August 2019 / 'What and Where is Home? A Mother’s Perspective' by Ukhona Ntsali Mlandu / South Africa

ART, RESEARCH, THEORY: In the August column we are pleased to feature Ukhona Ntsali Mlandu: a performance artist, curator, writer, arts administrator and a single, queer mother of two, now living in Goshen village in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Her move out of Cape Town was necessitated by an exhaustion of operating in an arts context that had no measures in place to accommodate her as a working mother. Currently, Ukhona navigates life between the Goshen village and various cities with her children aged 9 and 14 years, in order to sustain and provide for her family. One of her more recent projects is Makwande.republic, a retreat and a residency in her ancestral home in the Goshen village. ‘Makwande Republic’ is centred around giving space to the creative process and re-imagination of what ideas of productivity may look like and with a particular interest in supporting families in whatever format they present. Here, Ukhona reflects on the notion of ‘home’ and the many, complex meanings that it both carries and conceals for her.

Ukhona Ntsali Mlandu, South Africa.

Ukhona Ntsali Mlandu, South Africa.


“WHAT AND WHERE IS HOME?
A MOTHER’S PERSPECTIVE”

‘Home’ at Goshen Village.

‘Home’ at Goshen Village.

“I spent the first 13 years in the home pictured above in this group's profile picture. This home is in my ancestral village in the Eastern Cape Province of rural South Africa. I responded to an overwhelming urge and a supernatural pull to come home a couple of months ago, after only coming home on my way from somewhere else or rushing elsewhere for over 22 years. Once here I had to confront my personal and communal archive, accept loss, and begin to make sense of the historical erasure and dispossession that characterises narratives in these parts,; reconnect with the safe space and healing aspects of this home and this community, this land where I was nurtured and taught that I could stand among nations and know that I am enough. I began to, and continue to, think about ways in which I could extend such a space for healing, connection, breaking, mending, asking, writing, imagining and re-imagining of one's self and the collective to others who may need to take time here for reasons legitimate to them. I see it in my mind's eye and I am slowly curating this vision into life. I have hosted a few guests who will share their reflections in their own time. I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people (family, my circle of influence, my community in this village - from elders to the youth and colleagues) who trust this creative impulse and vision who continue to hold me and support me and show immense respect and trust for this process. Safe spaces and taking time out to care for one's self is vital in refilling the proverbial cup that makes us able to continue to be who we are in the world that can commodify our pain and politics. I believe in the need and the power that this space and others like it can have in nurturing a community that hopefully makes it here physically or one that continues to use this platform to send out vibrations to other like-minded individuals. I have added you here because there is something about you I thought could connect with this.”


In December 2017, I shared the above status on my Facebook page after having spent 6 months in my ancestral village in the eastern part of South Africa. ‘Ancestral village’, in my context, means the place where, as far as I can remember and there is a record (oral and written), where my maternal ancestors are from.
The records date back to the late 1700’s. Goshen Village is therefore what I could “legitimately” call my ancestral village. This is speaking of course from the point of departure that everyone has to have a place from which they and their people hail. This notwithstanding that my people, the Mlandu’s, are part of the clan of AmaNdlovu, who are part of the Hlubi or Shubi tribes who were: nomadic people whose known migration patterns can be traced in central Africa moving in various directions (north, east, south, west).
The migration patterns were influenced and guided by a myriad of things including weather, grazing lands, the ability of land to produce food, adventure, self-actualisation, ambition, love, etc. This could be said for most African nations and tribes, as the idea of borders, nationhood, and the need for security of tenure in that sense of the word was introduced by colonialists, as they forced Africans to accept the territories that they imposed on them. It was normalised to stick to these territories and to later, when the need arose, fight to defend them. This notion of conquest and conquering is relatively new to Africans but here we are.
Here I am needing to lay a claim on a corner of the world because the times demand it. My own socialisation has happened only at a time when this idea of home is normalised and ingrained in the collective psyche and imagination.
It is important to note that my decision to return to my ancestral village for an undetermined time was influenced by a number of things. One reason that I wish to point out at this stage was that of a long and drawn out lawsuit between myself and my landlord in Cape Town. Circumstances had seen me lose the case on the basis of the Roman Dutch Law which the South African courts apply, prioritising right to ownership. The opposing lawyer argued purely on the fact that the long drawn out lawsuit was compromising the owner/landlord’s ability to hold on to their property, thereby compromising their constitutional right to security of tenure. This argument completely disregarded and diverted attention away from the whole host of my South African Constitutional Rights, Consumer Rights, Human Rights, and Children’s Rights, that this landlord had violated during the course of mine and my two minor children’s stay in their property, including breach of contract on their part. The entire experience was so traumatic and it brought up so many questions around home and belonging. As a single-parent mother, the ability to provide a safe home for my children is my sole responsibility and it is something that is at the core of my priorities, and yet I had experienced an external force violate this in ways that I don’t even have the vocabulary to articulate. While I had the conviction and resources to fight back as a matter of principle, it was something to have the law rule in favour of the landlord owing to a concept that was imposed on this continent by foreign influence. The African continent’s overriding values can be said to prioritise ‘Ubuntu’, a concept that centres humanity and being humane as the first rule of engagement with those we engage with, and those around us, including nature and the environment. Loosely translated, ‘Ubuntu’ means ‘I am because we are, you are because I am.’ Needless to say the experience left me tired and dehumanised. Up until that point I had come to call Cape Town home for 23 years. This incident made me feel like I had to leave and find home elsewhere.
At this stage I was called to remember another incarnation of home in the form of my ancestral village and home. While I was not born in Goshen, my mother was, and so was her mother, and her mother’s mother, and so on and so forth, until as far as I know the 1800’s. I had however lived my formative years in this village until I moved to Cape Town at the end of 1993. There is something about the village that felt and is unmistakeably home, and part of it is theoretical. There is also a part of the village that is alien, especially considering I had left at the tender age of 12. My soul needed home and this was the home that was available to me, and I made moves to go there. I packed away a life of 23 years and moved to the village.

Children playing in front of the ancestral home, Goshen Village.

Children playing in front of the ancestral home, Goshen Village.

The village was a far cry from the life that I had become accustomed to. The life I know. The life that I and my children knew how to make sense of. When I got there, a lot more people knew me, of me, of my people, than I expected. Based on their social standing and the way my forebears lived amongst other people in this village, my particular reception was warm. This affirmation and acknowledgement of my family’s story within a rich tapestry of a collective narrative was what my soul needed at that point. Giving my children this frame of reference where their personhood was attached to, an acceptance and respect that was inherited and granted to them unreservedly was healing. I believe it will make for a healthy foundation for their sense of self beyond their time in the village. For 23 years I have made home in another place, and having travelled and dared to call cities like Washington, DC in the USA my second home, owing to a time I spent there during a 3- year Fellowship. The love affair I have with Philippine cuisine is intense and in its peak and because food is a very important aspect of my quality of life, there are aspects of the Philippines that resonates with feelings of what home should be and is. Nairobi feels like home and the magic of the African metropolis always beckons. For this and many other reasons I was, and I am well aware, that it is only a matter of time before the novelty of the village life, adjustments, and the absence and presence of some privileges get juxtaposed with all the conveniences that are absent. All the lifestyle preferences that are not easily available become glaring and frustration starts to set in.

…So, what happens when home is not enough?

What happens when home is no longer enough?

What happens when home was never enough?


I don’t necessarily have a silver bullet answer for any of the questions, and I merely pose them to make sense and ask questions on how that sense of home as the place of origin is not universal. On the other hand, being in the village brought up ways in which I had made a home out of notions of productivity and use of time that were informed by my context as a world-citizen making sense of life in a capitalist society. I was unfamiliar with the work ethic of my new context, their relationship with time, the way they perceived my contributions in a professional setting in contexts of development for the region. They were discomforted by the extent to which I was comfortable with dreaming ideas and then going on to move to execute them without a sense of limitations and boundaries. I was displaced by their boundaries for what they think is possible for a rural village in the eastern part of South Africa. I was disoriented by their sense of complacency. I was uprooted by their suspicious tendencies towards my intentions. I felt a certain rejection to my invitation to dream, imagine, and re-imagine. I was an outsider at home. I cannot pretend to not understand their reluctance and hesitation in the greater contextual politics of survival. I started to, and I continue to, entertain the idea of home needing patience, consistency, and time away at regular intervals versus arriving at a place of acceptance that I have outgrown the space or rather that my growing and sense of growth does not fit the frame of this place. I repeat that this, this is an idea in exploration.
When I left Cape Town, my move meant negotiating a long-term relationship with my partner. In a way, our individual and collective existence in Cape Town in close proximity to each other geographically, and the way our lives were organised in the city, meant that we had a sense of home with each other and our joint children even without co-habiting. This home was disrupted by my move and the strain was, and continues to be, felt. If loving and partnering then offers one an opportunity to build a life with another and expand with another, what are the tensions between the home of one’s origin and maybe even childhood and the home they make with another and for their own offspring? Where is home for my children? It would be interesting to hear what their answer is. Given our current reality it benefits me to think that home for them is wherever I am.
Our family home here in the village was empty when I moved back in. No one lived here.  My own parents and grandparents and all the elders that could be living in the house have passed. While I enjoy the benefits of being home alone, in this context please read reluctant eternal child in this context who associates being here with being nurtured but is here with the role of ‘mother’ attached to her identity. I had the task of bringing warmth and comfort back into the walls. Bringing my own and invoking the memories of what sense of making home and making meaning supports my ideas of what home for myself and my children needs to be.
I must share that I have two surviving aunts who both don’t live in this house as I said. The one who is in the vicinity has Alzheimer’s. The children and I get to spend time with her from time-to-time. Her long term memory is somewhat intact while her short term-memory is not. It’s her solid rendition of home that she carries with her and the memory of those who have passed that is so delightful for me as an act of collective memory and remembrance that my children get to hear from someone either than myself. My aunt however sometimes needs to be reminded that her parents and siblings, including my own mother, are no more. Her reaction to this news at times can be so heartbreaking to witness in its newness. She knows home is home, and boy does she love her home and the memories that ‘home’ holds for her. She must however be constantly be reintroduced to who constitutes home for her at this time in her life. She can meet this with great excitement or sadness. She is not always guaranteed to recognise all the people that know her, yet she is cultivating an amazing sense of who is familiar and safe and who is not. We all have to rely on her sense of danger to tell her who and what is safe or not when she not supervised. We live with the strong hope that it never fails her.

Home, Goshen Village.

Home, Goshen Village.

My other aunt who lives in Cape Town has in the absence of my mother through death done nothing to make sure that I continue to have a sense of home. She has not done much to make sure that the ancestral home structure remains standing and she has done nothing to make sure that the family remains home to each other by instilling unity, ritual, and general constructive familial ties. In my opinion, she is the epitome and centre of what is toxic and unhomely about our family and home in the realm of the living. This coupled with her refusal to acknowledge ancestral ties and messages passed on to me and others to access and reconnect with our traditional and spiritual path of healing intergenerational pain and trauma and moving the conversation forward by healing the present and setting ways of making meaning for future generations. Even constructive dialogue or a counter- narrative to contest these very words would be more than she has been willing to offer and would be welcome. 

A detail from inside the house in Goshen Village.

A detail from inside the house in Goshen Village.

Home, safety, and a sense of danger is something that most must navigate within the home because the home can also be a source of pain and abuse. As explicitly stated above, my home has toxic aspects that stem from years of internal politics, some traumatic events that were never addressed, some members of the family deeming themselves to be more of an authority in this collective identity and archive and doing nothing to propel it forward. The tensions and internal politics are emotionally violent. They have required that I acquire a clarity of purpose about my time at this particular home at this stage of my life so as to be able to eliminate distraction and avoid the misdirected use of my energy. This is something that is easier said than done, but it certainly does not involve holding a romanticised view of what home and the humans that form part of this construct. I continue to ensure that my actions and intentions continue to serve the idea and need for home that I came here to address. I insist on doing this with the belief that my actions are important in breaking the intergenerational ways of relating within my family which do not serve the vision I have for myself and the sense of home that I need. In a way, while the physical bricks and mortar of the home may be one thing, the act of actively constructing what means to you has room for self-determination and a bold insistence on co-authoring and co-creating what that looks like. Elimination of what is toxic is a huge part of this. I say all of this mindful of my positionality as one who is negotiating home as an adult with agency. This is not the case for everyone.
I am reminded of my mother who was warm, friendly, a revolutionary and fierce feminist, yet very aloof and emotionally detached. It took me recognising that she was merely repeating a cycle. She was also of generations of black women who could not afford to love their children too much, because the luxury to do this within a system that sought to break the black family within an apartheid state of South Africa, would prove to be detrimental to the survival skills that a black person needed to have to make it in a world that wanted them dead or broken while extremely productive and subservient. It was in recognising this that I was able to reach out to my mother constantly and shamelessly to ask for what I needed, the kind of home I needed her to be in my teenage years living with her for the first time in a township (the projects) in Guguletu, Cape Town also for the first time in my life.
Townships at their core in my eyes and the intention behind their construction as per ample documents of the South African apartheid state were, and are, inhumane settlements which are meant to breed the destruction of those who inhabit it. They were, and are, a space reserved for black people made up of some who were forcibly removed from more prime areas in the area or those who were forced to leave their homes in the more rural parts of South Africa to come and seek employment as the consequences of land dispossession that affected this population. I lived in this township of Guguletu for 4 years and I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that there is nothing about that space that resembled home for me.
The spatial planning was offensive and oppressive to my 13- year old onwards sensibilities, as one who had grown up in Goshen village with ample space to live and breathe, with ample resources to take care of everyday basic needs. The moments I had with my mother in that space were very much based on the construct of home that I designed for myself and demanded that she become for my own survival in those spaces designed for breaking.
Does this mean other people have not made meaningful existence and homes in those spaces? Absolutely not. People have subverted and made incredible meaning out of that space in ways that I respect and admire. My mother was able to make her home in Guguletu, a home to all the youth who were freedom fighters of the liberation movement in those turbulent times of the liberation struggle. Her home later was a sanctuary for a combination of youth who were being stigmatised by society for living with the HIV virus, and refugees from other African countries. This is how she made sense of that space. It’s one of the ways that the concept of home is extended beyond familial lines. Such is the level of complication and matter of personal perspective that is home. It also has a lot to do with exposure to alternative constructs of home. It has a lot to do with resignation and resilience of the human spirit in one direction or another.
From now on I will be living wherever it makes sense for my life’s journey and it is my intention to make a home, because I am also a home to myself, my partner and to our children. I also give due respect to the observation that maybe for their minor lives, that one of the manifestations of home for my children is wherever I am. It is my wish that this continues for the rest of our lives with nurturing and safe connotations. My sense of self needs to explore and make home out of multiple spaces. I am not apologetic for this truth about my soul’s desires. I seek it wholeheartedly.
The construct of home very much depends on our granting ourselves the licence to correct course when safety becomes a concern, or is severely compromised or violated in the places that we call home. Be it in the form of an intrusion, a betrayal, a discomfort, a shift in our needs, a growth in a different direction, etc. There is absolutely no place like home in its complexity. Home is as nomadic as it has always been. The things and people that make home what we need it to be may shift and we would do well in accepting this fact. We are required to question the boundaries of what home is, to always be negotiating and making meaning and reject ideas of home that are violent to us. Home is whatever and whoever honours, makes our souls come alive, restores and heals our wounds, offers a sanctuary and encourages a sense of wonder and a will to go on with the quest for self-actualisation, while enveloping us with a familiarity that says “I’ve been here” regardless of the number of prior encounters. For every place like that, there is also potential for a familiarity and entitlement that can be as equally damaging and hurtful. There is nothing like that betrayal, I can attest to that. 
May we find home when we need it in some trusted spaces we can count on and may home sneak up on us in the most unexpected places and ways and offer its warm embrace when we need it the most. May we find home in a book, a corner table at a coffee shop in a foreign land, in a stranger who is weaved into our path to make an undeniably unique pattern, in a piece of furniture, in an aroma, in a sound, a landscape, a piece of art, an accent, a slice of bread, a slice of heaven. Home is illusive and familiar all at once.

 

Ukhona Ntsali Mlandu is a performance artist, curator, writer, arts administrator and a single, queer mother of two, living in Goshen village in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. One of her more recent projects is Makwande.republic, a retreat and a residency in her ancestral home in the Goshen village. ‘Makwande Republic’ is centred around giving space to the creative process and re-imagination of what ideas of productivity may look like and with a particular interest in supporting families in whatever format they present.



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May 2019 / 'Such a Long Journey' by Mamta Chitnis Sen, India

ART, RESEARCH, THEORY: In the May column we are pleased to feature Mamta Chitnis Sen, an artist, writer and mother from India, whose paintings most often focus on the lives of women in rural India. The works displayed here were created during her recent participation in an art residency in Lithuania, hosted by Sanskritik Mandala. Here Mamta tells about her experiences of being an artist-mother in India, painting women farmers and how her recent art residency in the Baltics has effected her perspective on art and life.

Mamta Chitnis Sen

Mamta Chitnis Sen


SUCH A LONG JOURNEY: An art residency in the Baltics that shaped up an Indian mother artist's perspective on life


“Two nations have been instrumental in changing the way I viewed and perceived art in my daily life.  One, a small nation nestled within the Baltic region, and another, considered to be a major global player in the European art scene. On the invitation of Tamara Artajeva’s Circle of Creation last summer, I made my way to the fourth edition of Sanskritik Mandala, an art residency held in Vilnius, Lithuania. The month-long residency culminated into an art exhibition which later travelled to Berlin in Germany. During the period I created works of Indian women farmers, as part of my efforts of documenting social crises on canvas, by inculcating various aspects of Lithuania in them, through landscapes, flora etc.  

Seduction 2, 2018, Mamta Chitnis Sen

Seduction 2, 2018, Mamta Chitnis Sen

The Residency Program and Uzupis

Tamara, an arts project curator who graduated from Vytautas Magnus University as an art researcher, is also the founder of Sanskritik Mandala, and the powerhouse behind it. A mother to a four year old son, she equally handles her art projects and motherhood with ease and finesse. Tamara explains to me why Sanskritik Mandala is more than a residency programme. “It is in fact a Society’s Art Development and Bilingual Cultural project that includes a residency programme.  It means the Circle of Culture in Hindi,” she points out, further adding that the aims of the project were to establish a dialogue between two countries—namely Lithuanian and Indian culture - and create contemporary art through exchange of ideas and through collaborations. The project in its fourth year was successful in connecting over 20 artists each from both countries.

In August last year, Tamara drove me from the Vilnius airport to Uzupis—the art district located in the old town of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. This was to be my home for the next one month—away from my family, kids and my daily schedule which I had adjusted to back home.

The first few days were a bit uneasy, though the silence and empty space was welcoming, it did require getting adjusted a bit.   The compact studio also housed the sleeping quarters in the red-bricked old building facing the river Vilnele. I was informed that the buildings, which were a few centuries old, were home to many famous Lithuanian artists in the past. Outside one such building facing my studio was a stone plaque engraved with Lithuanian inscription ‘Siuose Namuose Gyveno ir kure Dailininkas Tapytojas Romualdas Kunca’. Loosely translated means the artist Romualdas Kunca also lived in these homes.

Originally a squatters’ colony and frequented by dreamy artists, after Lithuania’s exit from the Soviet Union in the early nineties, an Independent Republic of Uzupis came into its own in 1997. Today it has the honour of being regarded as the country’s biggest art project and continues to grow.  Uzupis means ‘on the other side of the river’ and is often compared to Paris’s Montmarte and Copenhagen’s Freetown Christiana due to its bohemian atmosphere. While Christiana is surely impressive (I have had the fortune of visiting this amazing art space too), I must say that Uzupis is more independent with a charm of its own. There is no restriction of photography or running unlike in Christiana!

Artists passing through Uzupis could be seen painting its various nooks and corners, over its walls, open spaces etc. Musicians too are invited into its fold to collaborate and showcase their musical compositions, and almost all summer evenings, specially the weekends, I came across many musicians their playing different instruments by the river, as well as visiting tourists practicing on the many pianos scattered across the courtyard.

 Ieva Matulionyte, who manages the Uzupio Meno Inkubatorius, an art gallery in Uzupis, cites that the pianos are an experiment in art itself. “They were part of a film set. When the set was dismantled an artist brought them over and kept them in the open space surrounding the Uzupis studios. While one piano has been kept near the banks of the river Vilnele, another has been kept inside the flowing water. The open pianos experience rain, sun and even snow. The artist wanted to experience the decaying process of these instruments and that process in itself is yet another portrayal as an art form,” she explains.

Giedrious Bagdonas, who also manages the Inkubatorius with Leva, says that art has always been sort of a religion for original residents of Uzupis.  Giedrious, an artist and resident of Vilnius, points out that the demand for getting studios is always high in Uzupis. “We have around 19 studios which we give out to 17 local artists and two international artists. The artists are selected through open calls,” he says.


Artists and their art

For an artist, writer, and mother like me, the residency proved to be an eye opener on several aspects. Often in Indian households, mothers who travel solo to faraway countries to pursue their passion are unheard of. I come across instances when mothers are told that motherhood is a full time job, and especially artists who are mothers are often questioned of their choice to travel alone, with queries such as ‘who will take care of your children when you are gone?’ or ‘why do you need to go alone to another country to paint when you can do it here?” 

Mother and Child, 2018, Mamta Chitnis Sen

Mother and Child, 2018, Mamta Chitnis Sen

 I too was faced with such questions in India, and my only answer to them was that one needed to step out of one’s own comfort zone and that mothers, especially those working in the creative fields, need to keep themselves updated on the progress the world is making around them. And travel is the one way to achieve that.

A well-travelled mother is surely an educated one. She is in a better position to understand and recognize the dreams of her children, and at the same time well equipped in making them come true. I believe mothers who are creatives - artists, writers, performers - are a different breed altogether. They shouldn’t be slotted into ‘just ordinary mothers.’ They shouldn’t be confined within the four walls of a home, under the excuse of child-rearing alone.  

Although there were many who were sceptical of the amount of time I would be spending away from my home to ‘just create art’, my husband and two daughters (who are now in their teens) were quite supportive of me undertaking this residency and promised to handle things back home.  With much zest and vigour, I soon set out to explore myself and my art in Vilnius, which again proved to be one of the most wonderful moments of my life.


My journey as a mother artist

My art journey hasn’t been like other artists who go to art school to graduate, have their first show etc etc. In fact, although I had always desired to paint since childhood, my plans of turning it into a full time career was abandoned since my parents (like a majority of Indian parents) did not believe that art could get me a job or any money. Unfortunately in India, the only career Indian parents encourage is either medicine or engineering, and since my father was an established doctor, there was immense pressure to step into his shoes. But destiny had other plans and I soon found myself as a journalist and a writer. My passion for art continued and occasionally I would find myself writing about art, artists, galleries, and everything and anything related to art and painting.

My art education did not begin until I was in my early thirties and a mother to two daughters who were then between the ages of 10 and 12 years old, when I found myself enrolling into Sir J J School of Art, the country’s premier art college. 

I will be honest in saying that it surely wasn’t a cake walk - juggling family, office work, and at the same time studying art and completing the college assignments. I often ended up painting at night after the whole family had gone to bed. The dining table and the kitchen used to magically be transformed into my art studio. The nights were the best, while the city slept I would bring alive my imagination on the canvases till the wee hours of dawn. The pace of work would be hectic, especially when one had to achieve one’s deadlines for exhibitions.

Upon completion of my art education, I realised it was even more of an uphill struggle to get your work shown in art galleries, since they too operate on their own levels with their rules and regulations best known to them.  With a majority of galleries (including public ones too) offering their spaces for a considerable fee, it became even more of a challenge to showcase my work in affordable areas. 

New artists can find it tough, unless they are part and parcel of a certain lobby of artists or gallerists, or move around in the same circles as they do.  As someone who has been observing the art scene in India for quite some time now, I personally believe that most galleries and curators prefer playing safe when it come to showcasing art works.

A majority of established art galleries continue to showcase the works of old masters, while the less established ones, devoid of any artistic background themselves, end up dealing in the run-of-the-mill subjects, or end up making copies of works of old masters. Although there have been private galleries who now and then open themselves up to showcasing new kinds of art, I personally believe that women artists, especially mother artists like myself, find it hard to negotiate when it comes to showing what they actually believe in .

It is quite rare to find a gallery or a curator open to welcoming a mother artist, from a non-traditional art background experimenting with her art; the lack of concrete support systems in place to help women/mother artists further add to the vacuum. For example, how many galleries or art establishments in the country offer unlimited or free access of studio space for mother artists to practice their art? None, in fact!  In a country, where access to childcare for working women operates through the unorganized sector, availing of free studio space for women/mother artists to further their artistic ambitions continues to remain a distant dream.

Yet I am thankful to the internet for opening up several avenues as well as providing the space and opportunity to showcase my work to an international audience.  I soon found myself exhibiting in group shows in European countries which further seemed to strengthen my belief in the saying that ‘nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it.’


Why I paint women farmers

I began the idea of exploring, documenting, and writing about Indian women farmers when I was confronted with a personal experience. That tragedy helped me realise the importance of using art as a tool to highlight the social imbalances women face irrespective of the backgrounds they come from.  Around the time I finished my art education from Sir J J School of Art, I had come into inheritance of some ancestral farming land handed down to me on my father’s side.  Although being legally entitled to it, I soon found myself defending my right to own it in courts of law, fighting with my extensive family members (mostly male) who interestingly tended to believe that there was no need for married women to have ancestral rights over property and that the latter should belong to men alone. In the following years I fought out the matter vehemently through the judicial path.

Interestingly, little did I know that those numerous visits of mine to the courthouse, which was located in a remote rural area of Konkan, in Maharashtra state, where the case was being heard, would end up providing me with a unique subject that would lay the foundation of my artwork.

Married Woman, 2018, Mamta Chitnis Sen

Married Woman, 2018, Mamta Chitnis Sen

During those visits, in that small nondescript courtroom—a one-room measuring a few square feet, tucked away into the ground floor of an ageing building that stood next to the lush green rice fields - I came across several such cases of women being denied inheritance of their own property.   A majority of them hailed from underprivileged backgrounds and were mainly agricultural workers or cultivators.  Interestingly, while they too toiled equally hard as their husbands, fathers, and brothers, a large number of these women too were categorically kept away from being legal heirs on the lands their family owned.

Many women would even recite tales of how even when division of lands in the family happened, the distribution would mainly take place amongst the men. Women would be categorically kept way with reasons like ‘they are married and hence they don’t have any right’ or ‘we have spent a lot on their weddings so why give them land’ etc.

In some rare cases, when a few women did manage to get property in their name, in reality they would be refrained from taking any decision of their own land—the men made all the decisions for them.  Eventually these women ended up merely as caretakers of these lands. 

I also found out that these women, despite being educated up to primary level, did not have any skills or education on how to convert use of their empty lands to their own benefit.  While travelling for work in other remote regions I found this situation repeated in other states as well. Women farmers across the country would not only be expected to take ‘permissions’ to toil on their own land (in case they ended up owning one) but those who did not own land largely ended up working as agriculture labourers on fields other than their own for a pittance.  

Seduction, 2018, Mamta Chitnis Sen

Seduction, 2018, Mamta Chitnis Sen

Despite hailing from diverse economic and social backgrounds, I found their situation to be similar to mine, and disturbed by this imbalance I soon found myself drawn to the canvas to document this social evil. Hence my paintings over the years have been focussed on highlighting their plight and circumstances. The women in my works are devoid of features and dominate the landscapes which are mostly fields or different rural settings. They are in various stages of work on the fields.


How the residency shaped my art

Coming back to the residency, the first few days of the residency was spent moving around Vilnius and exploring its many art galleries and museums, its buildings, its old churches, its small cobbled lanes and pathways, and of course its people. I met painters, sculptors, performers, musicians, art historians and art critics and also chefs who indulged in a different art of their own.

I also visited Lithuanian artists, both emerging and famous, to understand their journey towards their practice and their fame. During the course, I met two celebrated Lithuanian artist couples in their homes—84 year old renowned Lithuania ceramic artist Ignas Egidijus Talmantas and his wife Inge Talmantiene - and 60 year old postmodern painter Sarunas Sauka and his wife Nomeda Saukiene.  Inge informed me how life for women artists was different and difficult during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania.  The 70 year old painter took to teaching art at the Lithuanian State Art Institute (now Vilnius Academy of Arts) in the mid-sixties and supported her husband to pursue his passion while she kept the home fires burning. 

Since retirement, she has been painting nature in all forms while taking care of Ignas who has been battling diminishing eyesight for the last few years. “I think women painters have more options to explore these days,” she told me, adding that she never felt threatened with her husband’s fame.  

Sarunas Sauka on the other hand laughingly admitted to me that he did feel a bit jealous of his wife at times. Regarded as a national art treasure of the country, Sauka does not meet anyone or even give interviews.  I was told he leads the life of a recluse, immersed in his painting in his beautifully done up home in the village of Dusetos. With help from my new Lithuanian friends, artist Saulė Urbonė Urbanavičiūtė and art critic and anthropologist Vytautas Tumenas, we met the legendary Sauka in the flesh.

We first paid a visit to Dusetos Cultural Centre Gallery of Art to view Sauka’s exhibition. The exhibition, a retrospective of his works over the last few decades, was rumoured to be his last one. Sauka’s works mostly in surrealist forms appear to flag the religious order of the Bible. The human subjects, combined with animal forms showcased in various sexual positions, appear to give an impression of being grotesque while at the same time wonderful. Sauka recreates his own versions of Heaven and Hell, the colours mesmerizingly fresh and inviting, instantly hooking the viewer in to peep into the canvas.

While Sauka’s works are inviting and interesting to look at, it was his wife Nomeda’s works that had me hooked. Her fresh use of colours in the flowers she brought alive in her works was exhilarating.  Since I often make use of floral symbols as an ornamental tool to beautify my subjects, Nomeda’s techniques were interesting to learn from. Interestingly Sauka’s art too has a considerable use of flora in them and the former admitted to me when we met that he too loved painting them in his works.

We were welcomed to Sauka’s home warmly and the artist couple happily posed with us and shared insights on what it was to be a famous artist couple. “I have never met an Indian woman, you are the first,” he said while striking a pose beside me, looking into the camera and the green apple orchard that faced his home.  Sauka confesses that a marriage of two artists is at times an unequal one.  I loved the fact that Sauka, despite being a famous painter, chooses to exhibit his works in the local gallery.  Similarly while exploring the Lithuanian countryside I came across several established painters who preferred exhibiting their works in local galleries close to their homes than those in faraway cities. This in order for those around them to view, understand, and accept their art first, which I found is indeed humble.

I found the situation of both of these women artists, who were also mothers, not different from the women farmers that I drew. Although both women were independent in their own right they were both living under the shadow of their husbands and had sacrificed a lot of themselves and their art to help their spouses grow. 

Another aspect of my trip during the Residency that proved to be an educative one were the series of paintings by Lithuanian artists Antanas Gudiatis (1904-1989) and Viktoras Vizgirda (1904-1993), on display at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius. While I loved Gudiatis’s use of technique and his use of colours in creating his landscapes, I was drawn to Vizgirda’s themes of farming, landscapes, etc, and his methods of composition, and also of showcasing his subjects involved in various farming activities. There are several other painters too who had wonderfully and skillfully captured the various scenes of mass exodus of farmers from their villages on canvas that seemed to help me with my subject.  Again I found the subject to be quite similar to the one that I have been working on.

Enlightened and encouraged with these insights, back in Vilnius I began my task of capturing in photograph the many summer flowers that were blooming across the city, to recreate them in my own style in my work.  I was keen to provide this Baltic nation a view of India and its rural landscape, while adding a bit of Lithuanian colour, techniques, and local mannerisms to it.

The Lithuanian landscapes too were wonderful and I wanted to recreate them against the background of the Indian women farmers that I was painting.

Banana Plantation, 2018, Mamta Chitnis Sen

Banana Plantation, 2018, Mamta Chitnis Sen

In the midst of all this, I had the good fortune of presenting my works in the form of a discussion at the Uzupis Art Inkubator with artist Ausra Kleizaite. While I presented my paper ‘Social Crises and Art’ and spoke about why I document Indian women farmers through art, Ausra reminisced about her numerous trips to India’s Odisha region through photographs and paintings.

Our debate was intense, with each presenting their own view points of how they view India—one as a local and another as an international visitor.

The culmination of my stay was a presentation of five paintings of women farmers in scenic Lithuanian backdrops, some of them with Lithuanian flowers as ornamentation. Interestingly, at the opening of the exhibition, there was a section of people from Lithuania who had made trips to India and loved it.  I was happy when one such person, a vibrant young woman and Masters student of Indology, eventually picked up one of my paintings of a woman farmer.

Berlin—it’s art and artists

Berlin was a stark contrast to Vilnius. The exhibition travelled to Germany and was presented in Berlin at the art gallery Under The Mango Tree.  Every part of Berlin had art that was vocal, loud, and at times politically incorrect. The walls and buildings seemed to embrace and celebrate graffiti in all its glory.  A trip to Berlin isn’t complete without a visit to the Berlin wall and soon I too found myself creating a bit of my artwork on it.

For the next few days, Berlin was all about street art and meeting women artists. My talk with women artists in Vilnius had in fact proved to be the catalyst for me to reach out to women artists in Berlin as well.  I wanted to learn and understand how they not only explored their art but also the way they approached it. 

I was introduced to two women/ mother artists who were like a breath of fresh air.  Tamara introduced me to artist Joerdis Mahanta, who gave me a glimpse into the wonderful art practices taught in the age old institution of The Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, located at Mariannenplatz. Built in 1847, this former hospital post 1970 was converted as a centre to host art exhibition projects and artist talks. One of the unique projects in Europe, it is known as Kulturwerk of the Professional Association of Visual Artists, Berlin, and houses their office along with spaces for hosting workshops in various art mediums. The highlight of the Kulturwerk was that it is open for professional artists across the world to use their facilities.

Berlin based artist Joerdis runs her own studio in the city and has been a student of M S University in Baroda in India in the past. A mother of two, Joerdis gave us a peek into her home and the kind of art she did, as well as taking us around the city to its many art galleries to show off some installation art.    Joerdis, Tamara, and myself had a wonderful time when she took us to meet another woman and mother artist, Corry Siw Mirski.  Located on the outskirts of Berlin, Corry’s home, which also houses her studio, is where she creates figures using silicone and silk.  These soft, natural, and organic materials are then dyed in colour pigments to give an effect. Corry makes maximum use of red colour pigments to create a shade of blood that appear to make them alive.  A mother of four kids, Corry informs us that she pursues her art as per her own rules and desires irrespective of the criticism she may receive. “I do it for myself. This is my art,” she said.

Living life through art

As my days in Berlin came to an end, I realised that one of the fascinating things of my entire journey in this residency was the realization that the situation for women artists, including mother artists, across the globe are similar. While their stories may be different, there is a common thread that binds all of us together. Every mother artist that I met, although juggling their own families and personal lives, were at the same time fighting a continuous battle against invisible societal norms to not only establish their own identities as an artist, but also the right to practice their individual art on their own terms.

I believe that travelling and meeting new people is an education in life itself and meeting these women/mother artists from different cities of Europe gave me an opportunity to glance into my own life and how I too can imbibe bits and pieces of their experiences into my own to not only make my art, but also myself, better than before.

For an Indian woman and mother artist like me, travelling through Europe not only proved to be an educational but also an eye opening experience. It was a bold step for me to abandon my work, my family, my children, and my life for a short time in order to pursue my passion and at the same time discover what the world was up to.

Back home in India, the experience has encouraged me to begin to create a space for artists, especially mother artists, who can create the art they want to, devoid of any inhibitions and worries. 

Often now and then I glance at Corry’s visiting card which lies deeply tucked away in my wallet. The card has an interesting tagline which reads, ‘Be Free. Don’t believe too much in this world.’

Well, amen to that!

  ____________________

Mamta Chitnis Sen studied at Sir J J School of Art and is also their Hon-Researcher, documenting the history of the institute right back to its founding in 1857. A journalist for over two decades, she has worked with publications in Mumbai, reporting on crime, politics, religion, art, community, human interest, and news. She was Executive Editor of Dignity Dialogue, and presently handles Media Advocacy for Child Rights and You-CRY – an NGO for underprivileged children. Mamta is involved in various community outreach  programs and is the Curator of Bihar Foundation’s art gallery - Zierou, organising exhibitions, workshops and training programmes aimed at promoting art and culture. In 2011, Mamta founded Canvas Clan, a congregation of painters of various ages, and curated two shows under the banners: Random Strokes and Resurrection Bihar. Her art has been published in journals and anthologies such as Studio To Studio—The Artists’ Working Theory & Practice and Les Femmes Folles: The Women 2016.  Women have been an integral part of Mamta’s work both in writing and in making art. In addition she has hosted workshops for women and has authored a paper on these experiences titled ‘Evolving Role of Women in Political Parties’.





 

December 2017 / Motherlands by Rela Mazali in 'Messages from Israel: Violence and Female Values', Shira Richter / Part III

ART, RESEARCH, THEORY: In November 2016 the column space was passed on to Shira Richter, a mother, artist, activist, film maker and educator from Israel, to curate three editions of the m/other voices monthly columns on the topic of the 'maternal' and the 'politics of everyday life' from her particular, situated, feminist maternal perspective of mothering twin sons in Israel. In the first edition of 'Messages from Israel', Richter brought us her interview with Dr. Andrea O'Reilly, entitled 'Motherhood; a Liability or Crime?' In the second edition, on Valentines Day 2017, she brought us her continued and ongoing investigation into patriarchal structures and mother work, in her article  Mary - The Mother Whose Son Preached Feminine Values  and the accompanying video interview with Dr. James F. Gilligan. In the third edition, Shira Richter introduces us to the world and work of Rela Mazali, a feminist artist, activist, scholar, mother, daughter and grandmother living in Israel. 

m/other voices thank's Shira Richter for her tireless work of re-imagining the world from a feminist maternal perspective and Rela Mazali for her graceful and generous contribution to the ongoing conversation unfolding on the virtual pages of the m/other voices foundation. 

 

Rela Mazali, image courtesy of Shira Richter.

Rela Mazali, image courtesy of Shira Richter.

My chosen guest writer for this column is Rela Mazali, one of Israel's pioneer feminist writers and scholars, an artist mother, feminist activist for human rights and gun control. For me Rela is a mentor, teacher, role model, inspiration, and friend. Several times she 'took me in from the cold' when I was feeling like a crazy minority, and 'covered' me with a warm welcoming blanket of intellectual validation and respect. She knows what it is to be a feminist woman artist scholar, daughter mother and grandmother, seeker and outsider in one's own society. She knows what it is to be the unpopular one who questions the structures both around and inside of us.  She knows how it feels to forge new paths, with little support. Her writing style is one of the first I encountered which bravely challenges the structures of form, rhythm, space, voice, perspective and subject matter. She always asks who gains and who suffers from a situation, and what blind spots are we missing? Being one of the few brave women artists who openly admits the inherent exploitation systems existing, even amongst us well meaning maternal feminists, Rela belongs to a generation which paved and keeps paving the road for us. I want to thank Dr. Hadara Sheflan Katsav who curated my work and wrote her PhD on Mother Artists, for introducing me to Rela. It is important to mention the Mother Scholar lineage.  

                                                                                                          -Shira Richter

 

  mother lands

by
Rela Mazali


 

#1
tectonic activity

 

Original ink drawing by the author [Rela Mazali] Scanned from  my book : 'Maps of Women’s Goings and Stayings',Stanford University Press, 2001, p. 273.

Original ink drawing by the author [Rela Mazali]
Scanned from my book: 'Maps of Women’s Goings and Stayings',Stanford University Press, 2001, p. 273.

When she left it the world shifted. Ancient glaciers collapsed silently off the far edges of my peripheral vision, dropped out of sight without preview fanfare. Uncharted infrastructure, in place since the beginning of the world, dissolved. A fulcrum dislodged.

mymother is a dark, large, largely undifferentiated landmass, spilling off of and beyond the side and bottom of cartography. From sites outside the navigable territory of my living, the landmass protrudes. Into and around and below, underpinning upholding underlying undertowing underwriting undergrounding undervalued undermining under current. Then mymother stops. Is the ink-line her death or my disengagement? 

Below my living she is a given. A taken. For granted. Was.

 

   
  
    
  
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    Front cover, ' Maps of Women’s Goings and Stayings',   Stanford University Press, 2001.  Jacket illustration: Rela Mazali,  First visit .

Front cover, 'Maps of Women’s Goings and Stayings', Stanford University Press, 2001. Jacket illustration: Rela Mazali, First visit.

#2
motherwriter

 

I almost always knew that I wanted to write
I didn’t always know that I wanted to mother
equally, I didn’t know that I could non-mother
that option wasn’t even available enough to be “out of the question”
it was literally out of the question
mothering was inexorable, “what you did.”
the only available question was “when?”

When the ‘when’ and my first living baby arrived, I didn’t and couldn’t have anticipated the flashflood consuming enormity. Instantaneous inexplicable overpowering love.
And equally
I didn’t and couldn’t have anticipated the flashflood consuming enormity. Terrifying hugely expanded vulnerability. Unabating. The space I occupied in the world instantaneously engulfed an added body mass of tangible, acute vulnerability. Mine.

One of the main risks to that vulnerable new being, as modern patriarchy has taught me well and as mymother reiterated, repeated, inculcated and embodied, was is its mother. myself as risk to mychild, mymothering as dangerous. treacherous, tricky.

writermother introduces specific risks to her children, unique dangers on top of the familiar ones, the widely publicized threats of failures at mothering or downright bad mothering.