Amidst this time of postponed or cancelled gigs, I’m really glad that some things are proceeding as planned. Uncanny Yishun started life as an open call for an online anthology of poems responding to Yishun as a place, a phenomenon and a state of mind. From the entries received, Crispin Rodrigues (my co-editor) and I selected a series of poems that formed the backbone for a literary walk around the environs of Yishun.
The poems are interwoven with news stories, transforming quotidian blocks and innocent, shaded lanes into moments of hilarity and humour. I’m sure every neighbourhood has its share of WTF moments, but Yishun seems to have them in proximate abundance.
The four tours on 8th March will be led by either Sharda Harrison or Lian Sutton, two experienced and funny actors. Here they are on our recce, coming to grips with the weird underbelly of what was a very pleasant morning walk.
Each 2-hour tour is only $15 and is limited to 15 pax. Each participant will receive a limited edition zine specially produced for the walk and early birds also get a $10 BSL voucher.
At the beginning of February, a handful of artists from Singapore and Myanmar (along with honorary Singaporean collaborator Nicola Anthony) came together under the curation of Marie Pierre-Mol of Intersections Gallery to showcase work around the idea of time. This was part of a larger event organised by the Singapore Tourist Board (STB) as part of their efforts to raise an awareness of various aspects of Singapore, from food, culture, and art to retail as well as to partner with local restaurants and artists as a way of forging bonds between Singapore and Myanmar.
The event was held at the Chin Tsong Palace, a sprawling complex that was built by Lim Chin Tsong, said to have been Myanmar’s richest man at one point. The building was finished but never occupied and in the 1960s it was commandeered by drug smugglers. The Palace had a network of tunnels and secret rooms under it, and one of the tunnels was said to have led to the river. Much history, many feels.
Tempo(rary) is a collaboration with Burmese artist Maung Day. It consists of a dialogue in poems and photographs. Over the course of a month, I sent a poem to Maung Day and he responded with a poem or a photo. And then he sent a photo to me, and I responded in kind. We created ten pairs of work from this exchange, each one accompanied by a metronome set to a different tempo.
The photograph is from Maung Day, the poem is from me. All the poems were translated to Burmese as well. Text layout by Nicole Soh.
Ticking at a range of tempos, the metronomes are a sonic reflection of the varying speeds of two very different cities.
Time in the city is a function of progress and growth. It is invisible; fleeting and always in scarcity.
We are always running out of time. Time is never on our hands. We need more time, we say, this commodity that can never be bought or bartered.
We are made by time, its invisible, inevitable ticking, keeping tempo to the rhythms and reasons of our lives. Time soothes and serenades, summons and silences.
The crowds weren’t what we were led to expect, partly due to the prohibitive ticket prices. The food was also probably priced beyond the reach of the average local. But hey, at least the art was free!
Following the exhibition, I received the incredible news that Tempo(rary) has been selected to be part of the 12th Yangon Photo Festival. The work will be exhibited at the Rosewood Hotel from 19 Feb to 21 March. Do check it out if you happen to be in Yangon!
2019 is winding down after the usual mix of publications, performances and an extremely unique residency in Panama. We’ll be taking some time to be spectators at Wonderfruit, a music and art festival outside of Pattaya. Then it’s back to art-making next year with Note for Note on 10 January. This edition is rather different from the usual one poet + one musician pairing. This time, I selected 16 poems from various poets around the subject of the city and the theme of speed. The title of the show is ‘Stop, Look and Listen’ and will feature actors performing poems in three separate sets. The soundscape will be scored by Bani Haykal.
Light to Night Festival runs from 10-19 January 2020. Desmond Kon, Nuraliah Norasid and Kevin Martens Wong and I were commissioned to each pen a poem that would serve as the basis for the festival programming. Inspired by Ítalo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, my poem imagined the city as a canvas of stories both known and unknown
At the start of February, I’ll be headed to Yangon for a weekend as part of the Singapore Festival 2020. I’m doing an artistic dialogue with Burmese poet and artist Maung Day. The exhibition is called Tempo(rary) and uses a series of metronomes to map different speeds of our two cities (Singapore & Yangon) through a poems and images.
As part of Buysinglit 2020, Crispin Rodrigues and I will be doing something completely different on 8th March. We’ll be running Uncanny Yishun: A Literary Tour, melding poems, creative non-fiction pieces and torrid tales from Singapore’s most notorious neighbourhood into an entertaining two-hour walk. More details to come!
The following weekend, Handbook of Daily Movement gets its hour of fame. I’m super pleased that this labour of love with Sudhee Liao has been commissioned to be part of the Textures Festival. So we are expanding it into a full-length live performance featuring original music by Rupak George and four dancers. There will be two shows and also a screening of our original film.
And then a quick trip at the end of March to Ho Chi Minh City to sit for my third Milestone in my PhD journey. Ahhhhhhhhhhh.
From 11 June to 11 July, Alliance Française have graciously offered to exhibit the poems and photographs from Sightlines, my collaboration with Tay Tsen-Waye. The AF gallery is a lovely space, with loads of possibilities when it comes to displaying the work.
And on 13 July, I begin an Exactly Foundation residency on the nebulous yet fascinating topic of ‘offence.’
That’s a pretty stacked start to the year! At some point I am also hoping to squeeze in an exhibition with Cheyenne Philips of the work we created from the La Wayaka Residency in Panama. Hopefully that will come together in the usual way that exhibitions happen; a blend of serendipity, timing and opportunity.
Since late 2017, I have been pursuing a practice research PhD at RMIT University in the School of Media and Communications. Sounds cool, but what exactly does practice research mean?
“Practice as research might denote a research process that leads to an arts-related output, an arts project as one element of a research process drawing on a range of methods, or a research process entirely framed as artistic practice.”
Practice-related research goes by many names, ‘such as “arts-based research”, “practice-based research”, “practice-led research”, “practice-centered research”, [and] “studio-based research”. These are more or less used synonymously’ (Niedderer and Roworth-Stokes, 7). The term ‘practice-led research’ is typically the one used most consistently, perhaps because it puts the creative practice ahead of the research, a horse before a cart, as it were (Skains, 2018). The research question, which shifts and never quite settles unlike the traditional PhD, should also articulate how the practice is the research.
In my case, my PhD involves elements of creative practice produced prior to as well as during the PhD. My practice research journey began with my ekphrastic work. I thought that elucidating a ‘conversation’ between text and image was a way to define my practice. This led to an expansion of scope into collaborative practice, which segued into spoken word and various dimensions of performance.
One of the ‘problems’ that I faced in articulating my practice is that I have trucked all over the landscape. Publishing, performing, exhibiting and working with a range of artists from various disciplines on projects that are equally varied in theme and style does not easily lend itself to a focused ‘slice’ through the practice, which is what my supervisors at RMIT would like to see. Currently, my dissertation has moved into something extremely personal; my faith. Spurred on by a memoir-in-progress of twelve years in Christian fundamentalist churches in Singapore, I am writing, researching and producing work that negotiates my loss of faith from the perspective of a creative practitioner.
This, seems to be rather distanced from the subject matter of the journal, which located me in a very different space. Initially, I began approaching the residency like an extended travel trip. I thought that I would probably come away with a bunch of ‘travel poems’ and photographs that would accompany them. But what I created couldn’t have been further from that. ‘Far From The Plastic World’ was birthed from an impulse to explore subject matter without an endpoint in mind. It was also birthed out of frustration. I could not photograph freely, bound as I was by Guna laws and social mores that felt archaic and unreal. Yet, I had to honour and respect those practices if I wanted to remain part of the life of the village.
In putting the journal and its related media together, I started reading about autoethnography, which seemed to be a useful methodology for approaching this project. One of the many definitions of autoethnography is about “reflexively writing the self into and through the ethnographic text, isolating that space where memory, history, performance, and meaning intersect” (Denzin, 22). However, assuming the role of a creative autoethnographer was not what I had in mind when I was accepted for the residency. Autoethnography emerged in retrospect as a way of documenting, reflecting on and providing a frame for my experience.
The journal became an intersecting space that held both art and an informal cultural anthropology. Art is evinced through poetry and photographs. The latter are sometimes documentary in nature, but also have a representational element to them. The video and audio clips are definitely a lot more documentary-like in nature. The journal itself is a hybrid text.
While the journal’s form is clear, its contents aren’t as obvious. Certainly, it is a document that aims at communication. But it also holds fragments of observations from the other artists and myself. These sit within the landscape of the residency that extends far beyond the walls of the residency house. As Rutten says, “Autoethnography is both process and product” (Rutten, 300). As process, autoethnography researchers study a culture’s practices, values and beliefs then “retrospectively and selectively write about epiphanies that stem from, or are made possible by, being part of a culture and/or by possessing a particular cultural identity” (Ellis et al. 2010, 8). And much like how I brought my own practice in poetry and multimedia to Armila, other artists came with diverse backgrounds in sculpting, drawing and performance art. All of us wrestled with translating and transforming experience into forms that we were familiar with.
However, I believe that the journal became the nexus of my autoethnographic impulse. The form of the journal was a mix of observations of activities that we engaged in as artists, descriptions of the village life and snippets of ‘lectures’ by our host, Nacho. The journal thus becomes a repository of how I engaged in a more expansive way with the rich landscape that I found myself in.
The access to experience and the permission that was given to learn, listen and document was only possible because of the La Wayaka residency that was already in place and the relationships that the founders of the residency had established with the Guna in Armila. The anthropological angle is an unforeseen byproduct, a wonderfully rich outcome of working within such a vibrant and rich environment. The tapestry of Guna history, spirituality, daily life and culture is fertile earth for creative seeds to bloom.
So what is the point or value of building this repository? The journal reflects what Anderson defines as embodied writing, “relaying human experience from the inside out and entwining in words our senses with the sense of the world” (Anderson, 84). As a creative process, it gives rise to creative research insights into the Guna people through my personal experience, leading to further possible areas of research by offering a perspective that sits between the fleeting tourist gaze and the embedded eye of the writer as ethnographer.
Anderson, R. (2001). Embodied writing and reflections on embodiment. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 33 (2), 83-98.
Denzin, Norman K. (2013). “Interpretive Autoethnography” in Handbook of Autoethnography, eds. Stacy Holman Jones, Tony E. Adams and Carolyn Ellis. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Ellis, C. Adam, T., Bochner, A. “Autoethnography: An Overview Forum: Qualitative Social Resarch, 12(1). (Online, last accessed 22 July 2020)
Niedderer, K., and Roworth-Stokes, S. 2007. ‘‘The Role and Use of Creative Practice in Research and Its Contribution to Knowledge.” In IASDR07: International Association of Societies of Design Research. Hong Kong.
Rutten, K. (2016). “Art, ethnography and practice-led research”, Critical Arts, 30:3, 295-306.
Skains, R. Lyle. (2018). “Creative Practice as Research: Discourse on Methodology”. Media Practice and Education, 19:1, p. 82-97.
In October 2019, I was given the opportunity to attend the La Wayaka Current residency in Panama. Along with four other artists, I stayed for three weeks in Armila, a remote village in the north of Panama. This was a village that was part of the autonomous reservation of the Guna, an indigenous people hailing from Panama and Colombia. It gave me an opportunity to be immersed for a period of time in a culture that was deeply spiritual while being indelibly rooted and aware of the present.
I arrived with a lot of artistic baggage, full of my own expectations in terms of what I wanted to create, little realising that the point was not the art, but that the art was meant to make a point about me.
Usually, I make art with a plan. Even on a ‘holiday’ I intend to create. This was how I treated my early backpacking trips, which resulted in my second collection, Chai: Travel Poems. But this put a pressure on the idea of travel, where there is an intent beyond the simple notion of what a holiday is meant to be. It is ironic, then, that on a trip where I was supposed to create work I decided to go without a plan, to immerse myself in my surroundings and then see what could emerge from it, even though I brought all the necessary equipment to make. I had a camera, a drone and audio and video recording equipment (microphones, tripod and a small video light).
But it turned out that the Guna people were rather protective of how they were represented. I think it was a combination of being reticent by nature as well as a genuine concern of having their way of life disrupted by tourism. This has happened to other Guna communities, particularly those in the San Blas region, where tourism has changed and often commoditised the nature of the villages there. A gross dependency on the tourism completely upends the natural rhythm of subsistence occupations such as fishing, hunting and farming.
Consequently, I was unable to get permission from the village council of elders (Sahilas) to fly my drone, even though I asked very early on and kept sending reminders. And even photographing the people in the village was frowned upon. Most of the older people did not want their photograph taken. One day, though, an older lady asked for a photograph. I was happily surprised and duly obliged.
Then she asked for the image. Apparently, she thought my camera was an Instax, an instant camera, and she thought she could receive the photo on the spot. She was very disappointed to find out this wasn’t the case and sent off a string of choice Guna invective in my direction. Most of my photographs of people from Armila are those of children, still free from cultural restrictions, still innocent of the ramifications of the image.
We had to get permission for many things in the village, something that felt rather strange, but I found myself thinking about the relationship between permission and appropriation. When are we taking and when are we making? So, instead of trying to push my luck with my camera, I decided to keep a journal that would document things that happened, snippets of conversations with artists and my own reflections about Guna traditions.
This sustained act of writing was something entirely new to me. It changed my practice rather fundamentally. I found myself thinking twice: once in conversation and the next when I documented the moment in the journal. There was no need for permission for the journal, it was not a visible intervention into the space of the village, but nevertheless, it presented an intertwining framework and record of the residency. It also broke my dependency on the image as my governing mode of observation.
This new way of making through various modes of expression allowed me to resolve the initial tension I felt in being unable to operate in all the usual ways I was used to. Moreover, I was immersed in a society that was deeply spiritual and connected to the earth in a healthy symbiotic relationship.
In the course of the residency, I experienced a shift, a growing awareness of nature and a more natural way to engage the body outside of the processed, curated world of the city. It made me realise how dependent I had been on technology as a mediator of meaning. It also allowed me to explore autoethnography for the first time.
What is autoethnography? It is the intersection of writing the self within a larger cultural context. Naturally, these are all broad terms that occupy larger space. What does it mean to write? It can literally be written documentation, but it can also be images, sound and video. What aspect of the self is captured? The physical presence? An emotional or spiritual state? The interactions with others? The reflective musings? It is all of that, depending on the context. Which brings us to culture, that large, amorphous concept. What is culture indeed? In this journal, culture is the combination of being ‘inserted’ into an experience that is multi-faceted in terms of environment, spiritual and social practices, governance and community, both from an experience of the village as well as the interactions with the smaller community of artists. These have been captured in snippets of dialogue, observations and excerpts from the hours of conversation that we had. The artwork that came out of this residency is a reflection of the environmental concerns but also speaks to the camaraderie and communal expression of living.
In framing this journal autoethnographically, I hope to represent the Guna people through a lens that is more than just the typical indigenous, exoticised ‘Other’. The journal is a means of processing experience through sites of story, mythology and reflection but it is also an entry point into Armila, and by extension, the Guna people. While much of my documentation is not rooted in academia or supported by scholarship, the intention is to offer a performative autoethnography, where the “idea, concept, experience and/or culture under consideration guides the form and structure of the work” (Adams, Jones, Ellis, 89). At heart, the journal is not about seeking social justice for the Guna, but rather, about trying to express this rich culture through various lenses.
Heavy rain greets
us in the morning. We’ll wait for it to abate before leaving in the boat.
You can determine
the size of the country by the number of digits in the phone number.
The boat ride to
Puerto could have gone really badly, but our boatman, Keraton, is a genius at
reading the waves. We bob up and down for a good fifteen minutes just beyond
the Armila beach and then he sees a break and guns the motor. But we don’t slap
hard down after the crest, because he throttles back, playing the two 40HP
engines like a pair of musical instruments.
We have some time in Puerto Obaldia so we grab a drink at the bar and walk to a bakery for a snack. Puerto feels rundown and makeshift. It is not a place where one can find beauty. It’s a patchwork assortment of houses and shops and has none of the charm of the Guna communities. The people here are darker-skinned, heavyset and pretty surly. Many originate from Columbia and some are actually descendants of the workers from the banana plantation in Anachucuna. Puerto is on Guna land, but the Guna were not able to take it back.
Today is about
tying up loose knots, small mysteries. Bernie never got her missing power bank
back and we wondered why, when the thief has been caught. It turned out that
the boy was ordered by the sahila to be sent elsewhere to be tried under
Panamian law rather than Guna law, but he hid himself, or was hidden by his
family, so he could not be found.
And why there was
so much opposition to the drone was simply because drug smugglers use drones to
map out routes to run their boats, so people in Anachucuna and I guess
everywhere else are very afraid about the police seeing a drone and assuming it
belongs to a smuggler. And perhaps that’s why I never received permission in
Armila to fly either.
Charlotte had a
dream on the first night of the chicha. Earth was a cube with water lapping on
all sides. We stood on the shore and the ocean grabbed Charlotte’s flip-flop,
she lunged for it but the ocean pulled her in. We grabbed onto her, one by one,
a long line, and then we began to travel through the ocean and the eight layers
of the earth, something derived from Guna mythology.
The day is the
muggiest we’ve had. Everything is wet and sticky but the process to leave is
smooth and the plane arrives ahead of schedule.
On one of our
visits to Lucia, the animal communicator, earlier this year, Chubs told me that
I would meet people during my residency that would help me with the memoir I am
working on about growing up as an Evangelical Protestant. And he was absolutely
right. Though Chubs passed a month ago, I still feel that he continues to teach
me through the Guna community and the artists with whom I’ve had the pleasure
to talk, work and walk with over the past three weeks. It’s not so much about
the content, because all of that comes from me and is already something I have,
but a new way of seeing and being.
A way to live in a
plastic world and yet not lose sight of the real world that I have found these
few precious weeks here in Armila.
October 17 – November 7 2019 Armila, Guna Yala, Panama
The mosquito net
has been successful in keeping out many other things other than mosquitos,
including the house rats that regularly have a dance party on our roof beams.
The jagua is a bit
smudged but largely intact. Then I notice I’ve somehow printed the inside of my
palm with half a frog print. It’s… kinda cool. Could have been worse. I could
have printed my face! Caroline quips, ‘A frog on the palm is worth two on the
She says that her
husband once finished the proverb, “A bird in the hand… why are you holding a
bird in your hand? It’s disgusting. Get rid of it!” Which makes me think of
real-world use of proverbs in urban settings. It’s hard enough to catch a damned
The shape of the
beach has changed because of the storm. There used to be a wide sandy area
where a volleyball net was set up. That has been completely eradicated. And
further down, the ocean has swallowed so much sand it has come right up to the
creeping vines. Must be nice to have your beach remodeled every few months or
My mola shirt is
ready! The pattern on the collar and the cuffs is really beautiful. It’s a
little too fitted on the sides, so Aida is going to take it out a bit. But the
length is perfect.
Maria is being
fitted today with a pair of leg uinnis. It’s a painstaking process to fit the
beads one by one onto a string and then to make sure the patterns align as the
rows build up. They had to take measurements of her leg, because the
circumference isn’t constant. Usually, the uinnis are worn for a month at a
time. Is this cultural appropriation or honouring culture? It isn’t something
bought at a tourist outlet and is made with the full permission of the sahilas.
In fact, it generates income and also becomes a talking point about the Guna
and their way of life. It’s a bit of a moral conundrum though, as it’s
something not for her and yet customised just for her.
Someone in the
village has a ñeque, and we head over to see it. It’s caged up but seems happy
enough to nibble on the papaya strips and potatoes we have brought. This was
the beautiful mouse we have been meaning to visit, although at first glance it
seems more like a lanky desert rat. It has legs for days, long claws and an
elongated snout. Fascinating!
A line from
Bachelard quoting Pierre-Jean Jouve, “Poetry is a soul inaugurating a form.”
Bachelard explains, “The soul inaugurates. Here it is the supreme power. It is
human dignity. Even if the “form” was already well-known, previously
discovered, carved from “commonplaces,” before the interior poetic light was
turned upon it, it was a mere object for the mind. But the soul comes and
inaugurates the form, dwells in it, takes pleasure in it.”
After this residency, we will all head into certain uncertainties. I return with natural gifts for friends; seeds, pieces of wood, shells, small rocks. Reminders to me that friendships are organic, living things and that a gift can also be an everyday object shaped by the imagination into something uncommon. Something akin to the life of an image.
The water is
coming back on. Very slowly. So we fill up the large container because it may
not stay on forever.
to go for a swim in the river simply because the day is too beautiful to
ignore. The water is cold and rejuvenating and I swim to the other side, the
one that has two shores, on one side the river and the other, the ocean.
The river shore
deposits seeds and long palm fronds and driftwood. The ocean brings plastic,
though this afternoon, it is trackless, the sand unbroken. I finally find a
maracas seed. It gets wet on the swim back, but hopefully it will dry out.
Packing is hard
when you’re still finding things on the beach, but I think that I shall give
some of them away as gifts.
Everyone does a
quick interview with Luz and Luis about their time here. It’s for the La Wayaka
archives but it’s also a chance for me to articulate what I’ve been doing here.
weather, so I go for a walk and capture the light down Coconut Way. There’s
hasn’t been light like this most days during the golden hour, so today has been
a blessing. As soon as I get back, Charlotte is looking for a buddy to go
walking with. Everyone is still packing, so off I go again. She tells me about
the La Wayaka residency in the Atacama Desert of Chile, which she just
finished, and it sounds like an absolutely transcendental experience. On
another note, I am really going to miss aligning my days to the natural rhythms
of the light.
Luz calls us out
to see the evening sky. Venus, Mars and Saturn are aligned, just like on
Zlatan’s mobile. It’s incredibly
significant to see this but interpretation is a complicated beast and it means
different things to different people.
I write a poem for
everyone. Seven poems in an evening is tough, but I’m glad everyone likes their
between the village and the city are never more stark than here in Armila.
Here, the community is close-knit. Everyone knows your name, your family
history and all your flaws and glories. But everyone also takes care of each
other. Community anywhere is beautiful. Community connected to the land is
There is so much
value to Nachito growing up here instead of the city. According to Nacho,
villagers who have worked in the city said that they were miserable and didn’t
have any friends. Cities are designed for isolation; for maximum productivity
and minimum happiness.
We never got to sit in on a Congress meeting, but apparently there was some drama tonight. The foreman who has been in charge of the crew building what is to be the biggest house in the village was hauled up before the congress for being, well, a horndog. Apparently, he had been doing the deed with a few women around the village and the sahilas frown upon such loose behaviour. It’s not so much about being married but about being faithful. He had been previously warned and fined for this. And now he did it again, with the same woman that he was caught with before. The poor woman was shamed because she was exposed. The man was going to be fined again and expelled from the community, as he isn’t from Armila. But before that judgment was made, the woman was asked if she loved the man and wanted to marry him. And she said yes. The sahilas asked the man the same question. And he said no. That sent everyone into a tizzy.
4am. A series of strobe lights flashing into my room wake me up. There is a massive roar and a series of explosions. I wake up groggy, thinking that FARC guerillas have invaded us. But, pulling off my earplugs, I hear the lashing sound of rain. I walk out of my room and am awestruck by the most ferocious storm I have ever seen. The lightning seems to be right above us and the thunder rumbles all around. The ground shakes, the frame of the house trembles. Because the lighting is so frequent, the thunder is a continuous sound. I am transfixed. I do hope that lightning doesn’t strike any of the houses. The storm carries on at an incredible intensity for three hours.
At breakfast Maria
says that she had a waking dream where her wood spirit made her swallow
something. He was all eyes and had a small face.
The river is a
rage this morning. Driftwood practically sprints down. They could also be
crocodiles looking for a quick eat-and-run. We are out of flushing water in the
house and have to draw buckets from the river.
There isn’t one
particular rainy season here. It cycles between periods of dry and wet.
Bernie is running
a pattern-cutting workshop this morning for the women of the local Guna
cooperative. It would be good for them to design their own clothes other than
just traditional wear.
The heartwood is
pointed because it was used to hunt, as a weapon.
One of the boats
nearly floats away. A few men have to wrestle it back from the grasping
Now I get why
people were tying their boats up at the house last night. They knew something
massive this way comes.
Luis and I manage
to tidy up our four songs and record them. Luis and Veronica help me to translate
five of my poems to Spanish. I’ll display them later along with my objects.
Jagua is out of
stock everywhere. Brigida, who runs the women’s cooperative, has one more seed
that she is hoarding. She offers to paint a line on everyone’s face. Nobody
takes up the option. Would that be an instance of appropriation? Ignorance and
The chicha house still smells of chicha.
If the sea is too
rough on Thursday, we will load the luggage in the boat and walk to Puerto
Obaldía, which should take just over an hour, but the weather seems to even out
into a mild day. My clothes smell of river and sand. There is still no running
water and the river is brown with churned up silt.
At three, we
scramble to get the open studio ready for a select group of visitors.
The schoolteachers, the sahilas and a couple of women who are community leaders attend. We speak in English, Luis translates to Spanish and Nacho translates to Guna.
I open with a spoken word piece that Luis has beautifully set to music.
The Arms of Armila
The beach of Armila is a woman with open arms. We sing to her, praise her curves, swoon at her shore. There are treasures in her body, the pleasures of the sea. We sit at her feet and contemplate the lifted brow of sky, the ocean humming miles of roar and murmur.
She lifts her voice and we hear her call. We wear the geometry of her seasons, live under the bounty of her thatched roof.
Armila, we dance to you, to the rhythms of your tide; we dance until the night recedes and the frogs have stopped calling and we see glimpses of that tree of old, the one that fell and out spilled the world, and from that seed came all your beauty.
The ocean is a patient grandmother bringing gifts for her daughter. And you, Armila, you take it all in Driftwood and bursting diapers Coconut husks, fallen feathers Bottles of rum, fragments of shells FM radios, bicycle bells Seeds that rattle, broken turtle eggs and styrofoam like bits of a fallen sky
Armila, may you not weary of the plastic bottles that line the hem of your dress. They hold the colour of the clouds when you walk. May you lay abandoned deck chairs on the shore so you can drink in all of the sunset. May coconuts open their tenderness to you. May children lose and find themselves each evening in the golden hour. May you always turn your face to the light.
Armila, I will sweep the sand between your toes forever.
I then explain the poems I have been working on, two sets of twelve poems. One, Plastic Ghosts, is about plastic objects from the beach while the other is a response to 12 small installations from found objects. I show the one plastic object I have saved, a dice, and six of my installations. An insight, among many, that I have gleaned from this residence is that there is no art without community and no community without art.
instant photos and a journal with leaf pressings and various clothing designs
for women to work on such as hats and kimonos! She has an eye towards line and
color, simple yet striking.
Caroline says that
life in the US is like the Armila river – fast! and it has been great to be
able to slow down to observe and represent visually what she has seen.
Caroline’s colour palette is amazing, delicate yet full of detail. She’s
working on an illustrated journal, and concludes by saying that the world is
really lucky that the Guna have preserved their land, their culture and their
spirit, because they have so much to share.
de resistance, still in progress, is a gorgeous carving on a tortuma of the
twelve months of the year with Guna names and symbols in it. Her work is
detailed and delicate, tinged with a natural inclination to form, function and
Maria made a
traveling altar; her practice is based on meditation. The pelican bones she
found features in it.
Charlotte has a
wide selection of drawings and installations. She is interested in how things
affect each other and the collision between animal, vegetable and mineral. Her
work is a relationship between found things, laid out as object or in loose
associations. It’s far more subjective than the ekphrastic space I occupy, as
there is a sense of determinism to my poems. I like how all of us present
multiple ways to see nature.
Nacho leaves right
after the open studio. He has to catch the boat to Carti, a massive seven-hour
ride. From there he will hop onto a bus that will take him to Panama City overnight.
It’s a tough trip and the boat takes a long while to navigate the waves. In
fact a small posse of helpers help the boat out of the river and turn it around
at the critical point where the river meets the sea. They swim back while the
boat starts its engine and does battle with the waves. Half the village is out
watching. When the sea is really high, boats aren’t able to leave and Armila
becomes cut off by sea, leaving only the overland route to Puerto Obaldia open.
Everyone is in the
river having a shower because the water is still out. Caroline and Maria decide
to give it a go. Almost immediately, Caroline loses her grip on her soap but
Maria manages to hold on to hers. Soap, like hope, floats.
managed to find someone with jagua! We all take turns to get something drawn on
us. I ask for a mola of a frog on my right forearm. The jagua is potent and
Going to the
mountain – a phrase that functions as an everyday rural excuse for being absent
from the party or from work.
A Last Supper joke:
“Waiter, a table for 24 please?” “Why? There’s only twelve of you.”
Charlotte’s web is
thick with the spiders she abhors. It seems that every day she sees a spider in
her room or one in the wild. Today, though, she lets out a shriek while I’m
packing. There’s a giant black spider in her shoe. It looks pretty dangerous. I
sweep it out with the broom. Hopefully it doesn’t return.
Angelique’s birthday. We sing her happy birthday in Spanish several times
throughout the day. It never gets old for her. Caroline says that the ‘happy
birthday’ song was copyrighted by Sony until just four years ago. So
restaurants had to always come up with their own rendition of the song.
Starfish is a colour.
from Luz doing a reading of Caroline’s birth chart on the ascendant. The aim is
to be connected with the body, with its desires, to control and deal with it.
Too much lime takes away the enamel /animal in you.
Luz has bought
presents for the kids, and she got a solar system mobile for Zlatan. He’s super
stoked about it.
Dog caught his
girlfriend cheating with another dog. He couldn’t do much about it, though,
just stood around and growled.
We talk about
small pets we’ve had. Rabbits with tumours seem to be a thing. I remember Fuzzy
and Buzzy, two white mice that lasted about a year and succumbed to massive
tumors half their size. They were cute things that pooped everywhere. Luis
remembers caring for chicks as a kid with some friends but when they got ill
somehow they decided that the best way was to burn them. At the age of six.
It rains all
night. When I wake up at 6.30am, the storm is still raging. We haven’t had rain
like this since we arrived. Other than the first few rainy days it’s been
beautifully sunny weather. Laundry will be hell if the weather keeps this way!
There is an
insatiable urge to just sit and look and observe, what Rebecca Solnit calls an
“ecstasy of looking.” The curious child comes up to wonder what I am doing,
comes up to shout “Foto! Foto!” Is bored and wanders away. Women walk past
wearing their mola, their wraparound skirts and headscarves. This is everyday
dress for most of them, not just for cultural occasions. They are usually
carrying something; a basket of clothes, a bucket of fish, a child. On weekends
a man might be seen carrying beer or a bottle of rum to his friend’s house. The
men, though, work just as hard.
We watch the rain
and listen to the drums going through the village. It’s Panama’s day of
independence from Columbia today. When we first came, the beat was all over the
place. They seem to have got it together despite walking through the town in
the driving rain.
Luis looks at the
water droplets from the roof making tiny ripples in a trough on the ground and
remembers a battle scene from Macross. It’s a series I need to read again. He
observes that water is indeed a difficult thing to draw. Caroline’s friend once
asked a three year old how to draw water. He drew three overlapping circles.
She thought it was such a good idea she made a tattoo on her wrist out of it.
about kids, Luis was really terrified of Donald Duck as a child. He didn’t like
Dr. Seuss either. He reckons that it was also because they could not talk. And
because they couldn’t talk they couldn’t explain themselves. And because nobody
explained anything to him, he was really scared. And as kids, objects and
unexplained phenomena, or even words grow to take on Goliath-like proportions
in your head. And you’re no David. Kids have no stone and slingshot in their
hand. And even if they did, would anyone even allow them to have a slingshot?
Certainly not in Singapore. Kids are too inundated with straight-laced
educational toys these days. A cup can only ever be a cup, not a world. Nachito
is only three and can already blow through a conch shell, wrestle a lime from a
tree and tie knots.
Why can’t we open
adult beverages and instead of alcohol there’s war, sex, or glory inside? –
thought from Caroline’s friend.
I crossed 20,000
words last night in the journal. It is quite a shock to think that I’ve written
so much in just under three weeks. Is it a badge of honour? Or maybe a sense of
loss for all the years that I pushed a larger kind of writing aside for the
concatenated punch that is a poem. But how much does a poem leave out? It is
like a photograph, except that a photograph is made and then it is finished,
the minor edit aside. Like a photograph, a poem is also a frame, excluding far
more than it includes. There is no art form that can fully encapsulate
experience. Everything is reflected, re-created in a likeness of reality. At
best, this is a shadow of truth. Which is why good art doesn’t just aim at
re-presentation but at transcendence.
the sound of the flutes draws us to the basketball court. Panama Day
celebrations are in full swing and the rain has abated. There’s a long chicha
dance involving the flutes and the maracas and this time, I am able to get
permission from the schoolteachers’ to film a bit of it. Children are arrayed
around the basketball court in their classes, patiently watching. A bunch of
kids over to one side are clearly the marching band, decked out in pretty
uniforms, their drums lying on the grass before them, kitted in various
permutations of the national flag.
At ten, we gather at the Turtle House for something very special. Manuel, one of the sahilas and the village botanist, is going to give each of us a piece of heartwood. We troop over to his house. Thankfully, the rain has abated. He gathers a few small pieces of wood, elongated and shaped. They look slightly different from each other. We sit in a rough circle and wait for his daughter, Julia, to come and translate. Birdsong flits through the roof. The sun is weak, but gives the entire space a soft, gentle glow. At Manuel’s feet is a small aluminum pot that contains cacao being heated up. Manuel blows on the embers every now and then and holds the wood over the fumes. He speaks in Guna and his daughter translates. Luis completes the translation to English.
actually the hardest part of the tree. Each piece we are receiving is from a
different tree. Some are varieties of almond trees, but the rest have only Guna
names. The wood is so hard that it can only be cut with an axe, not even a
machete. Julia explains that this is a very spiritually significant object that
is used for strength, protection and for motivation. It functions as object, or
it can be shaved off with a stone and drunk cold, as a kind of tea. One can
also put the wood into a bath. This is recommended to cleanse you of a negative
experience. One drinks the tea, about a litre of it, for thirty days at a time,
and it is forbidden to have sex during this period. Something about purity and
After the wood has
been heated up, Manuel sings over the wood. Julia explains that this is to call
the spirits from the mountain to inhabit the wood, which has been unlocked through
fire and song. Each spirit is from the particular wood we have. Each of us is
given a different kind of wood.
There’s a story
about Igua and Nispero, two of the trees that are used for the heartwood. Both
got into an argument about who was stronger. Igua said that I’m the best
because I’m the strongest but Nispero said that I get used more for tools such
as ax handles and so on so when I die, I’ll be surrounded by my friends and
those who love me while you will live on in the forest, alone.
Manuel then hands
a piece of wood to each one of us. The name of mine is ersu. I cannot get a
translation for it, though. My heartwood is pointed at both ends. It has a heft
in my palm. The grain is dark, striped, and almost animal-like. It feels alive.
And I guess it is in some way.
Over lunch we talk
about dyslexia and driving. Some people mix up left and right. Or yesterday and
tomorrow. Is it a kind of dyslexia, perhaps spatial or even temporal dyslexia?
And is dyslexia some kind of encrypted word that masks other things? Could
people with ‘dyslexia’ be less able at one thing and better at another? Is
there a kind of dyslexic equation?
The ground beneath us grows soggy with the rain. My chair soon becomes an island, maybe I will float away into the jungle. Before the rainy season, the mouth of the Armila river where it feeds into the ocean is narrow and boats can only pass by being pushed along by sticks. A heavy rain will change all that, raising the level of the river even as the ocean recedes. And on land, everything starts to grow. The dry season is really a season of lack.
Water is life. We are made and unmade from rain.
Stuck at Nacho’s house, Maria tells us about her various odd jobs, one of which was a summer job working as a garbage disposal operator, something that would be unheard of for the affluent, spoiled youth of Singapore. Caroline recalls how in Haiti there is no plumbing and so men have to shovel out latrines with their bare hands and buckets. It’s a hateful, but necessary job and it’s done at night so that the men are not recognized. Which makes me think of the Singapore nightsoil man in the 1960s and his truck full of drawers of shit that he would empty and replace underneath the outdoor latrines.
We trade our
favourite rainy day movies. Forrest Gump comes up. Toy Story and The Breakfast
I start reading
‘The Book of Trouble and Spaciousness’ by Rebecca Solnit, a motley crew of
essay on topics as diverse as an Arctic artist residency, the Arab spring and
the birth of punk rock in America. Her writing here doesn’t feel as dense as
some of her other books, maybe because of the condensed space of the essay.
What I am taking away is how authoritative her voice is, whether or not her
self is embedded within the narrative. When she is observing events such as the
uprising in Egypt, she builds a particular subjectivity, taking an angle to
prove a larger point through dogged opinion that is more about concept than
experience. I do enjoy this point of view, because it allows one to comment or
speculate on things that aren’t immediately experienced.
After the rain, I
wring out my wet clothes that have just been washed for a second time. I do
hope they dry before we leave.
I carry on working
on my songs with Luis. We manage to translate two of them into Spanish, because
the translation app I used was way too literal and had no poetry in its head.
Such is the poverty of machine translation. Luis does have a way with words,
and a couple of times, a synonym he suggests that works better in Spanish has
me changing my English lyrics to match his.
Rain stops and we
watch the evening unfolds slowly in front of the house. A man takes an hour and
a half to chop up an old canoe. He stops regularly to chat with people and to
help his buddies draw up another large canoe onto the bank. People here really
do live from farm to table to fire. Soldiers make regular rounds around the
community. It feels like military presence has been stepped up since the
there is heavy rain there is no running water. And there’s barely enough power
to turn the light on. No one is charging anything tonight.
We are trying to
get jagua to draw something on all of us before we leave. It would be a good
memento if done right. The pigment is colourless and comes from the fruit of
the tree, which is only found deep in the jungle. Apparently a couple of people
in the community have it, although most of it was expended during the chicha.
People often mix it with some charcoal so they can see what they are drawing on
themselves. I offer my arm as canvas. Hopefully no dick pics will emerge!
We will visit the
beautiful mouse on Wednesday. It’s some kind of large rodent that someone is
keeping as a pet. I think beautiful mouse is some kind of unfaithful translation
that ended up as a joke. Also because we can’t figure out what kind of rodent
that she found mouse poop on her mosquito net. Luz thinks it is oshin, some
kind of ash or residue. Luis laughs at her pronunciation. He says that it’s
oyin and mentions that Oshin was the name of a Japanese soap opera. And I do a double
take, because I watched that as a teenager on bored afternoons after coming
home from school. How things travel!
Part of our dinner tonight is chicken, which is no big deal, except that it came from a rooster that was found dead. We speculate if it was killed by the chupacabra, a half-mythical creature that sucks the blood out of young men, some kind of less lovely pontianak. But Nacho thinks the most likely explanation is that a falling coconut killed it. This is extremely funny and sad at the same time.
It takes an
eternity to fall asleep. At one point I imagine that I’m flooded with small
ants that are slowly turning inside of me. They revolve and make me feel really
warm. It’s odd, because I have never had any problem going to sleep before
while here in Armila.
The chicha is well
and truly over this morning. I think they were going all the way to midnight,
the cut-off point and then after midnight, complete silence. But this morning,
some locals are determined to keep the party going in their houses, swigging
beers and dancing drunkenly about. The majority of the men, though, are down
for the count. When I step out to get my clothes off the clothesline, there are
a few men in a couple of canoes pulled up onto the riverbank. One claps, and
the other one claps a bit more, then the first one claps again. And then they
all laugh together. It’s quite hilarious.
Part of me feels
like I should have spent more time in the chicha house, but that would have
meant accepting more to drink. And it was really pretty strong. Also, none of
the other artists were inclined to hang out. I guess after the first night,
everyone was a bit wary. Also, the constant tobacco smoke really sears the
lungs. I could barely swallow my food after that first night. I can’t imagine
the state of the tobacco blower’s lungs. Maybe they resemble the interior of a
corroded steel pipe. But I am also reminded that this is not a tourist
experience, that this is part of community life, albeit a rare and more
significant occasion. The chicha is for them, and they are being polite and gracious
by allowing us to observe, and even participate. So I am grateful that we saw
as much as we did.
The mice came down to play in Caroline and Maria’s room last night. Caroline kept flashing her light on them and they would dart up to the rafters again. One of them bit through her salt pill. To replenish lost minerals and all. They had a pool party in the tarpaulin that hung above the mosquito net in Charlotte’s room. It works as a catchment, but also as a small pool for the mice. We suggest leaving Lluvia, the cat, in the room. She may just be a kitten but the other day, she defanged and ate a scorpion! Super badass.
Over breakfast, we
discuss things we need or want to do with the time left to us. I haven’t yet
crossed the river to the other beach. There’s also jagua, kind of temporary ink
like henna that we could make to draw tattoos or body paint. Caroline wants to
make more audio recordings in the village. I haven’t yet received permission to
fly the drone, and may never will. It feels like you need three months here to
work at something more extensive and layered. Three weeks is way too
brief. There will be an open studio at
3pm on Tuesday, and we’ll show or speak about what we’ve been working on.
I don’t want to go back to the plastic world.
We have difficulty
telling Guna women apart. All Chinese people look the same to me. Maria calls
it face blindness. Apparently it is a thing. Maria has it quite severely. I
recognise faces but not names. Is there such a thing as name blindness? Or am I
just not able to fire the right synapses because I don’t want to? But this
sense of not being able to recognise people you are meant to recognise can be
very draining and does cause loads of social anxiety. It’s like having an app
open on your phone that drains the battery without you realising it.
particular seed that some of us have been collecting from a particular section
of the beach. I call it a hamburger seed. Maria has seen it elsewhere and think
she knows it as crow’s eyes. Luz thinks it comes from the rubber tree, which I
doubt and Luis says that it is hollowed out and used to hold a joint, a ‘roach
Words / don’t tell much anyway. / To know the bones / of a thing you have to go down deep, down / to where the seagrass roots and even debris – / a coke can, a boot, a purse – can be a crab’s / nest or a trap.
– From ‘Fishing at Hermosa Pier’, R.J. Cantalupo
As I am sitting
and updating my journal from last night, I see a small lizard in the bowl of
celebratory gummy bears that we had used as a ‘cake’ for Bernie last night. The
lizard is slowly but steadily licking the sugar, now slightly wet, from each
bear. Shifting its webbed feet very imperceptibly, the pocket of its lungs
moving, a tiny bellow. Suddenly, it turns and leaps and lands, perfectly
poised, for escape. It is nothing like the dark, dirty-brown lizards back in
Singapore. This lizard is yellow and green, dusted with sunlight.
chicken porridge, we listen to Latin music. Porridge is sweet in Iceland; they
cook it in milk (like oatmeal, except Icelanders cook oatmeal in water!) and
then add cinnamon sugar on top. They usually eat it with blood sausage.
The song we are
listening to is a merengue and we debate the differences between vallenato,
cumbia and the song after that, a bachata. The cumbia is drum and percussion
heavy and originates from African rhythms. The vallenato is music that you
listen rather than dance to. It folksy, with an accordion and is from Colombia,
with valle (valley) alluding to its rural origins.
The batchada has
very typical guitar lines and is a lot faster. The vallenato is what we have
been hearing a lot throughout the community these past weeks. So much to think about!
After lunch, we
pass by Dog as he is humping the dog from the Internet cafe. We are ashamed for
Dog and Caroline tries to get him off but he gets turned around. And stuck.
It’s doggystyle in the most painful way possible. Luz said that there’s a
specific word in Spanish that describes this, ‘abotonados.’ I look it up and it
comes out as ‘buttoned.’ Pretty apt.
I get into a
conversation with Charlotte and Caroline about artistic process. Both of them
keep versions of their work while I usually edit over what I am doing. And I
rarely return to my old poems to mine them for new material. I usually write
from nothing. Caroline is very easy-going and not very adamant about keeping
her old sketches. But her husband would fish out scraps of sketches that she
had thrown. She’s says it doesn’t matter to her, she’s already gotten what she
needs out of it. Charlotte is very afraid of starting from scratch, so she
starts by sketching found objects like rocks and then moves on to imagined
vegetation. I sketch photographed objects in order to slow down how I think
about them and then I write a poem as a way of layering thoughts onto the
The village is on
lockdown because of the robbery yesterday. All the kids are not allowed to play
in the streets. But there’s a football game of under-7’s going on in the yard
across from ours, where I am napping in the hammock. Somehow, they have decided
that they need a referee. Who is dressed all in black and blows his whistle far
too enthusiastically. Maybe without a referee, fights would break out and the
game wouldn’t be as fluid.
We take a walk
after five down the beach and back up ‘Coconut Way,’ a lovely, shaded walk
through a coconut plantation. Today is clouded over but at this hour the light
through the palm leaves is gorgeous. People are coming back in their canoes
with supplies for the week. Maybe they made a run to Puerto Obaldía or made a
trip upriver to their fincas. Either way, people seem to have largely sobered
up. Maybe the chemist, who made the chicha, Tigre, also made a hangover cure
Moths are night butterflies. Does that make them evil?
I thought about
going vegetarian on this trip, but decided that it might just mean that I eat a
lot more carbs, although the meat substitute is mostly eggs. But if I had done
so, I would have missed out on the iguana. As Maria puts it, she’s a
culturerarian; she eats culture. So true. I can always get back to veggies and
beans and cut the carbs and meat down when I’m back.