socialising children is to stop them from this natural inclination to mark their spot or to relax and let go.  Evelyn’s waters broke just as she heaved herself up to leave the train.  She left behind a trail of water as she exited and a pile of vomit on the platform as the train pulled away.  Walking home was memorable; Steve had decided not to disembark with her.

Evelyn was in the throes of another contraction when the taxi arrived at the hospital.  She had to wait for the contractions to stop before she could leave the cab.  Another round of contractions started as she shuffled her way to the maternity ward.  Her bald baby was born an hour later.

Who would have thought that genetics could skip a generation or two?  How did an Asian girl become the mother of a blonde angel?

Jari Tangah Benar, Dani “King” Heriyanto, oil on canvas, undated, 160 x 140 cm. Photo taken at The Art Stage, Singapore 2017.

Eva’s Notes:

Dani “King” Heriyanto is a visual artist known for his stylised female faces. He says that female beauty inspires him.. Heriyanto’s work consists of female portraits that combine qualities of pop art with a personal touch of stylised realism incorporating unique elements of Asian ethereality. The portrait pictured is entitled ‘right middle finger’ in Malay. Choosing to name this undated portrait in his mother tongue removes the banality of its  English equivalent. A phrase spoken in a foreign language makes the most insipid expressions exotic.

Our faces are visual expressions of identity; in the perception of ourselves lies how others see us. The Asian beauty is always imbued with a sense of the mystic and a sense of the exotic. To Western beholders, the shape of our Asian eyes and Asian noses distinguish us (as Others) from the (Western) norm.

Tidbit to Take Away:

Heriyanto has been accused of plagiarism by a Korean contemporary artist. The lines between plagiarism and inspiration are quite unclear in the Arts. In a globalised world where social media plays a huge part in the dissemination of information, intertextuality has become interwoven into the fabric of our contemporary lives; social media does complicate notions of privacy and ownership.

Syamatara – The Goddess of Compassion

This must be the most beloved of all bodhisattvas in the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition. She goes by many names, depending on where you come from. In the Hindu-Buddhist tradition, she is known simply as Tara.

Who is Tara? She is the Goddess of Compassion often linked to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. She is said to be born from one of the tear drops that Avalokiteshvara shed on witnessing a scene of human suffering. Avalokiteshvara is Tara’s male counterpart. Tara refers to “the one who saves”. Like Avalokiteshvara, she is said to deliver her devotees from suffering and pain.

Here, we have Tara in her green form, otherwise, known as Syamatara. This form of Tara is an energetic form; she is ready to spring to action to aid anyone invoking her name.

She is placed on an important pedestal in both Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. Syamatara stands on a double lotus pedestal denoting her importance. She wears lots of jewellery indicating her position as a bodhisattva or a buddha who has forgone nirvana in order to stay behind in the earthly realm to assist others to their nirvana. Nirvana can be said to be the ultimate goal in Buddhism when once achieved, there can be no rebirth and the soul is at its purest. (McArthur, pp 206).

Witness her left hand holding onto a flower, the lotus, which is a symbol of purity in generic Buddhist iconology. In Hinduism, the lotus represents the concept of primordial birth which is linked to fertility. However, in the case of our Syamatara from central Java, she would be holding a blue lotus signifying its association to the sacred moon. This further symbolizes her connection to the cult of the Mother-goddess as the moon is often associated with the divine feminine.

The choice of the blue lotus, according to some sources, is linked to its symbolism of rejuvenation. The promise of a prolonged life is considered a boon that Syamatara bestows.

Her right hand holds a fly whisk, representing her compassion for all life forms including that of insects and flies. The whisk is to gently whisk away insects, ensuring that such life forms are not accidentally killed in accordance with Buddhist laws. The whisk is also a symbol of overcoming ill fortune, like mental afflictions, and obstacles, such as ignorance.

In the arts of Indonesia, fly whisks are often associated with Shiva. (Moore, pp 117). There could be a reference here to the Shaivite cult that was fast consuming Java which commenced before this Syamatara’s production.

Her voluptuousness is representative of her status as a Mother-Goddess or Devi. Tara is known to be the “mother of all the buddhas”. (Seow, pp 322). It is in this aspect that she is worshipped and venerated in Java.

A sacred thread traces the crevices of her cleavage to the joint on her right hip. She wears a sarong held up by a belt with a buckle whose shape can still be seen in later belt buckles fashioned in gold. Anklets adorn both ankles whilst her arms are clasped by arm bands with detailed intricate motifs on closer inspection. These intricacies can still be detected in jewellery pieces made in the later centuries. A pendant ear ring decorates one ear lobe. Her hair is piled into a cone like shape wherein a triangular shaped crown is placed. Her eyes are downcast, perhaps representing her compassionate gaze downwards towards her devotees.

She exudes sensuousness, mystic and a form of elegance which is exclusive to Indonesian statuary found in central Java.

This form of Tara is neither strictly Buddhist nor Hindu. Indic in style, she was carved by Indonesian craftsmen who have adopted Indian aesthetics but sculpting in their own terms. (Carpenter). In Java, a form of syncretic faith took shape that combined both Hinduism and Buddhism. This synthesis of spiritual beliefs came to be known as Hindu-Buddhism. It begun in Mataram between 6th  – 7th  centuries and lasted until the advent of Islam in the 11th  century,  where it arrived first in North Sumatra. (Hannigan, pp 60-79).

Links to other forms of Tara:

  • Bosatsu Kanon; Tarani, Tara (Japan)
  • Guan Yin (China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore)
  • Guan Am (Vietnam)
  • Sgrol-ma (Tibetan)

Tara (Syamatara) – The Green Tara (9th century, Central Java, height:130 cm). Private Collection. Photo Credit: Pinacotheque de Paris, Singapore.

Eva’s Notes:

This is my favourite bodhisattva; there are quite a few of these saint-like sentient beings in the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition. I love Syamatara for her compassion.

Tara is a Jungian archetype of female sensuality, of feminine mystic and womanly fecundity.  She is pregnant with love. Invoking her name would cause the speaker to feel a sense of overwhelming compassion for humanity and gazing at her image would fill the beholder with a sense of peace knowing that such love exists in the earthly realm.

I first set eyes on Syamatara in a Chinese temple. She was in her Buddhist incarnation as Kuan Yin. In this form, Tara doesn’t do much for me. My passion for Hindu-Buddhist statuary lies in their artistic forms. It’s the art that I’m after.

Tara would take many forms as Buddhism spread throughout Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, her features would change to resemble the Khmer queen of Jayavarman VII, and the ornate lines and voluptuous forms found in our Javanese statue would give way to cleaner lines and a more modest body shape. But my most favourite rendition of Syamatara is still the Javanese one.

Bibliography:

Printed Sources:

Cotterell, Arthur (2014), A History of Southeast Asia. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions. Chapter 4: Early Indonesia.

Hannigan, Tim (2015), A Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices and Tsunamis: The Incredible Story of Southeast Asia’s Largest Nation. Hong Kong: Tuttle Publishing. Chapter 2: Empires of Imagination: Hindu-Buddhist Java. 

McArthur, Meher (2002), Reading Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs and Symbols. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd. pp 47.

Moore, Albert C (1977), Iconography of Religions: An Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. pp 117.

Seow, Marilyn (2006), The Asian Civilisations Museum A-Z Guide. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet. pp 322.

Curatorial Source:

Bruce Carpenter.