Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Inuit Intuit - Eskimo Art and Song

"I soon became melancholy. I would sometimes fall to weeping and feel unhappy without knowing why. Then for no reason all would suddenly be changed, and I felt a great, inexplicable joy, a joy so powerful that I could not restrain it, but had to break into song, a mighty song, with room for only one word: joy, joy! And I had to use the full strength of my voice. And then in the midst of such a fit of mysterious and overwhelming delight I became a shaman, not knowing myself how it came about. But I was a shaman. I could see and hear in a totally different way. I had gained my enlightenment, the shaman's light of brain and body, and this in such a manner that it was not only I who could see through the darkness of life, but the same bright light also shone out from me, imperceptible to human beings but visible to all spirits of earth and sky and sea, and these now came to me to become my helping spirits (Rasmussen, 1929, p. 119)." Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism, I. M.Lewis; Routledge, 2003 (1)

Thus the Inuit shaman, Aua, describes his transformation out on a lonely vigil in the wilderness. I came across this quote twice in the last month. The first was in a lovely book called Songs are Thoughts: Poems of the Inuit edited by Neil Philip and delightfully illustrated by Maryclare Foa (Orchard Books, New York, 1995)(2). I found it while thrifting and was ever so pleased with it when I got home. I dug out a small book on Inuit art I had (a strange little treasure found at the Lifeline Book Fair one year) and as I sat with them both I discovered that the book of Inuit art had some very interesting pictures and songs towards the back, some of which were in the book I had just found. With all these coincidences, I thought I might share some of these lovely poems and pictures with you.

Anerca is the Inuit word for both "breath" and "poetry". Songs are composed and sung as an integral part of community life. They convey deep feelings, observations about life and offer the opportunity to openly release personal grievances in a acceptable way. Knud Rusmussen, the Danish explorer, described the experience, "Words, music and dancing mingled into one great wave of feeling... The singer stands in the middle of the floor, with knees slightly bent, the upper part of the body bowed slightly forward, swaying from the hips, and rising and sinking from the knees with a rhythmic movement, keeping time throughout with his own beating of the drum. Then he begins to sing, keeping his eyes shut all the time; for a singer and a poet must always look inward in thought, concentrating on his own emotion." (2)

While the song might be a public expression, Inuit carving seems to be a more intimate art. These tiny stone or bone carvings are often kept wrapped up rather than displayed and are only shown if one where to visit your friend and ask if they had made any new cravings. Shyly brought forth, the artist would customarily be very self effacing about their work. They are, however, very beautiful; much modern sculpture could only hope to have both its minimal lines, intensity of expression and poetry of spirit. The image at the top of this post is so peculiar as it is a carving of trees based only upon descriptions of them, as the artist had never seen a tree in his life - a concept in itself we would have trouble imagining. It has a ghostly quality that seems to me to fit the visionary world of the shaman upon the ice. (Images and information from "Canadian Eskimo Art", Queen's Printer of Canada, Ottawa, Canada, 1965)(3)

Maryclare Foa's illustrations are roughly worked but spare and heartfelt. They make a wonderful accompaniment with the songs of the Inuit. She spent several months living in a tent with an Inuit family on the banks of the Northwest passage and from her interpretations must have, in that time, shared something of their spiritual world. The one above faces a poem by Aua (the same shaman as mentioned previously):

Morning Prayer

I rise up from rest,
Moving swiftly as the raven's wing
I rise up to meet the day -

My face is turning from the dark of night
My gaze towards the dawn,
Towards the whitening dawn.

I'll leave you with these thoughts by another Inuit shaman, Orpingalik and another illustration by Maryclare Foa:

"Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices. Man is moved just like the ice floe sailing here and there out in the current. His thoughts are driven by a flowing force when he feels joy, when he feels fear, when he feels sorrow. Thoughts can wash over him like a flood, making his breath come in gasps and his heart throb. Something like an abatement in the weather will keep him thawed up. And then it will happen that we, who think we are small, will feel still smaller. And we will fear to use words. When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves - we get a new song." (2)

Friday, March 23, 2007

What I've been up to: New Blog

Some of you might remember I've been hinting about work I've been involved with with Frank Theatre, but up until now I haven't shown you any of it. I've finally set a up a new blog to record my work and exploration of a new field within the theatre that we have dubbed Design Dramaturgy. If you'd like to follow me along this very exciting road, I'd be pleased to have you join me there too.

Above are two plaster bandage masks of Frank Theatre actors, Lisa O'Neill and Michael Coughlan. These were used as the base for making latex masks which where then attached to special life-size bodies John Nobbs and I constructed. John named them "Selfers" and one of each of the ensemble are being made (currently there are six). I'm sure you'll see them soon as the work evolves on the Design Dramaturge blog.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Sky Kangaroos = Star Boomers

Over Christmas a few months ago, I had the opportunity to spend my free time designing (hooray!) One particular toy I'd been working to resolve was an idea of a kangaroo toy embroidered with stars. I had always loved the Australian Christmas song "Six White Boomers" and had long thought of the idea of the mythical kangaroos of the sky that came to help Santa on his hot Southern run.

Many of you might recall my close encounter with the grey Kangaroos on Mount Ainslie in Canberra on one of my poetry pilgrimages. From that time on I have always had a great fondness with the kangaroo. I wanted to bring into being a toy that captured this feeling and to give them an appropriate mythical linkage.

I made many drawing from photographs, I also made a wadding covered armature in 3d to get a sense of its bulk and made two very different toy prototypes in felt. But I wasn't happy with them. They seemed too ordinary, either too animal like or too strange cartoon-like. Then after a month or so I picked up my pencil and drew with one stroke the shapes that became Star Boomers. The rest fell neatly into place and I knew I had succeeded in bring into existence the toys that had teased me for so long.

Boomer is old Australian slang for an adult Kangaroo, its not used much today so I don't recommend using it casually the next time you speak to an Ozzie ;) The Star Boomer toy is a set, including both the mother Kangaroo and her joey. The hand embroidered stars on the front of each come together to form the Southern Cross constellation, which you can also find on the Australian Flag. The current fabric for Star Boomers is silver flecked wool suiting with a backing of wide-waled white corduroy. An interesting detail is the eyelashes of the mother Boomer, which are made using the selvage of the suiting fabric.

I hope that next time you look up into the night sky you might imagine a mob of Star Boomers traversing the heavens, bounding over the Milky Way in search of green starry pastures.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

New tale on Crackle Mountain - The Elves and the Envious Neighbour

I have finally adapted this tale for Crackle Mountain. I have had the images ready of a few weeks but have not found the time to sit down and write it. But I'm glad to say that I have now published this very funny Japanese folktale. If you have a few minuites to spare pop over to my Asian Folktale blog and read The Elves and The Envious Neighbour - Japanese Folktale.

The image above is a woodblock print by Ando Hiroshigi, 1830-1844, Japan. This camp fire scene title is listed as No. 33 Motoyama.