Footsteps in the land of the Lotus – Veronica C. Wilkinson

Artist Veronica C Wilkinson, who exhibited at the Alliance Francaise in Cape Town in May 2013, has been influenced by her study and experience of and in cultures in the east. Here she looks back at a trip she made just over ten years ago, in July 2003.

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The 17th-century frescoes inside sandstone Po Win Daung caves near Moniwa in Myanmar link visitors to enduring facets of Burmese culture. Sculptures and reliefs portray mythical characters and significant symbolism recording dress codes and hairstyles providing visual clues to custom and social hierarchy in bygone times. Myanmar, known as Burma until 1988, has a population of around 50 million people; more than 80% Buddhist with nat (spirit) worship still a significant element in their belief systems. Burma is bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand.

All photos by Veronica Wilkinson

My journey to this ideologically torn country was to visit historically important temples, museums and archaeological sites.

Cloth (sap-lwe) wrapped Palm leaf manuscripts are bound with tablet-woven cord (sazigyo). These written or carefully incised religious scriptures, many still in use today, have motifs on the binding cord ranging from the mythical bearded chinthe – in some instances a bearded lion that guards stairways to pagoda platforms to the nat – depicted as a supernatural being holding a staff to strike the ground in order to placate subterranean spirits and offer them a share of the spiritual blessing known as ‘merit’. This merit is also earned by offering sustenance and gifts of necessities to Buddhist monks and nuns. Red and white thread or cloth attached to mirrors or dashboards of vehicles also acknowledge versions of these brother and sister nats.

Major cultural and design influences in this part of the world stem from China and India with fascinating assimilations and innovations resulting in spectacular architecture like Shwedagon Pagoda (its present form dates back to 1769) in Yangon and the pagoda peppered plain of Bagan where structures have been divided into three stylistic periods by Paul Strachan dating from 850AD to around 1300 – to name but one source.

Manual craft production is generally of a very high standard and examples of visual art, performance, music and culinary delights like a common dessert of pickled tea and fried nuts are part of everyday existence in a land where superstition and religion are jointly acknowledged. It was often possible to watch artisans engaged in every stage of production making laquerware, intricate sequined kalaga wall hangings and other prized objects sold in tourist and collector’s markets.

During the rainy season roads often subside but although I was advised to fly from Yangon to Mandalay I opted for road travel with a driver and guide, discovering that language was no barrier when we found our sedan vehicle deep in mud during a detour through a rice paddy near Moniwa. When I realized that both driver and guide were fervently praying we agreed to appeal to a passing truck to tow us back to the road. Passive travel is rarely an option in this part of the world although sensitivities do need to be observed carefully. My colleagues at the Siam Society in Bangkok warned and advised me about the realities of travel in Burma as a preparation for my journey.

Heat and circumstances sometimes invited Kiplinesque leaps of the imagination but the reality of my encounter with this interesting country where more than 60 ethnic groups are formally recognized and regions retain their distinctive identities kept my observations clear.

On a visit to Inle Lake I discovered that prized lotus cloth used for making monks sacred robes continues and the labour intensive process of extracting filaments from lotus stems and rolling them into thread before they are manually processed for weaving forms part of a respected tradition. Reputed to be stronger than cotton extensive detail about this natural fiber can be found in Sylvia Fraser Lu and Ma Thanegi’s chapter 5 ’Stemming from the Lotus’ in the Fowler Museum publication ‘Material Choices’.

Cosmetic thanaka bark paste is worn to protect skin from the sun by adults and children while the sarong-like lungi is worn like a skirt by men and women. It is necessary to remove shoes and socks within the sacred precincts of pagodas and holy sites so when possible I’d visit early in the morning before the sun had warmed tiles and stone to uncomfortable temperatures. Somehow the idea of a impromptu macarena didn’t seem appropriate and might have offended devout locals who don’t often have a high opinion of foreigners anyway.

Before I left Yangon for my tour of Myanmar which took me as far north as the remote northern town of Mrauk U local artist Min Wae Aung invited me to a gathering of his colleagues at his studio and home. I met journalist Daw Ma Thanegi, painter U Min Wae Aung, English teacher U Maung Maung Thein and painter U Soe Moe (Artist’s House art gallery) among other local artists and writers who gather regularly to watch screenings of films like ‘Frida’ as part of their cross-cultural artistic enrichment.

The open brick production sites in the city with their slurry and sensuous textures contrast with museum offerings mapping history, cultural production and development of a still conflicted country once colonized by the British. Indeed, pointing an umbrella at anything sacred is still considered an offence to this day!

From pavements splattered with red betel and discarded green cheroot butts – an abstracted gritty urban vision of effect reflecting social habits to the welcoming words of the airport official who greeted me to the country with ‘Mingalabar’ (it’s a blessing!) differences and similarities inspire my belief in the transformative power of positive creativity. My notebooks packed with drawings and written observations and my camera were companions during these travels and remain records of unusually rewarding explorations in eastern cultures.