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The HAT Project 2006/07 is supporting 20 exchange fellowships between England, South Asia and Australia

Jaimini Patel

Residency at Theertha International Artists Collective

Tea and Plastic Jugs

Posted by Jaimini Patel on 26th April 2007

I love tea – my favourite is green jasmine tea unsweetened which I can drink endless cups of.  I am familiar with the Indian way of making tea, which involves boiling water, milk, tea, sugar with masala or fresh ginger in a pan.  The longer you boil it the better it tastes.   I was expecting to find something similar in Sri Lanka but in Colombo I witnessed an elaborate tea making process, which involved a kettle, several plastic jugs and powdered milk.  I had not anticipated this fate for the plastic jug.  This perhaps sums up how I had come to Sri Lanka with many preconceptions which sometimes rapidly and other times slowly became apparent to me.  

Being somewhere new is great for being released from established ways of thinking and doing.  This not knowing and not being in control whilst unnerving, was liberating and allowed me to see things with fresh eyes.  These however did not last for long – things became familiar very quickly.  I made a decision to respond to being here: to take what was still meaningful from my proposal and invent the rest as things unfolded.  I was offered a show at the end of my residency at Theertha’s Red Dot Gallery so I started to make with a particular focus and space in mind. 

Making work here was a whole new experience and this became a part of the work.  I used the guesthouse as a studio.  I discovered that finding materials and equipment was a complicated affair - those in hardware shops were behind a counter so you couldn’t browse to find what you needed or stumble upon something else in its place. When all else failed I would resort to drawing what I was looking for but this had its limitations!  Eventually I accepted that I would need help to find and do certain things.  For many reasons I found the first two weeks frustrating until I accepted that there was a pace to life that was beyond my control, that plans could change at any moment and that things seemed to happen in a round about way.  I found myself swinging from impatience to acceptance, yet it was in this time of waiting – for deliveries, for drivers, for help, in shops, for people that I found I would see something that struck me as a possibility or idea.

Having time to exclusively work is bewildering.  There are endless possibilities.  In the absence of other distractions or commitments, I found that I could work with uninterrupted intensity.  Even the paralysing mid-afternoon heat could reveal an opportunity.  I knew that I did not want to be an observer that collates to take back in order to make sense at a later stage.  Once you leave a place what you have of it changes.  I wanted to make here with all that that entails, because it is this experience that I was interested in.  All the activities that involve living in a place, cooking, shopping, travelling become part of understanding the wider issues of history, politics, language, trade. There is also the gradual process of absorbing these through relationships with people and the exchange of books, films, music and stories.  My research was not an academic activity that I could quantify.  I did not get as much from museums and institutions as I did from talking to people.  I learnt about shared cultural beliefs, myths, legends and language.  I became aware of my limited knowledge about the history, current affairs and issues that affect the region.  It is not possible to grasp these complexities through western media.  Most people assumed I was Sri Lankan until I attempted to communicate.  It was my first time to spend a significant amount of time in an Asian country and I felt more aware than usual that I was from both east and west, but not entirely of either.  A case of  ‘here nor there’.

Exchanges with artists happened slowly as a result of language difficulties, but somehow we managed to communicate some of what we wanted to say, knowing that there were gaps we couldn't fill.  Many artists were also working with found and everyday materials and whilst we were able to acknowledge this and understand that our means and ends were different, we were unable to explore this in any depth.  I also felt very aware that I have a western education and exposure to art and that I could not fully understand what it was to be making art in Sri Lanka. 

Being surrounded by artists that make predominantly issue based work made me more certain of my own position:  I am interested in making work that explores the non-linguistic expressiveness of matter.  The intention of the artist when displaced may require explanation or translation.  I sought to investigate a visual language that can transcend difference.  The relationship the viewer has to particular objects and materials will, no doubt, influence the experience of the work, however my research aimed to loosen or change particular associations and beliefs held about them. 


Going back to the plastic jug I am familiar with seeing it in toilets in England that are used by first generation Asians.  In Sri Lanka the plastic jug is used in the kitchen and is not found in the toilet.  The island also has the largest range of colours, patterns and designs for plastic chairs that I have come across.  Even in the remotest village you will find them in abundance.  These chairs have a particular function and status that is specific to Sri Lanka.  The same object or material does not necessarily have the same associations or meaning. Even something as universal as rain, can have a different significance depending on where you are in the world.  The Australian artist Fiona Hall who has spent much time working in Sri Lanka writes about her work the ‘antipode suite’: ‘Literal ‘meaning is not the intention.  Rather, a visual exploration, an apprehension and comprehension of the material which comes to hand, and eye, to arrive at the cohesion of an idea’.  For me this apprehension is like pressing the auto focus button on the camera and hoping that you don’t accidentally take the picture.  It is a lightness of touch.  I find as an artist there are always external pressures to fix meaning; my research and my interactions with artists during my residency have confirmed my belief that it is possible to dodge meaning or at least not to seek it while I am making the work, yet make something meaningful.  

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Jaimini Patel talks to conference during cHAT week at Sanskriti, Delhi, India. March 2007