Towards a peripatetic practice: negotiating journey through painting

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Making sketches in situ with a family in Lahore, Pakistan 2011

Peripatetic : To journey, like a pilgrim or wayfarer, traditionally by foot

Peripatetic or nomadic art practice embraces ideas of movement and journeys as a way of understanding the world. Underpinning my peripatetic art practice is the idea that through noticing subtle changes of environment and culture, I can learn about what is happening on the ground, and respond through the making of artworks. My artworks take the form of chronicles that log what I notice, and am impacted by as I move through places and spaces. As a mode of making, peripatetic practice is about utilising first hand experiences of the world in its diversity, and extra/ordinariness. It is also about working with, and often sublimating the uncertainty of journeys, and the unknown events, challenges, and adversity that comes with the terrain of being in transit. 

Between 2013 and 2015 I took a series of immersive journeys in India and Pakistan, as part of fieldwork for my PhD project, Towards a Peripatetic Practice: negotiating journey through painting. This blog follows processes of developing artworks, scroll paintings, along these journeys. The paintings formed my responses to experiences, observations, and encounters with a multitude of people from all walks of life, in a diversity of localities and communities.

When I look back at the scrolls yielded through the journeys described in this blog, I am able to perceive how, over time and space, painting out and through the peripatetic life has been about giving precedence to a particular way of looking. I now see new value of peripatetic art making in the way that it placed me to experience the world in an immersive and meaningful way. Though challenging, and at times confronting, this way of negotiating travel is about prioritising slow movement, ecological and sustainable forms of travel, and most of all, encounters with people and place that are respectful, and sensitive. As I found, my practice was increasingly propelled by intuition, and by the invitation. Perhaps most significantly, over the course of these journeys my desire to be with and learn about others took hold. This became key motivation to live out of my comfort zone for extended periods of time, and to shed my habitual ways of being, thinking, and doing.

As I travelled I worked in alternate states that I call ‘being out there’ and ‘repose’. When ‘being out there’, I walked, or rode buses, rickshaws, and trains, through cities and villages, carrying a long scroll in a customised backpack. At any point I would be able to reach in, draw out the scroll, and sketch into it directly, if I encountered something or someone about whom I wanted to paint. Each evening I would go into ‘repose’ whence I would begin developing these rough drawings into paintings using techniques of Indian miniature.

Miniature painting has been important to sustaining painting as a peripatetic. Compact and light, the portability of miniature offered a way of developing sketches I made as I travelled. Although this way of working deviates from studio traditions, and impacts paintings physically such that they deviate from the canon, in more fundamental ways it reflects miniature’s documentary origins in which paintings were commissioned by the Shahs of Persia and the Mughals to glorify their illustrious Court lives. Bringing such resonances to my paintings of contemporary subjects has been about expressing the ‘imponderabilia’ of ordinary life, whilst seeking to communicate a sense of the legendary and the fantastic about stories shared with me, and events I witness.

The scroll paintings that I made in India and Pakistan developed over sixteen months of journeying, after which I continued working on them for another year. Because of the time that it takes to develop a miniature painting, the process of making meant that I continued to live with and think about people and experiences for a long time afterwards. I now understand that painting through the peripatetic is a complex and inconclusive process whereby ideas for image often arrive through relationships and experiences. The painting evolves as a process of questioning through materials a story, an experience, and my own identity which re-shapes in response to the psychological impact of the cross cultural experience itself.

That travelling and telling stories about people and places can be a calling was an idea I first encountered in 1997 when I met elder and artist Vida Brown, of the Yuin community in NSW. Vida told me that sometimes people were born to the tribe who felt called to journey beyond country. They would leave, sometimes for years, and return to the community with stories of the world beyond.  Storytellers were given special permissions to cross tribal borders out of respect for the value of information, ideas, and knowledge they brought back to their tribe.

I think a lot about this, as my work as a painter is now about empathy, generating connections, and deepening these through painting. Visualising that which often cannot be documented in other ways is about helping to bring stories into circulation that otherwise might not be voiced. There is meaning in being able to work almost anywhere, and in conditions transient and improvised. And there is a lot to be said for the act of placing oneself out there and available as an artist, where the space of making becomes an ongoing opportunity for connection and relationship.

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