Monday, June 22, 2009

Wisdom of Worldly Women Project, part 1

Last year I was involved in a community project with Banksia Gardens Community Centre in Broadmeadows. Through the Images of Aging Grant ( from the Department of Planning and Community Development) Banksia Gardens created a cultural art project which involved a group of senior Turkish women. One of the aims of the project was to promote a message of positive aging. I was the art co-ordinator for the 20 week project. I worked with a project manager, Fiona O'Grady and a translator, Nazife Sahin. We met weekly for this period of time.

I put forward three proposals to the women and they chose the first, which was to make a long embroidered panel of multiple parts.

This project involved the women drawing for the first three weeks. The first week, I asked the women to draw their own home, and what was important to them. The second week, I asked the women to draw their home where they were born in Turkey as well as to explore what was important to them about where they were from.

photo by Fiona O'Grady

The third week saw the women drawing their experiences of first moving to Australia.

I think that it is very hard to be asked to draw something without a prop in front of you to draw from, but it is a very interesting thing to do, as you can see very quickly what is important to a person in quite a direct and honest way.

A lot of the women said that they had never drawn before and were quite apprehensive, but they all did it. After the project finished one of the women told me that she did not like drawing at all and was going to pull out of the project, but decided to keep coming, and now at the end, it made sense to her why we needed to start by drawing. I also found out that this woman could not read or write in English or in Turkish. I could see it on her face at the start that she was not enjoying the drawing, but everything that she did, I said that it was beautiful, and as the weeks passed, I could see her grow in confidence, and she began to embroider at home and brought in extra work.

I think that it is important to go through this initial drawing process, and then to accept the outcome.I like the way that the women approached the space on the paper, the colours that they chose, and the subjects that they chose. And they all put their names in a prominent place.

After working with them for a couple of weeks, I slightly revised what I was doing and decided that they would make two panels each, the first would be an embroidery of a floral motif

and the second would be an embroidery of a drawing that they did, so two panels each.

I called the second panel, the Narrative panel.

Each week the women would bring in things that they made to show me and we would all look at each thing as a group and each would be discussed. The women brought in shawls, doilies, table clothes, baby clothes, towels with edgings etc and they all had the same floral motifs on them, I also saw these motifs in their drawings, so I decided that it was important to bring these images to the project as they tell you about place and culture.

photo by Fiona O'Grady

Each panel has a specific size requirement, 30cm width, 25cm length.
The first set of linen panels had floral motifs directly taken from drawings by one of the women, Kadriye.

photo by Fiona O'Grady

With the Narrative panels, I directly transferred a drawing from each of the women on to a linen panels, so that they were literally embroidering their drawings.

The individual panels were then sewn together horizontally, so it formed a long line of images.

There is a writer that I like very much, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and a caption to an image of a woman spinning wool in one of her books, states:

"May my story be beautiful and unwind like a long thread...," she recites as she begins her story. A story that stays inexhaustible within its own limits.

This is what I think of when I think of this project.
Embroidery is much more than a purely decorative process. I love that it involves time and patience and conversation and sharing and mistakes. Sometimes when the women were working they would start to sing, one would begin, then the others would join in. One of the women said to me that before the project when they would meet up all they would talk about was what was wrong, how their knees hurt, or that so and so had done this or that. But now they talked about their childhoods, or what was important to them. And that they felt as they did when they were young girls learning how to embroider. One woman said that doing this work made her dream again.

Years ago I saw this crazy film called Jewel of the Nile. The treasure, or 'jewel' that the people were searching for was actually a man, not diamonds or gold. This project reinforced for me how very precious people are. How very precious a sense of belonging and community is. How activities such as craft and art can bring people together and make their voices heard in ways that are empowering. Empowering not only for individuals, but also for the community that they live in. Storytelling keeps dreams alive and is is verbal as well as visual.

I will post images of the Narrative panels tomorrow