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2007 Episode 11: Out of Darkness, Out of India / The Sand Man

Out of Darkness, Out of India

In 2006 Prakash Patel, an Indian Kiwi from Wanganui, was awarded a Creative New Zealand Residency at the Sanskriti Campus in New Delhi.

This film looks at the division that dominates his life and which he endeavors to resolve in his painting. 

As he says, "India is not my home but it is my parent's home."

Growing up as an Indian in conservative 1970s Wanganui was difficult, painful even. The family lived in Castlecliff and though Prakash's father spoke English like a kiwi, his mother, who migrated as a 19-year-old bride was never so comfortable with her second language.

PP: When I was a child I felt almost ashamed to have a mother who wore a dress that was so bright - she stood out too much. And the last thing I wanted to do was stand out as being Indian. In later years you learn to look at yourself in a more positive light.

Art became a way to resolve his divided background, a synthesis of his Indian and Antipodean experience.

PP: I think there is a connection between my work and my mother and India. When I went to India the first time, it was a shock but it helped me understand where my mother is from. I didn't understand her when I was growing up.

His paintings have an introverted, mystical feeling as if the artist has dug deep into a subterranean source. The work always emerges from a black field and Patel says his paintings are literally pulled out of a void. Patel is often in the dark, with no preconceived idea of composition - he does not draw or take photographs before embarking on a painting.

PP: I have learnt to journey beyond my preconceived ideas into areas of uncertainty and mystery. Especially after spending time at my parents' village in Gujarat I realised a richness and depth I had never experienced before. My work has given me a deeper understanding of the way in which nature works and how there is continual cycle of life, death and renewal.

His work has been described as an homage to unsung Indian fabric-makers who labour long hours to create shimmering, iridescent swathes of cloth used for saris, clearly reflecting Patel's different cultural strands. Each meticulous dot corresponds with the fabric-maker's stitch and the metallic paints evoke the gold and silver threads woven into a sari.

It is not surprising then that Prakash travels to Varanasi to research Indian textiles. India has a 5000-year tradition in the creation of textiles from wool, silk, cotton and jute, principally from weaving. Additionally brocade, embroidery, and appliqué can be used to enhance the fabric as well as printing, whether tie and die, block or by hand. This represents a wealth of potential influence.

PP: Varanasi seems to have many layers to it, like cities built on cities, and symbolises the layering, which is common throughout India. Layering is of course intrinsic to my painting practice but there are infinite ways to get there.

At dawn on the river a boatman rows Prakash along the ghats. They float past a mosaic of Indian fabrics laid out on the river's edge, the product of dhobi wallahs who wash the day's laundry in the river, wringing the cloth into tight knots before laying it out on the banks to dry. There is no sign of the much-talked-about bodies that float in the water or the remains of funeral pyres that don't have enough fuel to finish the job, only boats and rejected garlands of flowers.

Edifices glide by so worn and haggard that they look as old as the city itself though they were built in the 18th and 19th centuries by faraway maharajas who wanted a residence on the sacred waterfront. These once elegant homes now have brightly painted ads on their walls marketing yoga classes and youth hostels.
Prakash spends his Fellowship in India immersed in exploring the daily aspects of Indian life, not by conscious pursuit, but by going with the flow.

Not the National Geographic picture of India but the chaotic, dynamic land with little nostalgia for the way things were, where streets are mobbed with all manner of traffic, horns honking at the slightest delay, everyone choking on dust and exhaust, dodging bicycle rickshaws and napping cows. Barking dogs, wedding dancing, loud radios and beating drums.

If it's difficult to take Wanganui out of the boy it's just as difficult to hide his Indian ness. Prakash Patel is connected to two traditions, which are not only at opposite sides of the globe but pull in opposite directions as well. His trip is part of his life's desire and art's intention to somehow meld the two together.

He visits his parent's home village in Gujarati where the family still maintains his grandfather's house. The village itself is on the margins of the India that is transforming into a major economic power, already with a middle-class numbering more than the entire population of the USA.

To the inhabitants of the village the arts of painting, the life of migrants in foreign lands, and the ubiquitous presence of television, are as India was to Alan Ginsberg - they have no name for them. Here we see the immense gulf that Prakash has to straddle but sense too that it is possible for him to make the connection in the universe of his imagination where finds a process of naming in painting,

A sunset walk on Dandhi Beach, near the village reminds him of what is valuable and dear to him in his New Zealand life. But then back in Wanganui he is not so sure. The old divisions return and he once again turns to painting to work out his contradictions.

The Sand Man

Peter Donnelly, artist, poet, sculptor and local New Brighton Beach identity is one of those coastal dwellers that keeps a constant eye on the weather and tide.

When conditions are right he'll head to the beach where, for the past 10 years, he's etched, moulded and raked over 700 stunning pieces of work out of the Brighton Sands.

But these are no ordinary drawings. They are created with a staff and rake and can be up to 100 metres long. They are best viewed from the pier which extends out to sea and is high above the beach.

When Peter works, a crowd gathers - traveller's who have made the journey to see his work, loyal locals who have enjoyed his developing themes and the curious onlookers lucky enough to be passing at the time. As one onlooker said: "You don't get the perspective on the ground but up here it's amazing. It looks fantastic."

The Sand Man profiles Peter Donnelly and follows him through the process of creating his sand art at New Brighton Pier.

The film joins him early morning at low tide with an expansive sandy beach and the promise of a clean canvas.

As he etches and rakes out his art Peter talks us through the challenges in creating pieces of this scale and in an environment that's always changing. Brighton's volcanic sand is ideal, offering a striking contrast for Peter to craft his tapestry of marks and textures. He starts with bold outlines created by the staff before raking the sand to create contrast and detail.

As the tides advances, Peter works harder and faster, trying to complete his work before the in-coming tide washes it away. As the tide creeps closer, the intensity builds and he leaps and bounds across his canvas finishing it with moments to spare.

Creating the artwork is a performance in itself. Peter is exhausted, but the portrait of the woman looks beautiful in the expansive, natural surrounds of the beach. Peter goes up to the pier to view it before the first waves wash over his work.

For Peter it's an important part of his work: "It's birth, life and death really. I bring something to life, and its life is over. And at the end of three to fours hours it wants to go, it's worn out. It's lost its freshness and it just wants to be replaced - gifted and goes to the sea."